by Dale and Juanita Ryan
Like all the remaining Steps, Step Three calls for affirmative action, for it is only by action that we can cut away the self-will which has always blocked the entry of God–or, if you like, a Higher Power–into our lives. Faith, to be sure, is necessary, but faith alone can avail nothing. We can have faith, yet keep God out of our lives. Therefore our problem now becomes just how and by what specific means shall we be able to let Him in? Step Three represents our first attempt to do this. In fact, the effectiveness of the whole A.A. program will rest upon how well and earnestly we have tried to come to “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
-Anonymous, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
Billy Graham tells a story that beautifully illustrates how faith necessarily entails trust, which is needed as we move beyond the belief of Step Two into the commitment of Step Three. To paraphrase the story: A brave man pushes a wheelbarrow back and forth along a tightrope suspended high above Niagara Falls. The crowd watches in astonishment as the agile acrobat continues to push the wheelbarrow back and forth over the deadly, roaring falls. Then the man places a 200-pound sack of dirt in the wheelbarrow and boldly makes his way across the falls, pushing the heavy load through the misty air. Making his way back, the tightrope walker points to a man in the crowd and asks, “Do you believe I can push a man in the wheelbarrow across the falls?” The excited onlooker says, “Yes, of course.” The acrobat points directly at the man and says, “Get in!” Step Three is about getting into the wheelbarrow.
-Martin M. Davis, The Gospel and the Twelve Steps
The Twelve Steps begin with an admission that we cannot manage life on our own. In Step Two we added to this foundation a belief that God could do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. These first two Steps have prepared us to make an important decision. The first three Steps have often been summarized in three simple statements: “I can’t. God can. I think I’ll let him.” Step Three encourages us to make a decision to turn our lives over to God’s care:
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over
to the care of God as we understood Him.
Most of us know intellectually that God can care for us a lot better than we can care for ourselves. But we may be afraid to trust God to care for us. We may have trusted other people who turned out to be untrustworthy. As a result, we might not expect any caregiver–even God–to be kind or helpful. Even though we may know that God is grace-full and loving, we may experience fear when we start to make the decision suggested by Step Three.
Making a decision is all that is required of us in Step Three. It is similar to planning a vacation. First we decide to go on a vacation, then we start making plans for the vacation, and then we actually take the vacation. The decision is a very important part of the process–but it is not the whole process. In Step Three we are only making a decision. We don’t need to trust God completely and totally for the rest of our lives in order to do Step Three. We start by making a decision to turn our wills and lives over to God’s care today. It is a decision we will need to make one day at a time for the rest of our lives. Each day that we choose to entrust our lives to God’s care, our trust in God’s wisdom and love will grow.
Step Three: A Closer Look
Made a Decision
This Step invites us to make a decision. The decision we make is to turn our life and our will over to God’s care. This decision will begin a lifelong process of change that can lead to peace and serenity. We do not need to understand the entire process in order to begin. It is enough to know that we cannot do it on our own. The actual process of “turning it over” will come later. It is clear in Scripture that God is aware of the choices we face and that he wants us to make good choices:
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. (Deuteronomy 30:19, 20)
The word surrender is often used to describe the “turn” of Step Three. It is a decision to give up on our own will and to surrender our will to God. The word surrender can be a confusing word, because it sounds like a sign of weakness or failure–of “giving up” or “losing.” Many people who start working on Step Three are afraid that if they turn their lives over to God, they will have no life left–that they will lose everything. But just the opposite is true. What has led to all of the losses in our lives is our refusal to surrender control to God. What will lead to serenity and peace is our willingness to surrender to God. Jesus captured the heart of Step Three when he said:
“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)
We have worked very hard to “find” our lives–to control our lives and to be in charge of everything we do. But the result has been loss. Jesus says that if we “lose our lives”–if we surrender our lives and turn over our lives to God–then we will find our lives for the first time.
Our Will and Our Lives
What is it that we decide to turn over to God? Our broken wills. And our broken lives. That is what we decide to give to God in Step Three–broken wills and broken lives. It might not seem like much of a gift. But that is because we do not yet understand all that God can do with broken stuff. Nor do we yet understand how different God’s good and gracious will is from our own wills. In Step Three we choose to turn our broken wills and our broken lives over to God. We do so in the hope that God will do a better job with our lives than we have done. There will be many pleasant surprises ahead on the journey as we begin to see the results of this decision. The psalmist expressed the hope that comes from surrender to God:
Teach me to do your will, for you are my God;
may your good Spirit lead me on level ground. (Psalm 143:10)
Over to the Care of God
In Step Three we entrust our lives to God’s care. What will it be like for God to care for us? At this stage of the journey some of us may have terrible and frightening images of what this will be like. It may feel like turning ourselves over to a judge who will punish us severely–or even like turning ourselves over to an executioner. But that is not what it is like to be cared for by God. God is a good caregiver. Things have gotten worse and worse as long as we have been in charge of our own care. With God in charge of caring for us, things will get better. Jesus often emphasized the kindness of God’s loving care. For example, Jesus talked about how we exhaust ourselves trying to carry our own burdens. We are invited, Jesus says, to a very different kind of life, in which we turn our burdens over to God:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
As We Understood Him
Some people–Christians in particular–may not see a need for this part of Step Three. Some have changed these words to read “through Jesus Christ.” It is understandable that those of us who are Christians would want to make that change. But it is also important to remember how useful it is to keep the door of spiritual kindergarten open for everyone. You do not need to have a complete understanding about God–or about Jesus–to benefit from this Step. We are still in spiritual kindergarten. We won’t get very far if we must pass an examination in theology before we make use of the Twelve Steps.
The phrase “as we understood Him” does not suggest that we already know everything we need to know about God. Our understanding of God will change as we work through the Twelve Steps. The phrase “as we understood Him” means only that we act on the basis of what we have learned in Step Two–that God’s power is greater than our own and that God is powerful enough to restore us. That’s all the faith we need when we work on Step Three. It may seem to some people that this is just a little bit of faith. But as Jesus taught, God can do great things with a little bit of faith.
“I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)