I hate getting up at 6:00 a.m. for a breakfast meeting and have everyone else fail to show up.
This is an accountability group after all.
Five of us formed it after a men’s retreat six months ago promising to hold ourselves accountable to being good husbands, involved fathers and committed believers. Attendance after the first few weeks has been sporadic, but today only one other guy showed and he hadn’t been to a meeting in at least two months. In fact, we’d given up on him.
Bob Miller, one of our council members, only came to tell me afterwards that he and Joyce were separated. I was hoping Gil Rodriquez would show up because he was the only one I could talk to about my escalating problems at church, for which I mostly blamed John.
So instead of unburdening myself, I spent the whole time talking about Bob’s separation. He’d been married to Joyce for over 30 years, raised three children and until that moment I'd thought they were one of our model couples. Since Bob was one of our Council members, I knew this was going to reflect poorly on our congregation.
Joyce had accidentally stumbled across some downloaded pornography on his computer and had been so humiliated she demanded that he leave. I was sure it was some kind of mistake, but Bob assured me it was not. It was a battle from his younger years that he had seemingly put behind him. "The Internet just made it too easy," he confessed. He didn’t have to risk renting a video or purchasing a magazine out in public.
During our conversation I kept hearing laughter across the partition in another section of the restaurant. I remembered thinking how out of place the laughter seemed with the grief going on right in front of me. How dare anyone have that much fun this time of the morning and with people in this much pain!
I tried everything I could think of to make Bob fix it, but he said it was impossible. The latest incident was not the whole problem. Their marriage had been steadily dying since the kids left home and this was only the last straw in a long string of painful incidents. We finally ran out of time as Bob had to leave for work.
We got up and walked to the cash register to pay our checks. I was seething with anger, at the other guys for not showing up, and Bob for being such an idiot. As I got change back from the waitress at the cash register, I looked up to see a familiar face coming out of the rest room. It had been nearly two months since our tour through the Sunday school wing. Our eyes met and he seemed genuinely surprised, as was I.
"John? What are you doing here?"
A big smile broke across his face and he answered with a chuckle in his voice, "Jake, how are you doing?" He came over and shook my hand.
I tried to introduce him to Bob, but didn’t know his last name. "Bob, this is John, a friend I met a few months ago." Turning to John, I added. "I’m sorry, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard your last name."
"John is good enough," he said shaking Bob’s hand.
Bob smiled back but it quickly gave way to a strained look on his face. "Are you the…?" Then turning to me he started again, "Is this the guy…?" He stopped again fumbling awkwardly.
I was afraid of what he’d say next and gave him my best, please-be-careful face. "Is this the guy… that got you into all that trouble?"
I looked at John sheepishly as he turned towards me. "I wouldn’t put it that way."
"Maybe it was someone else," Bob glanced at his watch, announced that he was late for work already and with a wave was quickly out the door.
"I’m surprised to see you." I turned back to John.
"I was passing through town and had the chance to grab breakfast with an old friend this morning. He had to leave and I’ve still got almost an hour before my bus departs." He nodded in the direction of the bus depot down the street.
"Where are you headed?"
"I have a meeting upstate this evening."
"Were you going to look me up?"
"I guess I didn’t need to, Jake. I really didn’t have much time to arrange anything, but if you want to join me at my table, I’ve got some time now."
I followed him across the room and sat down at the table in the corner where all the laughter had come from earlier. "Was that you laughing so hard over here, or was that another table?" I asked sizing up the room.
"Oh, that was Phillip! I wish I’d known you were here because I want you two to meet; perhaps in a future trip. He’s on a similar journey to yours, and he’s just surfaced from some painful and deep waters. He’s just like a kid splashing around the summer pond. His joy is even more infectious than his laugh."
"I’m glad someone is having fun," the sarcasm dripping from my lips.
"That doesn’t sound good."
"It’s been horrible since I last saw you and this morning really topped it off. No one showed up for our accountability group except Bob who hadn’t been with us for a long time. He only came to tell me he and his wife are separated because she found some pornography on his computer. He’s a leader at the church, too. What a mess!"
"You seem really angry. How is this going to hurt you?"
"It won’t hurt me. I think it will hurt the church."
"Is that why you’re angry at him?"
That was the first time that morning I stopped to think how I felt about Bob. I had been so upset with his divorce and how it would affect the church, I really hadn’t thought about him.
"I didn’t think I was mad at Bob. I was mad at his failure and?"
