Time to Redefine the Dreaded “A” Word?

If you’ve been moving around in Christian circles for more than five minutes, then you already know that one of the many goals of living in Christian community is to “sharpen” one another (Proverbs 27:17) and help each other set aside lifelong sin patterns that hold us back from full, unbridled enjoyment of our communion with the living God (Hebrews 12:1-2). As we move along in any discussion relative to the topic of our “progressive sanctification” – Christianese for “Hey, cut that out!” – you can almost tick off the seconds before someone will bring up the subject of accountability.

Accountability, rightly practiced, should not normally summon up a groan and/or an exasperated sigh, and yet my experience is that the very word can in fact bring about that “less-than-thrilled” response. True, not everyone instinctively recoils from the topic, and many faithful believers have so seamlessly incorporated accountability into their lives that they scarcely give it a thought anymore. What perhaps felt “unnatural” and “kinda creepy” at the outset has, over time, become such a day-after-day routine that it no longer feels as if someone else is impinging upon our personal freedom. Quite the opposite, in fact…that other person is enabling us to live out a truer, deeper freedom.

As just one personal example, I never even give it a second thought when my wife asks to see my cell phone. Perhaps I am quite naturally curious as to why she is asking to take a peek, of course, but even that follow-up conversation becomes casual, unforced, and second nature: “Uh, yeah, sure…why, what’s up?” No big deal, right?

But of course, the sheer freedom to enjoy that level of transparency and accountability presupposes that I have not been using my cell phone to send inappropriate text messages to other women, talk for hours to an unfamiliar out-of-state number, or store phone numbers and other contact information for prostitutes and/or drug dealers. Were I using my cell phone to engage in such activities, you can safely assume several other things to be true, namely, 1) I have quite clearly lost my mind; 2) I am not at all clever when it comes to covering my tracks; and 3) I’m going to smash that cell phone into a million pieces or drop it into a bathtub full of water before I hand it over to anyone, let alone my wife. You get the point. Accountability is a serious problem for me when I really do, in fact, have things to hide.

Even if someone were not leading a double life filled with lies, though, a lifestyle of accountability can be problematic for us simply because we, by nature, do not like to be held accountable to anyone. The practice runs contrary to the natural, sinful inclinations of our hearts. Fallen human beings tend to run away and hide from God (Genesis 3:8-10), so of course it makes perfect sense that we would wish to hide from each other as well. While we may not be actively engaged in sinful behaviors such as those I have described in the preceding paragraph, we need only have a proud heart, a desire to control our own destiny without interference, and/or an unwillingness for other people to see us as we really, truly are, i.e. desperately broken sinners in need of forgiveness and cleansing.

Whenever we seek to walk in the light (1 John 1:5-10), we are making a conscious decision to act contrary to our fallen natures and deliberately move toward being fully liberated from the secrecy, planning, and lying that enslaves us to any and all personal sins. My wife, my pastors, my small group buddies and just about any other trusted friend can (if need be) ask to see my bank statements, cell phone records, Internet browser settings and history, or just about anything else that suits their inquisitive little minds. Sure, they may very well find out that I am something of a dope (“Can you believe how much this idiot spent for Halloween costumes this year?”) or that I lead an exquisitely boring life, but the point is that I no longer have to fear that something monstrous will be uncovered, and I give all glory to God for the truth of that statement. Trust me, it wasn’t always this way.

I think the mistake that many of us tend to make whenever someone breathes out “the A word” is that our sinful hearts instantly conjure up images of stern, nosey, self-righteous agents of The Morality Police furiously investigating us as if we had committed tax fraud…combing through our cars, homes, offices and file cabinets determined to uncover some area of sin about which we have been less than forthcoming. To put it another way, I would argue that the word “accountability” rarely conjures up the mental image of a loving, caring friend who enters into our lives with a committed determination to bind up our wounds, bandage our limbs and take on personal responsibility for our well-being (Luke 10:25-37). Our hearts instinctively go to “None of your business!” before they arrive at “Wow…I didn’t know you loved and cared for me so deeply.”

So perhaps it’s time to reclaim the word “accountability” and weld a more God-honoring mental framework to it. Instead of responding with an inner sense of dread, as some of us do, maybe we could look beyond the word itself to the other person in our lives who is encouraging this sort of assistance. Rather than be put off by someone else’s desire to dive into our private affairs, maybe it would be more helpful instead to gauge the sincerity and trustworthiness of the person or persons who are willing to walk alongside and help us attain a more genuine walk with Christ.

Mike Emlet currently serves as a counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). His responsibilities for CCEF include counseling, teaching, directing the CCEF Counseling Internship program, writing, and speaking. He also serves as a lecturer in Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) for CCEF masters-level courses that include Counseling and Physiology, Counseling Observation, Seminar in Professional Orientation, and Biblical Interpretation. In short, this guy is “way more smarter” than just about any of the rest of us. His recommendation to begin thinking about Christian accountability in a more holistic fashion is well worth three minutes of your time:

May God give all of us the power to let go of the desire to hide, obfuscate, omit, lie, manipulate and/or throw theological smoke screens at those who would earnestly seek to come alongside and help us walk in the light. I think it goes without saying that we need to be wise and discerning as we seek out other Christians to help us cast off besetting sins. It would be decidedly unwise, for example, for a porn addict to pick another porn addict – or a well-known gossip – as an accountability partner. Again, this is where we all need the help of the local church to link us up with more mature believers, and commit our lives to be in ongoing relationship with someone who is a few steps further down the road with Jesus.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, 12 (ESV)
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him; a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

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