The Third Step in Alcoholics Anonymous: A Faith That Works

Step 3 of AA

The Third Step in AA is such a vital step in the process of starting to recover and just going through the 12 steps in general.

“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

Now that we have acknowledged the fact that we have a problem with alcohol and other addictive behaviors, it is entirely up to us to do something about it. If we are willing to change, that is.

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The Third Step in AA, What’s The Point?

Step 3 of AA

We realized that we are totally powerless and have no control over substances and these destructive behaviors in Step One.

After gaining that clarity and peace of mind, we went on a search to discover a God of our understanding or in other words, a Higher Power in Step Two.

These two steps are important to complete before moving on to step three in AA. Why? Before you decide that you are going to live by the principles of a higher power (and Alcoholics Anonymous of course) you must understand that you have no power or control over that first drink or your disease.

You also should have at least somewhat of a grasp on the fact that we cannot face these demons of alcoholism and addiction on our own. We need something much bigger and powerful than us to help us overcome these things that we battle on a daily basis.

AA as a Spiritually-Based Program of Recovery

As a spiritual program, one of the most important steps of the 12-step program is step 3 AA. Alcoholics Anonymous, since its inception in the 1930s, has saved countless seemingly helpless alcoholics to achieve sobriety and maintain sobriety for the rest of their lives.

Step 3 AA reads, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Being a non-religious program, it is important to understand that ‘as we understood him’ means that it can be any conception of a higher power a person can imagine. Whether they are praying to the Christian God, Allah, Buddha, or something that is usually imagined as innate such as the nature of the universe, finding a power greater than oneself is an important part of the AA program.

Step 3 of AA is an important turning point in which an alcoholic can get out of the proverbial driver’s seat, and allows a benevolent power greater than the person to take the wheel and steer their decisions and actions.

As a person who struggled with addiction and alcoholism, I have taken the Third Step of AA many times. As I progressed through the steps, I found that the decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understood God was a huge turning point in my life. Beginning to make decisions and take actions that I believed were in line with my Higher Power’s will made an immense difference in my attitude and mindset and has allowed me to maintain a life in recovery. Hopefully, my experience in the rooms and working the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous will help anyone reading to get a better understanding of ‘Step 3 AA.’

What is Step Three of AA?

Step 3 AA

We already know that Step 3 of AA states; “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

Also included in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is a recommended prayer that can be applied for Step 3 of AA, also known as the ‘Third Step Prayer.’ As quoted on the National Library of Medicine’s website,

“God, I offer myself to Thee-to 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. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy Will always!”

I have said this prayer more times than I can count.

When I am asked, “What is step three of AA?” I explain the importance of aligning my will, my decisions, with that of what I believe to be an omnipotent benevolent power would want. I stop lying, cheating and doing things that hurt other people. I begin to practice temperance, patience, and other traits that I believe make me a better human being in the eyes of my Higher Power, even if my Higher Power isn’t necessarily a deity.

I explain how when I began to work the steps all those years ago, the Higher Power I used when working the steps was the Universe itself, or the natural order of things. It wasn’t until much later that I began to believe in a Higher Power that resembles the Abrahamic God of my upbringing. It doesn’t have to be for you and is a personal decision.

It is of the utmost importance to reiterate the fact that Alcoholics Anonymous is a non-religious program. There is an entire chapter in the AA Big Book titled ‘We Agnostics’ that goes into great detail about finding a Higher Power as an agnostic. Most people enter the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous desperate, and it is with that desperation that most former atheists find the motivation to start believing in a Power greater than themselves.

Why Do I Work the Third Step?

I, as an individual who deals with alcoholism, wake up every day alcoholically and my thoughts are organically selfish, dishonest, and self-seeking. I want to run my own show because “I know best.” However, in order to maintain my sobriety, I have to remember that my best decision-making brought me down a dark and lonely path full of pain and destruction.

I find it nearly impossible to be at peace in my sobriety without turning my life over to a higher power. For these reasons, I make the choice daily to abandon ‘Self’ and turn my will over to a God of my understanding by saying the Third Step Prayer as written above. It isn’t only because I like the words themselves, or find them calming, both of which are true.

