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The Blame Game

When faced with difficult circumstances, we choose to blame God or to trust him.

In his spiritual autobiography, William Barclay, the venerable Scottish scholar, tells the tragedy of losing his 21-year-old daughter and her fiancé who were drowned in a boating accident. He writes, "God did not stop that accident at sea, but he did still the storm in my own heart so that somehow my wife and I came through that terrible time still on our own two feet."

Barclay also tells of receiving an anonymous letter about his daughter's death. It said, "I know why God killed your daughter. It was to save her from corruption by your heresies." Barclay says, "If I had known the writer's address, I would have written back in pity, not anger, saying, as John Wesley once said, 'Your God is my devil.'"

In this story are two different interpretations of God's involvement in the event that took the life of Barclay's daughter. Both interpretations lay the blame squarely at the feet of God. Barclay implies that God could have stopped that accident at sea but chose not to. The letter-writer expressed the belief that it was God's breath that caused the winds that night and God's hand that tipped the boat over thereby killing the young couple.

We who know something of Barclay's pain know firsthand the feeling of fear that God was somehow involved. Lewis Smedes, in his fine book Forgive and Forget, retells an old story about a tailor who leaves his prayers and on the way out of the synagogue, meets a rabbi.

"Well, and what have you been doing in the synagogue, Lieb Astrom?" the rabbi asks.

"I was saying prayers, Rabbi."

"Fine, and did you confess your sins?"

"Yes, Rabbi, I confessed my little sins."

"Your little sins?"

"Yes, I confessed that I sometimes cut my cloth on the short side. I cheat on a yard of wool by a couple of inches."

"You said that to God, Lieb Astrom?"

"Yes, Rabbi, and more. I said, 'Lord, I cheat on pieces of cloth. You let little babies die, but I'm going to make you a deal. You forgive me my little sins, and I'll forgive you your big ones."

Do you think that tailor knows something of Barclay's pain? You bet he does. Writes Smedes, "The Jewish tailor grabbed hold of God and held him to account."

Do we dare grab hold of God and hold him to account this morning? The first reaction is to jump to God's defense. God is just and good. God cannot be blamed for anything. Our instinctive piety does not allow us to confront God with questions that rise up in our throats when we feel as if God has let us down or left us dangling in the wind.

I believe God welcomes our anguished approach. He willingly allows us to grab hold of him. He seizes the opportunity to wrestle with us. But be warned: those who wrestle with God sometimes get more than they bargained for. Just ask old gimpy Jacob.

Before we enter into a discussion on when God is to blame, let's spend a few moments talking about those things for which God is not to blame—even I can't resist the need to come first to God's defense.

God is not to blame for the circumstances of our lives.
Don't blame God if you are not as smart as you would like to be or as handsome or beautiful. Don't blame God if you're short or tall, thin or fat. Don't blame God if you have flat feet, thinning hair, or ears that stick out too much. God is not to blame for those things. Blame your parents if you must or your grandfather on your mother's side. Don't blame God.

My daughter Leah has a terrible time finding shoes that fit properly. When she walks in them for any length of time, she gets bunions and corns on her toes. She is always in pain. I don't have that kind of feet. She didn't inherit those feet from her mother either. Leah inherited those feet from my mother. My mother is to blame for Leah's feet.

The truth is nobody gets everything in life—not even those to whom you compare yourself. You have your good traits and your bad. The Bible's admonition is for us to accept without complaint both the good and bad we have been given. We are to work to make the most of what we have.

God is not to blame if you suffer the consequences of another's sin. Children of divorce, children of workaholics, and children of the "me generation" are angry kids. Ask anybody who works with them. Ask junior high and senior high school teachers, and they will tell you the kids they teach are angry.

Newsweek calls this generation the "angry generation." The problem for them is that they're angry at the people they love the most. Many of them are angry at God.

Some time ago I worked with a family going through a divorce. After the settlement was made, the mother called to tell me her 8-year-old daughter was fighting with everyone: family, teachers, classmates, even former friends. She was angry all the time. Could I talk with her?

So I began to take her daughter on little outings. Once we were sitting in the swings at the playground, swinging back and forth, and talking.

I said, "Honey, why are you so angry?"

She said, "I don't know."

"Who are you mad at?"

