This week Pete Wilson posted John Ortberg’s list of rules for friendships that matter:
1. We can ask anything, no holds barred.
2. If you answer, you must tell the truth, as much as you know it.
3. If you don’t answer, you must say why you won’t or can’t answer.
4. Everything that is said to each other will be held in absolute confidence.
5. We will make absolutely no judgments of each other.
Pete added the caveat to #5 that, while friends won’t judge each other (by which I assume they mean “condemn”), they reserve the right to speak truth into each other’s lives (by which I assume he means “make righteous judgments about unrepentance, harmful habits, or other areas needing improvement”).
Accountability is a tricky thing. B.J. Stockman recently encouraged those struggling with pornography to avoid accountability groups, writing:
[M]aybe this is a bit of an overstatement against accountability groups, but the point is that often accountability groups turn into focusing on sin rather than experiencing the gospel of grace. You don’t just want a group that kills, but gospel-driven community that gives life. Men’s groups I’ve been apart of in the past tend to focus more on the experiences of failure the week before not the event of God’s grace in the death and resurrection of Christ 2,000 years ago.
Don’t get me wrong: Christian relationships should engage in confession of sin (James 5:16), but they are also meant for encouragement in grace (1 Thessalonians 5:14). The author of the Hebrews reveals that the key to not being hardened to the deceitfulness of sin is daily encouragement not an excessive concentration on sin (Hebrews 3:13).
Stockman is on to something. I don’t think we need to jettison “accountability groups,” although we could call them a whole number of other things. (I would hope simply “friendships.”) What we need instead is that grace-encouragement.
The most life-giving “accountability group” I was ever a part of was called a “pastor’s gospel group.” There were three of us pastors and one layman who met regularly in Ray Ortlund’s study in Nashville for prayer, confession, and sharpening. Ray introduced us to an abbreviated version of John Wesley’s famous accountability questions:
1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
3. Do I confidentially pass onto another what was told me in confidence?
4. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work , or habits?
5. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
6. Did the Bible live in me today?
7. Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
8. Am I enjoying prayer?
9. When did I last speak to someone about my faith?
10. Do I pray about the money I spend?
11. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
12. Do I disobey God in anything?
13. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
14. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
15. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
16. How do I spend my spare time?
17. Am I proud?
18. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisee who despised the publican?
19. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I going to do about it?
20. Do I grumble and complain constantly?
21. Is Christ real to me?
All good questions, and they are self-directed as written, which is important I think. Also important is that very last question, and once Ray answered it in a way that changed the entire room. I can’t adequately describe what exactly happened as Ray told us about his friend Jesus, but that scene near the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring in Bilbo’s hobbit hole where Gandalf seems to grow 20 feet taller as the room itself grows sort of approximates the experience. In his beautiful devotional commentary on the book of Isaiah, Ray writes, “The remedy for our deadness to God’s grace is more grace.”
This gets at something Bonhoeffer argues for in Life Together. While telling us not to be constant takers of our fellow believers’ temperatures, he tells us to be constant givers to our fellow believers the gospel. We need the gospel in our brothers, and they need the gospel that is in us. So accountability must ask the hard questions but it must do so as if Jesus is real. Because he is.
And since Jesus is real, his personality and his judgments should shape the personality and judgments of accountability groups. Our hearts should not be shrunken after examinations, unless we are hardened to God’s grace altogether, because it ought to be abundantly clear that questions are asked that we might walk in the freedom of Christ’s accomplishments for us and the Spirit’s power in us. The more Romans 8:1 flourishes in a space, the more James 5:16 will fill it.