Christians and Accountability by Tim Challies
Today I want to say a word about Christians and accountability groups or accountability partnerships. I am not sure if Christians have always spoken as much of accountability as we do today or if this has been a happy result of organizations such as Promise Keepers. I guess I have not been an adult Christian long enough to know.
I am convinced there is great benefit in Christians pursuing accountability relationships, at least in some situations. It is valuable, I believe, for Christians to meet on a regular basis to confess sin, to speak of God’s grace, to share triumphs, to ask tough questions and to pray for one another. I meet every week among a group of leaders from my church and just about every week somebody asks one of these questions: “Is there anything you really do not want to talk about?” or “Is there something you should tell us that you’re hoping nobody will ask?” These are good questions, leading questions, that cause us to probe our hearts a little bit to see if there is something we ought to confess. As leaders and potential leaders in the church, we desire transparency; we believe the Bible demands it.
As much as there has been great personal benefit in these times of accountability and in living with the specter of accountability, I’ve seen as well that there is one drawback; not surprisingly, it is a drawback related to my own sin. A little while ago I was reading a book review by Erik Raymond and thought he brought this out so succinctly. “Accountability is often quite helpful,” he said. “However, many times folks end up fearing their ‘accountability partner’ while remaining numbly void of a healthy fear of God. This does not kill the root of sin, but unwittingly increases a fear of man (idolatry).”
I know that this has been something I’ve been prone to. Because of my accountability relationships I find myself putting sin to death, or at least refusing to give in to sin and temptation of various kinds. But often, when I look to my heart, I see that my motive is hardly pure. I am motivated by not wanting to have to admit or confess such sin to another person. Every week, before we meet, we fill out a sheet that asks a variety of questions: have I been faithful to pray for the men and women of the church this week? Have any of my financial dealings failed to be filled with integrity? Have I given sufficient time to my family? Have I fallen into any kind of sexual sin? Did I take a day off this week? Though this is a helpful way of examining my week, looking back to see evidence of sin in my life and evidence of God’s grace, I know that my heart is often motivated more by a desire not to confess sin to other men than it is to honor God. In other words, I am often motivated more by fear of man than I am by a fear of God.
I’ve (quite literally) laid awake some nights, wondering what is going on in my heart that I’d be more concerned about what my friends and pastors think of me than I am by a desire to obey God. If I want to be very pragmatic, I can rejoice that at least I am not sinning; without accountability I might be more likely to give in to temptation. After all, if that were the case, only God might ever know. If no one was going to ask me whether I’ve been faithful to pray for the people of the church, I would be more likely not to pray. But I pray, at least in part because I know that I will have to answer the question, “Did you pray for the men and women of the church this week?”. But then I wonder, what kind of prayers am I offering if they are motivated by fear of man instead of obedience to God? Does God even want to hear such prayers? What if they are 50% obedience, 50% fear of man? Or 80% obedience and 20% fear or man?
I think Erik nails it when he says accountability may give opportunity not to kill the root of sin, but to actually increase a fear of man. This is not the fault of accountability, I’m sure, but of the individual’s sinful heart. It’s my fault, not accountability’s. There is some kind of idol in my life that values the acceptance of man or a desire to perform well in the eyes of man more than it desires to be obedient to God for the sake of God. At least, that’s the only explanation I can offer.
Now this article leaves one wondering, “How then, do we deal with this accountability thing?” So I included another article below to propose another approach.
Instead of having a set aside time when you have someone ask you the “hard questions”, find someone that really knows you and sees you day in and day out and set aside a time once a month or so to ask them one hard question: “Has there been anything you see in my life that needs adjustment or correction?” This way it gives the other person the freedom and permission to say whatever they see in your life and it takes away the ability of the confessor to “edit” his comments and only confess what he wants to confess and also helps you be aware of sins committed that you may be completely oblivious to. If you are married your spouse is perfect person to do this with, if you are single maybe it’s a trusted co-worker or family member.
Of course there are secret sins that we commit that need time for specific confession with another person, but I believe that a consistent discipline of “checking in” with those who know you deeply and love you deeply may be a more effective way for increased sanctification in this life. It takes a great deal of humility to open yourself up to someone in this way, but I believe that in the end the blessing will be huge.
(Much of what I have said here is credited to things I have heard CJ Mahaney say over the past few years)