What G‑d Wants

Of all the Steps, the Eleventh speaks most directly about our relationship with God and how that connection is maintained.

The step reads:

“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

More than just telling us how to seek God, this Step informs our concept of God like no other.

At first reading it may be easy to miss, but with a little bit of thought we can see that the Eleventh Step makes what is perhaps the most significant statement about God to be found in all of the Steps. There’s an immensely important word in this Step—the word will. Let’s read the Step again with added emphasis:

“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

God has a will.

This is an incredibly important point.

Step Three, which speaks of God’s caring, as well as Steps Five, Six and Seven, which allude to His desire for a relationship with us, both imply that God has a will. He wants to care for us. He wants to have a relationship with us (indeed, even more than He wants us to behave perfectly).

But here, in Step Eleven, God’s will is explicitly mentioned for the first time. And not only does He have a will, He also has a specific “will for us.” God wants something from the individual.

Need vs. Want

Many philosophical and religious systems view the idea of God’s wanting something as problematic. How can an infinite and perfect being want, or be in want of, anything? Does this not imply a lacking of something or someone?

Judaism, however, is not at all troubled by this concept. Indeed, the very foundation of Judaism as a covenantal religion is that God most certainly does want something from us. God promises to uphold His end of the deal, but He asks for certain things in return. As God told Abraham, father of the Jewish people:

“I will establish My covenant as an everlasting covenant . . . As for you, you must keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come” (Genesis 17:7–9).

Again, just prior to the revelation at Sinai, God tells Moses:

“Now if you obey Me fully and keep My covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession . . .” (Exodus 19:5).

God is clearly asking for something. The particular aspects of His will—what He wants and does not want—are the very basis of Torah law.

The commandments are not technical rules, but an expression of God’s desires. Indeed, as the Kabbalists describe it, God made Himself vulnerable, so to speak, by articulating His likes and dislikes, and allowing His creations the free choice of whether or not to abide by these wishes. This is how God makes Himself available for intimacy with His creations. As such, Judaism does not view adherence to God’s commandments so much as a matter of obedience, but as a matter of sensitivity to God’s desire. That is not to say that without our compliance God is somehow incomplete. God requires nothing. He has no needs. But He does have a will—a will to be in a relationship with us.

In fact, this will is no less than the driving force behind all of creation. Because God needs nothing, He also did not need to create. Had He chosen not to be a Creator, He would still be God. Yet God wants to create. And He wants to create because He wants something from His creations.

In the words of the Midrash, God made the world because “He yearned to have a dwelling place in the lower realms.” The Chasidic masters explain this to mean that God created the world because of a passionate desire to be “at home” in a realm inhabited by sentient beings with free will and ego-consciousness. Why God wants this—well, we cannot know. Indeed, the very difference between a need and a desire is that a need can be “rationally” defended, but a desire has no “practical” explanation. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of the Chabad school of Chassidism, used to say when discussing the nature of God’s will for creation, “When it comes to a desire, you cannot ask rational questions.”

For example, let’s say your spouse says that they need something. It is possible to ask them to explain their need. If they cannot, you might even be able to argue that they don’t really need it. However, if your spouse says that they want something, even if they cannot convincingly explain why, it doesn’t mean that they don’t really want it. That’s the definition of a want as opposed to a need. A need is practical. A desire is impractical. Thus, the appropriate response to a desire is either to fulfill it or not to fulfill it, but not to argue with it. So, too, when we speak of God’s will, we mean His irrational, impractical desire. The very impracticality of God’s relationship with us is what makes it intimate as opposed to utilitarian. God doesn’t need us. He wants us.

The Intimacy of Will

I was once teaching this subject in a Torah class. One woman, a very intelligent and no-nonsense type lady, had a major problem with the concept that God would want anything from people. She kept saying that it didn’t make any sense. I told her that that was exactly right: it didn’t make any sense. But she kept struggling with the idea, because she wanted to understand our relationship with God in practical terms. But our relationship with God is not practical. It is wonderfully impractical, and that is precisely what makes it so intimate.

“I know you to be a competent and responsible adult,” I said to her, “and I am certain that if you wanted flowers on your wedding anniversary, you would have no problem finding them, paying for them and bringing them home all by yourself. You could even write yourself a note to attach to them. So, tell me, why do you want your husband to do something for you that you are perfectly capable of doing yourself?” She immediately understood the point. One cannot understand God’s relationship with His creations from a cold and analytical perspective, because God’s relationship with us is not rational. It’s not about practicality. It’s about desire, and desire is not rational. It is not sub-intelligent but supra-intelligent: it transcends logic. After all, that is what every good romance is about—a commitment that transcends logic. In this romance, God reveals to us His very irrational desire for us to be close to Him. And, as in any romance, the most meaningful and intimate bond is forged through the fulfillment of irrational desire. We are free to choose whether or not to comply with God’s will for us, but we don’t ask God to prove that His will is valid. It is as valid as He is.

