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The Role of Faith in Recovery

By John Newport Ph.D.

Counselor Magazine

Faith in a beneficent higher power, a power greater than all of us, is a basic cornerstone of all Twelve Step recovery programs. Indeed, faith and its application is an explicit theme running throughout the Twelve Steps of AA, NA, and other programs.

Specifically, Step Two states that we “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Step Three blends the qualities of faith and surrender by stating that we have “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” Steps Five, Six, and Seven call for an active application of faith in our quest for recovery through stating that we admitted to God and ourselves the exact nature of our shortcomings, were ready to have our higher power remove our defects of character, and humbly prevailed upon that power to guide us in overcoming our shortcomings. Steps Eight and Nine deal with making amends to people we have wronged, an undertaking that would be impossible for most of us without the compassionate guidance of a beneficent higher power. Steps Eleven and Twelve powerfully emphasize the need to actively apply our faith, as in the process of following the Steps we seek to deepen our contact with God as we understand him through prayer and meditation. Finally, having experienced a spiritual awakening through the application of these steps, we commit to actively reaching out to carry this message to other suffering alcoholics and addicts (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2002).

Defining Faith

In a spiritual context, faith often involves accepting claims about the nature of the universe or the meaning of life in the absence of objective supporting evidence. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary states that faith entails accepting something as true without proof or evidence that it is true, adding that active faith involves continuing to believe in, trust, or support someone or something when it is difficult to do so (Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary, 2013).

Indeed, when an alcoholic or addict finally admits that their life has become unmanageable, he or she will hopefully choose the path of recovery out of sheer faith that following that path will enable him- or herself to gain freedom from the unrelenting grip of addiction that has come to dominate their life. Through actively seeking sustained sobriety through attending meetings, working with a sponsor, and otherwise working the program, the newly recovering alcoholic or addict is challenged to “keep the faith” despite the inevitable twists and turns that often make it exceedingly difficult to stay on track.

One of my own favorite definitions is from an unknown source that defines faith as a strong and steadfast belief in things as yet unseen. Consider the case of Nadine, a middle-aged woman in recovery who has a burning desire to help others as a psychotherapist. Despite the financial hardship entailed, she enrolls in a graduate program in counseling with the goal of ultimately becoming a licensed therapist and applying the skills she has acquired in helping others improve their lives. Clearly when she embarks on this journey there are no guarantees that she will successfully complete her graduate studies and the subsequent steps leading to licensure. Yet her burning desire to achieve her goal translates into a strong faith that she will complete this process. That faith, in turn, buoys her along the way, even at those times when she encounters extremely trying circumstances that threaten to derail her from her chosen path.

Applying Our Faith

Recently I attended a church service with my wife in which the priest gave a talk on applying our faith in our daily life. The point that really resonated with me was his statement that we often fail to use the faith that we have. In essence he proclaimed: “You wouldn’t be in this room if you didn’t have faith. Lack of faith is not the problem. The problem with many of us, however, is that we often fail to use our faith when we are confronted with what appears to be an irresolvable problem in our lives” (Kennedy, 2013).

Driving home, I reflected on how I often will pray to my higher power to strengthen my faith in order to deal with a particularly stressful situation, only to sabotage my good intentions by failing to roll up my sleeves and plunge into doing the legwork.

Let’s employ a concrete example to illustrate the importance of focusing on our faith and applying it full force to tackle the challenges in our lives. Take the case of Bill, a forty-five-year-old recovering alcoholic who smokes a pack and a half a day and swears that he really wants to quit. Yet when his wife asks him why he isn’t doing anything to kick the habit, he laments that he has tried to quit again and again, to no avail. “It’s no use,” he exclaims, “I just can’t seem to ever get that monkey off my back.”

Evidently our friend Bill has little or no faith in his ability to quit smoking for good—despite well-documented evidence that the average smoker attempts to quit between five and eight times before he or she finally kicks the habit. The first thing he needs to do is to instill in himself a grain of faith that he does indeed have the wherewithal to free himself from nicotine. He might, for example, begin to research the problem by attending some Nicotine Anonymous meetings and listening to testimony of former smokers who have successfully kicked the habit. Or he might call the free-of-charge stop smoking quit line sponsored by his state health department, and discuss his predicament with a trained counselor who has guided many former smokers in weaning themselves from tobacco. Readers can do a Google search to access the stop smoking quit line serving their state.

Armed with evidence that challenges his assumption that he is doomed to stay hooked on tobacco, Bill now has some semblance of faith in his ability to join the ranks of former smokers. Now he needs to bring muscle to that faith by rolling up his sleeves and tackling the problem head on. He can visit his doctor to become informed as to pharmaceutical agents that might help him through nicotine withdrawal, and obtain assistance in formulating a plan to quit. He then needs to use his faith and do the legwork, perhaps by enrolling in a group smoking cessation program sponsored by the American Cancer Society or the American Lung Association, becoming actively involved in Nicotine Anonymous, or linking up with a counselor with the stop smoking quit line. Throughout the process he can choose to actively keep his faith alive through turning to his higher power and by visualizing himself enjoying life as a successful non-smoker.


Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (2002). Twelve steps and twelve traditions. New York, NY: Author.

Kennedy, P. (2013). Using our Faith. A homily delivered at St. Mark’s Catholic Church, Oro Valley, AZ.

Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary. (2013). Faith. Retrieved from http://www.learnersdictionary.com/definition/faith

- See more at: http://www.counselormagazine.com/2014/Jan-Feb/Wellness_-_Jan/Feb_2014/#sthash.wKMwwZv5.dpuf

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