“Nothing ever becomes real ’til it is experienced.”
-John Keats

Last spring, a friend and I went backpacking in North Carolina for several nights. We hiked a trail both of us were familiar with but decided to summit a small peak neither of us had done before off on a side trail. If you’ve been in the North Carolina mountains, you know that this doesn’t mean a whole lot…most trails are well marked…from most vistas you can find a town or road within sight. The chances of going “off trail” and getting lost are a lot slimmer than say the wilderness of Alaska…

When we found ourselves on top of this small mountain we realized we had hiked around the base of it quite a ways, only to retrace the direction we came as we approached the peak. Standing on the peak we wondered if the hike back was necessary. Surely if we just headed down the ridge in front of us, bushwhacking through recently burned brush from a forest fire, we would cut off a solid mile of our hike in and meet up with the trail at the base of the mountain where we started.

Fog rolled in and suddenly the direction we were heading became a little less clear. The debate started. Is that the ridge we were on? Or is that a different one? We both made jokes about getting lost…hiding the fact that neither of us was confident. What ensued was a delicate dance of debating…joking…playing the devil’s advocate…making ‘confident’ assertions about true north…etc. Inside I think both of us wanted the other to commit to a direction and take responsibility for it. I don’t want to be the one who gets us into trouble. But we also didn’t want to be the one who took a hard stance and regretted it later.

We ended up retracing our steps on the trail and as the fog cleared, we realized we had greatly miscalculated. If we had stuck to our shortcut we would have been off trail by several miles at the base of the mountain, and it would have been dark.

While neither of us was explicitly asking for accountability as we stood (almost) lost on this peak, the experience feels like what happens whenever we seek accountability. We want to find the right path, and we know our propensity to wander from it…but deep down I think we are asking for something very different.

Our Deeper Need in Accountability

There were many times I asked someone to join with me in accountability that in retrospect, was really me asking for something they were not prepared to give. My motives were mostly pure: I wanted to stop acting in ways that were not consistent with how I believe Jesus calls me to live. I wanted to invite someone else into my struggle and really work hard at getting better.

The problem at the time was that I was really asking someone else to share in the responsibility for my poor decisions. I wanted someone else to share some of the load of my inability to say “no” to myself. I would not have stated it this way consciously, but deep down what I really wanted was to feel absolved from having to try so hard to stop. If I did well for a week or two and then my accountability partner didn’t check in on me and I failed…well….”why didn’t they check in on me?! Maybe I wouldn’t have failed if they did their part…”

Sounds pretty absurd, but I think it’s at the root of more of our hearts than we would like to admit. By inviting someone into our struggle, we can feel a false sense of security that belies the danger of what lurks in the shadows of our hearts. We might feel a sudden rush of adrenaline after confessing our sin, asking someone else to help us stop doing it, and then leave feeling lighter. We have just asked for accountability so we are well on our way to getting better!

This is not inherently wrong, but it is incomplete.

What about being on the other end and agreeing to hold someone accountable? In my experience, I am usually really good at it for about two weeks. I’ll set up a reminder in my calendar and reach out asking how the person is doing. After a few weeks, life will inevitably take twists and turns that distracts us and before you know it, 3 months down the road I’m saying something to the effect of “hey…remember that thing you told me about? How’s that..uh…going…these days…?”

In this, I am living as if people should want to be held accountable – they should hold the responsibility for their accountability. Yes, they are asking me to help them, but surely they will come to me when things are getting bad and ask for that help right? Do I really have to check in with them every day and ask?

Aside from this being the worst advertisement to be friends with me…I hope you can identify with the inner struggle of navigating the tension with someone else’s sin…or inviting someone in to help you deal with your own. It’s tedious, we rarely see real fruit, and more often than not we all let it slip away silently.

Beyond Behavioral Modification

This isn’t to say that real accountability has not happened in these contexts but the reason I think it is so incomplete is because it is so focused on behavioral solutions alone.

Don’t get me wrong, behavioral psychology works. We often act in ways we are not aware of, and with simple chaining of behaviors or conditioning we can change those behaviors. But it often overlooks the fickle and confusing nature of our hearts.

My attempts at asking for accountability and agreeing to do so for others is largely focused on stopping the behavior and not connecting with our hearts. When I ask for accountability, deep down I, at least partially, believe that if I just feel bad enough when someone asks me about the behavior, I will surely stop doing it.

Again, this works to a degree. When I feel shame in a relationship, I often will do anything to avoid feeling that again. But this misses the deeper, darker, struggle of our hearts. We believe somewhere inside that our shame can pay for our behaviors. This only serves to deepen the struggle. We now respond by either stopping the behavior for a time because of our fear of shame, or, we find new way to hide the behavior because of our fear of shame.

The change is behavioral. I am working hard to not do something because I fear another feeling. My heart has not addressed the why of my actions…it’s just simply found a way to curb the desire for a time. And if you are like me, you find more creative ways to avoid really owning up to the struggle.

I think this is one of the primary reasons accountability has fallen short for so many people. It feels so close to being real. It works in the short run really well. We find ourselves feeling a sense of connectedness with another person as they engage a part of us we are ashamed of and want to change. But we so often leave the more difficult part of really allowing ourselves to be known and connected that brings heart change.

Knowledge void of experience is lifeless. You can know about grace but if you don’t ever really experience it, you will not be transformed. This is where accountability needs to head – into the experiential, relational, messiness of grace and connection. We have to be willing to engage not only the behavior that we want to change, and our shame in not being able to change it – we have to be willing to invite someone else into our weakness.

Do I really want to change at that deep of heart level? Not really. That involves releasing my treasured idols that have given me pleasure, and served me well throughout the years. It involves changing patterns and behaviors that bring peace and an appearance of stability to my life. It involves the pain of someone else poking around and asking difficult questions while sticking with me as I struggle to answer them. It means I might face something for which there is not a clear answer and I am left in that uncertainty.

Real life change comes from real heart transformation which comes from real experiences of grace and love. It is beyond behavioral correction, it is a total heart transplant.

There is no formula for how to do this well, but next month I will wrap this series up with some ideas for how we can better engage each other on a heart level in our attempts at accountability. May we all practice more the presence of Christ in each other’s lives while we fight the sin that so easily entangles us.

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