Numbers are important in the Bible, and not just the 66 distinct books with 1,189 individual chapters containing 31,102 verses. I’m talking symbolism – “numerology” – as it is called. Numbers like “3” and “7” and “40,” among others, have been given theological meaning over time. Not the least of these significant numbers is “12.” When you see the number 12 in the Bible, think completeness or wholeness. For example, there are 12 tribes of ancient Israel; Jesus chose 12 disciples; the heavenly city is portrayed as having 12 gates; and the Jewish high priest wore a decorative breastplate with 12 precious stones.
Breaking free from the biblical text we find the Apostle’s Creed with 12 articles of faith; there are 12 days of Christmas; 12 months in a year; 12 signs of the Zodiac; 12 Imams who descended from Mohammed; 12 Greek Olympians; and today the European Union flag is a blue field with 12 golden stars. Twelve is universal, found in almost every culture around the world.
Centuries from now, when archeologists uncover the remnants of American society, they will find our own unique contribution to the number 12. In the rubble of geological strata, and as they dig in the dust of a forlorn time, they will uncover a giant, blue book. The cover will read: “The Basic Text for Alcoholics Anonymous.” And in that book they will find the “12 Steps,” first written down by Bill Wilson in 1939.
Bill, whose birthday is today, was something of a Wall Street sensation a century ago, but he drank heavily. Before long his alcoholism led to his demise, and he was reduced to panhandling for cash, the poster child for self-destruction. Bill finally came to the end of himself and cried out: “I’ll do anything! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!” Bill claims that his prayer was immediately answered. He experienced a spiritual awakening and never drank again. His physician said to him, “Something has happened to you that I don’t understand. But you had better hang on to it.” Hang on to it he did, and with Dr. Robert Smith, the two founded Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A).
Today there are millions of A.A. participants in scores of countries holding meetings in church basements, living rooms, community centers, and gymnasiums. Additionally, there are millions more who use the 12 Steps for everything from eating disorders and gambling enslavement to recovering from narcotic dependence and sexual addiction.
Bill Wilson’s insights have proven so successful, so lasting, because they encapsulate true spirituality: There must be an acknowledge of our limited abilities followed by a “vital spiritual experience” of surrender to a Higher Power. This is why author Keith Miller calls the 12 Steps “the greatest spiritual movement of the 20th century.” And it’s a movement that I believe will reach centuries into the future, for it is rooted in the greatest traditions of the past: By “letting go and letting God,” cliche aside, we can be transformed.
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