Getting What You Inspect

The Value of Spiritual Accountability

By all appearances, the pastor and his ministry were thriving. New people were visiting, members were growing in their walk with the Lord, and missions was an exciting arm of the church. There was no sign of any problem. Months later, though, the mask was ripped off, and the pastor’s consistent moral failure was revealed. A missionary was spending thousands of Magnifying Glasssupport dollars on lavish personal conveniences. A church member disguised his spiritual apathy and lack of devotion to his wife through years of performance in church events. How do these and many other sinful choices go on for so long without being noticed? While each person is responsible for his own actions, many spiritual battles can be won through loving accountability.

You might have heard the old saying, “You don’t get what you expect; you get what you inspect.” That’s a simple way of describing the process of accountability—a brother or sister in Christ “inspecting” the life of another member of the body. The difference is that in spiritual accountability a truly concerned believer doesn’t just ask questions and then remain uninvolved in the changing process. Accountability leads into discipleship. The whole process is asking a friend the hard questions and then helping each other to walk in the victory Christ offers. In most areas of life, we are held accountable for our actions. Why, then, in our spiritual lives are we are often sadly lacking in our attempts to keep people accountable or even respond in humility to others’ questions of accountability?

Real, biblical accountability is beneficial for both the asker and the receiver. On the receiving end, it’s difficult to admit weakness, yet it is the first step in true change. None of us like the idea of someone asking about our progress in areas of struggle. It’s easier to just hide behind a mask of superficial spirituality. My friend calls it “living in the world of fine.” During fellowship time, someone asks between bites of spaghetti, “How are you?” Our answer is “fine.” After church, the pastor says, “How is your family?” Our answer is “fine.” Maybe a concerned friend actually asks, “How is your time in the Word?” Our answer is “fine.” Sometimes this has become simply a polite way to start or avoid small talk, but many times our vague answer is an attempt to cover up a real struggle in our spiritual walk. Why do we so often avoid transparent communication about our own spiritual weakness? I can answer that in one word. Pride. Our pride holds us back from letting people into the broken pieces of our lives and helping us to look to Christ to restore that which was shattered.
Several times in the Gospels, Christ confronts His disciples about a particular area of weakness. Their reactions to His incriminating statements paint a picture of the depth of their character at that point. Look, for example, in Matthew 16:20-23 where Christ holds Peter accountable for his hasty words. Peter’s argumentative reaction reveals his pride. Contrast Peter’s reaction with the well-known question after the resurrection. “Do you love me” (John 21:15-17). On this occasion, Peter walked in humility and didn’t try to refute the all-knowing, all-loving question of his best Friend. He takes the position of a learner, and his reaction was the beginning of God’s using him mightily in the early church.

The process of accountability also helps the confronter. If done biblically, the person addressing the need must go in a spirit of meekness, knowing that he is very capable of sinning in the same way or some other way but equally in violation of God’s holiness (Gal. 6:1). This humility is a beautiful part of growth into Christlikeness. True accountability is not only helpful because of its reciprocal nature but also because of the mutual study in Scripture to get God’s mind on an issue. Studying Scripture together is always beneficial.

Knowing the benefits of accountability doesn’t give us carte blanche authority to address people in any way we choose. The Bible has much to say about the manner in which we communicate. In the process of accountability, our words must be carefully chosen and wisely delivered.

The first step in the accountability process is to ask good questions. I’ve often heard it said that “questions convict the conscience; accusations harden the will.” Christ used more than 100 questions even in what is recorded in the Gospels. In accountability, you need to be willing to ask the hard questions. People aren’t likely to tear off their masks without being pushed with penetrating questions. Open-ended questions are normally best to stimulate deep conversation. In the Christ-centered addiction recovery group I help with, we ask questions like “How were you tempted in the past week, and how did God give you victory?”

Accountability goes beyond just asking questions to addressing the issue from Scripture. Any secular psychologist can become a master at asking questions. As Scripture-saturated believers, we must direct people back to the Bible. This step could take the form of an official Bible study or maybe just a reference to a particular passage. Believers cannot walk in victory without a connection to the Source of all wisdom and victory.

Another essential part of the accountability process is to give a realistic goal and practical ways to meet that goal. In this step, I caution against the tendency for all of us—to trust in our own acts of righteousness for the victory that is available for us only through the finished work of Christ. Paul said that “we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us” (Rom 8:37). We can’t conquer our flesh with our flesh; Christ already provided the victory for us. However, we are responsible to live out that truth through dying to self and walking in the Spirit. The work of accountability or discipleship is not finished even after assigning a “project.” Like a physician, the discipler needs to do further evaluation for the continued growth of both people.

Accountability is a critical and too often-neglected arena in our churches today. When we leave fellow believers to fend for themselves without the protection of accountability, we are no better than the Pharisee and Levite who walked by the hurting man on the side of the road (Luke 10).

Joy WagnerJoy Wagner taught classes and was the ladies’ dorm supervisor at Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) for 10 years. She works as a counselor at Rocky Mountain Biblical Counseling Center.
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