This is the amazing thing about desire. Desire transcends all else. Desire is the window to vulnerability, bonding and intimacy. The fact that God has a will for us, and shares that will with us, means that He has made Himself available to us to connect to Him in the most meaningful way.

The Opportunity to Connect

As we mentioned earlier, God expresses His will by giving us a commandment. The Hebrew word mitzvah is often colloquially used to mean “a good deed”; more plainly translated, it means “a commandment.” However, the word mitzvah means so much more: it comes from the word tzavsa, which means “connection.” A mitzvah is a connection, or an opportunity to connect. The fulfillment of will connects us where intellect falls short. In other words, it is action, more than feelings, more than understanding and more than faith, that actually connects us to God. This is a quintessentially Jewish concept.

At Sinai, when Moses asked the people if they were ready to accept God’s commandments, they responded, “We will do, and we will understand” (Exodus 24:7). If we wanted to understand and then do, we would likely never understand, and we would certainly never do. By doing, even without understanding, we connect to God—and ultimately also come to understand Him to the extent that we can. We cannot intellectualize our way into a meaningful relationship with God. Our finite minds cannot grasp Him. But we can become wonderfully united with Him through the fulfillment of His will, and for that there is no mental prerequisite.

To state it bluntly, just having a “God of our understanding” is not enough for us—even if we understand our God to be powerful, caring, forgiving, and all of the other qualities we have previously discussed. We must also know that God has a will, so that despite our limited understanding of Him, we can always connect to Him through simple action.

Remember the woman whom I asked why she didn’t buy herself flowers on her anniversary? There is an epilogue to that story. As it turns out, this woman had a hard time expressing her desires to her husband. She didn’t actually send herself flowers, but pretty close. She felt that she was being responsible and self-sufficient by taking care of herself. At the same time, she felt disappointed that her husband failed to read her mind and do the things for her that she wanted. Some time after our discussion, her husband approached me and thanked me for improving their marriage. He said that he had been frustrated that he did not know how to connect to his wife. This changed when she started sharing with him her wants and desires, even regarding things that she would normally have taken care of herself. Essentially, she hadn’t realized that by failing to express her will, she was actually depriving her husband of the opportunity to connect to her.

By having a will for us, God lets us be connected to Him. He invites us to become an extension of His will. In so doing, He gives us a gift. He allows us to be of significance. He tells us that we matter to Him in the most profound way.

The Opportunity to Transcend

As we have already mentioned many times, albeit in a variety of words, the addict’s basic problem is an obsession with self. In order to live happily and usefully, the addict needs a way to transcend his or her own ego. But how does one get outside of oneself? Our answer is that one transcends self by connecting to the Infinite. But this, then, begs the question—exactly how does one connect to the Infinite?

As we have just explained, one connects through the fulfillment of a will. Not the exertion of self-will, but the surrender of it in deference to the will of God.

Many NA meetings close with that fellowship’s “Third Step Prayer”:

“Take my will and my life. Guide me in my recovery. Show me how to live” (Narcotics Anonymous, 6th ed., p. 26).

In other words, the Steps talk about a God who has a specific will for us, a God who asks for things and who allows Himself to be served, because a God who wants nothing, who has no opinion or preferences, cannot be served. And without the opportunity to serve, one cannot transcend the self—and one cannot recover.

Good Orderly Direction

In the original draft of the Big Book submitted to the early members of the fellowship for review, the Third Step read, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care and direction of God . . .” After some debate, the word direction was deleted because it was considered overbearing.

The basic idea, however, has remained a cornerstone of the program. A working concept of God as outlined in Twelve-Step programs includes the idea that God gives us direction. As many in recovery are wont to say, God is an acronym for “Good Orderly Direction.”

It is interesting to consider that the Zohar says: “God and the Torah are entirely one.” The Zohar also says that the word Torah comes from the word hora’ah—“direction” or “instruction.” Therefore, essentially, direction from God is another way of referring to God. When we have God’s instruction in life, we have God in our life.

His Will, Not Mine

As noted above in reference to Step Two, the problem of the addict is primarily an obsession with control. This is why it is so important to see God as a “power greater than ourselves,” so that one may feel free to actually surrender control. However, in order to address fully the issue of control, it must be recognized that the addict’s desire for control is just that—a desire. In other words, the addict has a will. He or she wants to be in control. Recovery means realizing that God also has a will—and then deciding to place that will before one’s own.

Describing the Eleventh Step’s call for regular prayer and meditation, the Big Book says:

“We usually conclude the period of meditation with a prayer that we be shown all through the day what our next step is to be . . . We ask especially for freedom from self-will . . .” (p. 87).

We Jews have a prayer in our early morning liturgy that states:

May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of our fathers, to accustom us to following Your instructions and to adhering to the fulfillment of Your commandments. . . . Let not our evil inclination have mastery over us; . . . [rather] force our inclination to be subservient to You.

