What Does It Mean to “Let Go and Let God” in AA?

It’s not unusual to hear people in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings or 12-step groups mention the importance of “letting go and letting God.” This quote serves as advice for what to do when facing struggles and obstacles while navigating recovery. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.

In this article:

Letting Go

If you have an alcohol use disorder, you know how challenging it can be not to use alcohol. You may have tried to become entirely abstinent from alcohol unsuccessfully more than once. In fact, deciding or trying to stop drinking several times before finding sobriety is a clinical characteristic of alcohol use disorder.1 Trying to achieve and maintain sobriety alone may result in repeating this cycle.

For some, giving up trying to fix your problems on your own is a difficult decision. Alcohol use disorder can be accompanied by feelings of isolation, unworthiness, and a negative sense of self. You may feel a sense of shame, guilt, or failure because you have not yet become sober through sheer force of will or you may alternate between downplaying the problem and feeling overwhelmed, helpless, or even scared of the potential consequences of continued alcohol misuse.

While many of these emotions are common and normal, you have not failed and your pursuit of recovery has not reached a dead-end. It is uncommon for individuals with a moderate to severe alcohol use disorder to manage the medical and behavioral measures required to stop using alcohol and stay sober without outside help, which may include medically supervised detox, inpatient or outpatient rehab, therapy, and peer support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

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When you find the strength to admit that you cannot control your alcohol use and need help, you can start the process of letting go. You become motivated for change and can begin to seek ways to make changes in your life that over time can give you back the ability to decide whether or not to have that drink. You may become open to different models of change, from psychological and social to spiritual.2

While AA is not formal addiction treatment and cannot replace clinical or therapeutic services, AA offers various meeting types, programs, and literature resources that are intended to help individuals with alcohol addiction. The 12 Steps of AA is one of the most common AA programs. In the 12 Steps and other AA materials, you will be encouraged to connect with your higher power. This higher power is often referred to as “God” in AA materials. 2

Letting God (Or Your Higher Power)

You may hear “God” used a lot in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and quotes like “Let go and let God.” However, it is a myth that “God” refers to a Christian god only. That’s why many choose to replace “God” with “higher power.”3 While the founders of AA identified as Christian and connected with the Christian god as their higher power, AA is an areligious organization today.

Your higher power can refer to any loving deity, higher concept, or spiritual entity. The idea of a higher power connects you with something greater than yourself and to a mental place where you can turn over your alcoholism, control, baggage, worries, and fears. In doing so, you free yourself from feeling overwhelmed and hopeless and begin to see the possibility of having a happy, sober life.3

When you “let God,” you accept help from your higher power. You stop trying to live your plan for your life and instead agree to live the plan created for you by your higher power. In return, you start participating in activities that build your relationship with your higher power and move you forward in recovery, like meditation or prayer.3

You may also spend more time on other recovery-focused activities as you come to understand that this serves your goal of long-term recovery and the hopeful, happy, and loving future your higher power would choose for you. Connecting with your higher power may lead to attending therapy or relapse prevention classes more consistently, volunteering through AA, attentively following your medication plan, better following the rules of your sober living home, and so on. These changes may feel less “spiritual” than prayer or meditation but serve the same goal.

You may find that giving some control to your addiction treatment care team, AA sponsor, trusted sober loved ones, case manager, or other people who have your recovery in mind is also a form of “letting God.”

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Letting Go and Letting God in Working the 12 Steps

There are specific steps when working the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous that facilitate the relationship between you and your higher power and use humility as the foundation of your transformation on your recovery journey.4

When you have an alcohol use disorder, you can become hyper focused on your relationship with alcohol. Many individuals with alcohol addiction make obsessively specific plans for how they will get more alcohol, spend significant time using alcohol, and find that the time necessary to recover from using alcohol takes away from other things in their life. This is another clinical criterion that can be used to diagnose an alcohol use disorder.

Expanding your circle of focus outside your alcohol use and yourself is a natural part of the recovery process, but not necessarily an easy change in perspective. This process is often described as finding a sense of humility. Humility allows you to admit powerlessness over your current alcohol use, to surrender to your higher power, to admit and work on the flaws you are responsible for, and to tolerate the mistakes of others.

The 12 Steps of AA offer multiple opportunities to explore humility that allow you to:4

  • Acknowledge your faults before a higher power
  • Appraise yourself honestly and share your moral inventory with another person
  • Make amends to those you have harmed when using alcohol, when possible
  • Ask for help from your higher power in daily activities

The 12 Steps are guidelines for personal and spiritual growth that you can work at your own pace. When it comes to letting go and letting God, some steps are more directly related, like Step 1.

Step 1: We Admitted We Were Powerless Over Alcohol—That Our Lives Had Become Unmanageable.

Step 1 is the beginning of your relationship with a higher power. It’s when you realize that alcohol addiction is a complex medical condition that can develop related to multiple factors, including genetic influence, environment, and history. You recognize how alcohol alters the brain and makes it extremely difficult to quit drinking without help.

You open yourself up to a power beyond yourself—including your higher power, evidence-based addiction recovery methods, and qualitative principles that have helped others find sobriety—and confess your need for help.5

Step 2: Came to Believe a Power Greater Than Ourselves Could Restore Us to Sanity.

Albert Einstein’s quote that has been accepted as conventional wisdom states that, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The chaos and “insanity” associated with alcohol use disorder includes repeating behaviors even when they cause harm. The disease of alcohol addiction makes it difficult not to continue the cycle of using alcohol, including relapsing after a period of sobriety. Finding strength, support, and empowerment in your higher power through Step 2 can provide the mental component that is vital to feeling motivated and hopeful in early recovery.5

Belief alone is not enough, however. You must also participate in activities that support recovery and further your relationship with your higher power.5

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Step 3 is the definition of “letting go and letting God.” The effects of alcohol on your neurochemistry may mean that willpower alone will not produce lasting sobriety. You have decided to abstain from alcohol, but now must ask for help from your higher power and others.

