Posted on February 26th, by Doug Ponder in Life. 5 comments


Written by on February 26, 2013

Their Story and Ours

In many ways, the history of humanity can be summarized with just three words: not my fault.

Many of us say these words every day, and humans have been saying them since the beginning of our existence. The first humans, Adam and Eve, uttered their own versions of “not my fault” immediately after they sinned against God when they choose to go their own way. God sought them out and spoke with them about their rebellion. God addressed Adam first. “It was the woman you gave me,” Adam replied (Gen. 3:12). Then God turned to Eve. “The serpent deceived me,” Eve said (Gen. 3:13).

Adam and Eve were both looking for someone to blame. Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent, but both of them cried: “Not my fault!” Of course, God knew better. And so should we. We can’t pass the blame off on others as easily as we’d like to. But we still try.

Excuses, Excuses

What’s far more important than simply noticing that humans tend to shift blame is investigating the reason why we do so. According to Jesus, who gets the last say, what goes wrong in our behavior and relationships comes ‘out of the heart’ (Mark 7:20-23). This was Jesus’ way of saying that the reason why we behave the way we do is internal—coming from deep within us—not external or outside of us.

So while we get busy blaming everyone and everything but ourselves for our behavior, Jesus says, “Not so fast.” He removes all of our excuses when he says, “Your heart is  your deepest problem.”

The trouble is that we don’t believe Jesus about this. Not really. Think about all of the problems in the world and then try to imagine the kinds of excuses that people give to explain them away.

“My little girl didn’t mean to call your son names. She just doesn’t like being left out. If your son had invited her to play, she wouldn’t have made fun of him in the first place.”

“I understand that your school has a ‘no hitting’ policy, Mr. Principal. But my son has anger issues. He’s taking medicine for it, and the doctor says it’s not his fault.”

“Yes, officer. I was driving drunk. But it’s only because my friends left the bar early and I had no other way of getting home.”

“I know I was short with you today, honey. These hormones have been making me feel crazy for this whole pregnancy.”

“Please, your honor. Have mercy. It wasn’t the boy’s fault that he stole the car. He lives in a very poor neighborhood, and he has terrible role models around him all the time.”

“Hey, I wasn’t being mean when I yelled at you for accidentally breaking that glass. I just care a lot about my things. It’s just how I am.”

“I’m sorry I was a jerk to you at work today. It’s just that I didn’t sleep very well last night, and I’ve been very stressed lately.”

“Well, you can’t blame her for acting the way she does. She never even knew her dad. It’s just not right.”

I’m sure we could imagine many, many more scenarios just like these. But no matter how many scenarios we envision, there are really only three kinds of excuses that we give. (1) Sometimes we blame our past, i.e., our upbringing. “The boy had no good role models.” “The girl never knew her father.” (2) Sometimes we blame our present, i.e., our circumstances. “I’m tired and stressed out.” “Those people left me no choice.” (3) Sometimes we blame our personality, i.e., our biological makeup. “That’s just how I am.” “I have a chemical imbalance that makes me act this way.”

Influenced Yet Responsible

When we think about our own lives, perhaps some of us can relate to one of these three categories of excuses. Perhaps we use some of them on a regular basis. Maybe we even feel justified in doing so.

The trouble always comes down to this. In a world of nearly 7 billion people (not to mention the many millions upon millions who have already lived and died before our time), there are always people who have the virtually the same past, or the same present, or the same personality types that don’t act in the same way that we do.

Here’s what I mean. Imagine two boys who grew up in the exact same neighborhood. They had the same friends. The same role models. The same home life (no father present). One of these boys gets involved with a gang, while the other pours himself into his schoolwork. The gang member dies a tragic, violent death at an early age. The other boy grows up to be the city’s leading brain surgeon. Since they shared the same past, we can’t get away with blaming their upbringing for how their lives turned out.

Now suppose you have two co-workers, both of whom were up all night due to illness. When they arrive at work the next day, it’s obvious that they are sleepy and not feeling well. One of them acts like a jerk to you, but the other humbly asks for your help. The tiredness was the same, but their behaviors were very different. So, we can’t get away with blaming their present circumstances for how they acted.

Finally, let’s say that you have two friends whose personalities are remarkably similar. They have taken multiple personality tests and they scored virtually the same on each one. They also like the same things, and typically act in similar ways. You and your friends joke that they are basically the same person. Now suppose that you break a chair at each of their apartments. One of these friends yells at you for your mistake. The other friend responds differently, telling you not to worry about it. It would be completely unfair for the first friend to get away with being a jerk by saying, “That’s just how I am” when their doppelganger didn’t respond in exactly the same way.

What’s going on in each of these scenarios is that two people share something—past history, present circumstances, or personality types—yet they act in different ways. What this tells us, at the very least, is that our past, our present, and our personality do not make us do what we do.

At the same time, it’s terribly unwise to overlook the role that past history, present circumstances, or personality type may play in a specific incident. These things do affect us, but they do not force us to act as we do. We are still responsible for our actions because we are the ones who make decisions, even if our options have been limited by our situation. In other words, we are influenced yet responsible.

Forgiveness Full and Free

Although we are tempted to think otherwise, there is freedom in accepting responsibility for our actions. You can’t be forgiven for something that wasn’t your fault. You’ll go through life trying to explain away all of your sins and mistakes, blaming everything from your past to your present to your personality—anything that lets you off the hook. But one of two things will happen.

Some people really believe that their actions are mostly the fault of everyone else around them. They feel good about themselves because, in their own eyes, they never mess up. Such people become prideful, conceited, and so deeply self-focused that other people find relationships with them to be almost impossible. Furthermore, as such people become less and less willing to admit their own mistakes, they are less and less willing to admit their need for a savior. Why do they need to be rescued? They’ve never sinned (so they think). It’s not their fault.

Other people may try to blame someone else for their failures, but deep down they know it’s really their fault. They feel tortured inside because their entire life is a hiding game. They keep up outward appearances with everyone by pretending like their mistakes are not their fault. But inside, they hate themselves and feel guilty for everything, especially their life of secrecy and denial. People like his know they need a savior, someone like Jesus who can rescue them and set them free. But they are too afraid to admit their need for him, because they love their reputation as well-behaved and respectable person.

Jesus offers real freedom through forgiveness. He invites us to take responsibility for our actions and to acknowledge our need for his grace. Those who do so find deep and lasting peace. They find the freedom to be honest about their mistakes, failures and sins, because they know that others need Jesus’ forgiveness, too. They don’t have to shift blame anymore because they know that Jesus is well aware of their many sins. That’s the whole point of the cross. Jesus died to forgive people who know they need forgiveness—in other words, people who do not look at their life and say “not my fault.” Instead, Jesus rescues people who look at their life and say, “This is my fault. But I can’t fix it. Not alone. Not without the grace of God.”

Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.