Growing up, I knew everyone was watching me. Worse yet, I knew they wanted me to be a perfect kid. I was supposed to know the answers to all the questions, be at church whenever the doors were open, and personify God’s love in every waking moment of my life. All because my dad was the pastor.
Living up to these expectations—even if unspoken—was exhausting. Even when I went to college, I lived under their heavy shadow. I was stuck in a mindset that I had to project the image of a perfect little Christian—or ruin the good name of Jesus. I wasn’t dishonest. But I was less than forthcoming about areas where I needed support or prayer. For all my friends knew, I never struggled with anything. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth.
I finally got tired of pretending. So one night I opened up to a trusted friend about some issues I was struggling with. It was a liberating moment, and my friend’s gracious, non-judgmental response encouraged future openness. It was also the beginning of a series of friendships in my life that focused on accountability.
God never intended for us to live our lives in isolation. It’s not only lonely, but it can actually be dangerous. Whether your relationship with God is solid or shaky, everyone is a work in progress. Accountability means inviting at least one person into your life who is willing to ask hard questions and speak the truth in love. This process can ultimately foster a deeper, more genuine relationship with Christ through transparency and honesty with others, which can lead to transformation.
Getting real requires getting over ourselves. It means putting down our guard. And if we’re honest, that’s difficult. But that’s the point—to get honest with someone about our struggles, especially our struggles with faith.
In a letter to the church in Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul penned these words: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up as you are already doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Fear is a lousy motivator when it comes to bringing about sustainable changes in our lives. But when we’re being encouraged, we pursue with greater fervency those things that result in growth.
In other words, real transformation doesn’t take place through legalistic question-and-answer sessions. Real transformation happens through ongoing conversations that get to the heart of the matter and offer encouragement toward growth.
“Most of the time when people are struggling with something … they need some support,” says Bob Van Meter, a church lay leader from Houston who has been involved in accountability groups for more than 20 years. “I don’t think accountability is a substitute for counseling or prayer, but it gives you a sense of commitment to someone and that you have a support system to help you do the right thing.”
Accountability that works is not only encouraging, but it gets beyond the “what’s” to the “why’s.” People who are accountable to one another can examine how and why they’re making decisions that don’t line up with the heart of God. “I would love to say accountability keeps me from a lot of things, but I still end up confessing to some of these things,” says Allison Mitchell, who runs a nonprofit ministry for the homeless in Atlanta. “It wipes the slate clean, per se. But we also deal with the root causes.”
The word community is thrown around a lot in Christian circles. In so many cases, though, that community rarely goes much deeper than surface level. Accountability relationships are designed to intentionally dig deeper. That means finding someone you connect with to forge that kind of relationship is vital. Without that piece, accountability becomes like answering to a hall monitor where temporary behavioral changes replace true transformation.
That kind of honest connection also gets us out of the individualistic brand of Christianity that sometimes shows up in the church. Consider Paul’s words: “For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:7-8). As followers of Jesus, we understand that this life is not simply about us. And understanding how our lives impact the lives of those around us reveals just how important accountability is to the greater community in which we live.
“We encourage friendship mentoring,” says Chris Heuertz, executive director of Word Made Flesh. “Rather than going through a punch list with indicators as a health of our spirituality, we try to cradle this in the incubator of community. The kind of questions we see coming out of our friendship mentoring are ‘How are you hurting your community?’ and ‘How are you contributing to community?’ That way, we come to realize that when [we’re] not pursuing God whole-heartedly, those who [we’re] in community with are also suffering.”
Accountability isn’t going to turn you into some kind of super Christian who rarely sins. Healthy accountability will actually reveal some of the junk in your life that you didn’t even realize was there. That process of peeling back the layers of your true self can be painful, but that hurt will give way to freedom, leading you to the person God created you to be.
It won’t be perfect, but it will be good. All because you chose to get real.