I wonder how you feel about accountability. What ideas and emotions does the concept evoke in you? My associations with accountability are largely negative. Feelings of guilt about things I should have done but haven’t and feelings of shame about things I shouldn’t have done but have. This was my experience of accountability as a teenager but now I’m beginning to view it differently.
As a teenager in church youth groups, I experienced accountability as a deterrent; the shame of confessing sins of omission and commission was meant to be a motivation to do the right thing. In my experience, however, it wasn’t all that effective. Accountability actually soon seemed to add to my list of wrongdoings as I began to lie about how I was actually doing because the shame felt too great. I may be alone in this experience - the misunderstanding may all have been mine - but I have a feeling I’m probably not.
As I progressed through and beyond my teenage years and grew in my understanding of the gospel, I became increasingly confused that this sort of accountability was presented as a great tool for Christian growth. Partly, this was because I hadn’t found it very effective, but it also didn’t really seem to fit with the gospel. A major guilt trip didn’t seem to be how the Bible encourages us to progress in sanctification and to help each other in that journey.
These musings were crystallised when I heard a Christian counsellor use the helpful language of accountability as coaching. Accountability shouldn’t be a giant guilt trip – that’s not the gospel – it should be coaching in the gospel, having someone alongside you to help you keep applying the gospel to your journey in sanctification. So an accountability relationship shouldn’t be the place we feel deep shame for what we have done; it should be the place we most experience the gospel’s unique power to free us from shame. It shouldn’t be the place where try to change to please or impress someone else; it should be the place where we are spurred on to express in our thoughts and actions our love for the one who is already pleased with us and invites us to the freedom of holy living. Christian accountability should be gospel coaching because it’s only the application of the gospel in our lives that can truly help us to change.
I’ve recently been reminded of this distinction as I’ve been reading Drew Dyck’s brilliant Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible & Brain Science. Unsurprisingly, it seems that psychological research confirms the wisdom of the gospel’s strategies for change.
Apparently psychologists have observed the ‘fresh start effect’. This is the fact that if we feel like we’ve been given a fresh start and a clean slate we are more likely to make progress in changing our behaviour. This is why we are more likely to make progress with goals started at the beginning of a new year or the start of a new week; we feel a sense of break from what’s gone before and that helps us to look forward. The gospel gives us the ultimate fresh start and clean plate. Accountability should help us to take hold of that. Quick confession and application of the gospel is a powerful tool for seeking to change behaviour. (I’m sure Andrew would point out that this is a good reason to make confession and the assurance of forgiveness a regular part of our weekly gatherings. Every week we’d get the benefit of the fresh start effect!)
Another phenomenon that psychologists have observed is the ‘What-The-Hell-Effect’. This is when one misstep quickly leads to a repetition of that misstep. The effect isn’t actually solely rooted in an ‘I’m already in trouble so I might as well do it again’ sort of thought process, despite what the name suggests. It’s actually a cycle we can get caught in. The guilt and shame of doing something wrong makes us look for comfort, and often the way we’ll seek comfort is in the very thing we’re feeling bad about. The wrong form of accountability could aggravate this. Not only do you feel guilty about what you’ve done but you feel the shame of having to tell someone, so you’re even more desperate for comfort. Once again, we see the power of quick confession which breaks us out of that cycle and gets us back to the fresh start effect. Accountability should be gospel coaching which helps us to put this into practice.
I’m probably overly harsh on my teenage experience of accountability. There no doubt is some deterring power in the knowledge that someone will be asking how you’ve been doing with a particular issue, but I doubt it has the power for substantial and long-term change. I have no doubt, however, that the gospel has that power, and sometimes when we’re struggling to preach the gospel to ourselves, we need someone else to preach it to us. Accountability should be gospel coaching.