It is mainly about the omittance of Self for acceptance of God’s will. This allows those of us who struggle with alcoholism and addiction to see situations, people, and ourselves in a more honest way. Once we can look at life with open eyes, we can start to do things differently. However, turning our will over to a God of our own understanding is not a process that miraculously cures us overnight. We all fall short from time to time and that’s okay! The book actually tells us that we will sometimes fall short.

The main component to carrying out God’s will for us is willingness. In the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the book puts emphasis on willingness in our recovery journey. In the chapter for Step Three, there is an excerpt that says:

“Practicing Step 3 is like the opening of a door which to all appearances is still closed and locked. All we need is a key and the decision to swing the door open. There is only one key and it is called willingness. Once unlocked by willingness, the door opens almost of itself and looking through it, we shall see a pathway beside which is an inscription. It reads: “This is the way to a faith that works.”

The Third Step in AA is mainly calling for action and being more proactive in making positive decisions. It requires that we become more conscious of the things we say and do every day, also known as; our will, and our lives.

Having a Higher Power can be helpful in maintaining consciousness of how we are as human beings and it also challenges us to become better people.

AA as a Personal Experience

For as long as I can remember, I have always been very self-absorbed and was rarely genuine towards myself or anyone else. Practicing turning my will over to a God of my understanding every day has helped me get a better grasp on what it is like to be of service to other people and not so focused on my personal gains.

Being human, more often than not, I end up taking my will back despite my best intentions. I no longer see this as a mistake though. I see it as a blessing because it is an opportunity to learn and grow in my journey of recovery.

Self-will can often resurface, but as soon as I acknowledge my shortcomings, and pick up that ‘key of willingness’ once again, my Higher Power always sets me back on track.

Abandoning the Self is a constant battle. This is not an overnight cure-all for alcoholism. I am constantly going to want to live a life of my own will until I realize that my will has failed me. However, I find that it always gets easier when I learn to forgive myself and accept that I make mistakes and as humans, no one is perfect.

How can I Define a Higher Power Beyond God?

Third step AA, higher power concept

For many people, the question ‘how to define a Higher Power beyond God’ becomes a difficult hurdle when working on Step 3 of AA. When determining how to define a Higher Power beyond God, reading Chapter Four of the Big Book can provide answers. In the chapter ‘We Agnostics’ it is made abundantly clear that a spiritual awakening is necessary to relieve a person of their alcoholism, and that the 12 steps are a guide to invoking a spiritual awakening.

People should try to understand the difference between religion and spirituality when working on the 12 steps. According to another article on the NIH website, “Religion is an organized system of beliefs, practices, rituals, and symbols designed a) to facilitate closeness to the sacred or transcendent (God, higher power, or ultimate truth/reality) and b) to foster an understanding of one’s relationship and responsibility to others in living together in a community.

Spirituality is the personal quest for understanding answers to ultimate questions about life, essential meaning, and our relationship to the sacred or transcendent, which may (or may not) lead to or arise from the development of religious rituals and the formation of community.”

Once the difference between spirituality and religion is understood, the answers to the question ‘how to define a Higher Power beyond God’ become easier to approach. Even the most scientifically minded individuals can find ways to enhance their spirituality. Using the laws of nature, the ocean, the universe, or the group of alcoholics with which they attend meetings as their Higher Power, many of us are able to complete the Third Step without issue.

For those who have had bad experiences with religion, praying can be a difficult task at first and may feel awkward. But with a bit of willingness, anyone can be well on their way to completing Step 3 AA.

The Importance of Turning Over the Reins

Once a person begins to understand that their best decision-making is what got them to this point of desperation, the importance of turning over the reins becomes abundantly clear. Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness are three indispensable principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Desperation induced by the torment of alcoholism provided all the motivation I needed to be completely willing to recognize the importance of turning over the reins to someone, or something greater than myself.

Although it may seem a bit counter-intuitive, the more beat up someone is from their alcoholism, the better off they may be when it comes to finding the willingness to go to any length to recover. Just about every decision made prior to entering the program for most people revolved around drinking. That is why the importance of turning over the reins becomes paramount. And by working Step 3 of AA successfully, a person can turn those reins over once and for all.

