How do I find help to stay strong?
Depending upon others to help me deepen my relationship with God is what I am going to call “spiritual accountability”, but I will warn you right now that it is not for wimps, weaklings, or the faint of heart. And while it is very challenging, spiritual accountability has become one of the most valuable tools in my spiritual toolbox. In fact, it is a tool that I have found to be absolutely essential if I want to grow continually deeper in my relationship with Jesus, as well as in my relationships with other key people in my life.
(these thoughts on spiritual accountability are a complete chapter entitled “An Indian Named Tonto” from Paul Masek’s book project “Stirring It Up“. If this chapter blesses you, you really might want to consider purchasing the book online.
An Indian Named Tonto
When I was a child, I loved the TV show called “The Lone Ranger,” a show about a cowboy in the Old West who always caught the bad guys. The Lone Ranger was super-cool; he always wore a black mask to disguise his real identity, and he rode a beautiful white horse named Silver. In my childhood imagination, I used to sometimes pretend that I was the Lone Ranger – a hero who would save the world (or at least my portion of it) from those who would seek to do wrong. One really interesting thing about the Lone Ranger is that there was this awesome Indian named Tonto who was his sidekick: he was always there to be his companion and to help him out in times of trouble.
When I think about trying to live the Christian life in today’s world, the Lone Ranger speaks to me. No, not out loud; that would be weird! I guess I should rather say that the Lone Ranger inspires me. Because even though his name was The Lone Ranger, he still needed Tonto…
Get it? Well, allow me to explain. I think that, in one way, each of us might consider ourselves, and in fact might be, Lone Rangers. Although God has given us the gift of free will, it is ultimately up to us how we use that gift. We are free to do whatever we want with our time, talent, and treasure – and we are responsible for our own lives and the choices we make. Even so, I believe that in order to be truly successful and happy in this life, we need help, just like the Lone Ranger needed Tonto. Without Tonto, there were some messes that the Lone Ranger would not have been able to get out of. And there were lots of other problems that the Lone Ranger was able to avoid – because Tonto had his back.
Over the course of the past several years, this notion of the Lone Ranger needing Tonto has completely revitalized and deepened my relationship with God. The Lone Ranger was smarter than I am; he knew all along that he needed Tonto. But it took me far too long to figure out that, like the Lone Ranger, I needed a Tonto, too; actually, I need lots of Tonto’s in my life. This principle of depending upon others to help me deepen my relationship with God is what I am going to call “spiritual accountability”, but I will warn you right now that it is not for wimps, weaklings, or the faint of heart. And while it is very challenging, spiritual accountability has become one of the most valuable tools in my spiritual toolbox. In fact, it is a tool that I have found to be absolutely essential if I want to grow continually deeper in my relationship with Jesus, as well as in my relationships with other key people in my life.
Spiritual accountability is a very unique way of relating to others that I believe God wants each of us to experience; it can be with one person, several people, or a group. In this chapter I am going to use the term ‘accountability partner’ for the sake of simplicity, but keep in mind, as I said, that we can relate this way with several people or within a group setting. An accountability partner is someone to whom I give permission to encourage, challenge, and question me about every aspect of my personal, spiritual, and moral integrity. Such a relationship is difficult because it requires a decision to be totally transparent and completely vulnerable with another human being, something that most of us Lone Rangers would prefer not to do. However, the reason for having an accountability partner is so that we can constantly be growing in spiritual maturity, which I hope is a goal that we all have.
Choosing an accountability partner should be done carefully and prayerfully; but the bottom line is this – it simply must be someone who cares about you deeply and that you can trust to keep a secret, since much of what is shared with an accountability partner is deeply personal and private. This person should also ideally be the kind of person whom you plan on being close to throughout the years, rather than just a “friend for a season.” Accountability partners should be mask-free people willing to ask the tough questions, but always out of a deep love and a desire to help you attain your ultimate goal of Heaven.
An accountability partner can be a peer or can be a trusted adult like a priest, religious sister, or youth minister. My strong personal opinion is that an accountability partner should be someone of the same sex – never a member of the opposite sex – since so much of what is shared within this relationship is about sensitive personal topics, including sexuality issues. Since accountability partners help us to grow into Christian womanhood or manhood, this kind of sharing is best done with the same sex, since we men can only learn how to be a real man from other men, and vice versa for the women. So, obviously, an accountability partner should not be a boyfriend or a girlfriend or husband or wife. And this is a great thing, because when a relationship with an accountability partner is completely open and honest, it will actually enhance a person’s dating or marriage relationship – for anyone who is accountable to another human being will gradually become more spiritually healthy, more emotionally healthy, more connected to God, and therefore a more loving person.
