The Burden and the Blessing

February 17, 2009

Blaming others for our own sins goes back to the very first sin. Adam blamed his wife (and possibly God for giving her to him), and Eve blamed the serpent (Genesis 3:12-13). By the way, their excuses didn’t work on God, which may be cautionary to us as well. Both were responsible for their own sins.

Sophisticated blaming today may include pop psychology: if I have unconscious motives for my behavior, I must not be responsible for it. (Of course, we will take the credit for praiseworthy behavior, even if it does have unconscious motives.) Theodore Dalrymple, a British prison doctor and psychiatrist, provides an insightful dialogue.

Another burglar demanded to know from me why he repeatedly broke into houses and stole VCRs. He asked the question aggressively, as if “the system” had so far let him down in not supplying him with the answer; as if it were my duty as a doctor to provide him with the buried psychological secret that, once revealed, would in and of itself lead him unfailingly on the path of virtue. Until then he would continue to break into houses and steal VCRs (when at liberty to do so), and the blame would be mine.

When I refused to examine his past, he exclaimed, “But something must make me do it!”

“How about greed, laziness, and a thirst for excitement?” I suggested. “What about my childhood?” he asked.

“Nothing to do with it,” I replied firmly.

He looked at me as if I had assaulted him. Actually, I thought the matter more complex than I was admitting, but I did not want him to misunderstand my main message: that he was the author of his own deeds.*

Accepting moral responsibility is a burden. We easily shy away from it. It’s difficult to say, “I have sinned. I am guilty. I am responsible.” We seem to have an almost infinite capacity of finding excuses for ourselves. Yet excuses only lock us into our patterns of destructive behavior and the painful consequences that attend them. Will Dalrymple’s prisoner make progress if he continues to view his behavior as governed by unknown motives beyond his control? Or, could change occur once responsibility is acknowledged? If he once acknowledges the bad choices, can he begin to see the good choices that need to be made?

I am grateful for God’s forgiveness and the Holy Spirit’s sanctification. I can’t transform my life without His help. But no progress is made until I accept moral responsibility. Confession and repentance liberate us from patterns of bad behavior. Accepting moral responsibility is a burden, but it also a blessing. It leads to change.

*Theodore Dalrymple, Life at the Bottom, pp. 7-8