H.A.B.I.T.S. – Accountability
Sycamore Creek Church
September 27, 2009
Note to reader: This is a manuscript and not a transcript. While I prepare a manuscript, I don’t preach from it. All the major points are here, but there are bound to be some small differences from the sermon as it was preached live. Also, expect some “bonus” material that wasn’t in the live sermon.
Peace friends! We’re into the third week of a message series on H.A.B.I.T.S. Let’s take a quick moment and review. The first week we introduced the idea of HABITS. If you want to be like Jesus, you have to practice like Jesus to acquire his habits. Last week we explored some of the practices and habits that Jesus had to “H”ang out with God. They included prayer, solitude, meditation, and confession to God. Today we continue on looking at “A”ccountability as one of the HABITS that puts us in God’s presence so God can change us.
Let’s begin by looking at a passage from the end of the book of James.
James 5:13-20 (NLT)
13 Are any among you suffering? They should keep on praying about it. And those who have reason to be thankful should continually sing praises to the Lord. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And their prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make them well. And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and wonderful results. 17 Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for the next three and a half years! 18 Then he prayed for rain, and down it poured. The grass turned green, and the crops began to grow again. 19 My dear brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back again, 20 you can be sure that the one who brings that person back will save that sinner from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.
This is God’s story for us today!
When we look closely at James we find that there are two kinds of accountability. The first is holding someone else responsible (in the case of Christians, responsible to God’s standards of love). We see this in verses 19-20: “19 My dear brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back again, 20 you can be sure that the one who brings that person back will save that sinner from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins” (NLT).
But there is a second kind of accountability and that has to do with confession or freely giving an account of oneself. We see that kind of accountability in verse sixteen:
“16 Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” Let’s take a look at each kind of accountability.
First, holding someone else responsible. This kind of accountability is something we’re pretty familiar with. It pops up all the time in our culture. For example the mission of the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) is to “protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation” (www.sec.gov). In an effort to do so, they “hold companies accountable for laws that prohibit insider trading, accounting fraud, and providing false or misleading information about securities and the companies that issue them” (www.sec.gov). In the wake of our financial meltdown and the SEC’s failure to hold companies accountable for such practices, many are now asking whether the SEC needs to be held accountable to their own mission. This is a kind of accountability that we are familiar with.
This kind of accountability of holding someone else responsible has come up before. When you were reading through Galatians you may remember reading Paul tell the church in Galatia, “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted” (6:1, NRSV).
It’s worth pointing out two “tips” that Paul gives in this passage. First, he says that when we hold someone else accountable, we should do so “in a spirit of gentleness.” This isn’t a grab-someone-by-the-scruff kind of experience. It’s a gentle and loving wooing one back to the truth. Second, Paul tells the Galatians to make sure they don’t fall into temptation themselves. This could mean one of two things. Don’t fall into the same temptation. If you’re an alcoholic and you’re going to the bar to try to gently and lovingly save another alcoholic, make sure you don’t fall off the wagon yourself. Or it could mean to be careful that you don’t fall into the temptation to treat the one you’re holding accountable in a rough and unloving way. I tend to think Paul is talking about the latter. That is certainly the greater temptation in most cases.
So we’ve looked at accountability as holding someone else responsible or accountable, but accountability is also about giving a true account of oneself. We see this in James as well: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and wonderful results” (5:16, NLT).
This kind of accountability is most clearly called confession. Confession is telling the truth about yourself and your situation. This is the kind of accountability that our culture isn’t always familiar with. St. Augustine said, “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.”
Many of us are familiar with the great Christian song, Amazing Grace. But do you know where that song came from? In the movie, Amazing Grace, John Newton, the author of that song, gives a true account of his life and his situation to William Wilberforce. It is not a pretty sight, but Newton is determined that he should give a true account of himself.
This kind of accountability is often very hard, especially for Christians. We want to look like we’ve got it all together. In his book, Celebration of Discipline, (a book you all should read if you want to learn about habits and practices) Richard Foster says:
Confession is a difficult Discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. We feel that everyone else has advanced so far into holiness that we are isolated and alone in our sin. We cannot bear to reveal our failures and shortcomings to others. We imagine that we are the only ones who have not stepped onto the high road to heaven. Therefore, we hide ourselves from one another and live in veiled lies and hypocrisy (Foster, 145).
SCC is seeking to not fall into this trap. We’re seeking to create a place where people can come as they are with all their hopes and dreams, fears and even failures, without judgment, and also grow into all that God has created them to be. How are we doing?
I think it is helpful to explore three steps of confession. The first step is an examination of one’s conscience. Perhaps three questions would help with an examination of conscience:
- Have you avoided all evil?
- Have you done all the good you were able?
- Have you spent time falling in love with God?
This is the first step of confession: examination of conscience. The second step is sorrow. Real confession always includes a godly sorrow over what you have done. This need not be super emotional, but you should feel some regret over your actions. The third step is simply a determination to avoid this and other sins in the future. These are the three steps of confession.
