How accountable are you?
Graham Hooper applies the gospel to the 'untouchable people' of the modern world
Accountability is often optional. Here in Dubai, on my morning walk I pass a ‘Boot camp’, a group of people who, for some strange reason, have chosen to get up at the crack of dawn to be shouted at and coerced into pushing themselves physically to the limit.
These people have chosen to subject themselves to this discipline and, of course, they can choose to leave at any time. In this and other similar groups, accountability is self-imposed. You may decide to make yourself accountable to other like-minded people for your progressive weight loss or improved fitness levels, but it is entirely voluntary. More seriously, such accountability groups are of great value to alcoholics, drug and gambling addicts in reinforcing their self-discipline in overcoming addiction.
A higher level of voluntary accountability is when we choose to enter into a contract which then makes us accountable under law for performance under that contract. You don’t have to get married, but if you choose to do so you are entering a legal covenant of mutual accountability. You don’t have to sign the mortgage contract to buy the house, but once you have done so you are legally accountable to the bank for making the repayments.
In other areas of life though, accountability is not optional in any sense. Every citizen is accountable to the state to pay taxes. Each year, individuals and corporations are required to submit or file their tax returns and pay the amounts due under law. Tax evasion is widespread, but we quickly discover how accountable we are when the legal process catches up with us. In the Chicago Depression of the 1920s, the authorities failed to get Al Capone convicted for running illegal gambling, liquor and prostitution businesses, but they did convict and jail him for 14 years for tax evasion.
Problems arise when we start to treat these compulsory accountability areas of life as though they were optional.
For example, the executives of Enron and the US Savings and Loans institutions, who seemed to treat the legal requirements as optional, have found themselves tried, convicted and imprisoned for their corporate crimes. They had thought they were above scrutiny, but they were mistaken. They had seemingly forgotten their accountability under law to the company shareholders, and to the regulatory authorities, for the way they ran their company.
Similarly, in the political arena, the recent scandal in the UK over MPs’ fraudulent expense claims revealed who was cheating the system and by how much. The offenders were publicly exposed by name in the newspapers. No doubt they thought they were above the law, or were somehow unaccountable to the people who had elected them, but their misdemeanours were eventually exposed to public view.
Answerable to God
What about our accountability to God? Is it optional like boot camp? Is it somehow compulsory, but only for those who have chosen to ‘opt in’ to religious faith? Or is it universal? Many struggle to accept that this is a non-negotiable accountability. The view of most non-Christians would be that this is a religious issue and therefore in the ‘voluntary commitment’ category.
The popular view would be that if you choose to be a Christian, then fine, you buy into the whole accountability package, but it doesn’t apply to me.
By contrast, the Bible makes very clear that every human being is accountable to their Creator in several non-negotiable ways. We are accountable to God for how we use what we have been given: money, time, gifts and opportunities. Jesus’s famous parable of the talents highlights that particular issue.
We are accountable to God for the way we treat people. Jesus made clear in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25), that a defining criterion on the Day of Judgment will be how we have helped, or failed to help, the needy people of this world: the sick, imprisoned, widowed, orphaned and homeless.
We are accountable to God for our actions. ‘We must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad’ (2 Corinthians 5.10). We cannot hide the things we have done of which we are ashamed. ‘For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil’ (Ecclesiastes 12.14).
We are accountable to God even for our words, for everything we have said, good and bad, encouraging or hurtful. Jesus said: ‘Men will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken’ (Matthew 12.36). There will be no part of our life for which we will not be called to give account to God.
Most of all, we are accountable to God for breaking his laws. We are all guilty. ‘The Lord will execute judgment upon all men...’ (Isaiah 66.16). There will be no exceptions, not you, not me. How can we escape this judgment? We can’t. We cannot wriggle out of our responsibility. We cannot negotiate away this accountability.
The second version of the movie, The Thomas Crown Affair, the story of a very wealthy man who seemingly had got away with his art theft crimes as he fled the North American police, ironically (?) had the soundtrack of Nina Simone singing ‘O sinner man where will you run to... on that day?’ Where indeed?
If we cannot escape it, then how do we prepare to face it? We won’t be able to blame others. We will have to accept personal responsibility. God knows all the circumstances, all the mitigating factors. He is perfectly just. He knows that ‘much is required of those to whom much is given’. He will certainly judge justly, but he has made very clear that we are all guilty before him.
Non-Christians, professing atheists and agnostics generally have no problem with the principle of non-voluntary accountability imposed by society under law. How then can we even imagine for a moment that we are not accountable to our Creator for our very life? Isn’t there a massive inconsistency here between a principle embedded so deeply into many areas of our thinking and behaviour, but which we may fail to apply to our whole life?
Benjamin Franklin cynically observed: ‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. We all have to pay taxes. We will all die. But why stop there? We are also all accountable to God and will one day face him. ‘Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment...’ (Hebrews 9.27). We can evade paying our taxes, perhaps for many years. We may even succeed in cheating the authorities, but we certainly can’t evade our accountability to God. There is one assessment tribunal we cannot run from. We will not be late for that appointment because we don’t choose its time.
Power of the gospel
If we want to understand fully the power of the Christian gospel, then we need to understand and accept our accountability to God. John Newton clearly understood that, both intellectually and experientially, when he penned those famous words: ‘’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved’.
We are accountable to God; we are guilty in his sight; that should cause us to fear. But, by the grace of God, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we are not only forgiven but justified in his court. When we bow before God’s authority and acknowledge our accountability and failure, and turn to Christ, it is as if we have faced the judgment now, heard the guilty verdict now and yet have been acquitted. That wonderful good news relieves our fears of death and sets us free to live.
Accountability to God is not an ‘opt-in’ arrangement. Let’s not live as though it were. If we deny the truth of this accountability, either in our own lives or in our presentation of the gospel to others, we will, albeit unintentionally, diminish our understanding of the authority of God and of the amazing grace of God.
Graham Hooper is a senior executive with a global infrastructure company and is currently working in the Middle East. He also has a book, The Gap, addressing the challenge of living authentically as a Christian, which will be published by IVP in 2012.