Risking Accountability | University of Northwestern, St. Paul
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Risking Accountability


By Sarah Arthur on Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Silhouette people holding hands during sunset

Most of us have made a few choices we'd rather not admit to. If they were mistakes in our younger years, we may have tried to avoid sharing them with our parents. I had my driver's license for only one week when I clipped the end of another car in a parking mishap. It is true that I lacked good judgment in choosing a space too tight for my father's car. That didn't temper my horror at the prospect of telling him what had happened. The anticipation of my dad's disappointment was torturous. When I finally mustered up the courage to confess, my story was met with laughter instead of anger. Dad reciprocated with the tale of totaling his father's car the very first time he was given the keys. I expected judgment. I got mercy instead.

Our students are not exempt from mistakes or outright poor choices. After all, attending a faith-based institution doesn't remove the fact that we are not only all flawed—we are all sinners. However, college students with greater independence also have an easier time avoiding the scrutiny of their parents. We are much more likely to hear about their victories than their defeats. Because it's much easier to receive parents' praise than parents' concern, their transparency about temptations can be limited—unless of course we're brave enough to ask for accountability.

Sometimes we don't have to ask. You likely know the gut feeling you get when the elephant has entered the room and stands between you and your student. You can feel the tension in the air. The texts are unreturned. Distance creeps in. Questions about grades are dodged with, "I have plenty of time to get lots done this week." The unplanned request for a bank account boost comes the week after your student shared about fun runs—nightly—to Caribou. Your question, "How much have you spent on coffee this month?" goes unanswered. Or, you notice that your student and their love interest are spending time alone without supervision. If you are brave enough to ask that accountability question, the answer comes back, "got that covered, Mom." The truth is that avoiding a real answer IS an answer. However, pursuing the hunch with hard questions is likely received as interfering or even offense. You can feel the risk to your relationship and hesitate to press ahead.

My heart's desire is for a relationship with my kids characterized by honesty. My adult children know to expect the tough questions about their choices. However, my desire for accountability is a double-edged sword that reflects both my deep investment in their lives and presents a real risk of injury. After all, transparency comes packaged with the potential for grave disappointment. Asking for answers can also mean inviting their rejection if my student interprets me as passing judgment rather than offering acceptance. I might crave their affection but loving them does not mean I must also love their choices. Asking for direct accountability is putting love on the line with high stakes.

So do we just look the other way? I can assure you that it's unusual for a student to admit to Mom and Dad that they are in trouble…with money…with grades…with alcohol…and especially with their sexuality. If we really want to know, we will really need to ask. However, having the courage to confront is also the courage to risk great loss because we're programmed to avoid disappointing our moms and dads by distancing ourselves from truth that is uncomfortable. It's our hiding-in-the-garden legacy from the beginning of time.

Adam and Eve set the example for what it looks like to fear disappointing those we love. When God came for His daily walk with them and couldn't find them, it wasn't because they didn't love him that they ran away. It was the fear of His response to their sin that sent them into hiding. They understood their Father's good instructions for them but listened instead to the lies of the serpent. Our omniscient Father God already knew exactly what his children had chosen but He invited their honesty. In Genesis 3:9 it says, "But the LORD God called to the man, 'Where are you?'" At first they made excuses, but Eve owned up to the truth with transparency. In Genesis 3:13, the Lord asked directly, "'What is this you have done?' The woman said 'The serpent deceived me and I ate.'"

There were dire consequences—for all of them. Adam and Eve lost out on the best God had to offer. Because of disobedience, their work turned into toil and they encountered death and physical decay. God took a giant hit, too. By holding them accountable, the Lord also risked His most crucial and enjoyable relationships on earth. He experienced deep separation from those He loved.

Ultimately, our Lord not only looked deeply at our revealed sin, but He carried the consequences to the cross. He craved our affection but invited the ultimate rejection. Out of his love for us, He shouldered our shame. He invested everything to make a way for our honesty. He also knew that His sacrifice would lead us to a relationship built on grace that would be far deeper and richer than if we'd never needed forgiveness. Grace draws us to a loving relationship full of transparency, honestly, and accountability that is free of fear.

This Easter I've been thinking about the balance between the consequences of my sin and God's mercy to us through the cross. I own that I am still a sinner who still makes mistakes. My grown children make their own choices. Even if some are a reflection of my own mistakes, we each have the ability to choose what we do with the hand we are dealt and we all get to wrestle the consequences we bring on ourselves. I can't earn my way into God's grace. Grace by nature is unmerited mercy. How can I live out His example?

I believe our job as a parents is to follow God's lead in pursuing accountability with our children, allowing natural consequences, and demonstrating abundant grace and love. When our children make a choice that we wouldn't make for them, we speak the truth without compromise, at risk of our relationship. We also trust that when our choice to love them speaks more loudly than our disappointment, the Lord can use that to invite them into a deeper, richer, more transparent walk with us. That is worth the risk.

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