Have You Stopped Blaming Others For Your Problems?
September 22, 1991
You probably don’t recognize the name Bob Shannon unless you happen to be a student of Illinois high school football, in which case you know exactly who he is. Bob Shannon is the head football coach at East Saint Louis High School. I happened to be watching the game between Illinois and Houston yesterday when Dan Dierdorf mentioned that one of the Illinois players came from East St. Louis High School. He called it “one of the great high school programs in the nation.”
It was just a few minutes later that I picked up the current issue of Reader’s Digest. There I found an article called “The Stuff of Champions.” It was all about Bob Shannon and his amazing record at East Saint Louis High School. In the past twelve years his teams have won five state championships. Two years ago they won the state championship and were named the No. 1 high-school football team in the nation. Last year they stretched their winning streak to 26 games before they were finally beaten in the state 5-A semifinals.
The record is all the more remarkable when you consider that East Saint Louis is a sinkhole of crime and violence. One morning they found the body of an executed drug dealer on their practice field. Often they run through a gauntlet of gang-related gun battles in order to get to class. If you drive through the surrounding area, you see boarded-up buildings, filthy streets and all the other signs of urban decay. Most of the players come from single-parent families and nearly all of them receive public aid. It is as close to hopeless as any situation you would find in America.
But still Bob Shannon turns out winners. Over and over again reporters ask him how he does it. The answer is always the same. “We battle tough odds. But we don’t look for excuses to explain failure. We look for ways to succeed.”
What a great statement. “We don’t look for excuses to explain failure. We look for ways to succeed.” No wonder the man is a winner. No wonder his teams win. Even in crime-infested East St. Louis.
“It’s Not My Fault”
Pete Hamill gives us the other side of the story. A few months ago he accompanied General Colin Powell as he went to another high school in another blighted area—his alma mater, Morris High School, in the South Bronx. General Powell’s message was simple—Stay in school; don’t take drugs.
During his speech, a group of black and Hispanic men gathered across the street at a shelter for the homeless. They talked about how Colin Powell didn’t know anything about poverty or suffering, how he had had it so easy. Now I quote Pete Hamill directly:
Soon the rap was flowing. They’d drawn the wrong hand in life; they were poor and black, or poor and Hispanic, or poor and luckless, and never had a chance. They’d been locked up by bad cops, flunked out by racist schoolteachers, abused by heartless welfare investigators. Look what’s been done to us, they said. (“It’s Not My Fault”, Reader’s Digest, October, 1991, p. 11)
The Blame Game
Hamill has a good word for it. He calls it “victimism.” It’s what happens when you blame other people for your problems. It’s a way of explaining why life hasn’t worked out the way you would like. You’ve been treated unfairly; you’ve ended up on the short end of the stick; you’ve been dealt a lousy hand of cards. You’re a victim. And that’s how you get through life—by blaming other people for the bad things that happen to you.
—If you’re late turning in a report at work, that’s easy. You just say, “I would have turned it in earlier but Frank was late getting the statistics to me.”
—If you lose your job, it’s because the the boss was unreasonable, he didn’t understand you, he had it in for you, he hated you from the moment you walked into the office.
—If you didn’t keep a promise, it’s because you were too busy doing other things.
—If you failed to do your homework, it’s because your roommate borrowed the textbook and wouldn’t give it back.
—If you lost your temper, it’s because “they” provoked you.
—If a relationship ended, it couldn’t have been your fault. Of course not. You are a nice person. The other person was a creep. That’s all there is to it.
Sound familiar? It ought to. Most of us know all too well about being a victim. Years ago we learned the victim’s battle cry—”It’s not my fault.” We’re not always sure whose fault it is, but we know it’s not our fault.
Couldn’t be. Impossible. Unthinkable.
But if it’s not us, it must be somebody else. Our parents, possibly. It’s popular to blame them nowadays for every kind of psychological illness. If it’s not our parents, then it’s probably our brothers or sisters. They never treated us right. We were always overlooked. But if not our parents, the world is still full of candidates. It could be our grandparents who messed us up. Or maybe it was the friends we ran around with in high school. Maybe we ran with the wrong crowd and they corrupted us, or maybe we ran with the good crowd and we ended up too good for our own good. Of course, you can always blame your husband. After all, he’s probably just a melon-head. Or you can blame your wife. She’s far from perfect. Or maybe it’s the people where you work. Yeah, that’s the ticket. They’re nothing but a bunch of lying, no-good backstabbers.
