What Alcoholics Anonymous Taught Me About Repentance

In the movie Napoleon Dynamite, Uncle Rico is trying to recruit Kip into his plastic housewares distribution business. When he asks Kip what he is doing that afternoon and Kip replies “Nuthin'”, Uncle Rico imparts this bit of wisdom: “Well, you might as well do something while you’re doing nothing.” Over the past month or so I have found myself taking Uncle Rico’s advice. My work schedule changed so I often have a couple of hours open during the middle of the day, and when a co-worker needed a ride to his AA meeting (his license has been revoked), I decided to commit to driving him back and forth to his 12 step meeting. It turns out, there are more than a few people at these meetings who need rides, so lately I’ve been doing taxi duty. And it has been good for me.

Besides the songs, the one lesson I remember well from my Primary teachers is the one about the 4 R steps of repentance. That lesson has served me well over the years, even though I am still not very good at repenting. Usually my efforts go like this: I take the first step (Recognize) and acknowledge that I need to make a change in my life. I start to explore ways I can change and in that process I realize that the problem goes far deeper than I had first assumed, and that it will be much harder to change than I thought. At this point I take my own personal R step — Rationalize — and decide that the character attribute I started out to change really is a feature, not a bug, and go merrily on with my mediocre efforts at gospel living.

As I sit in the back of the room at the AA meeting, back by the folding table with the big coffee urn, and observe the people who are there for help, I have been impressed, over and over again, by the way they don’t allow themselves any rationalization. They stand up in front of everybody and acknowledge that they are a complete mess, at rock bottom and there are no excuses. This sense of brokenness, of being thoroughly fallen, is a useful insight for me and maybe it also is for other latter-day saints. We don’t like to think of ourselves as gross sinners; we are people who make unwise choices, or who have “imperfections”. Maybe that is why it is so easy for me to rationalize. Maybe I’m really like a drunk who likes to pretend that he is just a social drinker. There is some support in our tradition for this idea of complete fallenness. When Nephi says “Oh, wretched man that I am”, we recognize his awareness of his own mortality.

Another thing I have learned is that it is helpful to think of repentance as a continual process rather than a one-time event. Alcoholics don’t go to one meeting and think they are done. They realize that they are alcoholics and will be until the day they die, and that therefore they need to attend meetings regularly. As my friend put it, “I need to work the steps or die”. I’ve found that in my own lame efforts at repentance, I need to admit that I want it to be short and quick and painless. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that I am a sinner, a fallen man in a fallen world, and there is very little I can do on my own to change that. Maybe repentance will work better if I realize that I am dependent on the grace of God, I will be until the day I die, and I need to continually work the steps or inherit spiritual death.

Something which is very refreshing to me and which comes through quite clearly in AA is the idea that God will help these people in their troubles. The simple fact is that many of the people in the meeting have ruined everything about their lives that was every good or innocent or decent. They have wrecked every single one of their relationships with family or friends, they have wrecked their careers, they have done severe damage to the people around them. And yet they have confidence that God will help them. When we read in the Book of Mormon that God will bear with his people in their infirmities, when the angel asks Nephi if he knows the condescension of God, or when the Doctrine and Covenants teaches that the Son of Man has descended below everything, this must be what those scriptures mean. As Mormons, we are very familiar with a God who cannot look upon sin with any degree of allowance, or who will allow no unclean thing into his presence. But that isn’t the whole story. Perhaps it would be good for us to also contemplate this other divine characteristic, a God who is willing to descend with us to our lowest depths and get right down there in the sewer with us, if necessary, to help us with our problems, no matter how awful they are.

The other day as I was driving back to work from the meeting, my friend was fiddling with the AM dial on the car radio. He settled on a country song I had never heard before, and I thought I had heard them all. It was an oldie by Lacy J. Dalton, and her hard-edged voice sang these words, backed up by a honky-tonk piano:

“Well, I’m hell-bent on good times and I’m hard bound for glory.
I try to do right but in all the wrong ways.
I’m a high-rolling rambler, the worst kind of gambler,
I’m a beer-drinking Christian, but the good Lord loves strays.”


  1. Thank you so much. And I gotta get me that song!
    Will we still be repenting in the next life? Is it possible?? I just can’t imagine that even after doing our best here, even if we qualify for the CK, that we will be ready for actual, practicing “god hood”. I wonder if repentance isn’t somewhere there on the eternal spectrum too. You know, kind of “godhood orientation”. I would love y’all’s insight.

  2. Beautiful post, Mark.

  3. Jennifer in GA says:

    Wonderful post!

