I have never been fond of accountability groups. I have been a part of several over the course of my life as a pastor, church member, and seminary student. I always felt like there was something… manipulative about them.
Accountability Groups I Have Been In
Here is my sense of every accountability group I have ever been in: they pretty much only force people to become liars. Oh sure, maybe the specific sin that the group meets together about is discussed and out in the open, but most often, the other sins are kept hidden and safely locked away. Furthermore, what happens most often in accountability groups is that if a person doesn’t want to talk about his sin, all the accountability group does is make him feel more guilty about it, which then makes him fall into the sin even more.
I was in one accountability group where we were dealing with issues of sexual temptation. The group lasted about two years, and we all did pretty good admitting our failures and praying for and encouraging one another. The group fell apart when one of the members got arrested and sent to prison for molesting a young girl. In the two years we met, he never said a word about any such struggle, temptation, or risk he was facing in this area. Not one word.
I was part of a different group a while back, and I recently learned that one of the men in the group is facing the possibility of divorce because of an addiction to pornography which he hid all those years.
I am not judging or condemning these men. What I am saying is that accountability groups don’t “work.” Some people will swear that accountability groups do work, and that every person should be part of one, but I’m just not so sure….
While counseling and accountability groups might be temporarily helpful for some, they do not result in lasting success for the vast majority of people who participate in them.
What Accountability Groups Focus On
Accountability groups usually focus on guilt and peer pressure to modify behavior. There are other behavioral management techniques that are sometimes used as well, but for the most part, there is very little about an accountability group that is overtly “Christians.” Oh sure, the accountability group might pray and talk about the Bible, but in general, there is very little difference between a Christian accountability group and any other form of behavioral management group. And usually what is discovered in these groups is that even IF a person is able to modify one behavior or overcome one addiction, they often fall into some other sort of destructive behavior or addiction, which often makes their overall condition worse than it was before.
When Accountability groups do work, it is often not due to the accountability group itself, or what it is doing, but because the person who experiences “success” stumbled upon some the truly biblical and Christian ways of dealing with sin (which I will explain below).
Here is the main problem though with accountability groups: They cause us to focus on our sin. And as any psychologist will tell you, the more you focus on something, even if it is focusing on trying not to do something, the harder it is to not do what you are focusing on.
Take the classic example of the “Do Not Touch – Wet Paint” sign. People usually feel no desire to touch walls and railings in public places… .until you put up a sign which says, “Do not touch! Wet Paint!” Then every person walking along the wall feels the strong urge to touch the wall and see if the paint is wet.
So also with our sin. When we walk around all day thinking, “Do not look; do no taste; do not touch” (Col 2:21), we will constantly struggle with urge to look, taste, and touch. This is essentially what Paul is saying in Romans 8:5-7 when he talks about the mind set on fleshly things. If we set our mind on things of the flesh, even if we are setting our mind on not doing things of the flesh, we will face the constant struggle of falling into fleshly things, and will frequently stumble. And then when we do stumble, we often feel so guilty for our failure, that we think to ourselves, “Well, I’am already sinning, I might as well make the most of it. And we plunge headlong into the sin and gorge our fleshly inclinations. I mean, if we have to ask God for forgiveness anyway, we might as well make it count, right?
So this ongoing struggle continues. We try and try and try to not sin. We walk around repeating the mantra to ourselves over and over. “Do not look. Do not taste. Do not touch.” Then we do look, or we do taste, or we do touch, and once we do, we feel so guilty, we can’t face God, we feel like death, and so we decide to just enjoy the sin while we’re in it, but that only makes things worse on us in the long run, until eventually, we feel so filthy and disgusting, and get so angry at ourselves for the way we behaved, we come slinking back to God, begging and crying for forgiveness, and we confess our sin to our accountability group, and they forgive us, and tell us to try harder. And we commit to trying harder.
And for some people, it actually works! But this is the biggest trap of all!
The Biggest Trap of Accountability Groups
Let me be honest. Accountability groups actually “work” for some people. Those who have the most resolve, the greatest discipline, the highest amount of self-control. They can make accountability groups work. And they have all the secrets on how they changed their life and live free from sin. They write the books and preach the sermons and lead the groups. And week after week after week, they announce “success” to their accountability group, and everyone else looks up to them and thinks, “Someday, somehow, I will be just like him — free from sin and temptation.”
Do you see what happens when someone is successful in an accountability group? It turns into self-righteous pride for him, and idolatry for everyone else. The successful person become self-righteous about his success (which is by far the worst sin of all), and often looks down on all the pitiful failures who just cannot gather together the resolve to keep themselves free from sin. Everybody else ends up feeling like more of a failure, because obviously, the accountability group works for some people, and it must be their own weakness, or lack of spirituality, or little faith, or failure to read their Bible and pray enough, or whatever it might be to grant the success that others experience.
This is why accountability groups don’t work, even when they “work.”