"And what it is going to cost you."
"I don’t know that I thought of it that way, but now that you mention it I was pretty hard on him. I guess I blame him for not being more consistent with the group and admitting his struggle."
"Accountability is not for those who struggle, Jake, it’s a place for those who can succeed."
"But aren’t we accountable to each other?"
"Where did you get that idea?"
"It’s in the Bible, isn’t it?"
"Can you show me where?" John reached down and pulled a Bible off the booth seat next to him and tossed it on the table.
I picked it up and started to thumb through it while my mind raced to find a passage. I couldn’t come up with one. I even glanced through the concordance but recognized all those passages referred to our giving account to God, not to each other. "Doesn’t Hebrews talk about people being accountable to leadership in some way?"
"No," John chuckled, "it talks about leaders giving an account for the lives they touch. All the accountability in Scripture is linked to God, not to other brothers and sisters. When we hold each other accountable we are really usurping God’s place. It’s why we end up hurting each other so deeply."
"How are we going to change, then" We’ve taught people that they grow in Christ by making a commitment to doing what’s right and then following through. We need each other to help us do that!"
"How well is that working for you, Jake, or for the rest of the group?"
"Not very well, I’d have to admit. But that’s because people aren’t committed enough."
"You really think so?"
I’d heard that tone of voice before and knew at least that John didn’t see it that way. I hesitated to answer. "Do you know what all this commitment talk produces?" John asked
"It helps people try to live better, doesn’t it?"
"It looks like that," John shook his head and let out a deep sigh. "But it doesn’t work. We’re not changed by the promises we make to God, but the promises he makes to us. When we make commitments that we can live up to only for a brief period, our guilt multiplies when we fail. Upset that God doesn’t do more to help us, we usually end up medicating our guilt with something like drugs, alcohol, food, shopping or anything else that dulls the pain or it creeps out of us through anger or lust."
"Are you saying that’s what happened to Bob?"
"I don’t know Bob, but I’d say it’s likely. Did he feel safe enough to come and share his deepest temptation?"
"Obviously not!" I shook my head in frustration. "A lot of our wives say we need a men’s retreat every month to keep us motivated enough. I sometimes think they’re right."
"Yes, it’s easy to come back on a high and keep your commitments for a few weeks, but what happens when the glory of that fades and its no fun treating your wife like a Princess or spending time with your children when there are more pressing demands at work" He finally gives in because nothing has changed on the inside. This is an outward-in approach, based on human effort, and it just won’t work."
"So you’re saying that our approach is only producing more sin?"
"For most people, yes I am. That’s why Bob doesn’t want to come and no one else does either. Even when they are there, they probably aren’t telling the real story of their struggle. They would feel too bad about themselves. Instead they confess to acceptable sins like busyness, anger or gossip.
"That’s the worst part of religious thinking. It takes our best ambitions and uses them against us. People who are trying to be more godly actually become more captive to their appetites and desires. That’s exactly what happened to Eve. She just wanted to be like God, which is also exactly what God wants for us. It wasn’t what she wanted that got her in trouble, but that she relied on her own strength to get her there.
"Paul recognized there are three roads in this life, when most of us only recognize two. We tend to think of our lives as a choice between doing bad and doing good. Paul saw two different ways we could try to do goodone makes us work hard to submit to God’s rules. He said that one fails every time. Even when he described himself as following all of God’s rules externally, he also called himself the worst sinner alive because of the hate and anger in his heart. Sure he could conform his outward behavior to fit the rules, but it only pushed his problems deeper. He was, you remember out killing God’s people in God’s name."
"Yes, but Paul is talking about the Old Testament law there. We’re not following the law. We’re seeking to live by New Testament principles."
"No he’s not, Jake. Paul is talking about religionman’s effort to appease God by his own work. If we do what he wants he will be good to us and if we don’t bad things will happen in our lives. On its best day, this approach will allow us to be smugly self-righteous which is a trap all its own. On its worst days it will heap guilt upon us greater than we can bear. Your ‘New Testament principles’ are just another way of living to the law. You’re still caught up in the process of trying to get God to reward you for doing good."
"So trying to do good can be a bad thing?" I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
"If you go about it that way it definitely is. But Paul saw another way to live in God’s life that was so engaging it transformed his entire life. He knew that our failures all result from the fact that we just don’t trust God to take care of us. As Paul grew to know God better, he discovered that he could trust God’s love for him. The more he grew to trust God’s love, the freer he was from those desires that consumed him. Only by trusting Jesus can anyone experience this kind of freedom and those who know him do. It is real freedom."
