Understanding Step 3 of the AA Twelve Steps

How Surrender Is Central to Recovery

A man sharing his emotions in a support group.
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The twelve steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) recovery program is the spiritual foundation for personal recovery, used not only by people with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) but by their friends and family in Al-Anon and Alateen programs. People who have embraced the twelve step manifesto have found that it not only provides them the means to stop drinking but offers them a structural framework by which to live a productive and fulfilling life.

A recent Cochrane review, which assessed the effectiveness of AA and other 12-step interventions for AUD, found that engaging in these community-based recovery resources was as effected as proven treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in helping people to sustain recovery.

Of the twelve steps, step three can be best referred to as the process of surrender. It asserts that a lifetime of recovery can only be achieved by making the decision to turn over your will to a higher being. Step three is defined as "(to make) a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him."

Foundation of the Twelve Steps

While AA describes its program as non-religious, it is strongly based on the belief of a higher power, which they colloquially referred to as God. This doesn't necessarily mean a Christian God but rather any higher spiritual being in whom a person can place his or her faith.

While AA has spawned dozens of other drug and alcohol recovery programs, the very concept of God, used commonly in the text, can make some people uncomfortable. While AA clearly welcomes persons of all religious beliefs and denominations, the vernacular and references are firmly based on Judeo-Christian traditions wherein the spiritual being is masculine ("Him") and the term "prayer" suggests an intimate connection to the higher power.

For those who are atheistic or uncomfortable with these foundational beliefs, there are other recovery programs which may be just as effective and far more suitable.

About Step Three in AA

Members of AA and other twelve step programs strive to find a new path by embracing spirituality and admitting they alone cannot control their addiction. Although the journey starts when a person walks into their first meeting, the real recovery begins when the decision is made to "let go" and allow a greater power to take over.

It may be a difficult thing to do, especially in a culture where people are taught that they are the masters of their own destiny, but many find comfort and relief when they sincerely take to step three. By working within a fellowship, rather than on one's own, step three allows a person to embrace faith as a means to achieve the impossible.

Ultimately, without faith, no one—not an alcoholic or any person stuck in an unhappy situation—can take this leap. Actively believing and embracing a higher power is both an act of surrender and courage.

Upon achieving step one (the admission of powerlessness) and step two (agreeing that there is, in fact, a higher power), Step Three goes beyond words to actions. It opens the door to the rest of the steps and allows a person to begin the process of self-reflection (step four) and admitting the nature of one's wrongdoings (step five).

2 Sources
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  1. Kelly JF, Abry A, Ferri M, Humphreys K. Alcoholics anonymous and 12-step facilitation treatments for alcohol use disorder: A distillation of a 2020 cochrane review for clinicians and policy makersAlcohol and Alcoholism. 2020;55(6):641-651. doi:10.1093/alcalc/agaa050

  2. Village A, W. Hood R, eds. The pragmatic believer—faith development and personal experiences of a ‘higher power’ in seasoned members of narcotics anonymous. In: Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 29. BRILL; 2018:123-144. doi:10.1163/9789004382640_008

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.