Pathways to a finding a Higher Power

The reality of Overeaters Anonymous is simple: It’s a spiritual program for people who are medicating their spiritual sickness with food. That means we turn to a Higher Power that we can trust and rely upon to live one day at a time without abusing food.

Bing, bang, boom, we’re done!

Well, if it were that easy, we’d have fixed the problem long ago. In practice, finding an HP we can count on is one of the most difficult trials we face in recovery, and most people fall into one of a few basic categories:

  1. The religious: We may belong to a religious organization already and have accepted its god figure as our own. Even so, religious knowledge isn’t enough, obviously, or those members wouldn’t need OA.
  2. The formerly religious: Lapsed church members have trouble because even though they want to be free of dogma, they seem unable to shake their religious upbringing.
  3. Atheists and agnostics: Those who believe there is no God or who are awaiting more evidence are immediately irritated by the necessity of a god in their life. As many others of us in OA can tell you, atheism and agnosticism are active stances in the same way that religiosity is.
  4. Those with no spiritual experience or inclination: In some ways these folks have it easiest since they may have no prior experiences or thinking to block their path, but they may also be the most dogmatic do-it-yourselfers in the room.

No matter which person we identify with the most, we have to find a way into spirituality…or else. We have to choose between dying miserably of our disease or trying out the spiritual solution.

As we noted earlier, every person finds their own way to a Higher Power. The one common truth we hear about each person’s journey, however, echoes what the Big Book explains in the chapter title “To Agnostics”: We cannot know a Power greater than ourselves, we can only experience It. The human mind is limited. Were we able to comprehend powers greater than our own, we would already be a Higher Power. And, believe us, we learn in OA that we are not.

So how do we get onto the spiritual path? Here’s a few common reflections we’ve heard over the years that might be helpful. Most members find their experience relates to more than one of these.

Actively searching for God

Some members begin their journey by using activities such as writing, discussion, reading OA (and non-OA) literature to seek a Higher Power. As they work, they gain insight about what they want and need from an HP and can then come to a conception that works for them.

Passively searching for God

Those of us who aren’t verbal processors might ask others in the program to talk about finding God, listening carefully for spiritual experiences that resonate with us. We attentively tune in during meetings to hear others’ perspectives. As we listen, we take what we need to develop a spiritual path and leave the rest.

Get willing, then wait and see

The Second Step only says that “we became willing” to believe in a Higher Power. The Third Step only says we make a decision about trusting and relying on God, but it doesn’t say we are required to have nailed down our concept of an HP. So, some pragmatic members decide to adopt a stance of willingness, go through the Steps honestly and carefully, and see what happens to them spiritually as they go along. We have yet to hear about a person who assiduously went through with the Steps and did not have a spiritual experience.

If it worked for them…

Closely related to the path above. In this model, we trust the spiritual experience of those whose stories of spiritual recovery we’ve heard. We forge ahead through the Steps, knowing that if those people got a spiritual awakening out of it, then we will too.

The God catalog

If we already know what we want from a Higher Power, but we don’t know of One in common circulation that fits the bill, then we can “order” One up. If we know that we want warmth, unconditional love, and support from an HP, we start right there. Those initial ideas may be enough. We might consider other properties of a god we could trust, and also of a god we would not trust, taking the former, declining the latter. We needn’t add a beard, a robe, earrings, a gender, hair color, anything if it doesn’t suit our purpose. And that purpose must always remain firmly in our mind. We are constructing a concept of a god that we will want to trust and rely on.

Prayer and meditation

Not surprisingly, these well-worn paths to a Higher Power feel least intuitive to many of us. We’re used to eschewing prayer, and we may only see meditation as a means of relaxation. These might feel to us like new-age mumbo jumbo or the long-rusted tools from a less scientific age. But after all, prayer is talking to God, and meditation is listening. We’re trying to find a God we can work with, so we might as well just go right to the source. “A little spiritual help here? Can you give me some clues?” Or why not just relax, close our eyes, connect with the quiet inside of ourselves, and see if any spiritual insights arise. The worst that might happen is that we have a quiet few minutes or fall asleep.

Try any of these or all of them. Adopt a stance of honest curiosity, and experience shows us that nothing can stand in our way. It’s been proven time and again among the ranks of Twelve-Step groups everywhere that we cannot fail to find a spiritual solution if we have honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. We don’t have to be perfect in all of this. We’re just looking for a spiritual light to lead us out of the darkness and toward the life we’ve always wanted to lead.

Is it possible that we don’t know what we think we know?

Virtually anyone who has been in the program for any length of time will have experienced some variation on this situation:

“What are you struggling with?”

“I’m struggling with the God thing.”


“Because I don’t believe in a god that cares about me.”

“But you believe in a Power greater than yourself?”

