by Dale and Juanita Ryan
Imagine you are transferring the ownership of your life to God in the same way you would transfer ownership of a business. One of the first things you would do in negotiating to sell a business would be to take an inventory to discover the damaged or out-of-date goods that are no longer salable. In Step Four we call it a “moral” inventory because we compile a list of traits and behaviors that have transgressed our highest, or moral, values. We also inventory our “good” traits and the behaviors that represent them. In our life’s moral inventory the defects or dysfunctional behaviors might include some that once worked; some dysfunctional behaviors may have saved our lives as children, but they are now out-of-date, self-defeating, and cause us a great deal of trouble when we use them as adults.
–Keith Miller, A Hunger for Healing
Step Four is our vigorous and painstaking effort to discover what these liabilities in each of us have been, and are. We want to find exactly how, when and where our natural desires have warped us. We wish to look squarely at the unhappiness this has caused others and ourselves. By discovering what our emotional deformities are, we can move toward their correction. Without a willing and persistent effort to do this, there can be little sobriety or contentment for us.
–Anonymous, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
In the first three Steps we established the foundations for a closer relationship with God. We gave up trying to be God ourselves, we acknowledged God’s power, and we made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to God’s care. In the next few Steps, we will build on this foundation as we begin to develop a new relationship with ourselves. We will look with honesty and courage at ourselves and at our behaviors. In Twelve Step programs this is called making an inventory:
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
The process of looking closely at ourselves in Step Four will be challenging. It is like opening the door to a messy closet. Our first response may be to feel overwhelmed or depressed by the mess. Sorting and organizing everything in this closet may seem like an impossible task. As we start to sort through the mess we may have strong emotional reactions to some of the discoveries we make. We may become sad, depressed, or angry. We may feel deep shame and guilt. It will be important to remember that no matter what we find in the process, our problems do not make us unworthy or unloved by God.
The inventory process will lead us to a more honest and realistic assessment of who we are. This deeper self-awareness will open the door to new possibilities, new choices, and new freedom in our lives.
Step Four: A Closer Look
Made a Searching
“Searching” implies that we are looking for something that may be hidden or that may be difficult to identify. Therefore, we will need to be diligent and thorough in our search. For many of us, making an inventory will be a new experience. Many of us have worked hard to avoid this kind of disciplined self-searching. We will need to recognize our tendencies to avoid painful truths and to blame others for our problems. A wholehearted effort to look honestly at ourselves will be necessary if we are to be successful in Step Four.
Step Four does not suggest that we are responsible for everything that happens or that we are the sole source of all our problems. We may have been harmed in many ways. Although this is an important factor that we need to acknowledge, the purpose of Step Four is to identify the things for which we are responsible. We cannot fix anyone else or be responsible for the poor choices that other people make. What we are able to do is to take an honest look at our own behavior.
Working Step Four requires that we look honestly and compassionately at ourselves. Fortunately, God is prepared to help us do this. A good start might be to adopt as our own the prayer of the psalmist:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23, 24)
Calling this self-examination “fearless” doesn’t mean that we won’t be afraid. That’s too much to expect of anyone. It’s only natural to experience some fear. We will need to ask God to give us the courage that will make it possible for us to work on this Step in spite of our fears. When we are willing to proceed in spite of our fears, the reward will be worth the effort. It may help to remember that, although we will experience fear, it is not God’s intention that fear control our lives. Fear is often connected with the expectation of punishment, and God’s intentions are not to punish us but to help us become free of our fears as we grow in love:
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. (1 John 4:18)
Moral Inventory of Ourselves
A moral inventory is not a new idea. The Old Testament assumes that it will be a part of the life of God’s people: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the LORD” (Lamentations 3:40). The early Christian church practiced this spiritual discipline in the context of community worship. The Apostle Paul said, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). The moral inventory we take in Step Four is not intended to cause despair. It is an opportunity to look at ourselves honestly and thereby prepare ourselves to make positive changes. Although there will be discomfort in this process, the end result will be lives marked by greater freedom and grace.