A while back I had the opportunity to be in a setting in which I could sit and listen to a woman who was a recovering alcoholic, as well as the head of an Alcoholics Anonymous group. As the woman, who had struggled through tough times to make it out of the dark tunnel, was talking, I could not help but make connections to my own life and the life of people I care about and love around me. I may not be an alcoholic, nor have I ever even tasted a sip of the forbidden drink, but I too have issues in my life that I would like to recover from. I too have certain sins that I return to, time and time again, as if, in some sense, I am addicted to them—as if these sins are my drugs. Once I made that very important connection, I realized that her method of leaving alcohol could help me leave my sins. Perhaps just as she had “Alcoholics Anonymous,” I could benefit from a “Sinners Anonymous.” And it was after that talk that I decided to take the first few steps to my recovery. Perhaps these tips and steps could help you as well, leave those things in your life that you may be addicted to and help you move to the stage of a “recovering sinner.”
The first thing that I noticed in this woman’s presentation was that she never ever said, “I was an alcoholic,” or “I am fully recovered from being an alcoholic.” When asked why, she replied with quite an insightful comment. She said that while she has not had any alcohol for years, she knows that it is not below her to return to that state once again. With this in mind, she is always vigilant and careful not to put herself in a situation that might cause her to return to this same situation. Similarly, when we stop a sin, we must realize that we have stopped this sin by the grace of God and that it is not that we have become “above” that sin. There is always the possibility that we may slip back into that act (or thought or whatever it may be), and we should be vigilant of our actions and the positions we put ourselves in. This also serves another very important purpose: it keeps us humble. When we realize that we could slip back into our previous habits (or even pick up new ones!) then we leave no opportunity for Satan’s tricky whispers of “you are better than her because she is still stuck in that sin you used to do,” or “you are better than him because you don’t sin the same way as him.”
Another important concept that I learned from this lovely woman was the phrase that she sprinkled throughout her talk: “I am only the next 24 hours.” When we are addicted to something, when this thing–no matter how petty it may seem to other people, or repulsive—is something that is important to us or that we simply enjoy doing, it becomes hard to commit to it for a lifetime. In our moments of strength it is easy to think that this is something that we will never allow into our lives ever again. But it becomes hard, in our times of weakness, to say, “No, it doesn’t matter how weak and broken I am right now, I am not going to do this, ever.” In those times of weakness, how do we get ourselves through? How do we get ourselves to not commit this sin that we have worked so hard, through the grace of God, to stay away from? It is by simply committing ourselves to the next 24 hours. Rather than telling ourselves that we only have to make it through the next, say, 75 years without this sin, we push ourselves to remain for simply the next 24 hours without it. By the time the next 24 hours have been reached, hopefully our strength will have been regained, if not then we push ourselves a little further—24 more hours. And that is how we will make it through. Little by little, bit by bit.
To me, these two points were paradigm shifting. They were enough to get me on the road to spiritual recovery. But this was not the extent to which the Alcoholics Anonymous experience aspired. Alcoholics Anonymous has a twelve step program to joining the road to recovery from alcoholism which again, with some slight modifications/explanations, actually fits our prophetic tradition and may be a helpful rubric to help us stop sin.
12 Steps to Spiritual Recovery (as I have adapted them from AA’s 12 steps)
1- ADMIT: We need to admit that we are powerless over our sins—that our lives have become unmanageable (in one way or another).
It is important to admit this to ourselves and to God. It is important to realize that we are powerless over our sin initially. That we are weak and that we have allowed ourselves to fall into something that we should not have. If we don’t admit this, if we continue to tell ourselves that we will be able to stop whatever sin we are doing ‘one day’ or ‘someday,’ then that day may never come. The first step: admit there is a problem.
2- BELIEVE: We need to believe that only God can restore us to sanity, in this and all other aspects.
Yes we are weak; yes we have been defeated in at least some ways through our persistence of sin. Once we have admitted this, in the first step, if we are to stop there then we will find ourselves defeated and nowhere near empowered. But of course, that is NOT what we want, nor how we were created to live at all. Islam is empowering. And we are empowered through the fact that God, the All-Powerful, is our supporter and He can restore our lives and heal our lives.
3- DECIDE: We need to make the decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
In step two we admitted to ourselves that it is only God who can restore us, so naturally we must now make the conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God. It is not enough to simply know something, we must actually embody it. It is at this point that we need to admit our weakness to God, ask him to strengthen us, and to lift us up above this sin so that it is no longer a part of our lives.
4- TAKE INVENTORY: We need to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
We need to gain self-awareness of what kind of moral decisions we are making in our lives. We need to be honest with ourselves and stop making excuses for ourselves. Admitting to the details of our moral slipping does not mean we are admitting to being horrific beings that can never be restored, rather it is admitting to our humanness. It is vitally important to admit to our humanness so that we can appreciate the Oneness of God which will take us leaps and bounds closer to Him and His grace.
