With a Capital “P”

The first allusion to God in the Steps is found in Step Two, where He is referred to as “a Power greater than ourselves.” Note the capitalization. It is evident that we are not just talking about any power that happens to be stronger than we are. If that were so, then the recovering person might choose to believe that gravity or electromagnetism could restore his or her sanity. Those powers are greater than we are. We certainly cannot defy their effects. But we also have no reason to believe that they can do anything for us other than blindly impose their influences as dictated by the laws of nature. When we speak about Power—that is, the proper (capitalized) rather than common (uncapitalized) noun—we are talking about a force that transcends all other powers in the universe.

The Zohar says, “Master of the Worlds, You are the Highest of the High, the Causer of Causes.” Maimonides expresses much the same idea in his Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, albeit in a more philosophical tone, where he writes:

[God] is the cause of all that exists . . . and there is no possibility that He does not exist, because without Him, all existence would cease. [Whereas] if we could imagine the absence of all existence other than His, the existence of God would not cease or diminish, for He is self-sufficient, and His existence requires nothing other than Himself.

In other words, although the phrase “a Power greater than ourselves” may lend itself to being interpreted as any power the effects of which are unavoidable, if read in the context of the rest of the Steps it is obvious that the “Power” mentioned in Step Two is not the sun or the ocean tides, but the same God who is explicitly mentioned throughout—the God who restores sanity (Step Two), who cares for the individual (Step Three), who removes character defects (Steps Five, Six and Seven), and who lets His will be known and grants power to the individual to adhere to that will (Step Eleven).

Still more context will be of even greater help to us in understanding the Power alluded to in the Second Step. In the Big Book, just before the Steps are first enumerated, this idea is stated unambiguously: “Without help, it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power—that One is God. May you find Him now!” (p. 59). Clearly, when Step Two speaks of a Power, it does not mean just any power. It really means the “One.” It means God.

Higher or Highest

One still might ask: if this Power is indeed singular and unique, if it is none other than the Power behind all other powers, then why is it referred to only as “a Power” (with the indefinite article) and not “the Power”? Perhaps the following story will prove illuminating.

A well-known AA old-timer, Clancy I., talks about his early experiences grappling with belief. He relates how he told his sponsor that he could not believe in God. His sponsor asked him whether he could believe in the concept of God and just not use the word “God.” Clancy said that he could not. The sponsor asked him whether he could believe in the power of the AA group. Clancy said that he could not manage to do that either. Finally, the sponsor asked him, “Can you admit that I am doing better than you?” Clancy said that he could. “Congratulations, kid,” said the sponsor, “you’ve just met your new Higher Power.”

More telling than the story itself is its epilogue. Years later, Clancy’s sponsor stopped working the program, got drunk and died. What was Clancy to do now, what with his “Higher Power” being dead and all? Would he lose his direction, his faith? Not at all. As Clancy explains it, by the time he lost his sponsor, Clancy already believed in God. It was his belief in his sponsor as a power greater than himself that was the necessary first move away from self-reliance. Once he was able to accept his dependence upon something outside of his own ego, he had already begun his journey toward finding God.

In other words, it is most probably safe to say that a person can get sober, and work an effective Second Step, just by believing in any power.

Indeed, it is often the case that belief in a higher power—any higher power!—is that which marks the nascent beginnings of a process toward discovering the Highest Power. It is the Highest Power that is referred to explicitly in the following Steps, which come right out and unambiguously invoke the word “God.” Therefore, while Step Two does not tell us that we need to believe in God per se, it most certainly begins to lead us in that direction.

I once heard an Al-Anon speaker share a story about a friend of hers, an avowed atheist, who could not “come to believe” and take Step Two.

One day, she was sitting in her kitchen and looking out her window while bemoaning the fact that she could in no way bring herself to believe in any power greater than herself. Her rational mind just wouldn’t allow it. Suddenly, she took notice of a great oak tree that grew on the property, and she began to think, “I could not make that oak tree. That oak tree must be a power greater than myself.” That was her conclusion, and so she began talking to the oak tree, pouring her heart out to the oak tree in times of distress. And she felt better. Well, there came a day when she moved away from that house and had to leave the oak tree behind. She had been years in recovery by that time, and had been pouring her heart out to the oak tree, and now she would have to leave it behind. What happened next, however, left her delighted and surprised. As she said: “I left that house and the oak tree stayed behind. But what do you know? God came with me.”