Seeking Knowledge with AA Stepwork

Step 3 AA concept shown

An immensely important part of the Alcoholics Anonymous program is seeking knowledge with stepwork. As I stated earlier, a spiritual experience is what the steps are intended to bring about, a spiritual experience that is profound enough to cause a psychic change and alleviate an alcoholic person’s need to abuse alcohol.

There are two types of spiritual experience described in the Big Book of AA. One type is that of an immediate experience or a shining light moment in which the person suddenly feels the change within themselves. The other experience described in the book is a gradual or educational experience. It is mainly because of this educational, or gradual experience that seeking knowledge with stepwork becomes so important.

When completing Step 3 AA, a person seeking knowledge with stepwork is urged to put aside their selfish decision making, actions, and thinking, in order to align these aspects with that of a Higher Power’s assumed way of thinking, acting, and ways it makes decisions.

Having a sponsor, who in turn had a sponsor of his own, and so on and so forth, made all the difference in the world when it came to seeking knowledge with stepwork. I could rely on this man to supply me with invaluable information about the steps, the world, alcoholism, and even some information about myself that I had failed to recognize alone. I recommend having a sponsor when working the steps as it creates a dynamic in which seeking knowledge with stepwork truly pays off.

Questions to Ask During Step Three Work

Asking questions is an important part of learning and understanding a new subject. It is no different when it comes to working the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. As far as step 3 AA, there are many questions to ask during step three work.

According to a post on the e-AA discussion forums website, there are many study questions pulled out of chapters three and four of the Big Book that can be used as a study guide when working on Step 3 of AA. These questions range from opinion-based such as “Read the Third Step Prayer. Is it simple, or complicated?” Also included are questions in which the answer is clearly written out in the book, such as, “What are the conclusions, or pertinent ideas?”

Any and all questions you may have about step 3 AA, or Alcoholics Anonymous in general, will be perfect conversation starters for you and your sponsor to ponder together. No matter how mundane or silly you may believe your questions may be, all of them will be productive in helping you to achieve the psychic change necessary to defeat your alcoholism.

Other Components of AA Program Work

There are many other components of the AA program work that focus on the three main spiritual principles of AA: honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. Dr. Bob, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous along with Bill W. narrowed the steps down to a prescription of 3 things: trust God, clean house, and help others.

Through working on the steps multiple times, I have realized just how accurate Dr. Bob was in his assessment of the 12 steps. As simple as the program is, it amazes me to recall just how resistant I was to working them. If you are struggling to find the motivation you once had, when it was easy to recall just how bad active alcoholism was, remember that short prescription Dr. Bob wrote and keep it simple!

The Spiritual Principles of Step 3

Every step has spiritual principles behind it, and the Third Step of AA is no different from the other 11 steps. The spiritual principles of Step 3 are faith, trust, willingness, surrender, and spiritual commitment.

It takes faith to turn your will and your life over to the care of a Higher Power. Just as in Step 2 AA, faith is an important part of Step 3 AA. By turning over your will and life to the care of a Higher Power, and living in such a manner, you will not be able to act out on your compulsive behaviors as they are not in line with the will of a greater good, or Higher Power.

Willingness is another one of the spiritual principles of Step 3 AA. Having the willingness to change is an important aspect of working the twelve steps, especially step 3 AA. Becoming willing to make that decision to turn one’s life over to the care of God is an incredibly important step towards continued sobriety.

Next on our list of spiritual principles for Step 3 of AA is surrender. Many alcoholics have a hard time admitting their powerlessness in step one, and without admitting that powerlessness it doesn’t make sense to turn our will and life over to the care of a Higher Power. If I can do it on my own, why would I need to turn everything over to some outside entity? Practicing the spiritual principle of surrender will continue to enhance a person’s life, as it did for me.

Last on our list of spiritual principles regarding the Third Step is a spiritual commitment. Having a spiritual commitment to trust that if you turn your will and your life over to the care of God as you understand God will not only keep you sober but will also make your life infinitely more meaningful and fulfilled.