God has a will; each of us has a will. Being connected to God is about making ourselves more concerned with what He wants than with what we want. As the Mishnah says: “Make His will your own will.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained this teaching to mean that although the strict letter of the law requires us to fulfill God’s will whether we like it or not, the sages encourage us to go beyond mere observance of the law and actually remake our will to be aligned to God’s. Fulfilling God’s will should not be a burden, but a manifestation of our truest self. When a person can undergo such a change, something incredible begins to happen.

As the Mishnah continues, “And He will then fulfill your will as if it were His will.” God will lead the person into the circumstances most conducive to expressing his or her desire to do God’s will.

Most old-timers in recovery will attest to the fact that when one lives to do God’s will, not only does one’s attitude improve, but somehow, somewhat inexplicably, life actually gets better as well. I have heard this sentiment expressed succinctly many times by many people in recovery. “I tried my way. My way doesn’t work. I tried His way. His way works.”

The phrase “Thy will be done” is found three times in the Big Book. The wording is obviously a direct reference to the Lord’s Prayer of the Christian liturgy. But an interesting emendation is made to these words on p. 85, where it states, in relation to the Eleventh Step: “Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities. ‘How can I best serve Thee—Thy will (not mine) be done.’”

The context of the phrase, and the notable insertion of the words “not mine” in parentheses, put quite a new spin on these words, not to be found in the original. Here, “Thy will be done” is used as a request to God that in all areas of life, His will should overrule our own. In other words, the program is describing a God who has an opinion about “all of our activities.”

Whether we eat, sleep, do business or pray, there is a way to do it that conforms to God’s will. As King Solomon said: “In all your ways you should know Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:6); or in the words of the Mishnah: “All your deeds should be for the sake of heaven.”

“Knowledge of His Will for Us”

We’re about to conclude our discussion of will, but there remains an important idea that must be addressed. There are those who concede that God may have a will, but think it arrogant to assume that we could ever hope to know what it is. Of course, Judaism is based on the idea that God has explicitly revealed His will and told His people exactly what He wants. This is precisely what occurred at the revelation at Sinai more than three millennia and three centuries ago. Some may still argue that this constitutes only a general will, but that God does not communicate a specific will for the individual.

In answer:

First, the commandments are a specific will for the individual. One cannot perform all of the commandments in every place and at every time. We fulfill the commandments wherever and whenever they are applicable to the situation. Thus, by leading the individual to a particular situation where a specific commandment may be observed, God is certainly indicating His will for that person.

I once dealt with a young Jewish man who was suffering from mental illness. It was time for a group meeting, and he was nowhere to be found, so I went to the dormitory to fetch him. I found him collapsed in his bed. I asked him whether he was able to get up. He replied that he was able, but that he did not want to. I asked him why not. He told me that he did not want to move until God told him to do so. I went to the library and brought back a copy of the Concise Code of Jewish Law, from which I then read to him: “When one awakens in the morning, one must immediately recognize and appreciate the kindness God has done with him . . . One should say [the prayer “I give thanks”] . . . and by doing so, he will realize that God is in his midst, and will immediately get out of bed and prepare himself for the service of God.” The young man thought about these words and got out of bed.

Second, if we are to believe in God’s meticulous providence for every detail in His creation, then we also believe that God will show us the right path in every aspect of life. This does not have to come in the form of prophecy or a booming voice from the clouds. God’s will can be revealed to us in a number of ways that are perfectly natural and normal. As the Baal Shem Tov taught: “Everything a person sees or hears can be taken as a lesson in serving the Creator.” In the words of the Big Book, “God will constantly disclose more to you and to us . . . The answers will come, if your own house is in order” (p. 164).

“And the Power to Carry That Out”

By deferring his or her own personal will, the recovering addict inevitably finds a new way of living that is infinitely more fulfilling than a life of active addiction. Yet there are still those who are uncomfortable with the notion of such complete surrender. They think it a prescription for passivity.

The Jewish view, however, is that submission to God’s will is the key to effective living. With self-will, one is limited to drawing upon one’s own finite ability and wherewithal. Eventually, one is bound to confront an obstacle or an impasse that cannot be negotiated or overcome. By doing things “God’s way” rather than our own, we channel the force of the Creator. And nothing can stop the force of the Creator in His creation.

Thus, we return to our first concept of God that we gleaned from the Steps—that He is Power. Giving up on self-will in order to do God’s will is not passivity. It does not mean that one has no will. It means that one’s will now comes from a higher place than his or her own needs and wants. Indeed, Judaism sees this as the ultimate level of human existence. For this reason, the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—are lauded as being “chariots” of the divine will, meaning that they lived their entire lives in a state of complete surrender to God. As Chassidut teaches, even the average person attains the same quality of self-nullity whenever he or she fulfills any of the commandments. One actually becomes a conduit, at that moment, to channel the divine. In other words, whenever one submits to the will of God, one automatically receives “the power to carry that out.”

We give God our will, and God gives us His power.

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