5- ADMIT (again): We need to admit to God and to ourselves the exact nature of our wrongs.
This is just the continuation of step four. We need to be honest with ourselves about the wrongs we have committed. We need to admit them to God. Now it is important to know that God already knows the full nature of our sins, more than we do ourselves, however it is important to make this step and admit our brokenness in front of God. While doing this remember that God has told us that He is with the broken-hearted. He will not turn us away because we are admitting our wrongs to Him.
6- BE READY: We need to be entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
If we are only admitting our faults but do not have an actual desire to have these faults and flaws removed from our lives, then we are closing our hearts to the healing of God. If, however, we find ourselves not able to wish that these faults are taken away, the solution is simple: Ask God to grant you that wish. God is there for us, always. We need to ask Him for help along the way through every details, and He has the ultimate control over our feelings and has promised that if we call to Him, He will answer.
7- ASK: We need to ask Him, humbly, to remove our shortcomings.
Through step 6 we became ready for these shortcomings to be removed, so now we need to ask Him genuinely and humbly. Even though we know that He knows that we want these defects removed, we still need to ask clearly. God loves it when we ask of Him. Another bonus here is that du`a’ (supplications) is a form of worship, so even in your asking Him you are, insha’Allah (God willing), being rewarded for the process.
8- MAKE A LIST: We need to make a list of the people we have harmed and we need to become willing to make amends to them.
This step is extremely important. We need to realize that God will forgive us for the wrongs we committed against Him and ourselves, but not those that we have committed against others. The Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) showed this in one of the conversations he had with his believed companions. He asked “Do you know who is poor?” the Companions responded with the typical answer you may expect: “A poor man amongst us is on who has neither dirham nor wealth.” The Prophet ﷺ had not been concerned with the worldly meaning of this word, so he clarified to the companions who the real poor person is: “The poor of my Ummah (Muslim community) would be he who would come on the Day of Judgment with prayers and fasts and zakat (charity) but since he hurled abuses upon others, brought calumny against others and unlawfully consumed the wealth of others and shed the blood of others and beat others, and his virtues would be credited to the account of the [one who suffered at his hand]. And if his good deeds fall short to clear the account, then his sins would be entered in [his account] and he would be thrown in the Hell-fire.”
9- MAKE AMENDS: We need to make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them, or others.
Now that we realize the importance of making amends and we have a list of people whom we have harmed, we need to seek their forgiveness before it is too late. If it is a situation where addressing the person would hurt them even more or hurt others in the process, make du`a’ that God places forgiveness in their heart for you and do your best to make it up to that person without addressing the situation itself. Also, increase your good deeds that you do with this same intention.
10- REPEAT: We need to continue to take personal inventory, and when we are wrong, we need to promptly admit it.
Basically, this step is about admitting that we are human and that there is no way that we will never commit an injustice. The key is to continue to take moral inventory of ourselves and how we are dealing with our environments. Once we commit a wrong we should be prompt to admit our wrong and proceed to make amends, to God or to people (if we harm a person in any way).
11- SEEK HIM: We need to continuously seek, through prayer/remembrance/du`a’, to improve our contact with God, and to pray for knowledge of His will for us and for Him to grant us the power to carry that out.
A key point is that if we do not replace the emptiness that we may begin to feel from the sin that we are leaving with something beneficial, we will either fall back into our sin or fall into a new sin all together. We need to strengthen our tie to God through prayers, remembering Him constantly, and through du`a’. As long as we continue to seek Him, He will continue to pull us closer to Him, making our problems so much smaller in light of His Grace.
12- HELP OTHERS: Last, but not least, we need to try to help others around us to work through their struggles and to continue to try to implement these principles in all of our affairs.
We were placed on this earth as a community. Once we have been able to take on any of these steps, we should try to help anyone around us who is also struggling. This entails dealing with them with great mercy and kindness, and helping one another. This is where having a strong group of supporters around us will come in handy. We all have weaknesses, no matter how amazing we are, so be the support of people around us and allow people around us to support us through your struggles as well. Realize that in our efforts to help others, we are really only helping ourselves, as the Prophet ﷺ has told us: “He who relieves the hardship of a believer in this world, Allah will relieve his hardship on the Day of Judgment. He who makes easy what is difficult, Allah will make it easy for him in the world and the Hereafter. He who conceals the faults of a Muslim, Allah will conceal his faults in the world and the Hereafter, for Allah helps the servant so long as he helps his brother.” [Muslim]
It may seem strange that I am deriving things from a group that helps alcoholics and seems to have no ties to our religion, but it is also important to remember that “wisdom is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it then he has a right to it.” Know that it is not easy to leave something that we have become attached to, but the reward is in the struggle. Even if we find that we begin to make progress and then continuously slip back into our old ways, one thing we must never do is to give up. We were never asked to be perfect, as this is not in the nature of human beings. We have been asked to strive. And we can find comfort in the words of the Prophet ﷺ, “Every son of Adam is a sinner and the best of sinners are those who repent.”