Each and every step has a set of spiritual principles that are to be practiced and worked on while working the twelve steps. As I worked on the spiritual principles my life changed drastically for the better. I can only speak with my experience as a guiding force when I say, please practice all of these spiritual principles, and see the miracles begin to materialize in your life. Getting sober and staying sober is only the beginning of the gifts you will receive in doing so.

Can I Work Step Three on my Own?

Step 3 of AA group work

The question is constantly asked, ‘Can I work Step Three on my own?’ To be honest there is some slight discord when it comes to this question.

When it comes to working the steps in general, it is recommended that they be worked with a sponsor who has already worked the steps themselves with a sponsor of their own. The book provides specific guidelines that can be used to work the steps, however, without a sponsor, certain aspects can either be misunderstood or not worked thoroughly enough to be effective. Having a sponsor can be invaluable in pointing out areas where someone is not disclosing everything they should be, or not being thorough or honest.

If the question is ‘can I work step three on my own?’ and you have a sponsor but simply want to do the third step prayer on your own, I think it’s possible, but not ideal. Praying with a sponsor, or another person with whom you have complete trust, often allows your prayer to be more meaningful or more powerful.

The important part of working on the Third Step is that you do it honestly and meaningfully. Also, for me, the Third Step is something I do on a daily basis or even on an hourly basis. Every important decision I make, I ask myself, ‘is this in line with my Higher Power’s will?’ I did my third step prayer with a sponsor, and doing so was a profound moment in my recovery. So, in my opinion, working on the Third Step alone should only take place if you do not have the option of working it with a sponsor.

Working the Steps in Addiction Treatment

I, and many others who were in the exact same predicament of nearly losing our lives, families, and sanity to the affliction of alcoholism, got a head start on recovery by working the steps in addiction treatment. Most addiction treatment centers offer AA meetings in the facility or take their clients to outside meetings that are within close proximity to the treatment center itself.

AA has a wonderful branch called H&I which stands for hospitals and institutions. Volunteers from the program go into treatment centers, hospitals, and even prisons and jails in order to host a meeting for those who cannot get out to a meeting themselves. It is through these meetings that I met my first sponsor with whom I began working the steps in addiction treatment with.

A Higher Powered Business

Suppose you are having issues with connecting to a Higher Power. What should you do?

Ask some fellow members of AA or Alcoholics Anonymous that you are comfortable with, what their higher power is like for them.

What really helped me early on in my sobriety was not only trusting my Higher Power but trusting people that know how to stay sober and have some substantial amount of clean time under their belts.

Even some of the most minuscule decisions that I thought about making, I would confide in an old-timer or a trusted friend in Alcoholics Anonymous and ask them simply, “what should I do about this situation?”

Understanding that we no longer have the luxury of running the show anymore, the fellowship can be one of the most beneficial tools when it comes to turning your will over to something bigger than you.

In a perfect world, we could all do what we wanted with no consequences and remain blissful and ignorant for a lifetime. The reality is that when we make decisions for ourselves, we run our lives into the ground. Therefore, we have to accept this dependence upon a Higher Power by working the third step with a sponsor and saying the Third Step prayer upon awakening every day. When we do this we find that we will eventually feel comfortable and secure in our lives. That is the ultimate goal after all.

Residential Treatment and Stepwork

Many residential treatment programs last up to 90 days which is ample time to get through steps one, two, and three. Utilizing the H&I panels that come into the program, anyone can find a sponsor to start working the steps with.

Residential treatment and working step 3 can happen at the same time as long as the program allows you to meet with your sponsor and start doing the work. As long as you have worked steps one and two, working step 3 AA in residential treatment should not be an issue.

In concluding, I just want to reiterate the importance the steps have had in my life. This is especially true for Step Three. I have had continued sobriety for years now, and I strongly believe that if I continue to do the things I learned in the program of AA, I will not relapse.

This can be true for anyone willing to give the program a thorough and honest shot. I hope this has clarified some of the questions you may have had surrounding the Third Step. Remember the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking, it works if you work it, and all you need is honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness.

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