And on it goes. We’re the innocent victims. Just ask us.
Adam Blamed Eve – Eve Blamed the Serpent
There is a reason why we’re so good at the blame game. We make excuses because excuse-making is in our family tree. It’s part of our spiritual bloodstream. When we pass the buck, we’re only doing what our ancestors did.
Let’s roll the tape backwards to the Garden of Eden. Let’s focus our lens right after Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit. To the untrained eye, it still looks like paradise. Adam has just eaten the fruit and a silly, guilty grin slides across his face. He knows he’s done something wrong, but he has no idea what is about to happen next.
It happens so fast. He looks at Eve and notices something he never saw before. She doesn’t have any clothes on. That’s a shock to him. Then he looks down. He’s naked too. The thought crosses his mind, “We better cover ourselves up.”
But where did that thought come from? It came from a mind that has just had its first encounter with sin. Adam and Eve never wore clothes before because they never knew they were naked. The shame of nakedness is the first result of the fall.
Sin first brings shame. And with shame comes the disgrace of being uncovered. Then a strange sound of footsteps. Who could it be? It’s the Lord walking in the garden in the cool of the day.
Instinctively (and I used that word carefully) Adam and Eve hide themselves. Why? Who told them to hide? No one had to tell them anything. Their guilty consciences condemned them. Disobedience is now bearing its bitter fruit. Where once they enjoyed unbroken fellowship with God, now sin has separated them from their Creator. Hiding from God is the second result of the fall.
But now the truth is about to come out. When God calls out for Adam, the man answers, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” There was no shame in nakedness as long as there was nothing to hide, but once sin entered the picture, Adam could not face God uncovered.
Then the question, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat of?” And the answer, “The woman that you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
That’s a classic piece of buck-passing. Blame it on the woman and if that doesn’t work, blame it on God. Minimize your guilt by making the others look bad.
But the story still isn’t over. God turns to Eve and asks her, “What is this you have done?” Listen to her ans-wer: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Do you know what’s so tricky about those two answers? Technically, Adam and Eve both told the truth. Adam told the truth when he said Eve gave him the fruit. Eve told the truth when she said the serpent deceived her. But both of them were making excuses as a means of avoiding personal responsibility. As long as Adam could blame Eve, he didn’t look so bad. And as long as Eve could blame the serpent, she looks like an innocent victim.
Blaming others is the third result of the fall.
That explains many things. First, it tells us that the tendency to blame others is deeply ingrained in human nature. Second, it tells us that left to ourselves, we will do anything to avoid taking personal responsibility for our actions. Third, it tells us that blaming others is often nothing more than a subtle twisting of the truth in order to take the heat off of ourselves. Fourth, it tells us that without a deep working of the grace of God within us, we will do exactly what Adam and Eve did.
I Poison All My Lovers
Write above this story Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it.” We are by nature so deceitful that we will do anything and will say anything to avoid admitting the truth about ourselves. And we will do anything to avoid taking personal responsibility for our actions.
Back in the 60’s, folk singer Anna Russell wrote about the world in which we live:
I went to my psychiatrist to be psychoanalyzed
To find out why I killed the cat and blacked my husband’s eyes.
He laid me on a downy couch to see what he could find,
And here is what he dredged up from my subconscious mind:
When I was one, my mommie hid my dollie in a trunk,
And so it follows naturally that I am always drunk.
When I was two, I saw my father kiss the maid one day,
And that is why I suffer now from kleptomania.
At three, I had the feeling of ambivalence toward my brothers,
And so it follows naturally I poison all my lovers.
But I am happy; now I’ve learned the lesson this has taught;
That everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault.
There is profound truth in those words. We live in a society which teaches us to blame other people for our problems. And we go along with it because blaming others is in our spiritual bloodstream. Passing the buck is part of our inherited sin nature. Adam was the first buckpasser; Eve was the second. But they weren’t the last. After thousands of years, we’ve learned our lessons well.
