We read in the 12&12 that the practice of admitting one’s defects to another person is very ancient. And indeed it is. So is the practice of admitting one’s defects to God. The traditional name for these practices is, of course, confession.
AA doesn’t stress the use of the term “confession” for the same reason it doesn’t stress the use of the term “sin,” which it replaces with “defects.” Both have negative religious connotations. They can not only put off, but confuse the alcoholic as to what the nature and the purpose of the practice actually is in our program. Yet, AA doesn’t avoid either term; each appears 8 times in the Big Book and the 12&12.
Still, our goal is not to confess our sins but to admit our defects. In effect, while acknowledging it borrowed the concept from religion (via the Oxford Group), AA redefines confession for the alcoholic. We want to admit “the exact nature of our wrongs.” That is, we want to admit not only our wrongful deeds (typically the goal in religious confession), but the wrongs in us which caused our doing them.
Having examined them thoroughly during our inventory, we want to admit to the distorted emotions which drove us to harm others and which are harming us as well, e.g., anger, resentment, fear, guilt, remorse, shame, regret, depression, self-pity. We want to acknowledge the defects of character in us which are fueling these emotions, e.g., dishonesty, envy, greed, impatience, ingratitude, injustice, intolerance, jealousy, lust, narrow-mindedness, pride.
Thus it follows that our admission of defects—of character and of emotion—is only as good as the self-examination on which it is based. If our inventory is mostly a summary of misdeeds, all we are going to admit to is what we did wrong. Our inventory will have been mostly an account of what we remember and our admission a recount of the same. We will not have examined the deeds for what they say about us and we will therefore have very little to say as to their exact nature. We will not have done the necessary groundwork for Steps 6 and 7, where we become ready to surrender our defects and ask God to remove them from us.
As presented in our two texts, confession—or the admission of defects—is a spiritual discipline. Spiritual because it most centrally concerns God. We admit our defects to God, not just to ourselves and another human being. Spiritual too because our disease is fundamentally spiritual and not only physical and mental. It requires a spiritual solution. Our admission, we are told, allows the grace of God to enter and “expel our destructive obsessions” (12&12, S5, p. 57). Yet many of us leave God out of our confession. We make our admission to another person without having any sense of its spiritual dimensions.
Confession is a discipline because it is designed to be practiced regularly and consistently over an extended period of time. It is not a random or occasional act but a daily endeavor. The idea is to make the practice a habit and thereby become very good at it, just like through protracted practice we can excel at playing the violin or basketball.
Unlike these two other activities, however, confession encompasses all areas of life. In AA, it is a comprehensive practice, one of the spiritual principles we practice in all our affairs. The principle is operative in Steps 5, 9, and 10. It is also operational in our sharing at meetings.
In Step 5 it is the pivotal discipline. In Step 9, it works in conjunction with the discipline of restitution. We admit our wrongs to those we have harmed and make amends for them. In Step 10, an application of Steps 4 through 9 to the present, it is one of the main disciplines, together with self-examination, surrender, prayer, and restitution. We take inventory, admit our wrongs to ourselves and to God, ready ourselves to surrender the defects in question, pray for their removal, make the admission to those we have harmed, and make amends to them. If the situation is serious enough, we may have to take inventory with the help of another person (usually our sponsor) and make our admission to that person before we proceed with the subsequent Steps.
How we order these disciplines and how much time we spend on them depends on the kind of Step-10 inventory we are doing, whether spot-check, end-of-day, or extended (covering a substantial period of time). In some spot-checks we may go very quickly from inventory to admission to amends, practicing the other disciplines perhaps in our nightly review. In that review, Step 10 combines with Step 11 and we bring in the discipline of meditation as well as of prayer. An extended review is very much like a Step 4, and thus we may work more completely thorough all the disciplines making up the process in that Step.
Besides working in conjunction with these other disciplines, confession works together with a variety of virtues, the second major set of spiritual principles in the Steps. Most obviously, confession calls for humility and honesty. When we confess we humble ourselves. We admit there’s something wrong with us; we tell the truth about ourselves and what we’ve done or left undone. We not only tell the truth, but we are totally frank with the person hearing our admission, and completely sincere with the person to whom we are making amends.
Disclosing ourselves to another and admitting our wrongs to those we have hurt may make us feel anxious, fearful, and embarrassed. Thus we may need to practice courage and therefore faith—faith that this is God’s will for us and that he will see us through. We may also need to practice discretion in what we disclose to whom, and prudence in whom we choose to hear our confession. And if we are going to practice confession as a discipline, we need perseverance. We need to continue to admit whenever and wherever we are wrong, regardless of the obstacles we may face.
Finally, an admission of wrongs is something we do all the time in the rooms. While discretion calls for a lot of prudent editing in such an open setting, we are always disclosing ourselves to our fellow alcoholics. To share is to unveil and to reveal, knowing that we are all fellow sufferers and that others will not judge but identify with us. When we share we share not only our faults, but the solutions which by the grace of God we have found in Alcoholics Anonymous.
[Image: Mayflower Hotel phone from which Bill W. made the call that led to his meeting with Dr. Bob. For an antique postcard of the hotel, please click on link.]