“Yes, but it’s not a god with a personality, it’s just nature, and nature doesn’t care about individuals.”

Some OAs are, in fact, trained as theologians or philosophers and could perhaps reply to this line of reasoning with a carefully wrought line of thinking. But even that might do no good. Why? Because the person in this situation believes they have God, the universe, and everything figured out. Some of us come into the rooms of OA with this belief because we’ve done a lot of thinking, reading, and talking about this matter. Much of it has been healthy reflection and good research, but nonetheless influenced by our illness, which uses our minds to keep us chained to food.

Let’s think for just a moment about how we who have been down this particular path have been thinking. Are we experts in matters of theology, philosophy, cosmology, psychology, neurology, and the other fields that might help us understand a higher power and the effect it might have on human will power? For that matter, even if we know the evidence, are we effective reasoners? Is our logical faculty sound, especially if we are in the food?

The fields in question are so vast that most of their experts spend a lifetime specializing in a single subdomain within them (or a subsubdomain). To believe that we can know all there is to know about any of them, let alone all of them is, perhaps, a form of either arrogance or ignorance. To further believe that as laypeople we are smart enough not to need a lifetime of training and expertise to figure out something so complex as the universe and the human mind is just as illogical as having blind faith in someone else’s definition of a higher power.

So faced with someone like our example above, we can ask them a single question: Is it possible that you don’t know what you think you know? Any reasonable person will answer that, of course, this is possible…that in fact it’s rather unlikely that any one of us knows all this. But we become unreasonable in the course of our illness. So be patient with the person you’ve asked this. Give them a moment to consider, or even a few days. Ask them again another time. Sometimes the power of a question like this needs a great deal of time to sink in.

Perhaps the reality for this type of thinker is that they are afraid the program won’t work for them. They may fear being forced to adopt something they do not believe in. They may fear failing because they don’t have a belief that can work for them. It may feel safer for them to be stuck where they are than to seek something that seems impossible to reach.

It is possible that this person needs only to know two things.

  1. They need only be open to the possibility that something out there might help them.
  2. That more will be revealed, if they do the Steps thoroughly.

We can’t say what will be revealed. It could be that they will engage with a Higher Power of the sort they didn’t think they could believe in. It could be that they will engage with a Higher Power of exactly the sort they did believe in but there perception of Whose power their diseased mind had limited. It could be something else altogether that they hadn’t imagined but that ultimately works for them.

Christopher Columbus believed the world was round and that by sailing westward, he’d eventually hit the East Indies. His opponents thought the world was flat. He discovered that he was partially right, but that there was land between Spain and the East Indies. But he couldn’t get any answer without first setting sail.

Step of the Month: Step Two…the God of Our Own Understandings

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

We have a disease that’s going to kill us. We might die young of a heart or circulatory disease. It might rob of us of our mobility joint by joint before the hammer comes down. Inevitably, we will first die an emotional and spiritual death. Whether or not family and friends surround us, we will die alone, isolated by this disease.

The trick is that the disease uses our own minds against us.

We slog along in this life thinking that one day we’ll crack the code and find a skinny, happy way of life. But we will never again be able to both control and enjoy our food. When we try to control food, we cannot enjoy it. When we try to enjoy our food, we eat uncontrollably. Eventually we can do neither, yet our mind keeps up its illusion that someday we’ll figure it out. This despite a lifetime of evidence that once we can’t stop once we start, and we cannot stop from starting.

So we are faced with a decision. Are we going to treat this disease with seriousness of mind and purpose, or are we going to keep playing at the control-and-enjoy game? If we are serious, then we must take an objective look at the situation and ask ourselves a simple question:

How will my food be brought under control if I can’t do it?

Here we have only two answers:

A) Another person will control our food.

B) A Power greater than ourselves will control it.

But A isn’t really a reasonable answer, is it? No other person can enter our minds and hearts and pull the strings for us. We wouldn’t allow it, for one thing, and for another, we’ve often tried to approximate such conditions to no effect. We’ve tried Dr. So-and-So’s diet. Or gone to a counsellor or a psychiatrist. These don’t work because we’re still in control. So the answer must be B…or else.

This isn’t an easy answer to come to. It means that we have exhausted all other avenues. The Big Book tells us that a so-called “heavy eater” can stop on the influence of others or when drastic action is required. We are beyond that. We no longer have the luxury to dabble in other kinds of human aid. A Higher Power is our last chance.

At the same time, we do have some choice in the matter. Two actually. First, we get to decide that we will believe that this Power can help us. We are always at liberty to decide an HP won’t help us and be on our miserable way. But what good comes of that? It brings on only more pain, more suffering, more despair. The question here is Why not try the HP idea? Second we get to decide what this Power means to us. No one in OA is asked to take up anyone else’s idea of a Higher Power. The only requirement for a Higher Power is that it be effective. There’s no point in believing in something that won’t do us any good!

