3rd Step Exegesis

I like to think about the 3rd step as a contract we sign with God. If you really want to get into the business of living this way of life, you’ve got to sign on the dotted line. And that involves agreeing to some rather hard terms and conditions. In the bit that follows, I’m going to describe these terms and conditions as plainly as possible.

I guess there are a lot of people who rush through step 3 and turn out alright anyway. They figure all you’ve got to do is repeat a few words out of the book and get on with the program. I’m sure this approach has worked fine for many alcoholics and addicts, all of whom get into the fine print of this thing later on. After all, you can’t stay sober too long without running into some trouble, and running into trouble means you got something more to learn about the terms of your contract with God.

I guess I’m the type who likes to know what he’s getting into on the front end.

Here’s the text of the 3rd step prayer as it appears in the Big Book:

God, I offer myself to thee
to build with me and do with me as thou wilt.
Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do thy will.
Take away my difficulties that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of thy power, thy love, and thy way of life.
May I do thy will always.

Let’s take it a line at a time:

God, I offer myself to thee

The first line names the parties involved and establishes the relationship between the two. There is a God. And there is us. The relationship proposed is one of unconditional surrender of the second party to the first. We are to give ourselves over completely to God without hesitation or reservation.

There’s some fine print here, too: if we turn our selves over, then, by extension, we also turn over all the claims those selves make on the world. Anything and everything attached to the self we surrender becomes the property of God. All our time, relationships, money, possessions, health, habits, ambitions, choices, work, authority, intelligence, autonomy, freedom, creativity, free time, and anything else we got—all of it gets handed over.

God gets everything. We keep nothing.

to build with me and do with me as thou wilt.

This line extends the rights and powers granted to God. The first line gives God everything; this line gives God freedom to do whatever the hell he wants with what we turn over. More specifically, we agree to let God build with us, changing our attitudes, personalities, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs; and do with us, changing our behaviors, relationships, and routines. If you are fond of a particular idea of yourself, better give up on it now. Once you sign on to this way of life, everything will change.

Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do thy will.

This one describes what we get out of the deal: If we give God everything we’ve got, let God turn us into new people, and do whatever God wants us to do, then we will be freed from ourselves so that we can do an even better job of giving God everything, letting God change us, and doing whatever God wants.

Maybe this sounds like a tricky way of saying that we don’t get anything at all, but consider this: Either you really are trapped in yourself, in which case you will want the freedom of doing God’s will, or you really are not trapped, in which case you won’t.

Those of us who are trapped in ourselves know it because following our own will always leads to pain and loss and misery but we’re stuck following it anyway. So for us, it is a relief to know that we can surrender to God’s will and get a different result. Even if it does mean we’re going to change dramatically in ways we can’t predict or control.

Take away my difficulties that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of thy power, thy love, and thy way of life.

Many an alcoholic reading this prayer has heard and sincerely felt only four words: “Take away my difficulties.” By which they mean: “God, get me out of this one!” But the 3rd step is not a simple cry for help.

The “difficulties” here are not our broken families, our absent friends, our poverty, our legal problems, our health problems, and so on. Nor are these “difficulties” our drinking and drugging and lying and stealing and screwing around and whatever else we were up to. All these are only symptoms of a deeper problem. We really ought to read this line like so:

“Take away my self-will and selfishness, so I can show people that you have enough power and love to change their lives too.”

In this contract, we agree to let God fix us. And he’s going to do it by changing us so we aren’t ourselves anymore. And he’s going to do that so we can enjoy spending the rest of our lives inviting other people to experience the same change.

May I do thy will always.

This last line repeats our request for all of the above and adds one new twist: always. This contract is not a temporary arrangement, designed to help us get back on our feet. It is binding for the duration of our natural lives, and probably on beyond that if there is such a thing.

And so, the plain language disclosure version of the 3rd step ought to read something like this:

God, you can have me and you can have everything I’ve got.
You can change my life inside and out in anyway you want.
Please take my selfishness and self-will away, so that I can show people how powerful and loving you are, and how good your way of life is.
Help me stay surrendered to your will and active in the work of helping others for the rest of my life.

If you can say all that and mean it, you’re on the program. If you can’t, you ain’t. Simple as that.

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7 Responses to “3rd Step Exegesis”

  1. Arnello S. Says:

    Well, the Big Book says that in regards to the Third Step prayer “the wording was, of course, quite optional as long as we expressed the idea, voicing it without reservation”! And your plain language disclosure version remains true to the Spirit of the program! I love it! But I really just want to thank you for finally posting some new writing. Your stuff has been so inspiring. I think I’ve really missed it!
    Thanks again & God Bless!
    Arnello

    • James R. Says:

      Thanks, Arnello. I’m glad its useful to you. I wish I could get around to writing this stuff more often than I do.

  2. Vaughn Trott Says:

    Excellent!
    Love the paraphrase!
    Keep Comin’ Back!
    Vaughn T.

  3. Roberta Says:

    I just read through all of your blog posts, note that the last one was about two years ago. Where are you? Your sharing has been truly inspirational as I was digging myself out of a funk, it was the loving slap upside the head I needed. Hope you will continue with the blog. ROB

    • James R. Says:

      Thanks, Roberta. It has been a long time since I’ve posted. I’ve been busy with other writing projects, but this blog has often been on my mind. Thanks for the inspiration. Maybe it’ll get me writing here again.

  4. bob kay Says:

    If I had been able to sign on the dotted line, when I first encountered the Third Step….I would have been lying. It has taken years and necessity for me to Trust God; beyond mere open-minded willingness.

    in gratitude…bob kay

  5. david diamond Says:

    I love poking through your stuff, James.

    always stirs some awareness and stirs some action.

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