The Discipline of Surrender

Towns Hospital in NYC

The word “surrender” appears nowhere in our two basic texts, the Big Book and the 12&12. The term was avoided primarily because of its negative association with the Oxford Group. There were two reasons for this. First, the Group had a membership requirement where one had to “make a surrender” on one’s knees in front of other members. The act was coerced, and to many alcoholics, it represented one of the most objectionable aspects of religion. That’s one of the factors which eventually led to the break with the Group and the formation of AA.

The second reason was that, at the time the Big Book was being written, the OG had gotten caught up in a serious political controversy involving Europe and the Second World War. Using a well-known OG term in the book might have drawn AA into that controversy. Moreover, at a time of war—which within a few months would ensnare the US as well—the idea of surrender seemed to be totally out of place.

As the war and the OG faded into memory, however, it became safe to use the term again. Thus, we’ll find as many as 21 pages of entries indexed as “surrender” in As Bill Sees It (ABSI), published in 1967. In Daily Reflections, published in 1990, we’ll find eight such pages. These later changes notwithstanding, surrender never became a familiar word in AA and is seldom used in the rooms. Moreover, it became confused with acceptance, which was sometimes used to replace it. The case is different in the other fellowships inspired by AA, which openly used the word surrender from their inception.

Most entries in ABSI are from the Big Book and the 12&12, and only one (from “A.A. Today”), mentions the word directly. Yet, they clearly show how central the idea of surrender is in the Steps and the whole program of recovery. Indeed, it is a foundational spiritual discipline, just as humility, with which it is intimately related, is a foundational spiritual virtue. The two principles are two sides of the same coin. Humility is the corrective to pride, and pride is the defect we alcoholics most need to surrender. It is at the very heart of our disease of selfishness and self-centeredness and the self-will by which we tend to live our lives.

Since they rub against our ego, both terms are intensely disliked. They smack of weakness, and nobody, least of all the alcoholic, wants to admit to weakness. Surrender in particular smacks of cowardice and defeat. Never give up, we are frequently counseled. Don’t quit. Never, ever surrender.

All of this militates against developing any reasonable understanding of the principle and being able to practice it as we work the Steps. Yet, as we read in one of the ABSI entries (p. 242), AA was founded on the idea of surrender. It arose out of the evidence that only a transforming spiritual experience could deliver us from our alcoholism, and that, as Bill W. learned from William James, such an experience was almost always founded on calamity and collapse. Defeat led to surrender, and surrender opened the door to change.

As we read in Step 12, all of the Steps are directed to bringing about such a spiritual experience or awakening. Therefore, surrender is essential to all of them. All of them involve a surrender of our pride and the defects of character and emotion which revolve around it. This takes different forms in different Steps, as a quick look at each will reveal.

In Step 1 we surrender our struggle for power and control, first over the bottle, and progressively over the rest of our lives. To admit that we are powerless over alcohol is to admit that we cannot control our drinking. It is because our drinking has gone out of control that our lives have spun out of control too and have become unmanageable. Alcohol has beaten us. To surrender is to admit and accept our defeat, throw in the towel, and stop fighting. When we do, our struggle is over.

In Step 2 we surrender the old ideas, prejudices, and conceits that kept us under the illusion that we were self-sufficient and had to rely only upon ourselves, ideas which kept us from seeking the help of a Power greater than ourselves and coming to believe that it could restore us to sanity and make us whole.

In Step 3 we surrender our will and our lives to that Power, or as the Step says using an alternative phrase, we turn them over. Here we are introduced to the idea of surrendering something to somebody, and that somebody is always that Higher Power, whom we come to understand as a caring and loving God. We never surrender to anybody else, not to any human being, and not to any institution.

In Step 4 we surrender the anger and the resentment that we may still harbor against those we perceive to have hurt us in the past and which may prevent us from examining our own defects and the harm we have caused. We may also have to surrender other defects, such as the self-centered fear that may keep us from inquiring into certain aspects of our past, or the dishonesty that may keep us from looking for the full truth about ourselves.

In Step 5 we may have to surrender the pride and the self-centered fear which may keep us from being entirely honest and admitting the exact nature of our wrongs, especially face to face to another human being. Here pride, fear, and dishonesty may interact with a distorted sense of guilt and of shame or just plain embarrassment.