She didn't answer. For a long time we just sat there. Finally she said, "You know, Marlin, I prayed to God every day about my mom and dad. I asked him to keep them together. I didn't want them to get a divorce. I asked God to keep them together, and God didn't answer my prayer."

After a bit I said, "You know, darling, God prays too. Did you know that?"

She said, "God prays?"

"God prays, too. God prayed to your mommy and daddy that they would fight this thing out and stay with their vows. But your mommy and daddy chose not to answer God's prayer. You know what God did about that? God forgave your parents. He loves them, and he knew how hard it was for them to stay together. Can you forgive your mom and dad? Can you forgive God?"

Abused children, battered wives, and victims of rape must ask, "Could God have stopped that?" Yes, I believe he could have. Then why didn't he? Because he gave us the kind of world we want to live in. It is a world where people can touch us to make us feel good or touch us to cause us great pain. He made us free spirits in a world of free spirits. God is not to blame when people choose to abuse that freedom.

The people who commit horrible crimes are to blame for the pain and suffering they cause their victims and their families, and those who commit such crimes will pay for it. On the day they stand before the final judge of this universe, they will be held to account for the pain that they inflicted.

But the criminals are not the only ones to blame. The truth is, we are all to blame. When we protectively fence ourselves in, ignoring the moral and social ills that spawn such violence, then we too are to blame. When we are not willing to pay for, be supportive of, or involved in an educational system for all children, a system that works to teach something more than simply the ABC's or how to have a great career to make lots of money and live well, then we are all to blame.

We are to blame when we treat the bride of Christ—the church, that body Christ called out to be light to the world—as a postscript in our lives. When we think, "Oh, yeah, it's Sunday again. Guess we better go to church"—when we treat the church like that, we too are to blame. God is not to blame.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God came to talk with us about faith, forgiveness of sins, and the power of the Evil One. Concerning faith, he said we would have a fulfilling and abundant life if we trust him, follow him, and teach his ways. Then the world would be a better place. He said if we would accept his grace for our past mistakes and learn to live graciously with others, the world would be a better place.

Jesus warned that the power of the Evil One is not to be taken lightly. If we confront him in the name of Jesus and cast him out every time we meet up with him, then we will have a fulfilling and abundant life, and the world would be a better place. Let's not blame God when we ignore his Son's Word and refuse to take advantage of the power available to us in Jesus' name.

Don't blame God for cancer, diabetes, AIDS, malformed babies, or any other disease or malady that afflicts humankind. They weren't a part of God's created order. They came along with humankind's fall. God hates them as much as we do. God works along with us to defeat them. On occasions he chose to reveal his power through a healing miracle, but those were always the exception and never the rule, a ray of hope for the hopeless, a promise of healing to come for all people.

Don't blame God for accidents. God doesn't cause them, and he doesn't interfere to stop them, either. Accidents come with the territory of freedom. Barclay understood that God could have prevented that boat from turning over, but he also knew in his heart that such was not the way of God, and God wasn't to blame. God was there for Barclay's daughter and future son-in-law. Their suffering was God's suffering. Their pain was God's pain.

When we complain to God, '"Where were you when I needed you?" I think he says in a still small voice, "I was there hurting with you." Jesus wondered where God was when he was dying on the cross. "My God, my God," he cried, "Why have you let me down?" We know God was not on a leave of absence while Jesus was hanging on the tree. God, in Jesus, suffered the pains of vulnerable love.

One day Jesus seized an opportunity to teach about atrocities and accidents. He brought up the barbarism some Roman soldiers had inflicted upon some innocent men, women, and children from Galilee. He asked his listeners, "Do you think these men, women, and children from Galilee were deserving of such brutality? Do you think they were worse sinners than all the rest who met in the temple that day? I tell you the truth. The same thing could happen to you. Be spiritually prepared. Repent."

Then he referred them to an accident involving a tower that fell on eighteen construction workers, killing them: "Do you think these eighteen were to blame for this accident? Were these eighteen men worse sinners than the rest who were working on the construction site that day? I tell you the truth. The same thing could happen to you. Be spiritually prepared. Repent."

Some of us don't want to believe that stuff happens to people and that they are not to blame for it. Surely someone must have been to blame for that boating accident. Someone must have been drinking. They shouldn't have been out at night. They should have checked the weather report first. Maybe they weren't qualified as boaters.' Give us the information we need so that we can know who is to blame. Because if horrible things happen just because people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, then those things could just as easily happen to me or my daughter or my wife, or you or your daughter or your wife.