Having looked at accountability as giving an account of oneself, a quick word is in order for how to receive such a confession. James gives us some guidance early in his book. He says, “For there will be no mercy for you if you have not been merciful to others. But if you have been merciful, then God’s mercy toward you will win out over his judgment against you” (James 2:13, NLT). When you receive a confession, be merciful to the person confessing. God has been merciful to you. Remember that when you pray the Lord’s prayer you pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
John takes this even one step further. He tells the story of Jesus teaching his followers after his resurrection. Jesus tells them, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you refuse to forgive them, they are unforgiven” (John 20:23, NLT). What does Jesus mean here? Can he really mean exactly what he says?! Do we have the power to forgive people of their sins?! I think that in some very real sense, when we receive a confession, we hold in our response the future of how that person experiences God’s forgiveness. We are a representative of God in that moment. When someone confesses to you, tell them, “You are forgiven.” Be merciful to them.
We’ve seen an example of this play out all over the news lately. We all probably heard about how Kanye West jumped up on stage at the Video Music Awards and stole the limelight from Taylor Swift as she was receiving her first VMA. Later Kanye apologized (with what I think was true sorrow) on the Jay Leno show. This was impressive. Kanye was definitely not all put together for this apology, but he made it publicly. Later he called Taylor and apologized to her personally. The best part about this was Taylor’s response. She accepted the apology and forgave him. She recognized that Kanye was telling the truth about himself with sorrow and a real determination not to do so again. She even suggested she would be open to further friendship with him. Wow!
Friends, accountability, especially giving a true account of oneself in confession changes your life. I’d like to give you a personal testimony to how this kind of accountability changed my life.
I’ll never forget a particular night at youth group. I attended a very big church growing up and the youth worship each Sunday night averaged about one hundred students. As worship began to wind down, Tim, one of the older youth leaders got up to a microphone and told us he had a confession to make. He was a missionary kid (MK for short), so he had my and everyone else’s attention. Tim went on to tell us how he struggled with pornography. I was floored. He was telling this in front of one hundred people! I couldn’t believe what was going on.
In that moment of this friend of mine giving a true account of himself, something happened in me. The Holy Spirit spoke into my life and began in me a work of transformation. Later that week I met with Tim and confessed to him that I struggled with the very same sin. I had been looking at pornography almost daily for four or five years by that point. I knew that this kind of lust was wrong. I didn’t fully understand it all at the time, but now I understand how the sin of pornography objectifies people, especially women, and creates unhealthy and unrealistic relationship expectations for consumers of pornography. This was the first time I had ever spoken this truth about myself to someone else. Confession leads to confession.
I’d like to tell you that in that moment I was completely set free from the sin of pornography. But that wouldn’t be true. This first moment of confession was just a beginning. It was the beginning of God changing and transforming me into the kind of person I was created to be.
I remember the day that I walked into my youth pastor’s office and confessed this sin to him. I told him that I was no longer fit to be a youth leader myself. He wisely treated me with gentleness and mercy and refused to accept my “resignation” (probably because he knew that almost every young man struggles secretly with this and here was one guy who was actually trying to be honest about it).
On a youth retreat later in high school I was introduced to the idea of an accountability group. It was at that retreat that I began meeting fairly regularly with other guys to hold one another accountable and to give a true account of our lives to one another. I shared with these guys my struggle. I have been in an accountability group ever since.
Later on in life when I met Sarah, while we were dating, I confessed this sin to her. I was determined to be completely honest and open with her. I didn’t want there to be a hidden “Tom” that she didn’t known about. Amazingly, she wasn’t repulsed by me. She showed me gentleness and mercy. (And of course it was at this same time that I told her I wasn’t sure I believed any of this Christian stuff either! What a means of God’s grace she has been in my life!).
Throughout college I met with a group of guys who shared openly and honestly with one another about our sins. But we also began to hold one accountable to something else: spending time with God. It was in this Christian community of accountability that I began to stop focusing on not sinning and instead begin to focus on doing good and spending time with God. When I shifted my focus of accountability toward that, God really began to change me. It was in the crucible of Christian community and accountability that the sin of pornography really lost most of its ground in my life. The sin remained but it did not reign.
After I graduated from college and got married to Sarah, I had mostly experienced victory over this sin in my life, but I occasionally gave in again to the temptation. I continued in an accountability group, and slowly but surely this sin lost almost all power over me.
I have not looked at pornography now for over ten years. This does not mean that I am not tempted to look at pornography. I am still sorely tempted from time to time. I have learned how to resist in better ways. I have practiced the habits of accountability. I know when the cycles of temptation occur, and I tell someone about it. I ask them to ask me how things are going. I find that the simple act of telling someone, of giving a true account of my temptation, is enough now to disarm the temptation all together. I also have software from www.xxxchurch.com that sends a report bi-weekly to a friend that lists any objectionable websites I might have visited. Lastly, I give a true account of my situation by putting my computer in the living room where it is there for everyone, including Sarah, to see what I am doing.
Friends, this is not a sermon about pornography (we’ll cover that more fully in some future sermon). It is a sermon about the role that accountability, especially giving a true account of oneself to another person or group, can play in God transforming you. I have experienced that kind of transformation in my own life. I believe you can experience it too when you practice the habit of accountability.
May this be true in our lives not just by our own power but by the power of God working in us, the God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.Share on Facebook