Prayer in 12 Step Recovery

A relationship with a higher power is an important aspect of the Twelve Step programme after all it is mentioned in three of the Twelve Steps (numbers Five, Seven and Eleven).

For many people, the phrases, “admitted to God,” “humbly asked God,” and, “conscious contact with God” are not intimidating, but yet they balk at the word prayer in Step Eleven (“sought through prayer”). For them, prayer is either a lofty form of communication that is beyond reach or an impersonal dutiful task that has lost all meaning.

The idea that one must speak in a specific style of language or words keeps some people from prayer. For example, the Third Step Prayer in Alcoholics Anonymous, “God, I offer myself to TheeTo build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will”. This is a style of speaking that most people don’t use anymore.

When it comes to prayer, as with most things, it is helpful to keep it simple. The same prayer can be expressed in a manner that is more accessible: I am turning my will and my life over to the care of my higher power. I ask to be free from everything that gets in my way of doing what is right.

There are those who frequently pray but report they don’t find it helpful. This is because they limit themselves to prayers they have memorised and repeated so often that all significance is lost. Some of the Twelve Step meetings begin or end with reciting the Serenity Prayer, but it has lost its power because the meaning of the words are ignored.

When I inquire whether a person has used The Serenity Prayer in a difficult situation I am told, “Yeah, but it didn’t help.” Then I ask, “Did you merely say the words, or did you actually apply the concepts?”

In other words, were the things you cannot change identified, and were the things you can change recognised? Just as with any prayer, the Serenity Prayer is only useful as far as it is applied to life by taking action.

Another obstacle to a meaningful spiritual connection is uncertainty as to whom or what one is praying. Some people believe one must have a complete comprehension of God before one can pray. Fortunately, one need not fully grasp the concept of God to benefit from prayer. Long before the creation of A.A., people struggled with a lack of belief in God and prayer. Hence the prayer, “O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.” It implies one doesn’t need faith in order to begin praying; instead start praying and faith will develop. It is a classic case of, “acting as if.”

One need not even use the word God while praying if it is confusing or distasteful because it is associated with negative experiences. I have even suggested beginning prayer with the phrase, “To whom it may concern.”

Resentment towards God or religion is a barrier to the development of a meaningful spiritual relationship. As with any relationship, being open and honest about hurt and anger is the best way to let go of long-held resentments and move towards reconciliation. Many times I have encouraged people to have it out with God, holding nothing back. In every case the outcome has been positive.

In any significant relationship, spiritual or otherwise, there has to be regular communication and it can’t be only one way: there has to be talking and listening. It wouldn’t make much sense to call one’s sponsor and talk yet not listen for a response. The eleventh Step makes this clear, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God.” Unfortunately, people pray or talk, but don’t bother to meditate or listen.

Prayer is simply reaching out to God, and meditation is merely listening for “knowledge of God’s will” (Step Eleven). How would one know if what came during meditation was actually God’s will or merely stinkin’ thinkin’? One way to assess the appropriateness of an action is to imagine revealing it in a Twelve Step meeting. According to the second Tradition there is a loving God expressed in the group conscience. If one can imagine the members of one’s group endorsing a course of action then it is likely to be in accordance with God’s will. However if one is nervous about disclosing some planned action to other recovering people then that may be an indication such behavior is contrary to the “care of God,” as mentioned in Step Three.

According to Alcoholics Anonymous, prayer works, “if we have the proper attitude and work at it” (p. 86). Fortunately, perfection is not required.


Dr. Mic Hunter is an American psychotherapist based in St. Paul, Minnesota. He specialises in family therapy and previously  worked as an addiction counselor. He is the author of The 12 Steps As Prayer, The 12 Steps & Shame, Back To The Source: The Spiritual Principles Of Jesus and Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims Of Sexual Abuse. This article was also published on the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation website.

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