“I Guess I’m Incompetent to Run My Life”
Bruce Larson tells of attending a seminar where Dr. William Glasser, the founder of Reality Therapy, was speaking. Dr. Glasser’s talk had one main theme: Healthy people do not make excuses. He used as an example the tendency people have to make excuses when they are late for an appointment. They will say the traffic was heavy, they got a last-second phone call, a crisis came up at the office, and so on. Dr. Glasser argued those kinds of excuses cover up the real issue. If you are late, it is because you are incompetent to run your own life. He suggested that instead of making a lame excuse the next time you are late, simply say, “I’m sorry. I guess I’m incompetent to run my own life.”
Bruce Larson decided to take Dr. Glasser’s advice. He said, “It took me just one late appointment to cure myself of a lifelong habit.” Then he added this comment: “I had been late in the past simply because I wasn’t competent. When I stopped making excuses for myself, I discovered I had it in my power to be on time.” (There’s a Lot More to Health Than Not Being Sick, pp. 42-43)
That illustration reveals three things: First, we all make a lot more excuses than we would like to admit. Second, it is possible to break the pattern of excuse-making. Third, change is impossible unless you admit that you have a problem.
Say Goodbye to Adam
It is precisely at this point that the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes extremely relevant. The word “gospel” means “good news.” The good news of Jesus Christ is that through him, real and lasting change is possible, even in those areas of life where the habits and patterns go all the way back to Adam. That’s what Paul was trying to tell us when he said, “In Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (I Corinthians 15:22) We usually use that verse to refer to the day of resurrection (and that is its primary meaning). But it also applies to the here and now. What we inherit from Adam brings us only pain, frustration and death. Adam taught us how to sin; he introduced us to shame and guilt. We learned from him how to hide from God. He taught us how to blame others as a means of evading personal responsibility. That’s what we get from Father Adam.
But “where sin abounded, grace superabounded.” (Romans 5:20) By virtue of our faith in Jesus Christ, we have been raised from the dead. Now there is the possibility of breaking those old Adamic habits. It is actually possible to stop making excuses. It is actually possible to stop blaming others for our problems.
Do You Want to be Healed?
One thing, and one thing only, is required. You must see your need and you must want Jesus Christ to change you. Nothing short of that will suffice. Many of you will read these words and say, “He’s right. Healthy people don’t make excuses. And it’s true. I do tend to blame others for my problems.” But it’s not enough to agree with me. That’s not the issue.
Do you understand that you need to be changed?
Do you want the Lord Jesus to change you?
There’s a wonderful story in John 5 that brings this issue to the surface. Jesus had come to Jerusalem during one of the yearly feasts. Thousands of pilgrims were there from throughout Israel. While he was there, he paid a visit to a place called Bethesda, “the house of mercy.” It was a pool near the Sheep Gate in the northeastern section of the city. Five colonnades (or porches) were built by the pool. As one writer put it, it was the Jewish Lourdes of that day. The Jews believed that an angel would come and periodically stir the waters. The first person to enter the water after it had been stirred would be healed of his diseases.
So hundreds of sick and infirm people gathered around the pool, waiting and hoping for the water to be stirred. On the day that Jesus passed by, he met a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. When he found out how long the man had been paralyzed, he asked only one question, “Do you want to be well?”
On the surface it seems to be a bizarre question. Why else would the man be there? Of course he wanted to be well. Was Jesus insulting his intelligence? No, not at all. He was asking a very serious question. He was asking because it was entirely possible that the man did not want to get well.
The man answers this way: “Do I want to be healed? That’s a crazy question. Why do you think I’m here? You must be new here. You don’t understand the problem. Every time the water is stirred, somebody else beats me to the water. No one will ever help me. They just push me out of the way. Have you ever heard a sadder story? Ain’t it a shame!”
I think Jesus is probing at the level of the will. He’s saying, “Stop blaming others for your problems. I have the power to make you well. But I will not exercise my power until you decide you want to be well. If I make you well, you can’t sit here and gossip all day. If I make you well, you can’t be a beggar anymore. If I make you well, you can’t use your illness to get special treatment at home. If I make you well, you won’t get all that sympathy anymore. There’s a price to be paid for being well. Do you want to pay it?”
