Higher Power

Some of us spend [or waste] a lot of time asking the question: “What is a Higher Power?” Still others provide nonsense definitions and characteristics of “their” “higher power.” Bill Wilson vacillated between “God” and the unusual “Higher Power” he talked about so frequently after Dr. Bob was dead. Compare these inconsistent and conflicting statements by Bill:

    You can, if you wish, make A.A. itself your ‘higher power. 1

    Refusing to place God first, we had deprived ourselves of His help. But now the words “Of myself I am nothing, the Father doeth the works” began to carry bright promise and meaning.”2

    The second statement was first propounded by Dr. Bob in his last major talk in 1948. He said:

    I’m talking about the attitude of each and every one of us toward our Heavenly Father. Christ said, “Of myself, I am nothing—My strength cometh from my Father in heaven.”3 If He had to say that, how about you and me?”4

When Dr. Bob talked about his “Heavenly Father,” he was not talking about AA or a higher power. He was using the expression by which Jesus Christ referred to God, His Father. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Not ever one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”5 In that same Sermon on the Mount, Jesus several times spoke of “your Father which is in heaven;”6 called for prayer to “Our Father which art in heaven,”7 and told the assembly about “your heavenly father.”8

Both Bill W. and Dr. Bob were Christians at the time A.A. was founded. Both had studied the Bible. Both said that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount contained the underlying spiritual philosophy of A.A.9 And neither was speaking about his “Heavenly Father” with even the slightest thought of some higher power.

Sometimes, we hear this strange “higher power” described as: “Something.”10 Sometimes, we hear that it is: “Somebody.”11 Two authors recently claimed of A.A.: “. . . they can reclaim “God” by calling that “higher power” anything they want, as long as they are ready to admit that they cannot control everything in life.”12 An A.A. General Service Conference-approved pamphlet for newcomers states: “However, everyone defines this power as he or she wishes. Many people call it God, others think it is the A.A. group, still others don’t believe in it at all.”13 On other occasions, we are told in meetings or our literature that: “It” is a light bulb,14 a radiator,15 a chair,16 the Big Dipper,17 a rock, 18 Ralph,19“ and even a tree.20

Reverend John Baker described how Celebrate Recovery came to be and stated the following:

As we progress through the program we discover our personal, loving and forgiving Higher Power—Jesus Christ, the one and only true Higher Power.21

However, at my AA meetings I was mocked when I talked about my Higher Power—the only true Higher Power, Jesus Christ. And at church I couldn’t find a place where individuals would openly relate to my struggle with alcoholism.22

In this first part, you have the problem. A.A.’s 1939 compromise with atheists and agnostics, has opened the door to every possible conception of a “higher power.” For some it’s the A.A. Group. For some it’s a chair. For some, it’s Something or Somebody. For some it’s Jesus Christ. For some it’s just nothing at all. And, in the next part, we’ll explore why a “higher power” has any place at all in the vocabulary of a practicing Christian in a recovery fellowship. We’ll ask: What happened to God, not “a” god, but God—just as Dr. Bob put it to A.A. newcomers—God that Bob called his “Heavenly Father.”

1 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1952), 27.

2 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, 75.

3 The reader may wish to check out these verses relative to the first part of the Dr. Bob quote:

John 5:19 (KJV):
Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.

John 5:30 (KJV):

I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.

The reader may also wish to check out these verses relative to the second part of the Dr. Bob quote:

John 3:27 (KJV):

John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.
John 3:35 (KJV):
The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand.
John 5:27 (KJV):
And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.
John 13:3 (KJV):
Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God;
John 17:7 (KJV):
Now they have known that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee.

4 The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches Their Last Major Talks (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1972, 1975), 19.

5 Matthew 7:21.

6 Matthew 5:45, 48; 7:11.

7 Matthew 6:9.

8 Matthew 6:26, 32.

9 See the full discussion in Dick B. and Ken B., The Dick B. Christian Recovery Guide, 3rd ed., 2010

10 Historian Ernest Kurtz substituted “Something saves” for the expression “Jesus saves” in his book Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1979), 50.

11 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, 39.

12 Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Modern Wisdom From Classic Stories (NY: Bantam Books, 1992), 108-09.

13 A Newcomer asks . . . (NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1980), Pamphlet P-24.

14 Clarence Snyder described this answer in his famous pamphlet, My Higher Power: The Light Bulb.

15 This definition appeared in a Founders Day article in the Akron Beacon Journal.

16 In a telephone conversation with me about what a “higher power” could be, Bill Wilson’s secretary Nell Wing said that a higher power could be a “chair.”

17 At my regular Wednesday night A.A. meeting in Marin County, a friend frequently said his higher power was the “Big Dipper.”

18 When I was conducting a Step Study meeting at a Marin County treatment center, one patient insisted to me that a “higher power” could be a “rock.”:

19 Frequently, at a Friday Night Beginners Meeting in Marin County, one member said his “higher power” was “Ralph.”

20 One man whom I later sponsored told me at a Wednesday Night meeting in Marin County that he had learned at his treatment center that a higher power could be a “tree.”

21 Celebrate Recovery Bible, NIV (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), viii.

22 Celebrate Recovery Bible, NIV, ix.