A relationship with an accountability partner is one that is usually different from a relationship with a spiritual director (which is also important for spiritual growth), since a spiritual director is usually older and more mature in faith, while an accountability partner can be a peer. And, while most people decide for themselves how often they meet with a spiritual director, an accountability partner hopefully will be available 24/7. Additionally, in spiritual direction there is usually a specific focus on one’s relationship with God, while accountability partners can ask you about anything. Finally, spiritual direction is often a more ‘professional’ relationship, like a spiritual physician you see for periodic check-ups. An accountability partner can be more of a like-minded friend who is given permission to check up on you any time at all.
Areas of accountability can include, but are certainly not limited to, our prayer life, our thought life, the quality and depth of our relationships, our moral integrity, and our sexual purity.
Brutal Honesty Required
An accountability partner is someone who helps you through the process of overcoming your sinful nature, just like a ‘sponsor’ helps someone going through a 12-step program to overcome their addiction. The first step in any good recovery program is to admit that we have a problem – and so an accountability partner is someone with whom I am willing to share my problems. For me, sharing my personal struggles with at least one other person (in addition to the priest I meet with for the Sacrament of Reconciliation) is very important because it keeps me humble. My father-in-law is fond of encouraging God’s people to be brutally honest. I have heard him say things like,
“It is tempting to be vague, saying things like ‘I have had impure thoughts.’ It is tougher, but much more freeing, to be specific. ‘I lusted.’ ‘I masturbated.’ ‘I viewed pornography.’ It is important that we call sin what it is.”
So, are you willing to take inventory? Are you willing to be brutally honest as to what most keeps you from a deeper relationship with God? Is it an inconsistent prayer life, lack of scripture reading, laziness, or dysfunctional relationships? Is it something else? Ask God to show you, and He will. And while you are talking to God, ask Him this, “God, do you want me to have an accountability partner? If so, who do you think it should be? Would you give me courage to pursue this, so that I can grow closer to you and become a happier and healthier person?”
Faithfulness and Consistency
Accountability does not work well unless we are committed to meeting with our accountability partner faithfully on a consistent basis. If we are held accountable only once in a while, it’s almost the same as not being held accountable at all! One of the things I love about my accountability brothers in my men’s prayer group is that we meet every two weeks, and we are committed to make this group a priority. I will not allow myself to randomly skip a meeting for some lame reason or because I have been spiritually struggling. Accountability always helps me (even when it hurts), since it gives me the opportunity to be honest with God, myself, and at least one other person on a regular basis.
Obstacles to Accountability
A big reason that many of us shy away from accountability is pride; we hate to admit, even to ourselves, that we need help. Another reason we might shy away from accountability is because we lack real friendships. In today’s world, many friendships are based upon a common activity like playing a sport; but a true friend that you can really trust can be hard to find. If pride is your issue, ask God to humble you – and then look out – because He will. And if you honestly feel that you do not have a deep friendship with someone that you can really trust, I want to encourage you to join a youth group or a prayer group, since good people like that often can be found in such groups. And if no such group is available, you might consider asking your parish priest or another trusted adult in your community to keep you accountable. Finally, if there really is no such person in your life that you think you can trust with your heart, ask God to send someone your way. Then keep your eyes and heart open, for God will be answering that prayer.
Specifically, Regarding Sexual Purity
Though there can be many dimensions to spiritual accountability, I want to focus some attention on the area of sexual purity because I believe that sexual impurity is the number one obstacle that keeps most men (and many women) in today’s world from enjoying an awesome relationship with God because of the guilt and shame involved. Because of the often hidden dimension of sexual sin, very few people ever talk openly about it. Yet sexual temptation is everywhere, in the form of suggestive jokes and conversations, in tight or skimpy clothing, and in the increasingly sexualized content of the media: magazines, movies, music, television, cable, and the Internet. To highlight just one aspect of this problem, check out this statistic from a recent study:
Forty-two percent of Internet users aged 10 to 17 surveyed have viewed online pornography in the past year. (76)
With all of this sexual temptation out there, what are we to do? Sadly, many people simply give up and choose impurity. However, I hope that you want more and are unwilling to settle for less! The road God calls us to travel is difficult. But who wants to be a wimp, caving in to every temptation that they face? Wouldn’t you rather be a warrior in this battle against evil, striving for victory, and honor, and glory? I know I would!
In my opinion, there is nothing like an accountability partner to help you to restore and maintain your moral integrity and sexual purity.
