Are There Good and Bad Kinds of Accountability?
Looking back at my former life as a Roman Catholic in New England, I can almost smell the varnish and stale cushions of the confessional booth. I would walk into the wooden box slumped over with guilt; a few minutes later, I would walk out standing tall. In my own mind, I had unloaded my guilt before God at the feet of the priest. He listened to my confession through the latticed opening in the thin wall. After a few rote declarations and a prescription of prayers, I believed my sinful slate was wiped clean. My hope in those days can be summed up in just two words: Rinse. Repeat.
But accountability shouldn’t work this way. It’s not a mechanical transaction that washes away our guilt. The ultimate aim of any accountability should be to lead us into the presence of the only One who grants grace.
In other words, most of our accountability, though sincere, is too horizontal. It needs more of God. It’s easy to become so focused on policing one another’s sins that God becomes an afterthought. It’s also easy to “keep it light” and largely avoid talk of our sin and God’s holiness. Both errors are problematic. If we act as the sin police, we’ll eventually become legalists. If we fail to address sin, we’ll become antinomian.
We need to foster better, more vertical accountability in our churches. How do we do that?
1. Good accountability is deadly serious about sin
John writes that God is light, and good accountability is serious about shining light into the dark corners of sin. We can define accountability as partnering together to walk in the light (1 John 1:5–7).
God is holy. His warnings against pride and pornography are severe. To the untrained ear, they may seem harsh, like the blare of a smoke alarm at 2 a.m. But God’s warnings issue forth from his covenant love.
It may seem strange to meet at the local coffee shop or in our living rooms to meditate on God’s utter hatred and judgment of sin. The last thing we may want to do is meditate with another believer on the first half of Romans 6:23 (“For the wages of sin is death…”) or the warning passages in Hebrews. But love demands that we warn each other of where sin ultimately leads.
It’s worth considering the rhythms or structures of accountability in your life. For instance, have you ever sat down with a brother or sister struggling with pornography and loved them enough to sound the alarm of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10?
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
If we fail to meditate on God’s holiness and his warnings, and to help others do the same, we fail to reflect the God who is so serious about sin that he crushed his only Son to free us from its penalty and power. Good accountability, like God, is deadly serious about sin.
2. Good accountability meditates on God’s promises of mercy
Our accountability also misses the mark when we fail to help one another savor the promises of God to his beloved.
Peter tells us that by meditating on God’s promises we “escape the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” So let’s help one another escape. We often talk about the dangers of having a laissez-faire attitude toward sin. But what about the dangers of having a laissez-faire attitude toward the promises of God? Accountability that fails to magnify the mercy of God leads only to despair.
Again, take inventory: How patient are you with friends who confess viewing pornography for the tenth time in a month? Do you gently guide your brothers and sisters to the comforting promise of Micah 7:19? “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” As we pore over these texts with friends, we, too, will be humbled and reminded of God’s tender mercies toward us.
God’s posture toward his wandering children begins with warning, but it also flowers with hope. As James wrote, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Good accountability, the vertical kind, passionately warns but also meditates on God’s promises of mercy towards us, despite our failures and imperfections.
3. Good accountability draws us into the presence of God in prayer
Good accountability first leads us to God in his Word, and ultimately to him on our knees. Consider James 5:16, the clearest passage in the Bible on accountability between fellow Christians: “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
James’s command to confess our sins to one another is fused to the command to approach the throne of grace together in prayer. Is our accountability just a conversation between sinners, or is it more of a conversation together with God?
Good accountability draws us into the presence of God in prayer. Why? Because only at the throne of grace before our merciful Father can we plead for escape from temptation, for holiness, and for restoration.
The war against indulging in pornography can be won, but sinful sexual desire, as long as we live, is a dragon that will not be slain. Even those of us who have been porn-free for years must remain vigilant. Here are several encouragements to help us deepen our accountability when it comes to sexual sin generally and pornography particularly:
1. Ask pointed questions. It’s not enough to speak vaguely about sin. Christians should expose it plainly, even at the risk of embarrassment. So it’s worth asking one another concrete questions. As we describe our sin in detail, we will be better able to process what we’ve done.
2. Consider our triggers. Assess with our partners when we’re particularly vulnerable to viewing pornography. For many, temptation comes after a long day at work. It could be that we’re tempted when our spouse is away from home, or when we’re traveling in a new place. Know your own and your partner’s triggers and offer to be available at those times, whether in person or on the phone.
3. Always tell the truth. If we deny we’ve been tempted or sinned, leave out parts of the truth, or distort the facts, then we’re robbing ourselves of holiness and joy. Accountability is only as good as it is honest. If we’re not being honest, then we ought to ask ourselves why we’re meeting up at all.
4. Guard against self-righteousness. There are times we can find a strange satisfaction when hearing about someone else’s struggle. We may judge ourselves as more steadfast, more devoted to God. But every person on the face of the earth struggles with sexual sin. Indulging in pornography is egregious. God hates it. But if not for the grace of God, we would all be owned and destroyed by sexual sin. We must pray for humble hearts, and for a quick memory of our own failures and weaknesses as we hold our brothers and sisters accountable.
5. Take the long view. As Christians, some sins vanish almost overnight, while others will nip at our heels until we see Jesus. We must keep in mind that pornography and all sexual sin is complex, deeply rooted, and difficult to destroy. It may take some of us months or even years to recognize substantial progress. This is why we must commit to one another for the long haul. We must stay the course. The Apostle Paul compares the Christian life to a marathon, not a 100-meter dash. You may be discouraged in your progress if you look over the span of a year. But wait until year 5 or 10. God’s grace is most often revealed in our patient plodding.
6. Celebrate the victories. Good accountability isn’t only about confessing sin. It’s also about celebrating our growth in grace. Tell your friends often how encouraged you are with their progress and point out particular evidences of God’s grace in their battle for purity. As we consider that these relationships aren’t to be contrived but built on a foundation of love and care for one another, accountability will become a joyful means of grace in our lives.
QUICK WORD TO PASTORS
I remember sitting with a group of pastors, and each of them began to share about their accountability “coaches.” I was shocked to realize that each of them pays someone, in many cases hundreds of miles away, to be their accountability partners. One pastor shared with satisfaction how utterly transparent he is with his coach. What struck me most was the implication that these pastors felt that they could find something in these paid partners that they couldn’t find in their own churches.
But here’s my question to these pastors: has not God provided in the local church all of the means for our sanctification? Could it be that we are reluctant to be accountable to other elders and members because we know we aren’t living above reproach? Is the outsourcing of our accountability actually an avoidance of being transparent with the people God has called to live among and serve? Pastor, if you are tempted by pornography, you need a brother who walks with you each day—one who serves you and keeps you accountable because he loves you.
Consider the words of Paul to young Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely.” But we should also pay close attention to the words that follow: “Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
It’s true that Paul is calling for pastors to examine themselves. But no pastor—indeed, no Christian on the face of the earth—will get to heaven on his own. The sobering reality is that accountability for pastors is more critical than we can imagine. The souls under our care, as Paul reflects, are eternally influenced by our godliness or lack thereof. Praise God that he has provided in every local church the means by which all of its members, including pastors, will get to heaven.
Accountability cannot save us. But it’s as useful to the Christian as it points us to Christ, the very one who, by his mercy, has already saved us. At the end of the day, good accountability is just one tool in the believer’s belt that helps us into his holy and merciful presence. As we behold his warnings, his promises, and come to him in prayer, sin loses its grip on our hearts, and we receive fresh grace to love and serve him and his beloved, the church.