"Won’t people just use that for an excuse to do whatever feels good and ignore what God wants?"
"Sure some will. Many already have. But you can’t throw out what’s true just because those who think they’re getting away with something can abuse it. Those who really know who God is will want to be like him."
"We have to have a standard, though, so people can know what that is."
That’s when he dropped the bombshell that exploded every preconception I had of this Christian life. "Jake, when are you going to get past the mistaken notion that Christianity is about ethics?"
What? I looked up at him and could not get one coherent thought from my brain to my mouth. If it’s not about ethics, what is it about? I had been raised all of my life to believe that Christianity was an ethic for life that would earn me a place in his heart. I didn’t even know where to put this last statement, but he seemed content just to let it hang there.
Finally I found something to say. "I don’t even know how to respond to that. I’ve lived my whole life in Christ thinking this was all about ethics."
"And that is why you’re missing it. You’re so caught up in a system of reward and punishment that you’re missing the simple relationship he wants to have with you."
"How else are we going to know how God feels about us if we don’t live up to his standards?"
"That’s where you have it backward, Jake. We don’t get his love by living up to his standards. We find his love in the most broken place of our lives. As we let him love us there and discover how to love him in return, we’ll find our lives changing in that relationship."
"How can that be" Don’t we have to walk away from sin to know him?"
"Walking toward him is walking away from sin. The better you know him the freer from it you will be. But you can’t walk away from sin, Jake. Not in your own strength! It’s the relationship he wants. Everything he wants to do in you will get done as you learn to live in his love.
"Here’s the truth of it, Jake. Every act of sin results from your mistrust of his love and intentions for you. We sin to fill up broken places, to try to fight for what we think is best for us, or by reacting to our guilt and shame. Once you discover how much he loves you all that changes. As you grow in trusting him, you will find yourself increasingly free from sin."
"It sounds so easy when you say it, John. But learning to live that way would be the opposite of everything I’ve been taught."
"That’s why it’s called ‘good news’, Jake. It is the most incredible offer you’ve ever had made to you" better than winning the lottery or uncovering an inheritance from a long, lost uncle."
I knew sorting this conversation out would take some time, and I hadn’t even sorted out the last one yet. Which reminded me, I was mad at John. I wasn’t sure how to bring it up, but as I saw John start to gather his things together, I thought I’d better get it in quick.
"Will this get me in as much trouble as our last conversation?" My tone turning a bit menacing as I looked up.
"Is this what Bob was talking about earlier? What happened, Jake?"
"Your little visit caused quite an uproar. Pastor Jim was angry because the short in the sound system kept popping up during his sermon. It distracted him and he thought it ruined his message. I should have been there to help fix it and instead I was giving a tour of our education wing to someone whose last name I didn’t even know. That didn’t go over too well. I couldn’t even tell him where you lived. He was livid, accusing me of giving some pedophile a tour of our children’s wing."
"That’s quite a leap," John answered calmly. I thought the accusation would anger him, but it didn’t even faze him.
"I assured him it wasn’t true, but he asked me how he could trust someone that wasn’t committed enough to be where he was supposed to be that morning. He exploded at me, John. I’ve never seen him like that. We’ve been close friends for over two decades and continued that friendship even after I came on staff. He’s loved me through my worst moments and supported me when others tried to tear me down. Now he picks at everything I do and we don’t spend any relaxed time together."
"All of that changed after my last visit? Didn’t you tell me in the park a few months back that things were already tense between you?"
I paused to think about it. "Now that you mention it, it has been going on longer than that. He’s been difficult to work with for probably six months or more. He’s been distant and hardly ever responds to my suggestions."
"It sounds like something else is going on there."
"Whatever it is, I guess that just made it worse. He didn’t even like any of the changes I made."
"Changes? What changes?"
"The ones you told me to make."
"I didn’t tell you to make any changes, did I, Jake?"
"I got rid of that sign you didn’t like, about our church being the house of God, and that guilt-inducing poster."
John chuckled playfully and shook his head as if I’d just made an innocent gaffe. "I bet that went over well."
