July 2 | Sanity, Surrender, and Being Seen

12 Step Spirituality Worship Series

Texts: Steps 2 & 3; Mark 10:17-27


The man in our story for today has no name. His story shows up in three of the four gospels. Here in Mark’s gospel he is simply described as “a man.”  In Matthew’s version, he is explicitly described as a young man. In Luke’s he is called “a certain ruler.”  In all of them, it eventually becomes clear that he is rich.

In amalgamation, this has come to be known as the story of the Rich Young Ruler. But in none of the versions does this person have a name. Instead, he becomes known by how others perceive him, how others label him.

As we explore the spirituality of the 12 Steps, many of you may be like me and have only second-hand knowledge of the steps and stereotypical images of the kinds of groups that utilize them. One of the most prevalent images is of a person standing before a group, introducing themselves and declaring that they are an alcoholic, an addict, or whatever identifier sums up what they have admitted they are powerless over. 

Last week we learned that the first of the Twelve Steps involves an admission of powerlessness over something (or things) that has caused our lives to become unmanageable. In its original version, Step One was an admission of powerlessness over alcohol, but for our purposes, we left that space blank to recognize that there are many things in life that we are powerless over, that make life unmanageable. This blank allows each of us to enter into this worship series as insiders, filling in the blank with whatever addiction we most need to confront and doing our own deep work to move us toward a return to sanity, and a spiritual awakening.

In the end, the Twelve Steps are not about getting you to stop drinking, stop doing drugs, or stop whatever you fill in that blank. Instead, the Twelve Steps are about moving us toward a spiritual awakening.

Which brings me back to the man from our story with no name. In Mark’s version, the text says that he ran up to Jesus and knelt in supplication as he asked his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” No time for introductions or small talk, he comes across as a bit harried, almost like he’s afraid he might miss his chance to get the answers he so desperately needs to hear. 

Despite being young, wealthy, and powerful on multiple levels, I think this man has recognized that something is missing, that there are parts of his life that are unmanageable, and that he is ultimately powerless over…something. It is almost as if he has already taken the First Step before he shows up in the scriptures, but I’m not sure he has filled in his own “blank” quite yet. Maybe he doesn’t realize what he’s powerless over, or maybe he knows but he’s not quite ready to say it out loud. He just wants to get to the next steps, to figure out what he needs to do to tick things off his list. 

And so when he rushes into the scene, it’s almost as if we find him tripping into Step Two, which says: “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”  Maybe it was the rumors about miracles Jesus had performed or maybe it was an overheard conversation about the radical teachings he was giving on hillsides and boats, but however the man first heard of Jesus made him want to drop everything to find this good teacher. Finally, a Power greater than his own, a teacher who could answer life’s deepest questions and tell him what he needed to do to have a truly good life. 

Step One can leave us with a bit of a void as we recognize our own powerlessness, but Step Two turns us toward hope that we can be restored to sanity, that there is a Higher Power that can help us move beyond our own powerlessness. 

People from all backgrounds and walks of life come to the 12 Steps, atheists, agnostics, churchgoers, former churchgoers who have sworn off organized religion. Those of us who are more comfortable with this kind of language might take Step 2 for granted, but it can be a big step for many. In the Hunger for Healing book, J. Keith Miller writes, “Step Two says that after admitting one’s powerlessness, all that is required to begin this faith journey is a willingness to believe–no content, no creed, no church affiliation, no religious experience, just a willingness, a sense of openness to a ‘Higher Power.’” (32)

Rather than any specific shape this Higher Power takes, it is this “willingness to believe” that is the key at this point. From the depths of powerlessness, are we willing to believe that there is a way forward, a Power greater than our own that could restore us to sanity? It is the willingness to believe that opens us to the restoration and healing that is possible beyond ourselves. It is the willingness to believe that allows us to take this next step. If we are unwilling to believe, we are left only with our own powerlessness, stuck in the same habits and patterns that create cycles of harm and dysfunction.

The word “sanity” may seem like an odd choice for this step, yet one of the definitions of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results. A return to sanity begins with a step that declares something new is possible. With feet shaking we move toward that willingness to believe, even if we aren’t 100% sure we know where that Power is going to take us. 

Or maybe like the man in our story, we run toward that Power because we don’t want to miss our chance at figuring out what it means to have the good life.   

From this willingness to believe we then come to Step 3, which says, “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” 

I don’t know about you, but it feels like there’s a bit of a “rubber meets the road” moment that happens between Steps 2 and 3.  A willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves turns sharply to become a decisive surrendering of our will and lives. The vagueness of this Higher Power we are willing to believe in begins to take shape, enough that we trust our lives to it.

There are plenty of stories in scripture that I could have chosen to help illuminate Steps 2 and 3 for us this morning, but I chose the story of the Rich Young Ruler because his encounter with Jesus exposes the challenge of surrendering our will to God completely. When Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, he walked away grieving. He wasn’t quite ready for that next decisive step. The same man that had run to Jesus, filled with a willingness to believe that Jesus represented some kind of power greater than his own, breathlessly asking how to obtain eternal life, this same man turns back.

This story reveals the tension within us when faced with the call to surrender. We desire the benefits of a relationship with a higher power, but we also fear what might be required of us. We cling tightly to our comforts, our addictions, our ambitions, and our illusions of control, hesitant to release them.

In the chapter on Step 3 in the Hunger for Healing book, Miller writes, “Not only does surrendering go against all our childhood injunctions to ‘do it yourself’ and ‘don’t give up’ but as long as we can keep our minds churning, we can keep from facing and understanding our own part in causing our painful feelings.” When Jesus tells the man to sell all his possessions, it’s almost as if the “blank” he had left wide-open in Step One was suddenly filled in, the true nature of his powerlessness made clear. It didn’t matter how “good” he was or how closely he followed all the commandments. In that moment Jesus helped him see that he was powerless over his stuff, his need for control, his standing in society. 

Yet within that moment, there was also an invitation to a new way of living. My favorite part of this story is that before Jesus tells the man to sell all his possessions, there is a pause. In that pause between the theological back and forth and the costly invitation to a new way of life, the text says that Jesus looked at him and loved him.

What did the man see as Jesus looked at him with love before saying those words that caused him so much grief?  Was he able to see that love, or did he just see condemnation? 

Step 3 ends with a really interesting phrase: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God. 

How do we understand God? Does this Higher Power that we believe can restore us to sanity do so only through condemnation, guilt, and shame? Or does the Higher Power that we turn our lives and wills over to look on us with love, gently calling us to do the difficult work that leads toward life while allowing us to walk away when we’re not ready? 

Just as the rich young ruler struggled, we, too, wrestle with surrendering our will. We too are not always ready to take the next step. Regardless of where we are on this journey of spiritual awakening, however, I hope that we can all believe in a God who continues to look on us with love even when–especially when–we turn and walk the other way. 

We don’t know what became of the man in our story, whether he stayed on the path he had been living or whether he just needed a little time before he decided to take the steps laid out for him by Jesus. It can be easy to write him off, turning this story into one that is just about Jesus condemning wealth and convincing ourselves that it’s not really about us. But the invitation is there to consider what Jesus would ask of you after he looked at you with love. Would he tell you to sell everything and give the money to the poor?  Or would he ask you to do something just as impossible sounding? 

Whatever it is and whether you are ready to take that impossible step, trusting in a God who can do the impossible, I pray that you may always know that you are seen with love.