“When at the end of the road, we find that we can no longer function as a human being…we all face the same dilemma, either go on as best we can to the bitter end, or find a new way to live” (paraphrase of quotation from “12 Steps”).
This year’s INFUSE theme of accountability is an incredibly timely and necessary one. The evidence of the need for accountability is all around us. We see it in the news: mass shootings, acts of terror, and rampant unchecked political corruption in our so-called leaders. We see it in the actions and behaviors of our neighbors, friends, and co-workers. And, if we are honest, we see the need for accountability in ourselves. Taking accountability, for ourselves, for our actions, and for our attitudes, seems to be a nearly herculean task at times, even when the collateral damage of the failure to do so hits us where it hurts. Why is that? More importantly, how do we solve this dilemma? The simple answer is… we don’t. Not on our own.
We read in Mark 1:14 (please note all verses NIV throughout article): “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” This simple message of faith and repentance is the core of the gospel message—the “good news” that the world is in such desperate need of. But how can we carry this message to others if we aren’t applying it in our own lives? How can we repent, without becoming accountable?
The subject of this article is repentance. What is repentance? How does repentance lead to accountability? And more importantly, how do we practically apply it in our lives. I’m going to be taking a slightly different approach to this topic than you may have heard before. There is a practical approach to personal accountability, which has been successfully used by millions worldwide, and I believe that if we approach it prayerfully and scripturally we can apply it to the process of repentance.
The 12 steps are a process of recovery from addictions of all kinds—alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, food. Even internet addiction can be treated—not cured, but treated—through the 12 steps, first outlined in Alcoholics Anonymous, and now used through many other 12-step based recovery programs. Some of you may be thinking, But I’m not an addict! I’ve never touched a drop of alcohol or done drugs of any kind. I’ve never viewed pornography; I’ve never gone to a casino; I don’t overeat. I’m no addict!
The truth is, the human condition is one of addiction. The nature of mankind, what we call human nature, is at its very essence the nature of the addict. We are addicted, all of us, to sin. Paul alludes to this in Romans chapter 7.
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…. So I find this law at work, when I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin, at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (verses 15, 21-25).
Here Paul talks about wanting to do right but finding himself committing sin against his own will.
Addiction is roughly defined in most 12-step programs as anything we do or use, often against our will, which makes our lives unmanageable. Nothing makes our life more unmanageable than sin. This is why God created His law in the first place, to instruct us in how to live life in a way that would keep us safe and happy. And yet, as Paul told us in Romans, we find ourselves doing the opposite. This is where the process of repentance and accountability comes in.
The 12 steps are a set of principles and actions that, when applied to our daily lives, can give us a useful framework for repentance and allow us to take stock of where we are in our lives and where we need some work, and then to make meaningful steps towards accomplishing those necessary changes in our behaviors and attitudes. Is this the only way to approach repentance? Not at all, and I’m not in any way saying that the 12 steps cover everything, but I believe they can be another very useful tool in our spiritual arsenal.
So what is repentance? The word “repent” simply means to turn around, to go the other way. In Hebrew, the “repent” is found in the form of two verbs: shuv (to return) and necham (to feel sorrow). In the Greek, the word metanoia is a compound word of meta, meaning after, and noeo, to perceive or to think. So when put together it means to think differently after. How many times have we found ourselves struggling with some sin or shortcoming, only to find ourselves regretting, thinking differently after? “Boy I wish I hadn’t done that!”
In contrast, there are many in the world of Christendom who believe that repentance is an event—that once you decide to “let Jesus into your heart” that’s all you have to do for salvation. Scripture addresses this pretty clearly.
Romans 6:1-2 states, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
If we stop at admitting that we are sinners and don’t take action to change our behavior, then we are practicing insanity instead of repentance—doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. We must take stock of our actions and realize that we are accountable for the choices we make and the direction our life takes as a result.
So for those of you who have no experience or knowledge regarding 12-step programs, let me first introduce them.
1. We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. We turned our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when doing so would injure them or others.
10. We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong we promptly admitted it.
11. We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
So let me go back to the definition of an addiction: anything we do or use, often against our will, which makes our lives unmanageable. It is this “use against our will” that stands out to me as being the key point here. Active addiction is self-will run rampant. Why is self-will such a problem? Proverbs 14:12 says rather succinctly, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end, it leads to death.” So how, then, can we apply the first three steps to combating self-will and getting a good foothold in repentance?
The first three steps set a foundation for the steps that come after it. Let’s take a look. Step 1: We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable. Step 2: We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step 3: We turned our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. These can be summed up as “I can’t, He can, and I think I’ll let him.” This admission of wrongdoing, faith in something greater than ourselves, and willingness to surrender is CRITICAL to being able to move forward in our spiritual lives. This attitude is what God is looking for in believers. Its importance is made clear in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted’” (Luke 18:9-14).
The first three steps reflect an attitude of acknowledgement of our present condition (that of the sinner)—an an open-mindedness and willingness to have faith in a Sovereign and loving God whose will is better for us than our own, and the humility to surrender our own will in favor of His. Just like the Tax Collector in the parable, we are powerless over our condition, unable to save ourselves. Just like him, we have no hope of doing so without accepting the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus in payment for our sins. So we acknowledge our state, we admit our way didn’t work, and we develop the faith to believe that God’s way will. Now what? Without making necessary changes to our behaviors, we risk falling back into the same old patterns. How do we avoid this?