In Step 6 we surrender all resistance and abandon ourselves to the process of letting go of all of our defects of character so that God may be able to remove them. We do this one day and one defect at a time. Though there may be times when we may not be entirely ready to give up a particular defect, says the 12&12 (p. 69), the key is not to slip back into our old attitude of rebellion, self-will, and defiance and insist we will never give it up. To surrender here is to remain open and receptive to the process.

In Step 7 we surrender our pride in all of its manifestations, and we humbly ask God to remove all of our defects, continuing the process of surrender we have started in Step 6.

In Step 8 we surrender any anger or resentment we may still hold and any unforgiveness we may still harbor, as we become willing to make amends to all of those we have harmed, including those who may have harmed us.

In Step 9 we surrender any lingering defect or desire that may stand in the way of a full and complete act of restitution. These may include pride, fear, dishonesty, insincerity, a distorted sense of shame or embarrassment, and guilt.

In Step 10 we continue to surrender our defects as we uncover them on a daily basis, and we practice the acts of surrender of Steps 5 through 9 as the particulars of the situation may call for.

In Step 11 we surrender totally to God’s will for us as revealed through conscious contact in prayer and meditation, fulfilling at its highest level the surrender intended in Step 3.

In Step 12 we extend our surrender to all areas of our life as we practice the principles of the program in all our affairs, one day and one situation at a time.

We conclude this little summary with a reflection from one of our earliest posts on this site. If we have trouble with the idea of surrender, we wrote, it might help us to reflect on the fact that we do it all the time. When we hold a grudge against someone, we are surrendering to a character defect and diseased emotion in us. The choice is between surrendering resentment, and surrendering to resentment.

We are frequently faced with such a choice: surrendering to a flaw in us or surrendering that flaw, giving in to one form or another of our disease or giving it up, holding on to it, or letting it go. We can yield to anger, fear, dishonesty, intolerance, and our self-centered passions and desires, or we can turn them over.

One form of surrender perpetuates our disease and keeps us in bondage to conflict and contention; the other releases us and sets us free to live in peace with ourselves and with the world.

[Image: Charles R. Towns Hospital, 293 Central Park West, NYC, where Bill W. surrendered and had the spiritual experience that freed him from alcohol. NY AA #2, Hank P., and #3, Fitz M., also got sober at Towns, whose director was William D. Silkworth, author of  "The Doctor's Opinion" in the Big Book.] 

Bill W."Beaten into complete defeat by alcohol, confronted by the living proof of release, and surrounded by those who can speak to us from the heart, we have finally surrendered.” – Bill W., As Bill Sees It, p. 174  

Big Book"With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start. Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.” – Big Book, p. 58  

12&12"We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength. Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be firm bedrock upon which to build happy and purposeful lives." – 12&12, Step 1, p. 21  

Life Recovery Bible
"Be still and know that I am God." – Psalm 46:10  

Sam Shoemaker"The process which comes before the act of surrender is the long discovery that the way of self is no way at all, and leads nowhere—the lonely, despairing, fevering desire to be rid of oneself. And the process which comes after the act of surrender is the steady matching-up of the actual with the ideal, the rethinking and remolding [of] life in accordance with the great decision." – Sam Shoemaker  

Marty M.
"I know what happened to me. I heard it in a hymn yesterday. I surrendered when I had that experience.” – Marty M.  

Dr. Harry M. Tiebout"[A] conversion occurs when the individual hits bottom, surrenders, and thereby has his ego reduced. His salvation lies in keeping that ego reduced, in staying humble . . . . If he did not surrender, a thousand crises could hit him and nothing would happen.” – Dr. Harry Tiebout  

The Bhagavad Gita "Your proper concern is alone the action of duty, not the fruits of the action. Cast then away all desire and fear for the fruits, and perform your duty." – The Bhagavad Gita  

"Love conquers all; let us too yield to love." – Virgil  

Thomas à Kempis
"Thou must learn to renounce thy own will in many things, if thou wilt keep peace and concord with others." – Thomas à Kempis  

St. Francis of Assisi
. . . It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life." – St. Francis Prayer

Mahatma Gandhi
"Justice that love gives is a surrender; justice that law gives is a punishment." – Mahatma Gandhi  

Billy Sunday"Unless you have made a complete surrender and are doing his will, it will avail you nothing if you've reformed a thousand times and have your name on fifty church records.” – Billy Sunday  

T. S. Eliot
For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business." 
  T. S. Eliot 

Albert Einstein
"I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be." – Albert Einstein  