So what is the Alternative to Accountability Groups?
You know what the alternative is to accountability groups?
It is one word: love.
We don’t need accountability groups to defeat sin in our lives. We just need to know that sin is already defeated because of God’s love.
We don’ t need to strengthen our resolve. We just need to recognize that no matter what — yes, NO MATTER WHAT — God loves us. He cannot love us any more. God doesn’t wait for us to fix our lives before He loves us. He loved us while we were still sinners (Rom 5:8). And it is not as if God loved us while we were sinners, but once we believe in Jesus to become His children, He only loves us while we remain free from sin. No! He loves us NO MATTER WHAT!
God does not love some future version of you more than how much He loves you right now. It is not as if God is saying, “Well, I love you about 90% of the time right now, and if you would just stop drinking too much, I would love you 91%.” No! He loves you 100% right now. Whether you sin or not. W
Let me put this dangerously. If we are talking about when God loves us more, it may be most accurate to say that God loves us more when we sin. I don’t mean by this that we should go out and sin more so that God can love us more. No, what I mean is that when we recognize we are sinners, and take that sin to God, it is there, in the midst of our sin, that God can show His love to us. You see, when we get caught up in our own self-righteousness, we think we have earned God’s love. We think that the love God is showing us is because of our own goodness.
But God doesn’t love us because of our goodness. He loves us simply because He is love (1 John 4:8).
Here is a little exercise I have found to helpful when dealing with sinful tendencies in my own life. When you are facing temptation, and especially when you fall to the temptation and find yourself in the midst of sin, try this: invite God into the sin with you.
I know, I know. This sounds totally contrary to everything church teaches us about God and sin. God can’t be near sin and all that. That’s garbage. As I’ve written previously, the reason God cannot be in the presence of sin is because sin burns away in the raging fire of His love, grace, and forgiveness. So when you are sinning, invite God into it. Here is the type of conversation I have:
“Whoa! How did I get involved in this! Uh-oh. This isn’t good. Hey God! Are you seeing this?”
Yes, Jeremy. I see what’s going on here.
“Sorry about this.”
It’s all right. I still love you.
“You do? Don’t you see the filth I just walked into?”
Yep. I see it. I’m here in it with you. I’m not going to abandon you to this sin. I love you and will never leave you.
Yeah…. You know, it’s kind of silly how you ended up here. Did you see the steps you took to get here?
“I saw it. I’ve been down this road a thousand times. I knew what was coming, but I just didn’t care. I’ll be honest, though, I kind of wanted to go down this road.”
I know. And I’ll walk this road a thousand times more if you want. I do appreciate the honesty, though. Always before, you denied any knowledge of how you ended up sinning. At least now you are beginning to recognize it and admit what happened, and talk to Me about it. I like that.
“I like that too. Thanks. And hey, I’m sorry.”
I forgive you. I have already forgiven you. And I love you.
You see? All God really wants is to let us know how much He loves us. And this love of God is the one and only thing that will EVER help us gain freedom and victory over sin. It is only when we see how much God loves us that we can invite Him into that sinful space with us, so that He can work within and inside the sin, to show us that His love is greater than any satisfaction or enjoyment we could get from sin. But until we see how much God loves us, we will be to scared of God and of our sin to take our sin to God and have an honest conversation with Him about it.
And look what else is happening. Rather than focusing our mind on things of the flesh, we are focusing our mind on the things of the Spirit, and especially the main truth of the Spirit-filled life, that God loves us and is on our side.
When we focus on sin and trying to overcome sin, it only results in more sin. Never less. Sure, we may gain “victory” over some type of sin, but all we really end up doing is trading one sin for another, and usually the other sin is some sort of religious self-righteousness, which is worse than the sin we started with.
Don’t Turn to an Accountability Group; Turn to God
So when you sin, don’t become guilt-ridden. Don’t beg and plead to God for forgiveness and promise to try harder next time. Don’t make resolves and promises you can’t keep, and even if you can keep them, will only result in self-righteous pride.
And whether you have an accountability group or not, don’t depend on other people to keep you free from sin. You can’t do it, and neither can they! Instead, when you sin, just take it to God. Seriously. Just talk to God about it, and thank Him for His unconditional love and limitless grace.
Until we begin to understand God’s love for us, sin will always cause us to run from God, hide from Him, and keep Him at bay. He doesn’t like this, and neither do we, for it only leads to greater separation from Him, and more sin.
The point of life in Jesus is not to sin less, but to grow in intimacy with God. And the close we get to God, the less likely it is that we will sin, not because we have developed some great inner resolve, but because we will learn that life with God is better than anything that sin and the world can offer. When we allow God into our struggles with us, we are still growing in intimacy with God, even in the midst of our struggles! It is a beautiful, gracious process, so that, in a way, even our sin is redeemed! It is a crazy thing when sin helps push you deeper into the loving and forgiving arms of God.