It was, I suspect, somewhat early on in the growth of the “accountability” movement. I had heard the concept but had not given it much study. The deacon at the church I attended as a young married man apparently had studied it. And so, seemingly with the approval of the session, he sat perched by the entrance of the sanctuary. He asked me, as he asked everyone passing by, with all the tact and enthusiasm of a carnival barker, if I had an accountability group. Being young and naïve I stopped and asked, “What’s that?”
“Well,” he explained, “it’s a group of men who are active in your life, that care for you enough to challenge you when you fall into sin. They watch out for you, support you, and encourage you to grow in grace and wisdom.” “In that case,” I retorted, “I do have an accountability group. It’s just that I call them my friends.”
Twenty years later I find myself having the same kind of conversation. When people find about the loss of my wife, they suggest that I find myself a group. Though I seek to mask my skepticism, it apparently shows through. “Really,” folks tell me, “you need people that you can talk to, that you can be real with. You need people you can count on to be there for you.” The answer is the same. I understand the need. And it is well met in my life, by my friends.
Now I have nothing against accountability, nor accountability groups. I am positively in favor of grieving, and have nothing against groups built around that theme. What puzzles me on both counts, however, is how we have lost what is natural, and sought to replace it with programs. What does it say about the culture, both inside and outside the church, that callings normally born by friends now are met by something so artificial, so inorganic. These groups strike me as the emotional equivalent of a multivitamin. Sure enough many of us are not getting enough vitamin D or zinc in our diets. But isn’t eating a few more veggies a better way to solve the problem?
Institutional solutions to relational problems at least do this for us- they expose our relational weaknesses. If our lifestyles make healthy meals a challenge, we need to change our lifestyles. If the transience and cyber-ness of our relationships make, well, friendship, a problem we need to change how we relate. We need to love near, and serve near.
And if, on the other hand, we have healthy relationships- real, personal relationships where we encourage one another toward righteousness, where we are free to be ourselves, where we talk with depth, and love with sincerity, we yet have this to do- we need to give thanks. We need not create a gratitude committee at our local church to create a gratitude program. No, we need to give thanks. So here I do. I have friends and family that love and care for me and my children. They check up on me. They look me in the eye when they talk to me. They hug me when they see me. They tell me they love me, and joyfully receive my love in return. They mourn when I mourn, as I rejoice when they rejoice. And I pray that they know that I give thanks to Him for them. I have friends, more and better than I deserve.