Identify Your “Triggers”
As you begin the process of accountability, especially in the area of sexuality, I’d like to encourage you to consider whether there are certain times or places where temptation to impurity is more likely to occur. When I was growing up, I was asked to memorize an “Act of Contrition” to pray during Confession. One of the great lines of that excellent prayer is:
I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
What is it that leads you to sin? Take inventory. Is there a certain person or group of people that you hang out with who influence you negatively? Are there certain channels that you have access to on cable that show sexual content? Are there DVDs in your home that cause you to lust or to have impure thoughts? Do you have a TV or computer in your room that tempts you to view inappropriate things? Is your time of temptation late at night, when everyone else is in bed? When you are babysitting at a particular home? Is it early in the morning, late at night, in the shower? Are you more lustful when you listen to certain music or certain artists?
Men – do you need to throw away your Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue or stop looking at the Victoria’s Secret Catalogue? Are there posters of women in your room that you should take down? I encourage you to be a man and to be honest about what might lead you to be less than a real man.
Ladies – do you read romance novels that you know you shouldn’t, or read articles in certain magazines that are about sexual things? Are there certain outfits that you should not wear because they are too skimpy or low-cut and therefore might lead the men in your life to lust? Do you flirt with or dance with guys in ways that lead them to think less of you than who you really are? Our world desperately needs more women of integrity; please do whatever it takes to grow in true womanhood.
You see, there are different triggers for different people. It is important to be honest about yours and to then take practical steps to protect your heart and mind so that these triggers don’t cause damage to your soul.
On a personal level, I needed to confess to my accountability partners, my wife, and a priest in Confession that I found myself surfing channels late at night and watching certain shows that were not good for me. These shows were destructive to my purity because they caused me to look at women as objects and to think of sexuality as something that is merely physical; so those kinds of shows were (and still are) the near occasion of sin for me. All I can say is that it really helps me to make better choices when I know that key people in my life who really care about me might ask me about my late-night viewing habits at any time. Someone once told me that sin is like fungus in that it grows in the dark, but it starts to die when it is in the light. Accountability is one of the ways that we bring our sins into the light so that we can watch them die – and then see ourselves begin to live more fully!
In the battle for our souls, we need to desperately want God to win and the devil to lose – and sometimes that demands drastic measures. I know someone who changed to a different cable TV plan so that pornography would no longer be available – he removed that near occasion of sin. Other friends have humbly admitted their struggles with impurity to friends, asking to have their TVs or PCs programmed to block out objectionable materials, giving control of the password to their accountability partner. Teens have chosen to have their parents help them by asking to have the computer removed from their room and set up in a more public place. I know girls who have encouraged one another, as they go out on dates, to stay pure. As I became aware how important accountability is for me, I helped to establish a men’s prayer group, which is my accountability group that I attend faithfully. Recently, in this accountability group, we decided to implement a zero-tolerance policy; that is, we will confess to one another if we fail in any way to live a life of moral integrity or sexual purity. What drastic measures might God be calling you to? Might He even be calling you to start an accountability group for your peers? Ask Him about that, and then listen up for His direction…
Technology Can Help
Even though technology produces many moral challenges for all of us, there are a lot of ways that technology can help us to be more accountable in living for Christ. We can send our accountability partners emails asking how they are doing. We can sign up for email lists that contain inspirational thoughts, prayers, Bible verses, or reflections on Christian spirituality. (78) I have installed free accountability software (79) on all of the PCs in my home; it regularly sends an email to accountability partners, reporting any visits to objectionable websites. Everyone in our home knows of this software, and it helps people to avoid temptation when they know someone gets a report like this emailed to them. And, to protect my children, I have installed filtering software on the PC they use which blocks out inappropriate material so that they won’t accidentally surf onto inappropriate web sites. (80)
A Closing Thought – Repent and Believe
One of the most basic ways to summarize the Gospel message is through these words of Jesus:
This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel. (81)
To repent means to admit our sins, confess them, ask for God’s forgiveness, trust in His mercy, turn away from sin, and turn toward God. We can do this any time, not only in our personal prayer time, but also in our relationship with an accountability partner and through the sacrament of Reconciliation. (82)
To believe means to trust in, cling to, and rely on God. I encourage you to trust in God for everything, cling to Him as your best friend ever, and rely on Him as you strive to live for Him. Don’t ever forget that with God all things are possible – even accountability – especially when we remember the Lone Ranger and an Indian named Tonto.
79. Some options, of many, are the Daily E-Pistle at http://www.catholic-forum.com/e-pistle.html, email reflections from the daily Catholic Mass at http://gogoodnews.net/DailyReflections/index.html, and “Spread the Word” by The Bible Geek (Mark Hart) at www.lifeteen.com
80. This free software is called x3watch and can be found at www.xxxchurch.com
81. I use Cybersitter, but there are other great filtering programs, including Net Nanny and Cyberpatrol. There is a cost, but it is a small price to pay for protecting my family.
82. Mark 1:15
83. Read the chapter of this book called “I Reckon So” for a thorough treatment of this sacrament.