2012 - May

How to approach the 4th Step inventory is a problem that, sooner or later, all of us in recovery have had to face. Over the years, dozens of different guides have been developed and circulated among our various 12-Step Fellowships. These guides range from simple list-making techniques to lengthy, analytical questionnaires, some totaling fifty pages and more. While all would agree that “a thorough housecleaning” is vital for anyone serious about recovery from addiction; obviously there are a great many opinions about how it should best be done. While I know the field of inventory guides is already overcrowded, for simplicity’s sake, and in memory of Dr. Bob, I’m willing to risk one more!

In 1934, when Bill Wilson joined the Oxford Group and found his sobriety, there were no 4th Step guides until 1938 there were no 12 Steps! What did exist was “a word of mouth program” based largely on the Four Absolutes or the Four Moral Standards the Oxford Group had adopted. These Standards were: Honesty, Unselfishness, Purity, and Love. Group members measured their thoughts, lives and actions against these four moral standards and from these and from other related Group practices emerged the 12 Steps.

Back then, the “housecleaning” called for was a fairly simple matter. Newcomers to the Group like Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, as well as the first one hundred or so of their earliest followers, would likely have been asked to write down these Four Standards on four separate sheets of paper and then write about how they had fallen short in living up to them. They would then share their “moral inventory” with another group member, make restitution for the harms they had done, begin practicing a daily Quiet Time by reading scripture and listening for God’s guidance, and begin leading a life of maximal service to God and to others. Interestingly, the A.A. pioneers using this simple inventory tool achieved a recovery rate far in excess of what we see today. In his last major address to A. A. in 1948, Dr. Bob reaffirmed his longstanding commitment to the Absolutes:

“The Four Absolutes, as we called them, were the only yardsticks we had in the early days, before the Steps. I think the Absolutes still hold good and can be extremely helpful. I have found at times that a question arises, and I want to do the right thing, but the answer is not obvious, almost always, if I measure my decision carefully by the yardsticks of absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, absolute purity, and absolute love, and it checks up pretty well with those four, then my answer can't be very far out of the way.”

The Cleveland A.A. office still publishes a pamphlet on the Four Absolutes and Old-Timers, both there and around the country, believe they still have a great deal to offer us as a moral compass that can guide us on the way to a new life in recovery.

To help you complete a 4th Step using the Four Standards as a guide, here are a few suggested pointers and questions to get you started. First and foremost, remember that in Step Three you made a decision placing your life and your will under God’s protection and care. Now begin benefitting from this by relying on Him to show you the character defects you need to become aware of through your inventory. The 4th Step is not meant to be an in-depth psychoanalysis of ourselves, rather it is asking God to awaken us to seeing where our lives have been out of alignment with His will for us. It’s really that simple! So say a short prayer asking to be shown what you need to see; then get on with your writing.


(Is it true or is it false?)

  • How have I been dishonest with others and with myself?
  • Have I lied, manipulated, cheated and stolen from others? List the big ones.
  • Who was hurt by my dishonesty?
  • How did this hurt my relationship with God, remembering that God is Truth?


(How will it affect others?)

  • How has self-centeredness shown itself in my life and who has been hurt by it?
  • Are there people, institutions or principles that still anger me? If so, is there a role I played – either bringing it about or holding on to my resentment?
  • How have I put my own self-interest ahead of God’s plan for me to be of service to others?


(Is it right or is it wrong?)

  • What past or present behaviors, thoughts or feelings make me feel guilty, isolated, or ashamed?
  • What are the areas of my life that I don’t want others to see?
  • Remembering that my sex powers are God given and good, where has my sex life strayed from what I believe God’s will is for me?


(Is it ugly or is it beautiful?)

  • How has fear dominated my life?
  • Has my life been isolated – a lonely life of “taking” rather than “giving”?
  • Now, with God’s help, am I ready make “love and service” my code?

The Big Book concludes the inventory section by saying: “If you have already made a decision, (Step 3) and an inventory of your grosser handicaps (Step 4), you have made a good beginning. That being so you have swallowed and digested some big chunks of truth about yourself.” Now ask yourself the following question: Have I knowingly omitted writing down anything I have done or left undone that makes me feel guilty, ashamed or separated from God, from people, or from myself? If your answer is an honest, “NO!” then get on to Step 5 as fast as you can; for, the Big Book promises:

“Once we have taken this step, withholding nothing, we are delighted. We can look the world in the eye. We can be alone at perfect peace and ease. Our fears fall from us. We begin to feel the nearness of our Creator. We may have had certain spiritual beliefs, but now we begin to have a spiritual experience. The feeling that the drink problem has disappeared will often come strongly. We feel we are on the Broad Highway, walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe.”

Dr. Bob left his blessing on the Four Absolutes to help us find our way back to God whenever we get lost. He also left a warning to his fellow co-founder, “Bill, let’s not louse this thing up. Let’s keep it simple.” (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, p. 343). I hope this simple guide would make Bob happy and further his wish to keep the Absolutes alive and well.

About the Author

Fr. Bill W is Chair of Recovery Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Send comments to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . To explore some of the original, transformational power of the 12 Steps, visit www.AllAddictsAnonymous.org and order Invitation to a Great Experiment. It was written by Tom Powers who helped Bill write the 12 & 12 and other AA books.

( 4 Votes )
Comments (9)
9 Sunday, 04 September 2016 08:59
joanne edmondsoni don't hAVE A WEBSIFE
8 Sunday, 21 February 2016 01:45
I have been tying to figure out step 4. Since one of AA's motos is " Keep it simple" I knew there had to be a way for me to understand how to get started. The 4 absolutes is perfect and very revealing. Thank you. Now I can proceed.
7 Saturday, 13 February 2016 05:58
Tim S
Very effective inventory format, and much easier. I am one of the four; Fearful, Resentful, Selfish, dishonest.
These in turn make me demand more of my God given instincts then God has intended for me, I come into conflict with myself and the people around me. Instincts for Sex, Recognition, Belonging, Security (emotional & financial), Food, and the use of my talents. Which in turn bring out my defects of character. Pride, Anger, Greed, Lust, Envy, Sloth, Gluttony.
Hope this helps!
6 Sunday, 29 November 2015 19:51
Ted O'Donnell
I was purposely looking on Recovery sites for the "Four Absolutes" tonight. This was the first article I read. Thanks
5 Tuesday, 17 February 2015 16:41
Jeff B.
Finally a way I can wrap my head around the fourth step.
4 Saturday, 17 January 2015 06:50
Somehow I made it through the first 3 steps unaware of my journey. It wasn't until I explained my path to my therapist that she told me "you have worked through the first three steps. Now go through step 4." I needed guidance, and this is perfect. Thank you. I will come back.
3 Saturday, 01 November 2014 19:08
Phil W.
Great and simple way of getting to the truth about yourself. With 22 years of uninterrupted sobriety I now understand the 4th column and it's significance for living in the dimension of the spirit. The one where I own what I do and fell.
I'm gonna keep coming back!!
2 Friday, 30 May 2014 09:47
hi my name is r.a an i'm an addict from the middle east.i'm clean for nearly 5 yrs.all what i need is a symple answers of step 4..
best regards
1 Saturday, 05 January 2013 15:23
Doug S.
Love this article. Just what I was looking for. A simple new way to go through the steps again. Thank you!

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