Once you’ve made this decision, you can identify how to turn your will and life over to your higher power and other trustworthy professionals and people who can help you navigate recovery. Many of the other 12 Steps focus on concrete ways to do this. You make amends, admit your wrongs, and continue to evaluate yourself. You may incorporate step work into your daily life, including repeating steps when needed.5

Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Eventually, you reach Step 11, which continues your daily walk with your higher power.

Some studies show that spirituality is correlates with AA participation and abstinence from alcohol. Specifically, a reduction in drinking was seen among those who used spiritual practices early in the 12 Step process.6

Research does not necessarily indicate that religion or spirituality have a causal relationship with more positive recovery outcomes. However, some research suggests that the approach in AA of connecting to a higher power has potential behavioral benefits that translate into better recovery outcomes, such as:7

  • Enhancing motivation and behavioral coping
  • Improving the ability to reframe stressful events or life experiences
  • Heightening cognitive vigilance in a manner that reduces the risk of relapse
  • Creating a sense of belonging within oneself, an identified religious or spiritual community, and the AA community
  • Improving perceived mood and increasing how often emotions like joy, compassion, love, and forgiveness are experienced
  • Allowing for spiritual exploration beyond AA, which can provide additional psychological benefits that reinforce ongoing recovery-related changes

Benefits of Letting Go and Letting God

There is a reason 73% of substance use treatment facilities in America incorporate a spiritual element, like the 12 Steps, that encourage a relationship between you and a higher power. They have found that faith, or religious or spiritual connections, aid in substance use prevention and recovery.8

Additional benefits of faith found in multiple research studies include the following:8

  • Reduces the risks of substance misuse
  • Creates greater resilience when facing stressors
  • Facilitates healing
  • Promotes positive mental and physical health
  • Contributes to higher rates of recovery

There is an essential factor to consider when incorporating a spiritual component in recovery. You can’t simply “let go and let God” in your mind. Yes, you are getting your thoughts aligned with the concept of surrendering and trusting your higher power. But it doesn’t stop there. What you do after letting go and letting God will help you achieve and maintain sobriety.

What to Do After Letting Go and Letting God

“Pray for potatoes, then pick up a hoe.”

This is another of AA sayings, meaning once you surrender to a higher power, that’s when the real work begins. These are activities that make you feel better, draw you closer to your higher power, and positively impact recovery outcomes.

Much research has been conducted on the connection of the mind, body, and spirit. Your mental health impacts physical and spiritual health, and vice versa. Mindfulness, meditation, and even mantras are activities that can enhance your progress in recovery.9

Finding ways to practice spirituality leads to positive emotions, which can contribute to positive health outcomes. Qualitative studies have linked spirituality to improved ability to:10

  • Cope with adversities
  • Feel happier
  • Have hope and feel optimism
  • Find meaning and purpose
  • Feel a sense of control

Fortunately, there are ways you can learn more about spirituality in recovery from alcoholism and what it means to let go and let God.

In some cases, you may find that letting go and letting God may mean accepting that you need additional addiction treatment services to find and maintain sobriety. Our treatment specialists are available at 800-839-1686Who Answers? to discuss professional addiction services that can help you take your next step in recovery.

Resources

  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021). Alcohol Use Disorder. MedlinePlus.
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (1999). Chapter 1—Conceptualizing Motivation and Change. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series No. 35. Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Abuse Treatment. Rockville (MD).
  3. Sussman, S., Reynaud, M., Aubin, H. J., & Leventhal, A. M. (2011, October 4). Drug addiction, love, and the higher power. Evaluation & the Health Professions, 34(3), 362–370.
  4. Post, S. G., Pagano, M. E., Lee, M. T., & Johnson, B. R. (2016, July 15). Humility and 12-Step Recovery: A Prolegomenon for the Empirical Investigation of a Cardinal Virtue in Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 34(3), 262–273.
  5. Blum, K., Thompson, B., Demotrovics, Z., Femino, J., Giordano, J., Oscar-Berman, M., Teitelbaum, S., Smith, D. E., Roy, A. K., Agan, G., Fratantonio, J., Badgaiyan, R. D., & Gold, M. S. (2015, August 22). The Molecular Neurobiology of Twelve Steps Program & Fellowship: Connecting the Dots for Recovery. Journal of Reward Deficiency Syndrome, 1(1), 46–64.
  6. Tonigan, J. S., Rynes, K. N., & McCrady, B. S. (2013). Spirituality as a change mechanism in 12-step programs: a replication, extension, and refinement. Substance Use & Misuse, 48(12), 1161–1173.
  7. Kelly, J. F., Stout, R. L., Magill, M., Tonigan, J. S., & Pagano, M. E. (2011). Spirituality in recovery: a lagged mediational analysis of alcoholics anonymous’ principal theoretical mechanism of behavior change. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental research, 35(3), 454–463.
  8. Grim, B. J., & Grim, M. E. (2019). Belief, Behavior, and Belonging: How Faith is Indispensable in Preventing and Recovering from Substance Abuse. Journal of Religion and Health, 58(5), 1713–1750.
  9. Burke, A., Lam, C. N., Stussman, B., & Yang, H. (2017, June 15). Prevalence and patterns of use of mantra, mindfulness, and spiritual meditation among adults in the United States. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 17(1),
  10. Koenig H. G. (2012, December 16). Religion, spirituality, and health: the research and clinical implications. ISRN Psychiatry, 2012,

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