Accountability – How Does It Work?

In a previous post, we looked at the subject of accountability and why every Christian needs it. Today, I’d like to evaluate the process itself – and consider how we can actually do it well.

Most of us know the stereotype of Christian accountability. You work unsuccessfully on changing some sin for a time, without the help of anyone else. Eventually you decide that whatever you’re doing isn’t working and you decide to ask someone to “hold you accountable” concerning that sin.

How does it go? Perhaps something like this:

  • Your motivation not to have the other person see something helps you self-correct for a few days, weeks, or months.
  • The other person, who has never taken this role with you before, isn’t sure how much you mean it, isn’t sure the best way to correct you, and isn’t exactly sure how you will respond if he does.
  • Eventually, something happens, and the other person has to say something. But he will often lack the courage to do it, in addition to being not in the habit of regularly saying something to you. And if he won’t say anything – often the case – the one in need of help is the one who is most harmed.

The process is hindered by limited knowledge, limited details, and limited parameters. It is forced, awkward, and unhelpful. Too much accountability looks like this.

But what would successful, biblically-driven accountability look like?

Here are nine ideas that will help make it work the way it should:

  • Cultivate a habit of attending your church.

This is as basic as it gets, but this is the first layer of accountability. The church’s responsibility is to meet together ready to encourage one another as they assemble together regularly (Hebrews 10:24-25).

How many people want accountability for their sins but don’t want the corporate encouragement of the church? Or the ad hoc accountability of whoever might speak to them on a given Sunday morning (or evening!)? Too many people want personal attention without even wanting to put in the work of showing up to church. This is not helpful! The best way to be accountable to others is to build the safety net of being present with God’s people.

  • Commit to a church officially.

Whether it’s church membership or a different method your church has, let the church and its leaders know that 1) you are there and 2) you want them to watch out for your soul.

Christians are to obey and submit to their leaders, but why? Because “they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account” (Hebrews 13:17).

In fact, the same verse says that we are to make it easy and not hard for these leaders because of the benefit it it brings – not to them, but rather to us!

More than this, announcing to the church body that you want to be part of them is a formal request for them to help you grow – including watching out for those times when you do not act as you should.

  • Cultivate an attitude of welcoming criticism and feedback.

Why is it that we are so quick to rush to defense when we are criticized – even over the most unimportant things?

Too many Christians are like fortresses to keep feedback out rather than receptacles to welcome anything that would help us grow.

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Christians must err on the side of hearing rather than responding in anger (James 1:19-20). We should think carefully about the way that we respond to people (Proverbs 15:28) – and not just defend our own character.

We should realize that whenever we play defense against someone’s criticism before we have really considered it, we are making it less and less likely we will ever benefit from what they tell us; first, because we won’t listen to them, and second, because they won’t want to go through the trouble of fighting to persuade a stubborn soul.

Proverbs 9:8–9  says, “Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you, Reprove a wise man and he will love you. 9 Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser, Teach a righteous man and he will increase his learning”

This demonstrates about wise people that not only do they need reproof, they actually love those who give it to them – and they learn from it, too!

If you hate those who bring you rebuke, even when they are not exactly right, you are much more the scoffer than you are the wise man.

  • Seek out relationships with those who are more spiritually mature than you (even in just one area) and ask them to watch and give feedback on your life.

I mentioned in the previous post that people will pay big money for coaches who know what they are doing. Yet, Christians have all kinds of people who would be willing to help them for free and won’t take advantage of it.

How many Christians are willing and available to encourage others in what they themselves have learned over years of personal study – and, yes, of their own accountability to others?

Dear Christian, don’t waste the opportunity to learn from those who legitimately do have a few things to teach you (Titus 2:2-8)

  • Cultivate friendships with people who care about spiritual things.

How many “accountability” conversations take place in the normal, day-to-day times of two or more Christian friends talking about spiritual matters? How many life-changing conversations happen because someone is already comfortable talking to someone else?

A relationship that is developed purely for the sake of dealing with sin can certainly be beneficial. But it needs to be complemented with mature, biblically-minded Christian friends who will cover the weaknesses of a more formal approach to this process.

Spiritual friendships may well be the best form of accountability, because of how they combine so many of these ideas into one helpful relationship.

  • Ask for overall accountability – not just one area.

This is where I think a lot of accountability relationships break down. To ask for accountability about a specific sin is often very focused on behavior, and misses the underlying issues of the heart.

Sometimes, it is focused on behavior because the person asking for it only cares about getting rid of the action but not dealing with the underlying sinful desire. We don’t want to help people do this anyway!

But even if the attitude is right, a focus on accountability in externals only can preserve a blindness to wrong motives and desires, and will prevent real change from ever happening.

Along with this…

  • Ask for others to tell you where you need accountability

This may be the biggest place we are missing out on the benefits of others in our lives. Too often we ask, “Will you keep me accountable for X?”

Why not ask instead: “Where do you think I need accountability? What wrong attitudes and actions have you observed in me? Or are you willing to watch me with a view to finding some?”

It’s one thing to ask for help fixing our problems; it’s another thing to be humble enough to ask for help in diagnosing them.

When it comes to accountability, too many of us Christians are like the proud medical patient who not only tells his doctor what symptoms he’s been having but also feels compelled to explain why the symptoms are there in the first place.

What do we know about it? Did we read WebMD? Did we stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night?? Do we not remember that we are paying the doctor to give us these answers?

We need to start worrying less about what the other person thinks of us and more about how they are able to help.

On that note…

  • Thank people for their honest accountability of you.

When someone speaks a hard word to you, they often wonder how you will respond. Even if they have worked up the courage to do it once, it may be difficult to do again. They aren’t sure how you “really feel.”

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You can ensure they have the confidence to keep helping you by making sure they know, when you have had time to process it, that their comment was sincerely appreciated.

  • Ask clearly for specific and frank accountability

If you’re going to do this, why go halfway?

I know of those who have asked others to give them direct, full feedback on areas of particular struggle. There is no expectation that it will be measured to only include one or two items every so often – instead, it is a ruthless, aggressive campaign against sin and its manifestations.

What athlete only wants to know half of his problems? What student only wants to know when half of his answers are wrong? Be sure that those you ask for help are clear that they have the right to tell you everything they see without pulling any punches.

Surely I could list more, but I would guess this is enough to help you get started in improving the way you ask others to help you grow in grace.

What about you? What have you found helpful in developing accountability relationships?