Step 4 – We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
“Let us test and examine our ways and return to the Eternal” Lamentations 3:40
Trevor Hudson describes having breakfast one morning with a friend who was a recovering alcoholic. Over eggs and bacon they talked about his tough drinking days. He shared how when he went to work, he would always take a bottle of brandy with him and, whenever he could, he would sneak the bottle from his desk drawer and take a quick sip. However, he would always leave the brown wrapping paper on the bottle. Intrigued by this detail, Trevor asked whether this was because he wanted to hide what he was drinking from his colleagues. ‘Not really’ came the reply, ‘I left the paper on because I didn’t want to see what I was drinking myself.’
This answer illustrates very powerfully the deep struggle that all of us have in being honest with ourselves. We often don’t like to see ourselves as we really are. It can often be quite unflattering. It is much more satisfying to concentrate on the sins, shortcomings and character defects of those around us, in part because it deflects attention from our own flaws and also temporarily makes us feel a little more righteous in our ability to identify wrong from right, (as long as we don’t have to do it too close to home.)
Like Trevor's friend we often prefer to live under brown paper wrapping, and often that brown paper wrapping consists of our criticisms of others.
Step four in the 12 step program confronts this tendency to avoid facing ourselves as it invites us to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and in doing so it invites us to face ourselves as honestly as we can.
In many ways, Step 4 is a revisiting of Step 1, but this time inviting us to go even deeper. Step 1 was an invitation to identify that 1 thing in our lives that constantly gets on top of us and that leaves us feeling like our lives are unmanageable. Step 4 invites us to dig a little deeper and to begin to be honest about the rest of our lives too.
Step 4 is also a deepening of our decision made in Step 3. Step 3 invited us to turn our lives and our wills over to the care of God as we understand God. Step 4 invites us to be more detailed in exactly what it is we are turning over to the care of God.
There is a paradox here too. Turning over our lives and our wills over to the care of God, as we understand God, sounds like a passive surrender. But Step 4 suggests that this process of turning our wills over to the care of God, is paradoxically a process by which we begin to take more responsibility for ourselves as we make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Again, building on last weeks reflection, unless we believe that God is utterly Good, utterly Loving and utterly Trustworthy, and has our best interests at heart, making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves is going to be extremely difficult. If we live in fear of God’s wrath and anger, then we are going to continue to try and hide behind whatever brown paper wrapping we can, or, as in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, we are going to try and hide behind whatever fig leaves we can find. You can only be honest with someone that you feel you can trust and if you don’t trust in God’s immeasurable and boundless love for you, you are never going to be able to make an honest, fearless and searching moral inventory of yourself. Our picture of God has everything to do with how well we are going to progress along this path. None of us can journey into the depths of our own darkness without the assurance that we are loved and valued beyond measure. As Jeremiah 31:3 says: I have loved you with an everlasting love.
But what does it mean to take a moral inventory?
Trevor Hudson gives a helpful illustration. He says that anyone who has ever been involved in a business will know the importance of making an inventory. A business that does not know what stock it has to sell, or what machinery and assets it has and in what condition those assets are in will soon be in trouble. It won’t be able to meet the needs of its customers, and there could be damaged stock and assets taking up valuable space and detracting from the ability for that business to grow and flourish. It won’t be long before that business closes its doors.
By analogy, if each of us is to grow and flourish as human beings this will be aided by taking an accurate inventory that reflects all the facts about our available stock, assets and resources.
But Trevor Hudson also sounds a note of caution. He notes that because the 4th Step describes this personal check-up as a ‘moral’ one, it would seem to suggest that when we make an inventory of our lives, that we should carefully look at the ways we have done wrong. But he suggests that if we are going to take an accurate moral inventory of ourselves we will also need to list our moral strengths.
Just as a business takes an inventory to know the state of it’s stock and assets, both negative and positive, so in making our own personal moral inventory, it is not just our moral wrongs and other character flaws that need to be faced and listed, but should also include our assets, those positive qualities in our lives that we can celebrate and affirm. These might be our ability to do certain things well, or character traits that bring out the best in us and enrich the lives of people around us. He suggests that unless we are willing to name both our vices and our virtues, we will not end up with an accurate and balanced assessment of ourselves.
But Step 4 suggests that strict honesty with ourselves is crucial if we want to experience deep inner change.
He suggests that those who are winning the battle against destructive addictions and compulsions or self-defeating behaviour are not necessarily those who seem very religious, who know their Bible well of who can recite all the 12 Steps. Rather they are more likely to be those who are trying simply to be as honest as they can be with themselves.
Step 4 suggests that making a moral inventory needs to be both searching and fearless. On the one hand we need to search out all the facts of our lives. On the other hand it must be fearless because facing ourselves with total honesty can often be really scary. We fear in the process that we might somehow be annihilated and so we sometimes try to avoid the ordeal by sayings things like ‘Why go digging up all these things from the past? Let sleeping dogs lie.’
But as any competent psychologist will tell you, those things in ourselves that we can’t face, don’t go away, they simply hide in the shadows and continue to haunt us in in hidden ways, bubbling up to the surface in when we least expect them to and in ways that we can’t always control. As it is often said, the only way out is through. Avoiding being honest with ourselves will simply create new sets of problems.
In making a fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves, Trevor Hudson suggests examining 5 areas of our lives as outlined in the AA’s Big Book:
1. Our resentments – Who are the people I resent? What did they do or say to hurt me? Was there anything I said that might have caused them to react the way they did?
2. Our fears – What have been the fears that have dominated my life since childhood? Why was I afraid in these ways? What am I fearful of at the moment? Can we turn these fears over the care of a Higher Power?
3. Our sexual lives – When and how did I harm another person in this way? How do I respond when my requests for intimacy are denied? Do I see others as objects to be used for my own gratification? Have I ever used sex as a weapon or a punishment?
4. Our financial affairs – Am I extravagant? Or am I greedy and tight fisted? Am I irresponsible with money? Do I live beyond my means? Am I honest and fair in my financial dealings with others?
5. Our social relationships – Do I insist on getting my own way and try to dominate those around me? Do I seek to control others with my hurt feelings by developing a sense of persecution or withdrawing into a sulky silence? Am I willing to contribute to the well-being of others or am I just a taker? Equally, do I give in too easily to others, giving away my own power too easily and then end up seething with anger on the inside while living behind a smiling mask of pretence?
Trevor Hudson writes: When I did this for the first time many years ago, I can remember listing things like ‘not telling the whole truth’, ‘always wanting to be in the right’, ‘withdrawing from loved ones when things don’t go my way’, and a host of other self-centred and controlling behaviours. It was not easy to write these things down in black and white, but once I had done so, I felt as if I had been set free.
I close with a few pertinent verses of Scripture:
1 John 1:8 If we say we have no sin (failings, shortcomings), we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
John 8:32 You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
Psalm 139:23-24 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.