For the past several months, I have been writing about the delicate balance between accountability, shame, and transformation. We have struggled to make sense of why our actions don’t change after inviting people in…seeking honest repentance…and beating ourselves up when we fail.

We want to feel bad enough so our behaviors change, but in the long run all this leads to is a willingness to bury the behavior deeper. We find ways to keep it out of sight and modify our daily life so it at least appears that we are doing better. We find ways to tell those who are keeping us accountable that “I’m definitely doing better…” which we hope translates to “I’ve changed.”

Unfortunately, we have all agreed to this game of at least appearing to want change. I agree to try and take some responsibility for your actions and you in turn figure out how to not have to keep coming back to me telling me you failed again. Neither of us like those terms so we kind of agree to not really address it directly.

So how can we do this differently? What does it look like to practically enter into authentic, relational accountability?  These are not necessarily steps and I think it is important to remember this is a long process that involves a lot of intentional effort and difficult struggle. I believe there are several key pieces that give us space to walk down the road of real, heart-level transformation.

Four Ways to Move Towards Transformation

  • We need to address the behavior directly in order to create space for our hearts.
  • We need to address the desires of our hearts. What are we really looking for? If someone struggles to cut back on their alcohol – what desire of the heart are they seeking to fill (or block) by drinking?
  • We need to be honest about the desire of our heart and how the behavior has, at least in part, made the promise to fulfill those desires. This might take more work than simple introspection. It might take working it out with a therapist. Or a close friend who is willing to ask difficult questions. The key here is understanding that at some point, the behavior you are trying to stop has promised you something (satisfaction, a way to feel something, a way to not feel something, power, control…) and it is important to understand what the original desire was before the behavior or belief entered the picture.
  • We need to invite someone we trust into knowing our hearts and how we are seeking to fulfill these desires.

Doesn’t sound all that different from asking someone to hold you accountable does it? I think the key difference is in how we are inviting someone into a heart-level process rather than just guilt-ridden behavior modification.

It is a process that can help you gain freedom from an addiction to pornography, or simply gaining some accountability to love your spouse more intentionally.

In the case of something like pornography addiction (or most any other addiction) – there has to be some behavioral changes to give space from the addiction itself. When I work with people addicted to pornography this looks like the extreme actions of removing all computers from rooms with doors…disabling internet for a week…never being alone with internet, etc. Many people scoff at these suggestions initially because they’ve tried it before without success. I find this is commonly due to it being the only thing that is being done. Again, just addressing the behavior on its own is not enough.

Once there is some space from the actions in the addiction, the heart can be addressed. What does your heart crave when you seek out something like pornography? Satisfaction, power, control, significance, escape. And how has pornography given that to you?

This can be difficult for many to engage. It feels wrong to admit out loud “I like looking at pornography because when I do I feel significant or loved.” But it’s important. With this admission of what it provides, we can begin to understand and acknowledge there is danger when the individual is facing a situation where they may feel out insignificant or unloved.

As more clarity is gained on what the desire is and how the behavior has promised to meet it, we can invite someone into the process of our hearts. We ask someone to be a part of our story. We are willing to admit that our hearts crave significance, meaning, love, power, control…and they have sought them in so many unhealthy ways throughout our lives. It’s embarrassing and painful to say – but it’s true for every single one of us. If a desire for significance and love was met partially in pornography for this individual, whenever they feel like they are not being loved they know a brief moment of relapse will at least soothe the ache of loneliness and pain.

Inviting someone into our story makes a difference because we are now starting a discussion at a heart level. We’re not simply checking the box of whether or not the behavior has happened. We’re looking at the state of our hearts and where they are seeking fulfillment. We are not simply conditioning ourselves to stop the behavior…we’re addressing the root cause of why the behavior is so hard to stop.

This process can work with something as serious as pornography addiction…but it can also address the smaller behaviors that we continually find ourselves fighting every day. When I belittle my wife, what am I really trying to feel (or not feel)? What is my heart craving that is somehow satisfied when I seek to make her feel bad? What would it look like to ask someone to help meet my heart where I’m yearning for significance and learn to ask for that in a healthy way from my wife? Who can I invite to be a part of this process as I try to reorient my heart?

If you are being asked to be a part of this process with someone else, here’s a few things to consider:

-How honest are you willing to be with that individual when you see pieces of their heart that might be outside of their awareness? This is a big commitment and will not always be easy. Are you willing to pursue them when they don’t know they need to be pursued?

-What will prevent them from coming to you when they are struggling? Ask this question! In therapy I often ask my clients what could get in the way of our work together – the answers are enlightening and help me know when my client (or even when I) might be avoiding a difficult topic of issue because it’s uncomfortable. When we know the warning signs and what might prevent us from connecting we can talk about those when they come up. The first step of this can be as simple as admitting “I feel like I want to hide from you…like I don’t want to be known by you right now.”

-What will grace look like? It is important to know and prepare for how grace will be discussed and extended. Shame does not and will not encourage better behavior. Grace softens the hardened heart and turns it toward Christ. In the example above, if someone were to tell you they felt like hiding from you and did not want to be known by you – what would your response be?

When I read the Gospels, I’m always amazed at how indirect and confusing Jesus seemed to be to those around him. The disciples are watching him heal people…hearing him teach…watching him defy the religious authorities…and in every step of the process he was inviting everyone to know him. It was more than just coming to reverse all that is broken – he could have done that with a mere word! It was about being transformed by the relationship with him.

I believe this is what transformation looks like in our own hearts today. It’s more than just a simple healing of behaviors…it’s relationship that involves the depth of sin and filth in our wayward hearts. It is inviting someone else into the story that will not be completed until Christ returns. It’s allowing that person, or those people, to interact with our hearts when they are hurting and longing most. It is opening ourselves up to being noticed when we chase our hearts into the sinful patterns that promise us so much, but leave us so empty.

It is being willing to walk with someone when change does not come easy or quick, but trusting that in the process of experiencing love and grace, they can truly be transformed by Christ.

None of this is easy. In fact, the easier thing is to continue fooling ourselves that change can come the more we pull up our bootstraps. The easier thing is to believe that grace has a limit and will run out if we have not changed by a certain date. The easier thing is to fight these battles alone.

May we all embrace the difficulty of inviting others into the heart-level struggle for transformation. May we all experience and be the experience of grace that changes lives.

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