Jesus is saying, “Do you really want to be changed?” If the answer is yes, then miracles can take place. If the answer is no, then even Jesus cannot help you.
When I preached this sermon recently, a man came to me after the first service and said, “You’re right. It is hard to change. It’s scary because you get comfortable with the way you are—even if you know that the way you live is not good. Change is scary. It takes a lot of faith to truly want Jesus to change you. Sometimes it’s easier to stay the way you are.”
I do not say that to frighten you, but to point out the truth. The Son of God is a perfect gentleman. He will not barge into your life unless you invite him in. He will not change you unless you want to be changed.
The Injustice Collectors
In an article in Cosmopolitan magazine (October 1990, pp. 236-239), Susan Jacoby writes about people who profoundly believe they are always losers in the game of life. She calls them “injustice collectors.” How do you spot such a person? There are several signs:
•They endlessly repeat how others have mistreated them.
•They view the world as hostile and unfair to them.
•They are “beachcombers of misery who see each grievance as a treasure to add to their collection.
•They have a hidden need to feel wrong.
•They live by the childish notion that life should always be fair to them.
•They find it very difficult to forgive others because forgiveness is a sign of weakness.
•They have a competitive view of life in which others are always winning at their expense.
•They have difficulty maintaining close friendships.
•They see themselves as permanent victims.
•They are very hard people to love because they eventually turn on even their close friends.
•They tend to be pessimists, always anticipating the worst possible outcome in every situation. Their pessi-mism becomes a form of self-fulfilling prophecy.
•They destroy their closest relationships because they have difficulty trusting other people.
Jacoby ends her article by pointing out that it’s hard to break the habit of injustice collecting, because the people who do, derive a kind of perverse satisfaction from it. Here are the final two sentences:
The injustice collector pays for that pleasure by giving up the hope of happiness. Only when we ask whether the price tag is too steep does change become possible. (p. 239)
Those words apply to many of you today. Have you given up the hope of happiness? Perhaps you feel like the man lying beside the pool for 38 years. “There’s no hope for me. Things will never change. Somebody else will always get there first.”
If you feel that way, then let me ask the question Jesus asked: Do you want to be healed? That’s the first step in a new life. Do you want Jesus Christ to come into your life and change you?
The Divine Gardener
I end this message where I began—talking about winners and losers. Some of you have felt like losers for years and years and years. When you tally up the score, you always seem to be losing by four touchdowns.
Here is the gospel: In Jesus Christ you are already a winner! That’s what grace is all about. He takes perpetual losers and he transforms them into eternal winners. He takes people who have no hope and he gives them a hope and a future. He takes people who are down on their luck and makes them recipients of sovereign grace.
Here is the proof that you are at last beginning to grow in your spiritual life:
—You no longer need to defend yourself.
—You no longer have to blame others for your problems.
—You don’t have to win every time.
I’m speaking now to many who feel like total failures. You have tried and tried, and it seems like the harder you try, the behinder you get. In some ways it is true. Your face is covered with the muck and mire of repeated defeat.
Are you tempted to blame others for your problems? Are you tempted to take the muck and mire and throw it on them? Don’t do it. All you’ll do is make them dirty. You won’t make yourself clean. You can’t get rid of the dirt by throwing it on someone else.
If you are willing to accept responsibility for your own life, the Divine Gardener is willing to come in and do his work in your life. He can redeem your failures and your mistakes. He can turn the muck and mire into compost. And from the fertilizer of your failure, a new life can grow.
He can do that. That’s what grace is all about.
But you’ve got to stop throwing that stuff on other people. You’ve got to finally say, “This dirt is mine.” When you do, the work of redemption begins. And when at last the Divine Gardener has done his work, something beautiful will begin to blossom out of the soil of your bitter mistakes.
Thank you, Lord, for being the Divine Gardener. Now we ask that you would do your gracious work in our hearts. Plow up the hard and rocky soil within us. Forgive us for doubting your supernatural power. May your Holy Spirit go deep within, pulling up the weeds of an angry spirit and digging up the rocks of our resistance. Do your mighty work, that the soil of our defeat might become the garden of new life. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.