Practice These Principles
Living the Spiritual Disciplines and Virtues in 12-Step Recovery

Step Two 

The Will to Disbelieve

In Step 1 we surrender control over alcohol, as we humbly admit our powerlessness to stop drinking and to manage our lives. In Step 2 we surrender unbelief, itself a form of control, of a continued clinging to the illusion of power. The will to disbelieve is driven by certain character defects that the principles in this Step are intended to correct. Primary among these principles are the discipline of surrender and the virtues of humility, simplicity, willingness, open-mindedness, and honesty. Through them we are led to faith, and through faith to hope, as we come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.

The Denial of Spiritual Reality 

Since the advent of AA much has been made of the concept of denial as a stumbling block to recovery, a subject we broached in the previous chapter. The idea is often understood in psychological terms as a defense mechanism. In the more popular version of this, denial is an attempt to avoid facing and dealing with painful realities simply by refusing to acknowledge them.

But from a spiritual perspective, denial cuts deeper. The “defense mechanism” is a symptom of a larger problem, and that is the denial of reality as comprehending more than just the material universe. At its root, denial is the refusal to acknowledge the spiritual reality underpinning the world of the senses. There is a spiritual order to things that has implications for the way we live. If we are aware of this order at all, we tend to see it as unjust or as infringing on our will and restricting our freedom. Hence, we ignore or refuse to recognize it. It is this failure to live in accordance with the spiritual order that produces the painful consequences from which the psyche then seeks protection, unsuccessfully.

The denial of spiritual reality, expressed as the rejection of or a resistance to a transcendent faith, is the stumbling block many of us come up against in Step 2. Against Step 1 our denial takes the form of refusing to admit, first, that we have a problem with alcohol, and second, that we cannot solve that problem on our own. This is a denial of our condition, that we are alcoholic. Against Step 2, our denial takes the form of refusing to acknowledge the reality of God, and of who we are in relation to him. We deny not only an external, but an internal order. Ultimately, we deny our own humanity, for we bear God’s imprint in us and our identity subsists in him.

Our denial of faith is rooted in character defects that Step 2 brings out into the open. Dishonesty is the most immediate. It is what enables and sustains denial. Many of us deceive ourselves about the reasons for our lack of faith and refuse to see the connection between our rejection of God and our failure in life. Rather than look at ourselves, we focus on others and cast blame, judge, and condemn. We come up with all sorts of rationalizations and fancy theories about why we don’t believe, when the truth is that we don’t want to believe, that our minds are shut tight and we are unwilling to take an honest look at the facts about God, religion, and the things of the spirit.

Yet behind dishonesty lies a more fundamental character defect and this is pride. We fancy ourselves too smart, too sophisticated, to buy into all that stuff about God. Characteristic of this sort of conceit is the tendency to think that we know more than we actually do. The more intellectual or more educated among us tend to go further. We make reason the object of faith. Whatever we can’t understand through reason simply doesn’t exist. We presume to possess reasoning powers we lack and refuse to accept the limits to knowledge that are inherent in our human condition. In short, we want to be our own god, and that is the source of our pride.

The essence of humility is knowing who we are and who God is, and the hallmark of pride confusing the two. In Step 1 we make the barest beginning of knowing who we are. In Step 2 of who God is. The two Steps work together. We cannot do one without the other.

At meetings we sometimes hear an alcoholic laugh at herself as she revels in a new discovery: “I found out there is a God, and it ain’t me.” We laugh with her, no matter how many times we have heard the line. It is so ridiculously obvious. And yet, such is the hold of pride on us, that we can never remind ourselves of this simple truth too often. For us in AA, it is the beginning of wisdom. To know that we are not God, to know that there is a God, and to know that God, these are the Steps in their essence.

From a spiritual perspective, we cannot know who we are apart from our Creator, for he gave us our being and identity and set the parameters governing our growth and development. Though not ordinarily seen this way, Step 2 is in part a self-examination, a spiritual appraisal that precedes and sets the foundation for the moral stocktaking that begins with Step 4. In this latter Step we start looking at ourselves in the context of our relationship with others; in Step 2 we start to look at ourselves in the context of our relationship with God.

In the spiritual order of things our relationship with God comes first and informs our relationship with others. This is the transcendental meaning inherent in our slogan of First Things First, which has its source in the familiar biblical injunction to seek first the kingdom of God.

In examining our relationship with God through Step 2, the testimony of AAs who have come to believe can help us to “sweep away prejudice” and “think honestly,” and it can encourage us to “search diligently” within ourselves. We start to take an honest look at the ideas, biases, resentments and shortcomings that keep us from God and which prevent him from coming into our hearts and restoring us to sanity, in our inner lives and in our lives with those about us.

– From "The Will to Disbelieve," pp. 91–93