James Baldwin"Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long possessed that he is set free - he has set himself free - for higher dreams, for greater privileges." – James Baldwin  

Fulton J. Sheen
"Once you have surrendered yourself, you make yourself receptive.” – Fulton J. Sheen  

C. S. Lewis"The proper good of a creature is to surrender itself to its Creator—to enact intellectually, volitionally, and emotionally, that relationship which is given in the mere fact of its being a creature. When it does so, it is good and happy." – C. S. Lewis  

Pope John Paul II"Take away from love the fullness of self-surrender, the completeness of personal commitment, and what remains will be a total denial and negation of it.” – Pope John Paul II  

Tim Keller
"You give up nothing when you give up everything, because you gain the whole world." – Tim Keller  

Paul McCartney
"Whisper words of wisom, 'Let It be'". – Paul McCartney  

Daily Reflections"When I am trapped in thoughts about what I want and what should be coming to me, I am in a state of fear or anxious anticipation and this is not conducive to emotional sobriety. I must surrender—over and over—to the reality of my dependence on God, for then I find peace, gratitude, and spiritual security.” – AA’s Daily Reflections   

Daily Reflections
"And instead of killing us, surrender ws killing the obsession!” – Sexaholics Anonymous

Twenty-Four Hours a Day
"[Miracles] are always accompanied by a real desire to conquer self and to surrender one’s life to God." – Twenty-Four Hours a Day  

The Promise of a New Day"Letting go is a learned behavior. Like any habit, practice will make it a natural response. Freedom to fully respond to any experience can only be attained when we have sacrificed the outcome to whatever the bigger picture dictates." – The Promise of a New Day  

Night Light"Letting go doesn’t mean releasing our grip on life and falling into the abyss below. Letting go is a gentle process of easing the grip on some facet of our lives: an obsession, a character defect, or negative feelings toward someone.” – Night Light  

Touchstones"Life seems to be a continuous pattern of getting committed to things and having to let go—falling in love and losing the one we love, developing a job skill and having to change careers, caring for our children and letting them go off into the world. This is the rhythm of life, and our spiritual growth teaches us to make peace with it.” – Touchstones  

PTP123"Surrender is the requisite spiritual discipline, the discipline that opens the door to a right relationship with God, which in turn makes a right relationship with neighbor possible. Thus our journey through the Steps and the disciplines is first and foremost a continuing and deepening process of self-surrender."
– PTP123  

PTP4"Surrendering the defect and practicing the virtues is how we can begin to replace our liabilities with the assets we are all capable of developing, for these are innate capacities in us whose full realization we have fallen short of." – PTP4 

Practice These: Surrender - William James
Practice These: Surrender - T. S. Eliot

For more PTP123 passages on surrender, see, among others, pp. 14, 71–73, & 158–161. For PTP4, see among other pages: as letting go, 23, 30, 41, 121, 133, 185, 214, 226, 231, 315, 316, 392, 398, 406; as turning it over, 5, 167, 224, 330, 351; by admission of powerlessness, 12, 16, 185; of anger and resentment, 29, 73, 144, 326; of defects, 11, 16, 33, 39, 40, 62, 121, 192, 245, 257, 331; of demand/dependencies, 115, 117, 439; of pride, 198, 222, 223, 346. See also entries under surrender in As Bill Sees It. For differences between surrender and acceptance, see on this site The Virtue of Acceptance.

Additional Resources

  1. Women Suffer Too,” Marty M.’s story in the Personal Stories section of the Big Book, pp. 200–207
  2. “The Professor and the Paradox,” story in AA’s Experience, Strength & Hope, p. 151
  3. Meditations for 03/09 and 07/17 in AA's Daily Reflections
  4. Meditation for 03/16 and 05/23 in One Day at a Time in Al-Anon
  5. Meditation for 12/15 in Al-Anon's Courage to Change
  6. Meditations for 01/13, 06/26, and 10/23 in NA's Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts
  7. Harry Tiebout: The Collected Writings (the psychiatrist who gave Marty M. the Big Book after therapy failed. He was also Bill W.’s therapist)
  8. Daily meditations for 01/25, 02/20, 08/28, 09/24, and 09/25 in The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings, from C. S. Lewis
  9. The King’s Speech,” 2010 movie with Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter. A monarch lets go of pride and shame and rises to the occasion

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