  4. KerBearRN,

    You would think that what we have practiced here so much is what we are going to need in the hereafter. It is my rule of thumb, if it is here and hard, that is what is necessary there even though it will be easy.

    Grace – you think Paul got it right? We have all fallen short of the glory of God. We cannot clean up our own mess.

  5. Mark, thank you for the great post!

    KerBearRN, Joseph Smith said, “It will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.” If we are still learning our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave, I suspect that there may be more opportunities for repentance in the hereafter that some hard-line LDS theologians have taught.

    I really like the book “The Continuous Atonement” by Brad Wilcox, who teaches grace in an entirely new context–much like Paul did. Perhaps the Protestants (and Paul) were right after all: grace is everything!

  6. This was truly profound, thanks Mark.

  7. Super. One of the great things about seeing ourselves as fundamentally broken is that it relieves us of the guilt of being fundamentally broken. It relieves us of the need to engage in a cover-up. I like to emphasize my own sinfulness not to weigh myself or anyone else down, but in an attempt to relieve myself of the unnatural spot in relation to truth – and therefore connection – I find myself in when attempting a cover-up.

  8. When I was a student nurse, we were required to go to a couple AA meetings. I walked into the first one feeling very superior and assuming that I was just there to observe everyone else, but there was nothing for me to learn. The second the meeting started, I was almost knocked over by the strength of the Spirit that entered the room. I seriously couldn’t breathe. It was the most humbling experience I’ve ever had and I really did get a much better understanding of how repentance is a partnership between Christ and the sinner. Thanks for sharing this.

  9. A former bishop who has led 12-step meetings for several years has described the recovery meetings as “kind of like priesthood meeting, but with the spirit present.”

  10. I’ve been frustrated by the way we pussyfoot around repentance in our meetings since — well, since I discovered that I felt guilt for being a terrible and selfish sinner. I wish our meetings were more like AA and less like the superiority seminars that they sometimes resemble, because I need help (atonement, anyone?) with the repentance part, not the cover-up part.

    Thanks, Thomas#7 for introducing the concept of the cover-up. In LDS culture, the cover-up is one of the biggest elephants in the room.

  11. #9 DavidH, I’ve said the same thing. In fact, the ARP meetings I attend are among the most spiritual in the church, and I believe it is precisely because all of us there are honestly and fervently seeking the blessings of the atonement in our lives.

    Mark, thanks for this. Prior to my own coming face to face with the 12 steps a few years ago, I always assumed they were for someone else. It never occurred to me that every member of the chuch could benefit from walking that 12-step path to peace.

  12. @DavidH (9): Hahaha. Love it.

    This post is absolutely wonderful. I was an intern at a substance abuse treatment program for about a year, and during that time I had the opportunity to teach classes. I was always incredibly impressed with their sense of brokenness and lack of any kind of rationalization. It’s something that I’ve tried to incorporate into my own life. Doing so has taught me two things:

    1) I used to rationalize all sorts of behaviors and actions without even realizing it. I probably still do unknowingly rationalize many behaviors.

    2) Most people seem uncomfortable with anyone outside of AA/substance abuse treatment programs expressing this sense of brokenness.

    As I’ve discovered all the ways I unknowingly rationalize all sorts of less-than-righteous behaviors, I found myself with little choice other than to conclude that I’m not such a good person. Whenever I say that, however, I always get weird looks; even (especially) when I say it at Church, where we supposedly believe that we’re all sinners. I think it’s a hard thing to admit, being a not-so-great human being, especially when we claim to have the full truth. It’s somewhat cognitively dissonant to say we have the keys to perfection while simultaneously saying we’re bad people.

    I don’t know. Either way, I think we could all learn something from the sense of brokenness that is displayed and discussed at substance abuse meetings.

  13. Great post. Although it had to be because it started with , “In the movie Napoleon Dynamite…”

  14. a God who is willing to descend with us to our lowest depths and get right down there in the sewer with us, if necessary, to help us with our problems, no matter how awful they are.

    I love you for this, Mark. I mean, I loved you anyway, but given my own experience, this is a profound truth, and your observations are deeply and profoundly correct. Thank you.

  15. Wonderful post, Mark.

    “One of the great things about seeing ourselves as fundamentally broken is that it relieves us of the guilt of being fundamentally broken.”

    Thanks, also, Thomas, for this profound statement.

