Willingness and the 6th Step
Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
“If faith without works is dead, willingness without action is fantasy.” ~Anonymous
In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the guidebook written by one of AA’s founders, the chapter on Step 6 begins:
‘This is the step that separates the men from the boys….’ So declares a well-loved clergyman … who goes on to explain that any person capable of enough willingness and honesty to try repeatedly Step Six on all his faults-without any reservations whatever-has indeed come a long way spiritually….”¹
“The step that separates the men from the boys.” No doubt in today’s more gender-focused society he would add, “…and the women from the girls.” Or maybe he would just say that it’s where the rubber meets the road, for no other Step so challenges us when it comes to the sustained effort required to “practice these principles in all our affairs.”
Why this is so might not be immediately apparent when we first encounter Step 6. It certainly wasn’t apparent in the early days of AA, for the “Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous, devotes just one short paragraph to it. In effect it says that willingness is indispensible and that if we’re not completely ready to give up a character defect, then we should ask God to help us become willing.
That doesn’t sound like much. But anyone who has lived the program for any length of time knows-as Bill W. learned during the years between the Big Book and the 12&12-that becoming willing or “entirely ready” often requires substantial persistent effort. God doesn’t do all the work; we must do our part.
Exactly what our part involves varies for each of us depending upon the particular character defect, how attached we are to it, and whether we believe the benefits of practicing it outweigh the costs of giving it up. Some defects seem pretty harmless-at least in comparison with others that are worse. And some seem so much a part of us, or so useful in getting what we think we need in life, that we might not even recognize them as defects until we’re sick and tired of the suffering they cause.
So just what are these character defects that the Step is concerned with?
Some people equate them with the “Seven Deadly Sins,” otherwise known as Pride, Greed, Envy, Lust, Sloth, Anger, and Gluttony. (See the note below on Sin.²) That’s not a bad place to start, for if we look closely at more specific defects we usually find that they are manifestations of one or more of the seven. Self-centeredness, for instance, is connected with pride…and with greed…and with each of the other 5 as well.
Other sources have compiled extensive lists of character defects, such as the one linked in the notes below.³ Studying such lists and discussing them with your sponsor and others can be helpful, but in working Step 6 you will develop your own list that applies specifically to you. And as you continue working the Step over the years, that list will probably grow-though as we progress in recovery we usually get free of most of the worst defects.
All of the character defects in these lists describe habitual attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors that cause unnecessary conflict with other people, within ourselves, and with the God of our understanding. Often they have evolved from survival strategies that we learned in childhood. They may have served a purpose at one time, but later in life they interfere with developing healthy relationships and with learning more effective strategies for dealing with life’s challenges. Yet we cling to them like a starving child clings to a tiny crust of bread, fearing to let go and take the bowl full of strange food he’s not sure of. Giving them up is an act of faith.
Becoming entirely ready, then, is often achieved as the consequence of a painful struggle with each defect similar to the struggle that brought us to the program in the first place. Most of us are not willing to give up the worst of them until we can no longer stand the pain they cause and have exhausted our efforts to manage them. Thus the process of recovery requires persistent effort to identify patterns of thinking and behavior that no longer work for us.
We must be willing to continue the process of thorough self-examination that we started in Step 4, and to continue discussing our findings with trusted others as we learned in Step 5. We must be willing to reconsider all of our habitual thoughts and behaviors in light of the character defects that we are beginning to recognize: are we really being nice, or are we being passively aggressive? We must be willing to acknowledge the harmful consequences of some behaviors and attitudes that we’ve learned to rely on, such as acting out anger to get our way. And we must be willing to keep an open mind to learning new and better ways of doing things, and to letting others show us how.
How do we know that we’re willing?
By doing it.
* * * * *
¹Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1952)
²It may be helpful to note that the word “sin” can be very confusing and sometimes a bit frightening—especially to folks who think “sin” means a terrible offense against God for which He will punish you with eternal hellfire and damnation. Whew! Pretty scary stuff! And also utterly contrary to Jesus’s depiction of a forgiving God who is like a loving Father. What loving father would condemn His children to eternal torture because they made a mistake?
The English word “sin” in this context connotes guilt of some moral transgression-”doing something wrong.” The New Testament Greek word usually translated as “sin” in English is hamartia (ἁμαρτία). It is derived from hamartanein (ἁμαρτάνειν), an archery term that means “to miss the mark.”
Aristotle defined the moral meaning of hamartia as an offense committed by mistake or ignorance. Thus, “sinning” is correctly understood as “falling short of our aim due to mistake or ignorance.” And rather than being punished for our mistakes by a wrathful, perfectionistic God, our loving Father simply allows us the freedom to learn by suffering the consequences of our own errors.
³For example, see the list of character defects compiled by lydiacharlotte here.
What are the character defects identified in my 4th and 5th Steps?
Are there other character defects that I should be aware of?
Do I understand how each of these defects hurts me and hurts others?
Am I willing to give up all of these defects?
If not, then which ones am I unwilling to give up and why?
What would it take for me to become willing to give them up?
What am I doing to learn more effective and loving ways of behaving?
Do I understand that becoming “entirely ready” is a process that may take quite some time and will require persistent effort on my part?
Do I understand that I may need to apply all 12 Steps to each of my most stubborn defects?
Is there anyone else who can become ready for me?
Links to more information about Willingness and the 6th Step:
From 12step.org on Step 6
A brief discussion of the Seven Deadly Sins (and a list of their opposite virtues) appears at whitestonejournal.com.
Wikipedia’s article discussing the meaning of hamartia
“Principle Six—Willingness,” from the Narcotics Anonymous Way of Life website
At bellaonline.com, “Step Six and the Principle of Willingness”
Todd W, Bill P & Sara S, Drop the Rock: Removing Character Defects—Steps 6 & 7
A helpful guide to the lifelong process of coming to grips with our character defects after getting sober.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions The official Alcoholics Anonymous supplement to the “Big Book” explaining each of the Steps—and the Traditions—in greater detail.
Hubal and Hubal, Living with Yourself: A Workbook for Steps 4-7 The second of Hubal & Hubal’s study guides to the Steps, this volume takes readers from the 4th Step through the 7th.
The Twelve Steps, A Spiritual Journey: A Working Guide for Healing Damaged Emotions
A guide and workbook for all 12 Steps, based on Biblical teachings. Written especially for Christians seeking to understand the principles of the Steps in relation to their religious beliefs and practices.