4 Absolutes

4 absolutes


Many of the practices and spiritual principles of the 12 Steps came from the Oxford Group.  Founded by Frank Buchman in 1921, the Oxford Group was a nondenominational Christian spiritual movement.

Dr. Buchman believed that all problems were rooted in fear and selfishness within a person. The solution to fear and selfishness, according to Buchman was to surrender one’s life over to God and His Plan.

The Oxford Group was really more practical than ideological. Even though it was nominally Christian, in essence, it was really ecumenical. The Oxford Group sought to transcend the limitations of any particular faith in order to discover universal spiritual tools. If practiced, over time, individuals would become spiritually transformed. It was really quite radical!

The co-founders of AA, Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. met through the Oxford Group, and codified several of its tenets into AA.

For members of the Oxford Group, the 4 Absolutes were the guiding spiritual goals that they tried to practice to the best of their ability.

These ideals called for: Absolute Honest, Absolute Unselfishness, Absolute Purity, and Absolute Love.

The absolutes were used by the Oxford Group in at least three specific ways:

1 – As a way to take inventory of our past to see where we fell short and in what ways, so that we could learn what areas of our life we need to work on.
2 – During meditation or while being inspired or guided by our Inner Voice, as a way to differentiate between “God” thoughts and self- thoughts.
3 – As a standard of living, moment by moment.

Dr. Bob and the 4 Absolutes

In 1948, Dr. Bob recalled the Absolutes as “the only yardsticks” A.A. had in the early days, before the official Twelve Steps. He said he still felt they held good and could be extremely helpful when he wanted to do the right thing and the answer was not obvious. “Almost always, if I measure my decision carefully by the yardstick of the absolutes and it checks up pretty well with those four, then my answer can’t be very far out of the way,” he said.

I find it easier to list and define the 4 Absolutes by using the chart below.

4 absolutes God's will and self will

When using the 4 Absolutes as “external yardsticks” to measure one’s thoughts, words and actions, one needs to ask:

Am I being honest?

Am I acting unselfishly?

Are my motives pure?

Am I acting out of Love?

If it passes the “test” then proceed.


I also made this chart comparing the 4 Absolutes with the 4 Character Defects as outlined in the AA Big Book and the Serenity Prayer.

It is hard to discuss the 4 Absolutes in isolation. Now that I am aware of them, I see the thread of the 4 Absolutes woven into the pattern and fabric of program and the AA Big Book. They seem to be relevant to everything!

Program works on the “law of substitution.”

Deep and lasting recovery comes from the daily practice of transforming our core character defects of “selfishness and self- centeredness” into unselfishness and service.

self will god's will png

In Steps 1, 2 and 3, we focus on our relationship with God. The character defect of fear is most prominent, since fear is a lack of trust that God is going to take care of us and give us what we need.

The antidote to fear is faith – we trust that God will take care of us and give us what we need and He knows better than we do.

In Steps 4, 5, 6 and 7, we look at our relationship with ourselves and others. How do we conduct ourselves with others and ourselves?

We need to make amends and change how we behave and fix the part of ourselves that allowed us to hurt other people. This can only happen if we are truly honest with ourselves.

In Steps 5, 8 and 9 we need to forgive ourselves and ask others for their forgiveness.

By forgiving others, we begin the process of developing compassion. We focus on fixing our past mistakes and changing our current behavior.

When we strive to act from a God-centered place, rather than from a self-centered place, we cultivate courage, acceptance, wisdom, serenity and ultimately compassion. Over time, we will cultivate right thoughts and correct actions. We will be of maximum service to God and our fellows.

Why the 4 Absolutes are not specifically mentioned in the AA Big Book:

In the early 1930’s the Oxford Group fell into disfavor. So, when Bill W. broke away from the Oxford Group to create what is now known as AA, he deliberately set out to distance AA from the controversial Oxford Group.

Bill W. was afraid that the use of the 4 Absolutes and other Oxford Group terminology would prejudice the general public against the new fellowship.

Consequently, the 4 Absolutes are only referred to indirectly in their opposite self-will form in the AA Big Book. Rather than focusing on honesty, unselfishness, purity and love, the AA Big Book, asks us to examine where self-will fails us:  where were we selfishness, self-seeking, dishonesty and afraid?

Bill W., for the same reason, also did not reference the Oxford Group practice on 2 way prayer and written prayer in the AA Big Book. Once program was firmly establish, Bill W. realized that Bill W. realized that, “something was lost from A.A. when we stopped emphasizing the morning meditation” (AA, 1980, p. 178).  As the times changed, Bill W. belatedly acknowledged the tremendous debt of gratitude that AA owed the Oxford Group.

Chart of terminology in the AA Big Book compared to the 4 Absolutes:

step 10 4 and 11 & 4 Absolutes PNG

Step 4 Questions: Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking and frightened? (AA Big Book, 67:2)

Step 10 Directions: Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment and fear. (AA Big Book, 84:2)

Step 11 Questions: Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid? (AA Big Book, 86:2)


The 4 Absolutes are powerful tools for discernment and direction.

When we strive to live according to the standards of the 4 Absolutes, we learn to think, act and respond differently. We become transformed!

The Four Absolutes are still published in pamphlet form (included below) by the Cleveland Central Committee of A.A. and are widely quoted at A.A. meetings in the Akron-Cleveland area.

A copy of the pamphlet can be ordered by calling the A.A. Intergroup at 216-241-7387 (Cleveland) or 330-253-8181 (Akron).

The Oxford Group is still around too. It changed its name to “Moral Re-Armament” in 1938.  Then, in 2001, it renamed itself “Initiatives of Change.”


Here are links to the various posts on the blog about the 4 Absolutes:

Purity the finale of 4 Absolutes

Purity in action

Do you have a pure heart quiz 11

Love- the four absolutes

Unselfishness-the four absolutes

What does it look like in your life when you are absolutely honest


Blog-Honesty 6-25-13

4 Absolutes – We Apply The Tests

The Four Absolutes

Additional References:

IofC International


The Six Steps of the Oxford Group

Silkworth.net is my go-to source for for almost everything, particularly about the history of AA. Unfortunately, the links previously posted are no longer active. Please go to site directly if you would like to know more about what is available on the 4 Absolutes from the author.

Spiritual Steps.com is another great resource. They also do a Back to Basics and all their resources are posted on their site.

Please note: since I started this blog, I have noticed that many of the sources that were available when this group first began are no longer available. I hate to remove a reference even if it is no longer available.


  1. Good evening this information is what I needed as I find today’s fellowships are really watered down..I’m from the uk and love for some literature regarding the 4 absolutes and how to practice them and bring them in to the fellowship where I attended, and give it a spark.. would be so grateful for any thing regarding help…

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.