I attended a Christian boarding school in the Northeast United States where we were saturated with devotions, prayer meetings, worship services, and prayer before meals. We even prayed at the beginning and end of each class. The religious exercises were a constant reminder of the moral foundations of the school, not to mention an ever-present barb for those students who were more prone to party than to pray.
Grosser sins – smoking, drinking, stealing, and sex – were grounds for immediate dismissal, but even lesser sins could lead to a rapid trip home. Crossing the line led to severe disciplinary action. Many dared it at least once; some got away with it. The least lucky ones got an intimate re-connect with Mom and Dad.
Many students had a sincere longing to live out their Christian faith, but others – like me – attended religious functions out of a sense of duty: I knew what my Christian parents expected of me, so I went through the motions. But a tension existed between our words and our walk, and this did not go unnoticed by those who did not call themselves Christians.
One Wednesday evening we were gathered for prayer meeting. Usually, one of the teachers would lead by giving a short inspirational talk followed by a time of prayer. The format was fixed, the words spoken and prayed repetitious, the hour usually boring.
But not this time.
Miss Hanover, responsible for the girls’ dorm, started the meeting by telling about something that happened in the dorm a few days earlier. After evening devotions Addy, an exchange student from Hong Kong, came to her, troubled.
"What's wrong, Addy? Can I help you?" asked Miss Hanover.
"You tell me,” Addy said, in her broken English, “that this is a Christian school. You tell me you follow Jesus and obey Him. You pray to Jesus and tell stories about Him. But tonight during the prayer, I heard noises and looked up to see what was happening. I saw two girls whispering and giggling. Do they really believe what they say? If they do, then they are being disrespectful to their god. If they don't, then they are hypocrites."
Miss Hanover was shocked and saddened when Addy continued in a pleading voice, "Why have they cheated me? Why have they cheated me?"
When Miss Hanover finished telling us this story we sat stunned. Were we honest about our beliefs? Were we Christians missing the point of our faith? Were we responsible not only to God, but also to those around us for our behavior? Many believed so, because this incident precipitated an important movement throughout the school.
My friend, George, had taught me how to "lift" things from a local store. It was a cool thing to do – just for the “art” of it. George and I were at that meeting, and we both felt convicted. The next day we confessed not only to stealing, but other things, as well. We also went back to the store, confessed to the owner, and repaid him.
We came close to getting suspended, but since our admission was prompted by remorse we got several weeks of detention and a stiff admonition. This started a chain reaction; the atmosphere of the school was transformed as wrongs were set right and young people started taking their faith seriously. It was an important lesson that has stayed with me now for forty years. Repentance – confession – restitution. No one had ever explained the necessity of these three steps, but we knew in our hearts that that was what we needed to do.
Unfortunately, the church today is much like the culture at my boarding school: so-called Christians act one way in church and another way at home.
Alexander the Great, who used to roam around his camp at night incognito, once chanced upon a guard who was fast asleep. The guard was terrified as he was kicked awake by – his commander-in-chief!
"Do you know the penalty for sleeping on watch?" growled Alexander.
"Y-yes Sir, death."
Seeing the guard was a mere boy, Alexander's gaze softened. "What is your name, lad," he asked.
"Alexander," the boy replied.
“What?” roared the Emperor.
The boy cowered. “A-Alexander, Sir.”
The commander paused a moment, then bellowed, "Either change your conduct or change your name!"
And that is just what is missing today: a change of conduct – accountability for our actions. Jesus calls it repentance, turning around. So, how does the Christian do that? Is it refraining from certain proscribed activities – as we used to say, “Don’t smoke, drink or chew, and don’t go out with the girls who do”? Well, there are certainly things from which the Christian must refrain – immorality, drunkenness, slander and such.
But true accountability is not driven by rules, not simply a set of dos and don’ts. The essence of New Testament instruction is love – love for Jesus and love for one another – along with joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, meekness, humility, and self control. These “fruits of the Spirit,” as the apostle Paul calls them in his letter to the church at Galatia, will lead to true accountability and daily repentance as we come to realize that they can only be given with the Spirit’s help. And they surely constitute a universal code of human behavior. As Paul goes on to say, “There is no law against these things!”