The point of these stories is not—perish the thought!—to endorse hero worship or animism as a stepping stone to belief in God. Heaven forbid! What I am merely trying to point out is that for all of us, belief is a process. For some, it begins by making only the smallest possible concessions that the rational mind can bear. But if one is honest and one continues seeking, one will find true faith in the end.

In a way, such an evolution of faith is similar to the physicist who searches for a unifying Theory of Everything that would fully explain and connect all known physical phenomena and forces of nature. A scientist looks at gravity, electromagnetism and the nuclear forces, and notes their power. However, the question remains, is there a power beyond those powers? And if so, is there a power that is beyond that power too?

This method of arriving at faith in God through a gradual process of deduction was exemplified by the spiritual quest of the world’s first champion of monotheism, Abraham. As Maimonides describes in the first chapter of his Laws Concerning the Prohibition of Idolaltry:

[Abraham] was but a small child when his mind began to seek and wonder, “How do the heavenly bodies orbit without a moving force? Who moves them? They cannot move themselves!” . . . His heart sought and then came to know that there is but one God . . . who created all, and that in all existence there is none other than He.

Abraham discovered belief in the One God through a process of looking further and further outside of himself, until arriving at “The Causer of Causes.” When we begin to look beyond our own ego, we have already begun our journey to find God. The unfortunate fact of the matter, however, is that many of us stop short in our quest. We find belief in something beyond ourselves, and rest on our spiritual laurels. In recovery, however, one does not have the luxury of spiritual stagnation. One’s faith must continuously grow. Certainly, for a Jew the belief in the Highest Power, and not just any power, is essential to our faith. We may begin, like Abraham, by searching somewhere “out there,” anywhere beyond the self, but we must always arrive at the realization that ultimately there is One who has all power, and that One is God.

The Unwritten God in the First Step

This idea of looking for power beyond one’s own ego is the content of Step One, in which the addict admits his or her own powerlessness. Thus, in a very important way, the process of finding God as Highest Power subtly begins before Step Two has even introduced the notion of a Higher Power. In other words, before we can begin to honestly look for God as a Power, we have to admit our own limitations. As is often said in recovery circles, “There is a God . . . and you are not Him.”

It might be useful to note that Chassidut teaches that the opposite of serving God is not idolatry but the service of self. At least idolaters turn to an entity outside of themselves, whereas egomaniacs—and addicts, almost by definition, fit that profile—cannot peacefully defer to anyone or anything aside from their own egos. Thus, the mental shift that is most critical and urgent is that of the addict’s adherence to the simple piece of advice often heard in the rooms: “Get out of your own head.”

The Talmud relates that God says of an arrogant person, “It is impossible for him and Me to dwell in the same place.” Although God is omnipresent, His presence cannot be felt where there is haughtiness and pride.

To allow the Power of God into one’s life, one must first acquiesce to the fact of his or her own lack of power. The story is told that when the famed Chassidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk was but a small child he was asked, “Where is God?” To which the young rabbi-to-be replied, “Wherever you let Him in.” This same idea is expressed by the midrashic saying, “You cannot pour into a cup that is already full.” In other words, God will always fill whatever space we make for Him, but He will not intrude where He is clearly unwelcome. In order to experience God’s Power in Step Two, one first makes a “power vacuum” in Step One. This recognition of the limits of personal power sets the scene for entering into a relationship with that which is Unlimited Power.

God Almighty

If in Step One you become ready to meet God, then in Step Two you actually meet Him. But why does the first reference to God in the Steps allude to Him as “Power”?

One might answer that since “God” is a word fraught with so many connotations and one that evokes so many prejudices, it just works better to ease into it, and not to use the word “God” right away. This is a valid point. For many people, “God” can be a “scare word,” as in the old Jewish tale of the rabbi who tells the atheist, “My son, don’t worry. The same God that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.”

But this still does not answer our question. Why allude to God specifically as a Power, and not by any other word that one might also use to refer to God?

