aa powerlessness

What Is Powerlessness? Can It Exist Without Religious Connotations?

Personal powerlessness…just what does this mean? In contemporary culture, the concept is antithetical to success, prosperity, and mental health. However, is the concept properly understood?

The Straw Man – Fallacious Reasoning

Often when something is argued against, the opposition merely creates a straw man i.e. a misrepresentation of the concept being argued against to easily knock it down. In reality, the original concept remains standing firm and entirely misunderstood.

The modern concept of powerless as groveling, weak, and incompetent, totally fails to grasp what the original concept communicated. Comprehension is determined by context; indeed, context is everything. Therefore, reading the 12-Step concept of powerlessness through a secular psychological lens fails because the context is incorrect – the context is unable to hold the concept.

So what is the proper setting for the concept of powerlessness 12-Step recovery demands? I’m going to propose what nobody wants to hear…religion.

So Is A.A. Religious or What?

This does not imply the 12-Steps are religious, it just implies the usage of religious concepts. I’ll explain, but first, let’s talk historical context…

Sin. We’ve all heard the term, it comes fully loaded with misinformation and an overwhelming amount of baggage. But what does it mean?

Indeed, a few different Greek and Hebrew words exist for the concept but it could be summed up most famously as “to miss the mark.”

Think archery. The archer snaps the bow with all the accuracy, precision, and skill he can muster but he still fails to hit the bullseye; in a word, he is unable, he lacks the capacity or – for the sake of this discussion – the “power.”

Thus, power is used here in terms of faculty.

The concept attempts to capture inability; that is, inability when unassisted – no man is an island so to speak. Traditionally, in Judeo-Christian Scripture, the concept is used to denote separation from God AKA separation from Power (that is, the separation from the ability to live righteously).

Fast-forward Two Thousand Years…My History With Many Gaps

Let’s move forward a bit. In the early twentieth century, Judeo-Christian concepts began to mix and blend with New Age Thought (a cocktail of various religions, philosophies, and ideologies). This union was ushered in by Liberal Christianity with its emphasis on religious experience rather than propositional truths. This was a clean break from dogmatic institutionalized religion – it opened up a world of endless possibilities (as many possibilities as there are minds to create them).

Naturally, this led to various new syncretic religious systems, such as Christian Science (a new age/Christian hybrid that undeniably influenced the 12-Steps), which began to call sickness a manifestation of sin (“the alcoholic is a sick man” – Big Book) – thus medical illness was capable of being treated spiritually, by the Divine Physician as it were, bestowing the body with the ABILITY to heal itself.

Furthermore, movements like the Emmanuel Movement began to mix medicine with religious concepts and solutions. Ergo, when scientific measures failed or atleast scientific understanding failed to produce results, the conceptual framework permitted a diagnosis which was spiritual in nature and warranted a spiritual prescription to be written as well. Thus the stage was set for 12-Step recovery, it merely needed ready and willing actors. (===>See my New Wine Review)

The alcoholic cannot hit the mark (sobriety) without Divine assistance. Why? Because the ability is absent. The idea being argued is spiritual – namely a sinner needed to be saved, but not from a biblical vantage point but an experiential one (that is, this is how it appears). Nonetheless, we behold a cultural transformation of a concept, separating it from religious doctrine and placing it in a petri dish of experience. If one word conveyed the maturation of the concept of powerlessness it is EXPERIENCE – that is, a movement away from propositional and doctrinal truths to subjective religious experiences. Revealed religious truth was no longer formal and objective but informal and subjective. This article has so far explored the historical roots of the concept of powerlessness/sin, in the next half of the article I will target the nuances of the contemporary A.A. concept of powerlessness…

Two Powers: Self (self-centered) or God (relational).

Now sin (refer to above concept)  – caught up in a world where everything was illness (psychoanalysis) – was no longer moral, but like Freud’s unconscious, it was a lingering sickness to which the sufferer had no choice to the contrary. And like the unconscious, sin determined courses of action that seemingly went against the will. In a way, the power of sin was now in control i.e. in the pilot’s seat; that is, the power of the will was overridden. Sin was now expressed in the form of a warped psyche or maladaptive mind that needed renewal.

Therefore, when the authors of Alcoholics Anonymous described alcoholism as a soul sickness – they were claiming separation (sin, self-centeredness) is what plagued the belief system and hijacked will-power. Accordingly, the book could diagnosis addiction as a spiritual illness and that “the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body (p. 23).”

It was actually usurped by an opposing power; seemingly making automatic albeit destructive decisions. It’s as if two beliefs systems exist i.e. the one governed by God (Power) and the other by self (Powerless Power). One carries connotations of guidance and choice (love-based) and the other carries connotations of being driven with little choice (fear-based).

