Dependency on people holds a two-fold benefit for the addict. At the inception of this form of dependence, the addict has someone who will listen to him, and when it doesn’t work, he has someone to blame. Traditional small group accountability is a form of people-dependency. It will fail because it is based on the premise that confession alone brings healing. True confession is an indispensable first step in our recovery, but that’s all it is… a first step only, not the end of the matter. Jesus’ younger brother, James, admonished believers, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5.16 NKJV). Confession is a critical part of the healing process. Without full disclosure, there can be no victory over sin. We are as sick as our secrets. But confession, even honest confession, does not, in itself, heal us. It is only the starting point.
I was raised as a Roman Catholic and required to “go to confession” every Saturday night with my dad and little brother. I told the priest all the sins I could think of and usually felt better. The practice was cathartic. I was momentarily cleansed and freed from the depravity that plagued my adolescent soul. Hopefully, I would not sin again, at least not before partaking of the Eucharist at Sunday Mass the next morning.
Like the confessional booth, the Protestant version of the Sacrament of Penance assumes truth-telling in an “accountability group” is adequate for long-term change. It is not. I can put a dollar in the communal jar every time I masturbate, snap a rubber band on my wrist whenever I sexualize a young woman, or endure the discomfort of reporting to my accountability partners the truth about my addictive secrets… and still never get better.
This common ‘binge and purge’ accountability model is flawed and will not provide the help and hope an addict needs. In fact, this accountability practice, left unchecked, can become an acceptable arrangement; an essential element in the ritual of relapse. The man under the spell of porneia may wish to feel remorse for his actions and might even work up a few tears, but like Esau who was rejected “even though he sought the blessing with tears” (Hebrews 12.17 NIV 2011) and Orpah who “broke down and cried,” but still abandoned her mother-in-law (Ruth 1.9 TLB), the practicing addict becomes adept at putting on a convincing show of repentance for himself and others, but has no intention of change at all.
Heartfelt displays of confession without real repentance undermine the recovery methodology, lulling the user into a comfortable state of counterfeit health. The addict thinks he’s okay, but he’s not. If the addict can tolerate the belittling and dehumanizing practice of pleading guilty to his disgraceful behavior in group, he may subconsciously believe he has, thereby, paid for his sins. He becomes his own Jesus; his own redeemer. The man in this state will not and cannot change. His weekly routine of so-called “accountability” and embarrassing self-exposure earns him a free pass for another week of sexual misconduct. Yes, he is ‘the scum of the earth’ and knows it, and his group knows it, but at least he’s being “honest” with his accountability group and the bonus is… he gets to continue his dearly beloved addiction.
The acknowledgement of sin without true repentance is an occasion of great sadness for everyone who truly cares for the addict. The Apostle Paul expressed it as a form of grief:
Confession of sexual sin by itself, even honest confession, is not enough. Self-disclosure without repentance, as a form of accountability, indicates an unhealthy dependence on those to whom our confession is directed. Lasting change, not weekly penance, is the hallmark of real recovery.