One might answer that since Step One calls for the individual to admit his or her own lack of power, it logically follows that Step Two should introduce God as the one who has the power. But there seems to be more to it than that.

There’s a saying in recovery: “Don’t tell God how big your addiction is; tell your addiction how big God is.” The disease of addiction—regardless of drug of choice—is essentially an obsession with power. The addict wants control, and finds it in the altering of his or her state by indulging in the addictive behavior. Hence, in order to recover, the addict must surrender this desire for control. But surrender it to what? To God? But what is God? The likelihood that surrender will be effective as a means for treating addiction depends entirely on one’s concept of God. Simply put, the idea that God can heal the addict seems true only if the God of one’s conception is a God to whom one can worthily surrender one’s own power. God may be many things to many people, but for the recovering addict, God must before all else be Power.

Indeed, this may be the reason that the practice of religion by itself is usually inadequate in treating addiction. One can believe in God, and even practice some form of devotion to Him, but if one does not come to believe in God as Power, then there is nothing to which the addict can surrender control. While there may be many religions or belief systems that view God as the archetype of many such abstractions as Love, Wisdom and Peace, in recovery God is the quintessence of Power, and is introduced as such even before He is introduced by the name “God.”

The medieval Jewish philosopher, Judah Ha-Levi, explains in The Kuzari why the first commandment of the Decalogue states, “I am the Lord your God, who took you out of Egypt.” Why did God not introduce Himself as “The Lord your God, who created the heaven and the earth”? Surely that is a far more impressive credential. Ha-Levi answers that God chose to introduce Himself in the way that would be most relevant to those whom He was addressing. The concept of creation seems too abstract, dare we say, too impersonal, to serve as a basis of a relationship. The Exodus, on the other hand, demonstrated God’s direct involvement in the affairs of man—that God did not just make the world, but that He is involved in it as well, and is all-powerful to act within it as He wishes. In other words, the Jewish relationship with God is predicated upon God’s role not as Creator but as Power.

I once spoke to a young man who had been in and out of recovery for about a year, and had not managed to put together any significant amount of clean time. He called me because he said that he needed to believe in a Higher Power, but that he lacked the background to be able to figure out who or what that was. I asked him to describe for me the God of his understanding. He told me that, as he understood it, God was compassionate, just and wise. I told him that, according to our tradition, all of those descriptions were apt, but that he had left out the most important one. He grappled, to no avail, to find the magic word that I was waiting to hear. I told him, “You say that you came to me because you wanted to find your Higher Power. If your Higher Power is God, then why don’t you mention that God is powerful?”

We began to discuss various mystical concepts that describe God’s absolute control over the universe. Chassidut is replete with analogies and examples illustrating how God did not just create the world, but that He continues to exert absolute control over every detail of reality. I told him about the Jewish mystical concept of “ongoing creation”—that even now, God is bringing the universe into existence out of absolute void and nothing. As God continually creates something out of nothing, He places everything exactly where He wants it—at this very second. Without this constant imposition, all of creation would revert to nothingness. As such, there is no automatic pilot; God is always in control. In the lingo of recovery, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 417).

Although he found our discussion intellectually stimulating, the young man stated that “in his heart,” he could not bring himself to believe in this kind of omnipotence. I asked him, “What good is it to you to have a God who is compassionate, just and wise if He is unable to exercise His compassion, justice and wisdom whenever and however He likes? How can such a weakling restore you to your sanity, let alone be deemed worthy of having you give your life and will over to him?” The young man was open to many ideas about God, but for whatever reason, he could not accept God as Power. The last I heard from him, he was still trying to figure out God—and he was still trying to get sober.

God cannot be an abstraction. We can describe Him with all the great and lofty terms we can think of, but if we cannot see Him as an active force in our lives, then we have not even begun to know what God is.

My teacher, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, delivered most of his public addresses in Yiddish. But whenever he spoke in English, he would always refer to God with the somewhat unusual phrase “God Almighty”—though this was not a direct translation of the term for God that he most often used in his first language. There is something telling about this. When we speak of God—particularly in a secular language lacking an adequate lexicon for divine concepts—we must underscore that God is Power, that He is not just “God”—whatever that means to us—but “God Almighty.”

Excerpted from God of Our Understanding—Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction, by Rabbi Shais Taub.