My first thought when I hear about those horrible crimes: Was the victim spiritually prepared? Am I? Are you?

Jesus said, "Be spiritually prepared. Repent."

God is to blame when he purposefully disrupts our lives.
God is totally and unapologetically to blame for one thing. He disrupts our lives and sometimes uses us to stand in for himself. Consider Abraham and Sarah. God entered their lives and called them out. "I want you to pack up," he said. "Move to a country that I will show you. Leave father and mother. Leave all the security behind. Go and I'll go with you."

That was the only guarantee Abraham got: "I'll go with you." God used Abraham and Sarah to bless the world, and nowhere in Scripture do I find God apologizing to them for the inconvenience it caused them. In the process, they too were blessed.

Jesus did the same thing. He entered the scene, and he began to call men out. "Come," he said to Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew. He said, "Come and follow me." Nowhere in Scripture do I find Jesus apologizing to these men for interrupting their lives and using them to spread the Good News to the rest of the world.

If Abraham and Sarah and the disciples were used by God, we'd have to say Job was abused by God. Satan is given free reign to ruin Job's life. His only restraint is that he can't take Job's life. Then Job's friends blame Job for all that happened to him.

"You must have done something to deserve all this," they proclaim. "Ask God to forgive you," they advise. Job's wife comes to Job as he is sitting on a rubbish heap scratching his boils, and she places the blame for this right where it belongs—at the feet of God.

"Curse God and die," she advises Job. Job's not able to do either. He can't bring himself to blame himself, and he refuses to blame God even though God is the one to blame. What we finally learn is that Job is being used by God to win a wager with Satan. Job is God's stand-in, his champion. Job's faith is being tested for all the world to see and draw upon in their time of trial.

Job finally does what each and every one of us would finally do if we were in his shoes. He goes to God seeking an explanation. What he gets is an explosion. Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking, sums up God's response to Job's question: God asks Job who he thinks he is. The explanation Job wants would be like trying to explain Einstein to a small clam. Buechner says God does not reveal his grand design; God reveals himself.

"Why are you treating me so unfairly, God?" Job whined throughout the book. "Put yourself in my place."

"No!" God thunders in reply. "You put yourself in my place. Until you can offer lessons on how to make the sun come up each day or where to scatter lightning bolts or how to design a hippopotamus, don't judge how I run the world. Just shut up, Job, and listen!"

The impact of God's speech on Job is almost as amazing as the speech itself. Although God never answers one question about Job's predicament, the blast from the storm flattens Job. He repents in dust and ashes and every trace of disappointment with God is blown away.

"Are you spiritually prepared?" Jesus asks. "Repent."

Now, please don't misunderstand me. God's response to Job is not his response to those who find themselves in the middle of unfair suffering. This is not what God says to the families of those who fall victim to horrible crimes. This is not what God says to the Barclays either. To them he brings his comforting presence. But to those who have been sitting on a rubbish heap for a long time complaining about their lot in life, God comes and lifts them up from that rubbish heap and looks them eyeball to eyeball and says, "That's enough. Stop blaming. Start trusting. Stop blaming. Start trusting."

There are those here this morning who may need a counselor, a professional, to help you deal with some bitterness and anger in your lives because of past events. There are others here this morning who need a friend, someone to come alongside and walk with you through a difficult and trying time. And there are others who need God to come alongside and say, as only God can, "It's time now to stop blaming yourself, others, or the devil, and stop blaming me. It's time to start trusting."

That finally is the choice that God puts before us. He won't explain himself, and he won't apologize for his actions or lack of the same. "Blame me or trust me," he seems to say. Be angry, be bitter, or be at peace. Job's story has a happy ending. So too will yours and mine. It's time to stop playing the blame game. It's time to start trusting God.

Ó 1992 Marlin Vis

Preaching Today, Tape 114. To order,

© Marlin Vis
Preaching Today Issue #114
A resource of Christianity Today International

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Marlin Vis is pastor of Southridge Reformed Church in Portage, Michigan. A graduate of Western Theological Seminary, he is a former teacher and football coach.

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Sermon Outline:


I. God is not to blame for the circumstances of our lives

II. God is to blame when he purposely disrupts our lives