A Barrier To Honesty

One of the chief vehicles for dishonesty in my own life has been my involvement in “accountability groups.”

For those who have been spared them, an “accountability group” is a single-sex small-group Bible study on steroids. A group of friends arrange for a time each week to get together, ostensibly to encourage one another by upholding standards of personal righteousness in a confidential context. Instead, the members spend most of the time picking each other apart, uncovering layer after layer after layer of sin in a coercive and sometimes even competitive fashion. You confess your sin to your friends and they to you, and at first it’s a relief. Light shines into dark corners, and you pray honestly for the first time in ages. You may even find yourself a bit less drawn to whatever behavior brought you to the group in the
first place.

As the weeks wear on and you find that your victory was more short lived than you had initially hoped, perhaps you start to embellish or hold back in order to concoct some narrative of improvement. Or perhaps you remain entirely truthful, but your friends begin to doubt your sincerity. Soon nothing is enough; no matter what you unveil, they look for you to uncover something deeper, darker, and more embarrassing than what you’ve already shared. You start to embellish in the other direction–making things seem worse than they are to satisfy the probing inquisitiveness of your friends. Eventually everyone is investigating one another, and no one is telling the truth.

Well, I can’t stand those groups!

Setting aside the obvious objection that Christ settled all our accounts, once for all, such groups inevitably start with the narcissistic presupposition that Christianity is all about cleaning up and doing your part. These groups focus primarily (in my experience, almost exclusively) on our sin, and not on our Savior. Because of this, they breed self-righteousness, guilt, and the almost irresistible temptation to pretend, or to be less than honest. Little or no attention is given to the gospel. There’s no reminder of what Christ has done for our sin—cleansing us from its guilt and power—and of the resources that are already ours by virtue of our union with Him. These groups thrive, either intentionally or not, on a “do more, try harder” moralism that robs us of the joy and freedom Jesus paid dearly to secure for us. When the goal becomes conquering our sin instead of soaking in the conquest of our Savior, we actually begin to shrink spiritually. Sinclair Ferguson rightly pointed this out:

Those who have almost forgotten about their own spirituality because their focus is so exclusively on their union with Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished are those who are growing and exhibiting fruitfulness. Historically speaking, whenever the piety of a particular group is focused on OUR spirituality that piety will eventually exhaust itself on its own resources. Only where our piety forgets about itself and focuses on Jesus Christ will our piety [be] nourished by the ongoing resources the Spirit brings to us from the source of all true piety, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The tragic irony in all of this is that when we focus so strongly on our need to get better, we actually get worse. We become even more neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with our guilt (instead of God’s grace) makes us increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective. And what is Original Sin if not a preoccupation with ourselves?

Make no mistake, we need loving friends to point out ways in which we’re settling for less–we need the help of our community to help us see our idols and the various ways that we are trusting in something or someone smaller than Jesus to satisfy our deepest longings and needs. But what needs to be ultimately rooted out and attacked is the sin underneath my sins which is not immoral behavior but immoral belief—faith in my own moral and spiritual “progress,” rather than in the One who died to atone for my lack of progress.

Listen carefully: Christianity is not first and foremost about our behavior, our obedience, our response, and our daily victory over sin—as important as all these are. It is not first and foremost about us at all–it is first and foremost about Jesus! It is about His person; His substitutionary work; His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return. We are justified—and sanctified—by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone. Even now, the banner under which Christians live reads, “It is finished.” Everything we need, and everything we look for in things smaller than Jesus, is already ours in Christ.

So I’m all for accountability–but a certain kind. The accountability we really need is the kind that corrects our natural tendency to dwell on me—my obedience (or lack thereof ), my performance (good or bad), my holiness— instead of on Christ and His obedience, His performance, and His holiness for me. It sometimes seems that we can’t help ourselves from turning the good news of God’s grace into a narcissistic program of self-improvement. We try to turn grace into law, in other words. We need to be held accountable for that!

The gravitational pull of conditionality is so strong, our hard-wiring for law so ingrained, that we need real friends to remind us of the good news every day. In fact, our lives depend on it! So instead of trying to fix one another, perhaps we might try “stirring one another up to love and good deeds” by daily reminding one another, in humble love, of the riches we already possess in Christ.

(Excerpted from Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free pg. 80-83)