Let’s go back to the steps. Step 4: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. A moral inventory is to take stock of our assets and our shortcomings, and to examine our past and the choices we have made in light of these. As Paul said, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
When taking this step, many of us may not know where to start in this assessment. Even though it may be outside of our comfort zone, we might ask our closest friends or family, someone we trust, who knows us well, to help us in identifying some defects as well as assets. So when we take this initiative to enter into selfexamination and we don’t like what we see, then what? Many of us will find at least one or two things that we need to work on, and hopefully we will identify some places where we are better equipped. What comes next?
Step 5: We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed” (James 5:16). “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
In this step we practice the principles of courage and honesty. It takes a lot of guts to go to someone else and talk about things that you’ve done wrong. We must understand that we are not alone in our spiritual condition. As it says in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” By acknowledging our shortcomings and failures, we begin to have more compassion for others, because we know that we are essentially no better than anyone else.
So now let’s look at the next two steps: Step 6: We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Step 7: We humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings. In taking an honest look at our lives, and at our behaviors, we find things that we need to change. How self-will has led us to committing sins. But merely becoming aware of these defects of character and lapses in the practice of His law and asking God to forgive us for them will not take care of them long-term. We must root them out and keep them out. That is where steps 6 and 7 come in.
Over time, a character defect that we developed as a defense mechanism is allowed to go unchecked, and we become comfortable with it because it is familiar. That is why, in step 6, we must become willing to have God remove these defects. When going through this process, we need to ask for God’s Spirit to help us examine whether or not we are actually willing to give up our old behavior. This requires a degree of self-honesty, which, without the guidance of God, is impossible.
Of course, the opposite of this is self-deception. Paul addresses the problem of self-deception in 1 Corinthians 3:18: “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise.” James also speaks of this problem in James 1:22- 25: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”
So now we have admitted we are powerless, and that we are not capable of saving ourselves. We have turned our life and our will over to God. We have taken stock of where we are and, through prayer and self-examination, have become ready to have these negative behaviors taken away and have asked God to remove them from our lives. Will this happen overnight? The answer is a resounding NO! Instead, we may find ourselves acting out on negative behaviors more often, once we are more aware of them. But this awareness of our wrongdoing helps us to see when we are getting ready to do something we know we shouldn’t and gives us more control over avoiding the behavior.
What about our past? How many of us spend an enormous amount of time thinking about the things we have done wrong, wishing we could change them? Steps 8 and 9 help us deal with this.
Step 8: We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. Step 9: We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when doing so would injure them or others. Again we must find the willingness to practice this step, to face the mistakes we have made. If we find this difficult, we must ask God to give us the willingness.
If I stole from you, does it make things right if I say, “Boy! I’m sorry I took a hundred dollars from your wallet!”? No. The only thing that will make it right is if I say, “I’m sorry…and here’s your money.” Or If I broke your window, will telling you how bad I feel about it fix it? No. But telling you about my mistake and either fixing the window or paying for its repair will. This is why it is important that we make a direct amends when we can.
Proverbs 14:9 reads, “Fools mock at making amends for sin, but goodwill is found among the upright.” Leviticus 6:1-4 states: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the LORD by deceiving a neighbor about something entrusted to them or left in their care or about something stolen, or if they cheat their neighbor, or if they find lost property and lie about it, or if they swear falsely about any such sin that people may commit—when they sin in any of these ways and realize their guilt, they must return what they have stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to them, or the lost property they found….”
Steps 10-12 are considered the “maintenance steps.” These help us not to return to the active practice of our addictions and our errant behaviors.
Step 10: We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong we promptly admitted it. Even when we follow the steps, we can still act out on our defects. However, once we have identified those areas which plague us constantly, it is much easier to realize when we are falling into our old ways of behavior.
It is Important that when we realize we have acted out that we admit it and make it right as soon as we can. Notice what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23).
We also need to remember that when someone has harmed us, we must be also willing to forgive them as soon as we are honestly able. Joel 2:13 states, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” Again, we must promptly admit it when we are wrong; otherwise we rapidly fall back into finding our negative behaviors acceptable.
Step 11: We sought, through prayer and meditation, to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for the knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out. Having conscious contact with God is what God wants for us; it is this closeness with us that He desires. This is why He sent His Son to die for us, to reconcile us to Him. We need to strive to honor this sacrifice by staying in contact. We need to remember that communication is a two-way street, and we must do our part to keep that connection alive.
First Thessalonians 5:17-18 reads, “Pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” By focusing on God’s will and only God’s will for us, we avoid praying with wrong intentions.
Prayer is our way of speaking to God. How do we listen for His answer? Meditation is the practice of clearing our mind and focusing on one thing. David speaks numerous places throughout the Psalms regarding meditation:
In Psalm 119:97, we read, “I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.” When we pray and ask God to help us, and then we meditate on His Word for the answers, He speaks to us in what we find. Step 12: We show our gratitude for what God has done for us in helping us to overcome our shortcomings, in making peace with our past, and for caring for us in a sustained walk with Him.
Step 12 says, after having a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
We need to remember that addiction is a lifelong issue. We will never fully be rid of every defect, not until Christ returns, but we must strive to be as much like Christ as we can. This is how we carry the message to others, of what Christ has done for us, what He is still doing for us.
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
We make a living amends, and in this, if we hold ourselves accountable, we find that we do recover.