During World War I a pair of life-long friends enlisted in the Army together. Assigned to the same platoon, John and Bill vowed to never leave the other behind.
The two buddies were deployed to the German front and soon experienced the brutal cycle of trench warfare: advancing a few yards against the enemy on one day, only to give back those yards on the next. Yet in skirmish after skirmish, John had Bill's back and Bill had John's.
On one charge when their company was sustaining heavy casualties, the bugle sounded for retreat. As the last man scurried back to the safety of the trenches, Bill noticed that John was missing. Scrambling over the bodies of dead and injured men, Bill frantically slogged through the mud-filled ditches, shouting, "John, John!"
As the din of mortar blasts and artillery fire began to subside, Bill heard a familiar sound above and beyond their defense line. Peering cautiously over the lip of the embankment, Bill scanned the barbed-wired horizon. Amid the bodies of fallen soldiers, Bill caught sight of his friend about twenty yards deep into No Man's Land. John was sprawled out on a carpet of mud and blood, mumbling something unintelligible.
Reflexively, Bill took to the ladder and leapt onto the battlefield in the face of hostile fire. Behind him a shout entered his ears, "Back in the trenches, soldier… on the double, that's an order!" but failed to penetrate his consciousness. In front of him, the moans of his friend exerted a gravitational pull on his entire body.
From the embankment the platoon sergeant watched Bill race across No Man's Land, stop at the body of a downed soldier, and lower his head to the man's lips.
After about a minute Bill raised up, turned, and, with bullets whizzing by, ran hunkered to his platoon. As he dove headlong into the trench, the sergeant barked: "Mister, I gave you an order out there! We don't need to lose men attending to dead men."
"Sir, I'm sorry, but he wasn't dead when I got to him."
"Hmph…well, I saw you lean over him. Did he say anything?"
"Yes, sir. He said, ‘I knew that you would come.'"
The friendless male
Three thousand years ago, Solomon warned against the dangers of the isolated man: "A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother."
Most men have any number of companions, but it is the rare man who has the kind of friend that Solomon wrote about: a "Bill" or "John" who is invested in him, enjoying life with him, watching his back, never leaving him behind, "a friend who sticks closer than a brother."
Even in long-term friendships, men seldom go deeper than the social patina of work, sports, and hobby interests. Consequently, when a man experiences difficulties in a critical area of life—his marriage, his family, his secret behaviors—more often than not, he goes "Lone Ranger." And when he does, more often than not, he settles into a pattern of spiritual drift that only exacerbates his problems. Trusting his care to no one but himself, the Lone Ranger man asserts his self-sufficiency, to the detriment of himself and all those around him.
Over the last few decades, moral failures from our nation's leaders, from councilmen to presidents, have become all too common. But the failures of prominent religious figures like Jimmy Swaggert, Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, and the Catholic clergy have been particularly damaging and disturbing, fueling the charge of hypocrisy from critics and leaving followers wondering how their leaders could have veered so far from the teachings of the faith. But such failures are nothing new among God's people.
On our own, failing
In his book The Making of a Leader, Dr. Robert Clinton notes that less than one third of the leaders in the Bible finished well. Even those who did—Jacob, Moses, Aaron and David, to name a few—experienced major moral lapses that significantly undermined their ministries. Although the particular temptations they succumbed to may have been different (pride, abuse of power, lack of integrity, sexual misconduct), common to all was the lack of accountability.
I'm reminded of what Jimmy Swaggert said about his moral fall: "I fasted and I prayed and I begged God for deliverance from pornography. I realize now if I had turned to my brothers in Christ for help, I would have been delivered."
Then there was pastor and author Gordon MacDonald who, after an immoral relationship was revealed, stated, "I now realize I was lacking in mutual accountability through personal relationships. We need relationships where one man regularly looks another man in the eye and asks hard questions about our moral life, our lusts, our ambitions, our ego."
Vital to our well-being are people who not only cheer us on, but challenge us with sometimes uncomfortable questions—the ones that make us pause and examine the trajectory of our lives. Yet as men's ministry leader Rod Handley points out, we want friends but not accountability. When we hit a pothole in life, we think: "I can handle this on my own"; "What I do privately is my business"; and most tellingly, "I don't want to change my sin patterns."
The failures of heroes past and present demonstrate that, as someone once said, "the only thing we can do successfully by ourselves is fail." Indeed, the words of King Solomon are as important today as they were three millennia ago:
"Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up!"