Bill Wilson was the founder of the twelve-step recovery program called Alcoholics Anonymous, who was once listed in Timemagazine as one of the Top 100 People of the 20th century, but never found freedom from his own addictive behavior.
According the Aaron Goerner, the author of “My Name Is Bill”, Wilson did not benefit from the steps laid out in his own program: "Despite his victory over drink, Wilson remained incurably addictive. He chain-smoked himself into terminal emphysema. Even on his death bed, he puffed incorrigibly as he suffocated." Wilson did not drink for the last 37 years of his life, and yet he always craved alcohol. "As he lay dying and semi-delirious, he repeatedly demanded whiskey."
Although he battled the problem of alcohol addiction, he gave in to other obsessions. Wilson was serially unfaithful to his long-suffering wife. He had innumerable affairs and a long-term mistress with whom he contemplated eloping to Ireland. Despite his program's insistence on "rigorous honesty," Bill Wilson lived a lie.
Part of the problem was that he was not really accountable. It is possible to meet regularly with an accountability partner but not share what is really going on inside you.
Accountability is only as real as you make it.
I am a firm believer in accountability. I use it on a number of levels in my own life, including the other pastors I serve with, my wife, and my doctor. As a pastor, I have also worked as an accountability partner for a number of people to help them with their marriages, finances, and addictions, but in the end, accountability is only as good as you make it.
1. Choose someone you do not want to disappoint. When looking for someone you can be accountable to, don’t choose a buddy who will be easy on you, but find someone who will get in your face, and tell you like it is. Ask someone you dread telling them that you fell again. Choose someone that you know will be disappointed to learn that you went back on what you committed to do. Choose someone who knows what it is to have to overcome themselves.
2. Keep is simple. Don’t ask to be accountable for every area of your life, but keep it focused on one or two areas at a time. Lay out the terms of what you are really asking for up front. Meet consistently, but not more often than really necessary, so you are not a burden to those who are trying to help you.
3. No one can provide the discipline you need.Only you can discipline your life. Even Jesus does not provide this for you. You have to make an effort and He does not provide short-cuts or make it easy. The very nature of discipline is that it should cost you something, which makes the victory yours, satisfying, and worth-while. Some people are looking for a mentor, when in fact, they need discipline more.
4. There is no surrogate savior. Only Jesus can really be your savior. He is the only perfect pastor. Go to Him first and often, then go to an accountability partner with proof that you have taken your needs to Him, sharing with them what He has said and how He has helped you, so that they can confirm it.
5. You need to be the initiator.There is an old saying that applies to the accountability process; “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” The person you are accountable to should not have to be the one who tracks you down, has to ask, or needs to pry. You should be the one initiating the contact, being forth coming, and determining how deep you will go in this relationship.
6. God gives grace to the honest. Both James and Peter told us that God gives grace to the humble. This also means those who are truly honest with themselves, about their true condition, and those who are transparent in their walk with the God and man. It is amazing how much grace we are able to extend grace - giving time, help, encouragement - anything the person needs, as long as they are being honest. Those who cover their sin, only outwardly comply, or make excuses, eventually get nothing.
7. Going through red lights. One time a young man asked me to hold him accountable in his spiritual life. This sounded good, even spiritual, but I didn’t feel I could commit to doing it. As we drove, I noticed that he never stopped for a red light or stop sign. He just sneaked through them all, sometimes not even pretending to stop. When I confronted him about this, he just laughed it off. I suspected that he was running all lot of other red lights, spiritually speaking. I never met with him again and he never asked for more accountability. He liked the theory, but not the practice. Make sure you really want to be accountable before you ask someone to provide this for you.
8. Software programs.There are software programs out there that are designed to help people be accountable. They are also only as good as you are willing to let them help you. Don’t harbor false expectations about them or the people you ask to sign up with you. There is no substitute for the fear of God in your life. Being mindful that He is looking is all people have had to keep them from sin, long before there were computers.
To some extent, our behavior is affected by our respect for those around us. We don’t do certain things because we wouldn’t want to disappoint them, or have them think less of us, or incur their wrath, creating an issue between us. But when we are alone, that is when we get into trouble. Like the teenager who goes away to college and spends all his time in the arcade instead of going to class has a very limited sense of accountability is very limited. He had learned only to do what was right because mom and dad were there to make him do. Or the husband who eats all the wrong stuff, watches way too much TV, and fails to clean up after himself when the wife is away. Or the wife who makes purchases that she knows she cannot afford, but cannot resist, so she hides them from her hubby. What we do when we are alone is what we are really like. This is why we need the fear of God at work in our lives. It is the best kind of accountability; it comes out of our respect for Jesus, because we don’t do anything that would disappoint Him or incur His wrath. However, when we go ahead anyway, doing those things we know we should not do, it reveals certain things about us:
- Our fear of Him is too low
- We are banking too heavily upon His willingness to forgive
- We don’t think He minds
- We don’t think He sees
It would be helpful for us to consider our ways, asking why we do what we do. Ask Him why our fear or respect is too low. Let’s begin by praying the prayer David prayed, “Teach me Your way, O Lord; I will walk in Your truth; Unite my heart to fear Your name.” (Psalm 86:11)
Citation for the story about Bill Wilson: Aaron Goerner, Utica, New York; source: John Sutherland, “Spirit Against Spirits” A review of the book My Name Is Bill(Simon & Schuster, 2004)