  16. Mark, thank you for sharing your insights. I too am humbled by those who truly have broken hearts and contrite spirits. I’m in the process of “awakening” to my own self-righteousness, and it has been painful. A few years ago I was introduced to a book that was written by a mormon woman, applying Book of Mormon scriptures to the AA 12 Step Program. I believe the church uses it for their addiction program, but it is really meant for all of us. I think it would make an excellent Sunday School manual. I ran across a friend who was reading it and loved it, she said her husband calls it “the Atonement for Dummies”. It amazes me how I could spend so many years going to church, and not get it, not know my Saviour, not hear His words, not receive His gift. I highly recommend it.
    “He Did Deliver Me From Bondage” by Colleen C. Harrison

  17. I went to a meeting a few months back with one of my friends to collect his 90 day chip. During the beginning of the meeting when they were giving chips out and each person went to claim his/her chip they’d briefly state their name and a offer a brief word or so about their particular “sin”. For example someone might say, “Julie. Alcoholic”, and another might say “Dave. Drug Addict. Habitual Liar”, etc…. The amazing thing was after they said this into the microphone everyone in the audience would clap. Yes, they would actually honor the person who came forward to admit his weakness before God and all gathered there. In via clapping I felt an overwhelming sense of God’s love pour out of me for them. My judgements were gone, and in doing so I was able to help wash away some of the shame and guilt that keeps them sick. Its not just the truth that sets you free, its when you come to acknowledge the truth and have it met with love that does the trick.

    I tried relaying this story to my wife the next day, but all she could focus on was her belief that once you’ve repented you’re suppose to not talk about it no more. I have since contemplated on this and while there may be some validity to dwelling on the particular details of our “sins”, especially if they are done in order to “enjoy” them we should try to avoid the notion that reason we don’t talk about them is because we are ashamed of them. As if they are no longer a part of us. As if we are too good for those type of people anymore. I realized that when I was clapping for those that walked to the podium I was also clapping for myself and the “sinner” I was and still am. Nevertheless, I know in whom I’ve trusted.

  18. Carey, you’ve hit on something interesting. The alcoholism is not the “sin” in AA. It is not what someone repents of. The weaknesses to be overcome in AA or other 12 step programs is not the primary disease which brings one there but it is the underlying weaknesses from which one escapes with alcohol.

  19. Mark and Paul, I think that often we forget that those sinned against need the Atonement at least as much as the sinner. Thank you for bringing this perspective. I have been contemplating this a lot lately and blogged earlier this week about one of the most spiritual experiences I have ever had with strangers. We never know where the Spirit will be the strongest, but it isn’t when we are pretending.

    I won’t rewrite the who post. If you are interested, it is here http://www.poetrysansonions.com/2012/11/my-mormon-perspective-power-of-ten.html?m=0

  20. I just want to say thanks to Mark for this wonderful post, and thanks to you all for your comments and your knowledgable, insightful answers to my questions. I think I’m going to print the whole thing out (and make copies for all my kids too), to be referred to often. I adore the Gospel and the Savior– but I too feel like we do too much “hiding” of our broken-ness. And that it profoundly interferes with healing and growth. So thank you, thank you, all of you. I felt the Spirit strongly while reading this.

  21. Yeah, I attend those AA meetings occasionally–though the ones I go to are called “Addiction Recovery.” (“Hi. I’m Margaret. I’m the mother of–well, that wouldn’t be any of your business, would it.”) I find it inspiring. We re-learn the fundamentals, but in a new way, where all that we care about hangs in the balance. I saw long ago that the twelve steps parallel Alma 36. We quickly learn that we are not alone in our struggles with blame/anger/despair but that we can learn about hope, humility, charity, and the atonement like a parched man or woman learns anew about water.

  22. Jack Handley says:

    I feel like the alcoholic friend of yours. I am a total waste of a human being, having been given everything, yet, having failed at everything I’ve ever tried in life.

  23. I am NOT a church member, but have been thought to be one. Yes, I went to school (undergrad) in Utah–Weber State. Yes, I know LOTS of Mormons and know LOTS about doctrine and theology. I am troubled by the last post– failed at everything I’ve tried in life.
    who said you failed? What was the bar that you using to measure with? Remember, Perfection is impossible– I know, the doctrine teaches that perfectioin is possible– that is why so many Mormon Women are frazzled all the time. Don’t be so hard on yourself– life is too short as it is.

  24. “I know, the doctrine teaches that perfectioin is possible.”

    Not in this life.

    “that is why so many Mormon Women are frazzled all the time”

    As opposed to the average number of children they have and the need for so many to work to help pay the bills.

    I love me some stereotypes.

  25. If you would like to virtually sit in on the some meetings of the Addiction Recovery Program sponsored by the Church (based on AA), you can now listen to podcasts of 12 actual meetings that were posted last week here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/addiction-recovery-program/id575656004?mt=2

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