"It’s not funny, John. A few days after I changed the bulletin board Jill Harper, the lady who cut out all those letters and made the poster at my request, came by my office. She asked what happened to the bulletin board. I told her I was uncomfortable with some of the messages it gave out and wanted us to redo it. She was furious that I had changed it without consulting her. I apologized, but it didn’t do much good. She doesn’t want to talk about it anymore and I think she’s been spreading her anger to others on the children’s ministry team. Many of them are upset with me too."
"A few weeks ago I presented a new proposal to shift the priority of our children’s program to fit what we talked about when you were here."
"Uh oh? I was so excited. I spent a lot of time and printed up a ten-page paper on how we could refocus our classes and retrain our teachers. I was just certain they would be as thrilled as I to put this ministry on a better footing. I listed specific recommendations about giving up our star charts and changing our songs to be more grace-centered."
"They thought I was accusing them of being Pharisees. They said they believed in grace as much as anyone else and told me they had all grown up with those charts, and that putting up stars gives children a feeling of accomplishment. I didn’t know what to say I was so surprised. In the heat of the battle, I couldn’t even remember what you’d said. The night was a disaster."
"I can imagine, Jake. I’m sorry it was so hurtful."
"I don’t even know what I did wrong, John. Life at the church was tough before. Now it’s a nightmare and I don’t think the pastor has any respect for me anymore. My stomach is always in knots."
"Jake, if you listen to anything else I say, listen to this: Don’t use our conversations to try to change others. I’m only trying to help you learn to live in God’s freedom. Until they are looking for the same things you are, people will not understand and you’ll be accused of far worse. You’re trying to live to what I said without letting God make it real in you. It won’t work that way. You’ll just end up hurting a lot of people and hurting yourself in the process." John slid off the chair and stood up, fishing some bills out of his pocket to leave a tip.
"That’s for sure." I said getting up with him.
John told me he had to get to the depot to catch his bus. I offered to drive him over to help save some time for him and give me some time to finish the conversation. We kept talking as we walked toward the register, paid his check and walked to my car.
"You’re not finding his presence to be any more real for you than when we first talked, are you?"
"Why would you say that?"
?Because you’re still trying to make others do it, instead of living it yourself. It’s natural for us to deal with our emptiness by trying to get others around us to change. That’s why so much body life today is built around accountability and human effort. If we could just get everyone else to do what’s right, everything would be better for us."
"No, Jake! We’re not ever going to get it all right. People are going to mess up. Sorting out a relationship with Jesus is a lifetime journey. The life of faith is struggle enough in a broken world without us complicating it for other believers. Why do you think you weren’t there for Bob and now your pastor isn’t there for you? It’s not because they don’t want to be."
"Because real body life isn’t built on accountability. It’s built on love. We’re to encourage each other in the journey without conforming people to the standard we think they need."
"That’s sounds like relativism, John!"
"It’s not, it simply respects the process God uses to bring people into truth. I’m not talking about different things being true, but people discovering that truth in different time frames. If we hold people accountable, they will never learn to live in love. We’ll reward those who are better at putting on a better front and miss those who are in the real struggle of learning to live in Jesus."
"I can’t even imagine sharing that kind of journey with others."
"It’s the best, Jake! It opens the door for people to be authentic and known exactly for who they are. It encourages them with drawing near to Jesus, not trying to fix everybody with our answers for the universe."
"Where can I find that, John? Is there a place like that in Kingston?"
"Jake, you misunderstand. It is not a place, it’s a way of living alongside other believers. Are there others who want to live this way? Sure. And you’ll find each other in time. But first, let it change you."
I pulled up to the bus depot and stopped and John popped the handle on the door. "I better run, Jake, I’m going to be late for the bus."
"Can’t you give me a number where I can get hold of you in case I need to talk?"
"That’s not as easy to do as you might think." John said stepping out of the car, closing the door. "I’ll find you again, I’m sure of that," he said leaning back through the open window.
"Take care, Jake. You’re on the right path. It may get worse before it gets better, but that’s the same with surgery. But when it gets better it’s going to be really better!"
"It doesn’t feel that way."
"I know. Getting to the end of ourselves is not the fun part. It’s just the first part. At that time, the closer we get the further we feel like we are from him. That’s why I want to encourage you to just keep hanging in there with Jesus. He’ll sort all of this out in ways you’d never believe if I could tell you today."
"Thanks, John. That helps." As he turned to walk away, I suddenly remembered one thing I hadn’t asked him. "Can’t you at least tell me your last name?"
The taxi honking behind me must have drowned out my request, because John walked through the doors without turning back.