Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Responsibility and Blame

I do a lot of intercessory praying, and probably so do you.

You know the sort of prayer I mean. Say, for instance, you are friends with a Christian couple experiencing marriage difficulties. You did not introduce them. You did not choose the one for the other or recommend one to the other. You did not officiate at their wedding ceremony and you certainly have nothing to do with the issues that make their marriage dysfunctional. The ultimate outcome of their current domestic turbulence, good or bad, will not affect your life in any significant way beyond the occasional moment of empathy or concern.

You have no dog in the hunt, so to speak.

Intercessory Prayer and Penitent Prayer

But you love them both, and you want the best for them, their extended families and especially their children. Moreover, you are concerned for the glory of God and for his testimony in their lives. So you pray, and we might call your prayer purely intercessory. You are not a part of the situation in which you are asking the Lord to intervene.

That’s one kind of prayer. There are others, of course. The prayers of the husband and wife in the aforementioned scenario are not disinterested like yours. If they are on the right track at all, their petitions will be more penitent than intercessory. We can safely speculate that each party has made selfish, sinful choices that have contributed to what has transpired, though one party may be guiltier than the other. So we may speak of blame, fault or guilt as common factors in repentant prayer.

Doug Wilson introduces a third consideration — responsibility.

A Scriptural Distinction

From a recent post entitled “Take Me Instead”:
“When it comes to relationships … there is a particular stumbling block. That stumbling block is a common misunderstanding of the distinction between responsibility and fault. Taking responsibility does not mean taking the blame for everything. It means taking responsibility for everyone.”
Now, that’s an interesting distinction Wilson is making between responsibility and blame, and I believe the distinction is scriptural. It’s not a matter of semantics. In fact, the words “responsible” and “responsibility” do not appear at all in the King James Bible. Where they appear in modern translations, it is usually as an approximation for something like “stewardship” or for some obscure Hebrew idiom that has nothing whatsoever to do with guilt or blame. Rather, the distinction between blame and responsibility is evident in other ways.

Responsible Prayer

Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9 is what we might call a “responsible” prayer. It is not purely intercessory: Daniel is an involved party, if only because he is a Jew.

But neither is it the prayer of a guilty man. Daniel has not done anything wrong — certainly not anything for which Israel was under God’s judgment. We read in chapter 1 that he was transported to Babylon in his youth. Ashpenaz, the chief eunuch who took him from his home into exile, did not consult Daniel to see what he would prefer. There is no indication that Daniel ever offered sacrifices to idols or participated in the sins for which Israel and Judah were sent into captivity. From the moment we meet him in Babylon, his behavior is exemplary, and in this very passage he is called “greatly loved” by no less than the angel Gabriel. In Ezekiel, Daniel is held out by God as the gold standard of righteousness not just in Israel but outside it.

“They” and “We”

Now of course all men sin, but with respect to this specific situation Daniel had no personal guilt of which to repent. He was entirely blameless. All the same, as the most powerful Jew on the planet, he took responsibility for the sins of God’s people:
[W]e have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land … To us, O Lord, belongs open shame … we have rebelled against him and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God … Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy …”
Note that strictly speaking this is not intercession. Intercession is about “they” and “them”. This is “we” and “us”. Despite the fact that he is personally without fault, Daniel identifies with his sinful nation and appeals to God not on the basis of personal or national righteousness, but God’s own great mercy. Daniel is taking responsibility here, not because he is to blame, but because he is in a position to be heard. He is stepping up, not because he has to, but because he can.

A Difficult Concept

The distinction between responsibility and blame is not one people make easily. Not all Doug Wilson’s readers instantly grasp it, or perhaps they are overly concerned with what the distinction might imply with respect to a Christian husband’s role in his marriage.

Consider the example of Adam and Eve, in which, at least originally, only Eve was to blame. Wilson makes the point that as the federal head of the human race, Adam was responsible even before he heeded Eve’s voice and joined her in sin, though he was not yet personally guilty. Her unilateral decision to respond sinfully to the serpent’s temptation fell within her husband’s sphere of authority and required him to either sign off on or repudiate it. One of Wilson’s readers, Robert, promptly speculates as to whether Adam may have sinned by allowing the serpent into the garden in the first place. Such considerations are outside the scope of Genesis, but they nicely illustrate the difficulty some have with the concept of responsibility without blame: Robert is trying to find some heretofore unexplored way in which Adam, prior to taking the fruit Eve offered, really brought the whole situation on himself.

Guilt and Responsibility

Difficult or no, I think distinguishing the two concepts has merit. We see this principle in every situation that involves delegated human authority. When someone under authority sins, the consequences of that action ripple through their entire group.

For example, Achan’s theft at Jericho impacted his entire nation. Joshua, Israel’s leader, was not personally guilty of theft. Further, he had not failed in his leadership role. He had charged the people to obey God’s commands with respect to the devoted things, and had warned them of the potential consequences of disobedience. He had done everything a finite human being could possibly do to ensure the people under his care did not sin. He could hardly be expected to micromanage Achan’s heart.

Nevertheless, as God’s authority over Israel, he was responsible for everything that went on in the camp, and so it fell to him to deal severely with the guilty parties.

Which he did.

The Daily Pressure

For a New Testament example of responsibility without blame, we might look to the apostle Paul, who bore the weight of concern for all the churches in which he had invested his heart and life:
“[A]part from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?”
Why so uptight, Paul? After all, anyone who was “made to fall” in Corinth, or Ephesus, or Galatia was to blame for his or her own sins. To the extent that anyone else was guilty, it was the person who stumbled them. Yet the same man who wrote “Before his own master he stands or falls” could also, without a hint of self-contradiction, write “I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment.”

Why? Paul wasn’t there in Corinth. He wasn’t to blame for a man’s sexual immorality, or for his church’s tacit approval of it. Yet he assumed responsibility for dealing with the situation, and he encouraged others on the scene to do the same.

Whose Job Is It?

To make the distinction clearer, we might say that when we are dealing with the issue of blame, the question is “Who did it?” and therefore “Who should be punished for it?” When we are dealing with the question of responsibility, the question ought to be “Whose job is it to fix it?” Far too often, I suspect our answer should be “Maybe it’s mine.”

Now, as to what this means in practice within a marriage, that is indeed a more complicated question.

No comments :

Post a comment