7 Mistakes That Make Your Accountability Group Shallow

accountabilityToday’s guest post is by Luke Gilkerson, the educational resource manager at Covenant Eyes. Luke is the author of multiple books on biblical sexuality and he blogs at CovenantEyes.com.

He came to me a few days ago and told me his nagging secret. From a young age, he had been hooked on Internet porn. The shame and guilt were constant burdens for him. He had tried everything to stop—everything, of course, except getting real help from real people.

Along with other recommendations, I urged him to find some regular accountability right away, and the look on his face told me he wasn’t thrilled by my advice. “Accountability? I’ve been in groups like that before, and the whole thing seemed pointless. Nothing really changed.”

As someone who has worked at Covenant Eyes for years, I hear these kinds of comments all the time. If accountability is such a good idea, why does it sometimes produce such terrible results?

Mistake #1: Infrequent, irregular communication

The author of Hebrews tells us to encourage and exhort each other every day, as long as it is called “today” (Hebrews 3:13). But for many people accountability is something that happens sporadically.

Many practice emergency accountability: they only initiate conversations when something serious has happened. Have you ever been to an ER? It isn’t a pleasant place. Yes, the doctors there can help you—they might even save your life. But they are more concerned about restarting your heart, not figuring out a new diet plan that reduces inflammation in the body.

The Bible sees accountability as good preventative medicine, not a spiritual emergency room.

Mistake #2: Treating accountability as a last resort, not a lifestyle

All Christians should have at least a few things in common, one of them being the belief that we are sinful and in need of a great Savior. It is amazing, given this basic belief, that we spend so much time trying to convince one another about how good we are.

For some, accountability is for those people who are really far gone—the real perverts, sick-o’s, and addicts who actually need someone else’s help. But the Bible says to all Christians, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).

Being accountable to someone else is not God’s second-best. Accountability is one of God’s ordinary and regular means of grace to help us become more Godward.

Mistake #3: Focusing only on confession, not change

Some of us love accountability because it is a chance to unburden our guilty conscience. This is, of course, a huge benefit. We experience a sort of natural relief when we stop holding in our secrets, when we have a shoulder to cry on, when we hear those affirming words, “Me too.”

But this is not the end goal of accountability. Accountability is not a one-way street of confession but a two-way street of confession and grace. When we give an account of our sins to another, we need to receive an account of God’s grace in return.

Receiving grace means (1) hearing someone else affirm that God has forgiven our sins and cleansed us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9), and (2) hearing someone else share how God’s grace trains us to renounce our sin and walk in godliness (Titus 2:11-14).

Good accountability partners know that God’s grace frees us from both the guilt of sin and the grip of sin. Grace renews our hearts, giving us confidence in our forgiveness and promising the great reward of nearness to God.

Mistake #4: Focusing only on sins of commission, not omission

Sins like lust, greed, worry, envy, and pride are relatively easy to spot. But sins of omission are much harder to see: sins like joylessness, prayerlessness, ingratitude, unbelief, a lack of fascination with the gospel, a lack of service to others, a lack of intentionality about how we use our time and money, and a lack of satisfaction in God.

In his famous On the Mortification of Sin, John Owen writes that we need to hate sin as sin—because it is offensive to God—not just because it is irksome to us. Often we target only specific sins because they are troubling our own lives, but this fails to remember that Jesus bled and died for every kind of sin.

Good accountability partners help us to recognize the sins we can’t see or the sins we don’t want to see. They help us to remember the goal of accountability is not just remedying a bad habit but transforming our whole lives.

Mistake #5: Focusing only on our behaviors, not our beliefs

At the very least, accountability is about giving someone else an account of the temptations we encounter and the sins we commit. But if we stop there, we fall short of the real change accountability can bring.

Hebrews 3:13 tells us to frequently exhort one another so that we won’t be “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” This tells us that there is a level of interaction we are meant to have with one another that actually helps us to see how sin is operating at the heart level, not just on the surface.

Good accountability doesn’t stop at mere behaviors but probes deeper to motivations. Yes, conversations will probably always start on the surface, but it must move down to the core of who we are—to the idols of our hearts.

  • Instead of merely asking someone if they watched porn or lusted after anyone, ask them why their fantasies are so enticing. Do they enjoy the sense of entitlement? The illusion of intimacy? The feeling of safety and refuge?
  • Instead of merely asking someone if they lost their temper, ask them what they desire so much that they get angry when they can’t have it. Respect? Time to themselves? The last word? Peace?
  • Instead of merely asking someone if they have grumbled and complained, ask them if they are trusting in their specific circumstances to make them happy or trusting in God for their joy.

Mistake #6: Focusing only on our habits, not our hopes

The great danger of accountability is that we might focus only on how we fall short, not on the great hope we have for change.

As Christians, because the Spirit of Christ is in us, we have a profoundly new identity. When Christ rose from the dead, he died to this realm of sin. Therefore, though we still live in sin’s presence, we are dead to sin’s power (Romans 6:6). We belong to the sinless kingdom of God, and Christ’s resurrection power flows in our veins.

