There is a certain human tendency, when faced with tragedy, to attempt to find a culprit upon which to lay the blame for what has happened. When Adam was confronted by God for his sin, he sought to blame the woman. When Eve was confronted by God for her sin, she sought to blame the serpent (cf. Genesis 3:12-13). We really have not changed so much over the years.
Sometimes, it is true, there is blame aplenty to be spread around. But perhaps there is a more constructive and profitable approach to such things.
Consider two occasions from the ministry of Jesus and how Jesus dealt with the question of, “who is to blame?”
On one occasion, Jesus was asked by His disciples concerning a man born blind, “who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? (cf. John 9:1-2)” Confronted by suffering, their first inclination was to try to figure out who was at fault. They were ostensibly approaching it as a theological question, but the theology was just thin cover for casting blame upon another.
Jesus, however, saw matters differently. He replied to His disciples, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. (John 9:3-5; ESV)”
In the matter of the blind man, Jesus knew that nobody was to blame, but even if there had been someone who could have been blamed, Jesus perceived the better question was, “how can I use this situation to glorify God?” Jesus wanted to heal, and to teach, and to bring people closer to God, and the man’s situation was an opportunity to use the abilities God had given Jesus to further these goals.
On another occasion, Jesus was told concerning some Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (cf. Luke 13:1). We do not know, outside of this passage in Luke, the particulars of the event, but we can make some educated guesses based on what we know of Pilate, and what we know concerning the time period. Galileans, in this case, refers not necessarily to men from a particular place, but rather to the followers of a man named Judas of Galilee who taught that it was wrong to call Caesar lord, and who refused to obey the Roman government. The mingling of their blood with the sacrifices is a way of saying that Pilate had them executed in the middle of their worship, probably in the Temple in Jerusalem. From what Jesus says in response, we can also deduce that either some in the crowd thought these men had it coming, or else they wanted to use it as an opportunity to cast aspersions upon Pilate and the government. In other words, one way or another, they wanted to blame someone: either the victims or the government.
Again, Jesus took the issue in a different direction.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:2-5l ESV)”
Death was a misfortune, but it was one which was going to eventually affect everyone. The question Jesus wanted His audience to confront was not whether those who died in this or that event deserved to die, but were those in the audience prepared for when death came for them. The manner in which death came was of less importance than what was going to happen after death. This is why it was important for each person to look at themselves first, confronting their own sins, and repenting of those sins they themselves have committed, so they would be ready to stand before God in judgment.
We haven’t changed so much over the years. When we observe trials or tribulations in the world around us, how often are we moved to try and cast blame one way or another. We want to know who deserves to be punished for the misfortune. We want to feel superior to others. We want to score political points and point out how awful those who disagree with us are, and why this event or that event simply proves our side was right all along. Lost along the way are the more important issues.
The followers of Christ should resist all such temptations and instead consider the lessons of Christ. When confronted by reminders of our own mortality, we should use it as an occasion for introspection, asking ourselves if we are ready to stand before God. It is always easy to see where others have gone wrong, but it is a much more useful skill to be able to identify our own faults first, and this is what Jesus teaches us to do (cf. Matthew 7:5). Likewise, when we see suffering in the world around us, rather than trying to figure out how to use such occasions to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, or using them as an opportunity to score political points, or advance our personal agenda, Jesus teaches us to use these occasions to let our light shine, doing the work of the Lord, to the glory of His name (cf. Matthew 5:16).
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Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.