The accountability gap
Put “Accountability” into the Books section of Amazon and you’ll find 39,471 titles. This is popular stuff.
Of course, it’s bound to be. These days everyone is accountable: if the boss rejects me for a new job, I can sue her and she has to show the reasons on paper why she’s done so. She’s “accountable”.
It’s not surprising, then, that, with all this accountability going on, the church has gone in for it too. Nowhere more so than in work with younger people: accountability is “in”. Your parents don’t understand you; your church minister certainly doesn’t understand you; your teachers or lecturers don’t understand you. So what you need is a really good, close Christian buddy with whom you can be completely yourself, to whom you can give account, and who will call you towards deeper holiness. Really – what’s not to like?
Except... consider the student house I knew a few years ago. In the kitchen, there was a wankountometer, with a column for each resident. It was meant to be a way of keeping each other accountable – each time there was a slip from intended paths of purity, the one involved had to put an “x” in their column. If accountability worked the way they hoped, they would each leave at least one sin a bit further behind each day. Except – every few days, there’d be a conversation like this in the kitchen.
“Oh, did you err – you know...?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Oh. [......Pause......] Yeah, me too.”
I don’t think that’s what they had originally intended. But it perfectly explains why accountability, although a brilliant idea, is so difficult to achieve in practice. The problem with really good, close Christian buddies is that they are really good and close for a reason – they’re probably like us. So it’s really easy to have a pint or a coffee with them, and be totally open about the strains and stresses that there are for us on the path of holiness. Their friendship is the warm blanket that we all need on a demanding road; they are the safe place we turn to when weary – as well as the people we have fun with because we like them. I thank God for those people in my life. But I’m close to them because they and I have some strains and stresses in common – if I say to them, “I got absolutely wrecked again last night”, and they say back “Oh, shame; me, too”, I have found a friend, but I have not been made holier. Nor inspired towards holiness.
On the other hand, it’s not hard to imagine those that might help us in the race towards the light of Christ. Pure in body and soul; gentle and loving in spirit; determined and passionate in holiness; saintly in patience and able to call down to us from the peak of their holy mountain to join them on the mountaintop. (Don’t you want to punch them already?)
That’s the accountability gap – the people we feel able to talk to fail as much as we do; but the people who could help us are too holy for us to feel able to talk to them. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised – people came to Jesus willing and able to confess their sinfulness to this friend that they had found, and Jesus felt able to call them on to further holiness. “I don’t condemn you”, he says to the woman caught in adultery, “but leave your life of sin”. I long to have someone in my life with whom I can be utterly myself-as-I-am, but who will call me onward, but there are not many like Jesus in the world.
It just means we need to be careful in all this talk of accountability. We must be clear whether we want a buddy, with whom the accountability will be mutual. As long as we’re always clear that such a relationship will only ever have limited success (but what it has will be real), then that’s OK. But it will become a weary addition to a previously-terrific friendship if what we’re actually after is someone to push us to where we ourselves have not yet been. Equally, it will work at least a little if we find someone who’s further on than ourselves: we may feel awkward being totally open with them, but their example may still call us onwards.
According to Wikipedia (which is always right) the term “accountability partner” emerged in the 1960s in relation to weight loss programs. I can imagine that that is entirely do-able. One person, a little further on in a particular track, is able to assist another without the other feeling condemned by any general saintliness. What that household I was speaking about needed was someone who might be a quite obvious sinner in many ways, but had at least made progress in the one area of concern. But they were male students, and that wasn’t going to happen. The difficulties come when accountability seems not to work, and then we give up on it – instead of reflecting that, the way we chose to operate it, it was never going to work anyway.
So – decide what you actually need, and be careful whom you choose. When it works, accountability is a fantastic path for growth in the discipleship that belongs to a follower of Jesus – but making it work can take a few false starts and then real effort.
And, if you yourself have been asked to be a partner for another, try to resist the temptation to think it will work best if you try to be bezzy mates. Spend time working out what your friend really needs you to be, and then try to stick to that expectation – like the Weight Watcher, they may well simply need you to be further ahead in that one area.
(Oh, and try not to punch the saints of God.)
Are you in an accountability group?