Our first application, therefore, is not to try harder to overcome sin but to recognize that we are already dead to it. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). Only then will we be able to not let sin reign in us (v.12).

The word translated “consider” is an accounting term: it means to add something up, to take stock of something. When a child adds up how much money is in her piggy bank, at the end of the counting she doesn’t have any more or less in the bank than when she began. The only thing that has changed is her knowledge about the value of what is there. This is what Paul means. You already believe these basic gospel truths—Christ died to sin’s power, He rose from the dead, and the Spirit of the risen Christ lives within you—so now consider it to be true; reckon it; meditate on it; get the idea of your new identity deep into your soul.

This is where biblical accountability is most powerful: not when someone is merely calling you out on your sin but when someone is calling you up to the person you already are in Christ. What if these were the kind of friends we had? Realists who know that sin is a present force, and yet also idealists who believe that holiness is our destiny.

Mistake #7: Focusing only on our obedience, not Christ’s

Confession can easily become a pedestal where we prop up the idol of our own performance. We begin to judge the quality of our spiritual lives in comparison to the performance of other people. We base our spiritual growth on a few benchmarks of success. We can even begin to use the habit of accountability as a pretense or smokescreen to hide the things we don’t want to talk about.

But we need not be afraid of honesty when we focus less on our performance and focus more on Christ’s performance on our behalf. Accountability partners should not merely hold you accountable to the sins you commit but whether you are placing your trust wholeheartedly in the work of Christ to save you. Good accountability friendships should be relationships where the gospel is explored and celebrated, because where sin increases, grace increases all the more.

* * *

Accountability isn’t just about confession. It’s about change. If Internet purity is something you struggle with, pursue change with accountability software from Covenant Eyes, and stay connected to your accountability group with Faithlife Groups.

Comments

  1. says

    Thank you. This is biblical counsel on how accountability to one another should really be pursued and practiced.

    One point I’d like to add is that seeking truth and grace goes both ways. Sadly, more often than not, when people seek my counsel or “accountability” for a sin or sins they’re struggling with, and we get down to the nitty gritty intentions of their heart rather than merely discuss their behavior, well…they’re not interested and they’re not honest.

    Unfortunately, many who come for accountability aren’t seeking godly counsel and to live in the true freedom Christ died to give us, but they are looking for a quick fix; a behavioral change rather than sanctification.

    I very much appreciate your article and will be sharing it with my readers.

    The Lord bless you.

    • says

      Yes. I agree. The truth hurts. When the Word becomes more like a scalpel, making very precise incisions at the place of infection, it can be the most humbling experience in the world—and our pride hates that.

      I think for a lot of us in the church, we use confession and accountability as yet another righteous notch in our belt, something that proves how spiritual we are. So when accountability starts to dig deep and expose our pretenses, we pull back, thinking, “Wait a second. I didn’t sign up for this.”

  2. Brian Morgan says

    Luke,
    This is excellent. Clear, biblical and practical. I am saving this article. As a pastor, mistakes 1&2 seem to be a hindrance to even launching this type of relationship within the church. In an attempt to slowly change to a “culture” of discipleship/accountability, it can be seen as probing or critical. Do let me know if there are more resources like this at your disposal. I am actively engaged in this endeavor. Feel free to email if that is easier. I hope I don’t sound presumptuous. :)
    Please and Thank you!

    • Kathy Follett says

      As a Believer, my application of the powerful exchange, of negative thought or feeling ;with the Word of God,and the person of the Holy spirit can happen ,whenever I say Yes. I try to assume that all believers
      want to have this release/exchange power; they just never understood the CROSS. So I never correct them
      just give truth with the assumption “we all just don’t understand sometimes” The Holy Spirit makes the exchange so graceful that I acknowledge the fleshly thought or feeling,Then acknowlege I have held it
      before the throne and I release it. The Lord takes the negative energy and adds it to the cross. It’s as if
      on the Cross ;Jesus felt and thought all sins. He carried all, He became all and at the separation from the
      Father His cry out was not rebellious but enduring. He died in Faith and received remission of all sin. But
      in my life; I hold on to memory of hurt and energy of negative feelings. By the power of Salvation and Sanctification; the Word planted and the Holy Spirit help surface my experience with sin and I bring it before
      the throne to be added to Christ’s Glory. To be enabled by HIM to bring what He shows me by sundown
      everyday is a beautiful way to live.

    • says

      Hi Brian,

      I know what you mean. I am as much a player in the problem as anybody: we live such isolated lives because of the times in which we live.

      I think one of the reasons why “recovery” groups in the church (like for porn addiction) can thrive is because those who join them are facing grave consequences if they don’t make radical lifestyle changes and really connect with others who can help. They have a lot to lose, so they give up their isolationist mentality and pursue genuine community.

      One movement I see doing this very well (for men) is the Samson Society.