The Big Book declares alcoholics as victims to the latter and subsequently, rendered powerlessness over addiction. Why? Because of the inability to make choices that are contrary to the flawed belief system. It’s important to distinguish the two belief systems – one is powerless (in terms of the will) and the other, by its very nature, is not. Thus, it’s not about behavioral modification but a rearrangement and displacement of beliefs – or the starting point for understanding and rational comprehension – which automatically changes the behaviors.  Step Two now carries greater depth and meaning…

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Augustine acknowledged this truth 1,500 years ago when he wrote,

“Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.  The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.“

The Self-Loop

In a word, will-power cannot be obsolete but misdirected, mutinied, or enslaved. Rather than being directed by God, then given to and empowered by others it gets caught in a self-loop. Driven to arrive at a nonexistent power, or a power which guises itself as the real Power, corrupting the natural order of things.

What does the Big Book purport as the natural order of reason and emotional sobriety?


What Does the Self-loop look like?

Self >>>Self>>>>Self

As a social species, this simply will not do. Separated from God, separated from others, isolated spiritually and emotionally – cut off from our relational nature – insulated from the Power. The sufferer must restore the order to restore physical health. Recall the implications of spiritual sickness: disease.

“When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically (Big Book, p. 64).”


It’s like trickle-down economics of the Spirit…:)

Man is Relational / God is Relational

The same era that produced the concept of sin (powerlessness) also posited a God (Power) who is relational. This can easily be seen in ancient ethical codes such as the Ten Commandments. The first five is one’s relationship with God, the latter five is one’s relationship with others. How do you know you’re upholding the first five? Because you uphold the latter five. The same can be said for the 12-Steps.

Steps 1,2,3 – Relationship with God restored
Steps 4,5,6,7 – Relationship with self-restored, starts with God and consummates with others
Steps 8,9 – Relationship with others restored
10 – Relationship with self-maintained (contingent upon 11 and 12)
11 – Relationship with God maintained (presupposes relationship with others maintained)
12 – Relationship with others maintained (presupposes relationship with God maintained)

The Big Book presents a spiritual sickness (disordered belief system denying one’s relational nature) that keeps the alcoholic doomed to repeating the same behavior. The implication is that no individual is immune to this – addicts and nonaddicts alike – each is searching for their spigot of power to drain; this may be sought in over-working, attention, gossiping, eating, drama, etc. For addicts, however, can mean death. Thus, the addict is forced to live, forced to God, and forced to reconnect with their nature. Hence why some addicts say they are “grateful recovered addicts.”

The Relational Breakdown – The Law of Humankind

In short, The belief system is self-centered and egotistically. It fails to acknowledge anything besides its own needs. For instance, every defect of character is only named defective by the very fact that it considers no one else. Let me illustrate.

Dishonesty – why is dishonesty defective?

One can conquer the world through dishonest gain; therefore, why would our predecessor’s mark this attribute as defective? Myriad answers could be proposed; the best, however, is simply because it fails to consider other people. If humankind’s essence is relational or tribal, then such an attitude would cut itself off from the group i.e. the only means of survival. This holds true for our physical survival but also our optimal spiritual, mental, and emotional survival.

  • Intolerance
  • Impatience
  • Resentment
  • Fear
  • Inconsiderate
  • Pride

Above are only a few defective manifestations of character which are purely defined as such solely because they exist only in isolation. They refuse to acknowledge other human beings as bearing intrinsic value and worth. Rather than seeing people as ends in themselves, character defects use people as a means to an end. THIS IS SELF-DEFEATING. It power-robbery, plain and simple.

Live The Herd Life!

Humankind survived as a species through our primitive and formative years by sticking together – still to this day we are a tribal-social-relational animal. To deny this is to deny what I believe to be the essence of humanity. Thus, when we live contrary to our nature (relational) we are, as the Big Book states, restless, irritable, and discontent.

God could even be purely called “The Absence of Self-Centeredness.” If you were to add up all of the character assets – that which is opposite of the defects – the sum total would be a total absence of self-centeredness; an absence of self as it were. Completely intertwined in the relational core of our being.

To be detached from the core is to be separate from (sin) it; concerning alcoholism, the ISM is the problem.


What is it I separate myself from? From my relational essence, from the Power, from God and others. The steps are designed to restore this relational core; I call it “reconnect.”

The journey of a concept is a tumultuous one; strung culturally through symbolic webs of meaning, and even if the dogma ceases (or changes) – the basic idea remains the same. Historically, forms come and go but the substance is eternal. Regardless of the chalice you hold – I recommend you simply take a sip.

Timmy G (2019)



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