Let’s say for a moment that we have decided we’ll try the God idea. If we are already members of an organized religion, we might then choose Jesus, Y____, Allah, Buddha, or any other powerful figure known to us. We may wonder why these figures haven’t helped us yet, and that’s a reasonable question. We will find out shortly as we move through the Steps.

What if we are former members of a religion but are embittered by our experience? Here we may ask ourselves whether we might work with the God of that religion, absent of any dogma or religious intermediaries. If not, then we may ask ourselves this powerful question: What do I want in a Higher Power? Once we answer that question, we have arrived at an effective God concept.

How about those who have never had religious instruction but aren’t atheists or agnostics? They too can ask What do I want in a Higher Power? We need only be as specific as is required for recovery. If the gender of our HP is important to us, then we ascribe a gender. If not, we needn’t. If the form and appearance of our HP is important to us, then we give It features and characteristics. If not, we don’t. Many members choose traits such as unconditional love, steadfastness, caring, and nearness. The important matter is whether we define God in a way that enables us to work toward recovery. We may ask program friends what their HPs are like and how they came to believe in them.

Agnostics, by definition, have no opinion on the God question. They await information that will help them make a decision. They may wish to consider the idea that the fellowship, itself, has power greater than our individual selves. Beginning from this point of view, they may look at others and listen to their stories. How does a 400 pound food addict recover? How can all of these people, who were as hopeless as the agnostic him/herself, have recovered if their minds were poisoned against them? Is randomness or the placebo effect a reasonable answer? The aggregates of these recoveries are data that may help the agnostic move toward belief.

Finally, what about the atheist? The true non-believer? Plenty of them in our ranks. Here are two ways that atheists have arrived at means to do Step 2. First, one longtime member defines a Higher Power as “Love, truth, justice, and beauty.” Another defines a Higher Power as “The God of My Not Understanding.” In the first instance, the longtime member believes that these four ideals have great power in the world. The member has experienced these powers in their feelings toward a loved one or in the face of injustice, so they know that these forces are capable of doing for a person what their mind alone cannot do. Our second atheist at some point decided that it was possible, if unlikely, that they may not have the complete picture of the universe. Could they have been arrogant to believe they knew everything? So our second friend’s compromise worked splendidly because they needn’t define a God in anyone else’s terms nor have to fight internally about the logical inconsistencies of a human-defined deity. Most important, it worked.

Twelve Step programs take a great deal of flack in some quarters because God is the engine of recovery rather than people. It is difficult for an outsider who hasn’t experienced our level of degradation to understand just what addiction does to our hearts in addition to our minds. They don’t understand that we truly have lost the power of choice in our eating. We are willing to try the God idea because everything else that we’ve done has failed, and maybe, just maybe, this God thing will work. After all, the only thing we have to lose is weight. And misery. And despair. And hopelessness. And fear. And innumerable other sufferings.

Member Experience #4: What About the God Thing?

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I did a lot of research about OA before I walked in the door of my first meeting. The God thing had me worried because I had finally shaken off my religious upbringing. I considered myself a committed atheist. In reality, I was an atheist who should’ve been committed.

I knew some 12-Step folks, and they told me, to a person, that I didn’t have to worry about the God business. Later I learned this was a gentle way of saying don’t let your pride and your prejudices get in the way of a joyful recovery. Soon, you all showed me that it didn’t matter what my belief about God consisted of, so long as I believed three things:

  1. There was a Power great than myself
  2. This Power had the ability to change my food behaviors for me
  3. This Power would do so, if I created a relationship with It.

Nothing there about beards, lightning bolts, or afterlives. Nor anything about my character or that I had to fear punishment. Nor anything about any appointed person I had to go through in order to seek this power. In fact, the three points I learned told me that this Power loved me and wanted a direct relationship with me. Perhaps most important: I could believe anything else about a Power greater than myself that I wanted to and that helped me recover.

It took me about six or eight months to fully comprehend this idea, but when I did, OA opened up for me in an amazing way. Abstinence wasn’t something I had to fight for, it was something that I asked for, participated in, and gratefully received. It took me another year before I comfortably used the word God, but it’s faster to say than “Higher Power.” It took me a little more time yet to be willing to capitalize the G in God. I do so now because it reminds me that God is a real thing, and because It has helped me, so I owe the respect of an uppercase letter. A small thing? Yeah, but for a former atheist, a huge change.

In the end, I suppose that the organized religion of my youth might yet consider me an atheist because I don’t believe in its concept of god anymore. That’s OK with me nowadays; everyone has the right to their own beliefs. And today I believe in a concept that works for me and keeps me out of the food and in OA. The God thing worked out just fine. recently added a page to its site called To Atheists and Agnostics which is well worth a moment to read.