  3. says

    A refreshing article that reminds us that our ongoing need to preach the Gospel to ourselves. Thanks for putting Jesus and his faithful work in our behalf at the center of this important discussion.

  4. John Lewis says

    Accountability, we all need this, and we should be truthful and comfortable enough with our family in Christ to be able to hold each other up in love, to achieve this constantly in our lives. I found that: Mistake #4: Focusing only on sins of commission, not omission, very pertinent in our daily walk. An excellent posting indeed!

  5. says

    It is really part of the tension of the times in which we live: the kingdom of God is here, but it is also coming. The power of sin is crushed. But the presence of sin is not. We have to straddle both realities to hold one another effectively.

  6. Pat says

    Some excellent points. I would add the following as well:

    1) Choose your accountability partner wisely….particularly ensuring that they have been where you are at and have come out on the other side because it is those dark moments when no one is around that you have to make the moment by moment decisions to live for Christ and not yourself and they can help you understand the thinking to have during those times.

    2) You are truly only accountable to God, not man. You cannot sin against man, but only God, so you have to realize in life that accountability with man cannot be a crutch, but temporal for the Lord to help you grow over this sin to a maturity that communicates to you that God’s way is what is best and to stop being so self-absorbed and arrogant to think your way is better than God’s way. A man as an accountability partner is only going to get you so far if you do not repent in your attitude toward what God has for you instead of the sin activity you are indulging.

    3) If you are married, assuming you are a man, you absolutely must have your wife partner with you, praying, asking, talking, helping, etc…. As a man, you have to redirect this sexual lust toward the correct object, else YOU WILL NOT DEFEAT THIS. Colossians 3 addresses putting off sin and putting on what God has for you instead. There is not a sin which God doesn’t have the perfect, righteously oriented opposite.

    4) MOST IMPORTANTLY, ensure you are constantly confessing your sin to God (1 John 1:9) to stay in fellowship with Him (the theme of 1 John). If you are not confessing this sin as much as it is being committed, you cannot get past this, no matter how wonderful your accountability system is.

    Again, thanks to Luke for pointing this out. I have some theological differences as to what has been said, but overall, the spiritual guidance makes the points well.

  7. says

    Luke,

    Thank you so much for this important information. I am the director of Freedom Counseling Services, a Christian addiction rehabilitation program for men. I have been counseling addicted individuals and their families for 20 years, and I am currently the president of the Georgia Addiction Counselors Association. I have been teaching that accountability is a critical, foundational part of recovery for those 20 years. I hope you will give me permission to use this material in our counseling groups. This is some of the best stuff I have seen and will make a big difference for me personally as I utilize accountability in my own life and for the men that I minister to. Thank you so much.

    David Burris, NCACII, CCS

  8. Leonard Loewen says

    Thank you Mr. Gilkerson for every word I think a very great number of people who are believers need to read paragraph one of mistake #2 every morning before the leave there house.

  9. PT says

    The main reason accountability groups remain shallow… Trust. Can I trust this person with what is going on inside of me? If not, I will share only “safe” issues… not the issues that may be rocking my world. Why go to a counselor and not use an accountability group? I can walk away from a counselor… it is more difficult to expose myself to friends and wonder if that will come back to bite me in the future…

    • says

      I agree that trust can be a big player in all of this. The question is this: The Bible tells us to confess our sins to each other, so it is out duty to do that. What will help us to trust others so that we no longer see mistrust as a barrier to obedience?

  10. Kendrick says

    Thank you Luke! your articles is like a short revival for the pastor and ministry worker. It showers the soul with God’s refreshing grace for the great work that we are given. All six points are practical yet powerful!

  11. Keith says

    Good Stuff!
    When I saw the points that were being discussed, I knew I had to read the entire blog post. Now that I read it I know I have to share it with others.

    Good Words!
    Every church should practice accountability formally and informally. Scripture clearly teaches the practice of the one another’s and accountability so I appreciate the references to God’s Word and then Owen to boot!

    Thanks for the Encouragement!

  12. says

    Great points! I agree that it's all too easy to focus on behaviors and habit or to make it just about the confession part without seeking true change. Creating a safe environment for accountability is also critical. That being said, it's also important to make sure that accountability questions asked get to heart level matters. Guys have to feel safe and have a level of trust established in order to go to that level though. I see three main types of accountability. Cop accountability where the cop takes a “gotcha!” legalistic approach to the person being held accountable. There is also coach accountability where the coach tries to be very positive and encouraging and finally there is cardiac accountability where the person gets to heart level issues and matters with the person being held accountable. This gets at the underlying things that manifest with symptoms of acting out (porn, masturbation, affairs, etc.) The key with accountability is not just focusing on the symptoms which is how the person acted out (cop and coach) but to get to the underlying root issues or causes that were behind the acting out (cardiac). Check out some helpful men’s accountability group resources at: http://www.mymensgroup.net/accountability-resources.html which includes the excerpt that describes the three types of accountability that I mention above.

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