Whom do we blame for bad things?
Jeffrey L. Samelson
It’s a question the disciples asked Jesus, and it’s not an unusual one: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). They wanted to know who got the blame for this bad thing, even if it might mean assuming an unborn boy committed some great evil—or would grow to do something worth being proactively punished.
We are all familiar with this blame-seeking instinct. When life goes along comfortably, or good things happen, we don’t usually concern ourselves much with asking who’s responsible. We might remember to thank God for his blessings, yet that raises the question: If God gets the credit for the good, should he also get the blame for the bad?
Some might suggest that Christ’s answer to his disciples’ question did put the blame on the Almighty: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that God’s works might be revealed in connection with him” (John 9:3).
Some time later another follower pretty much came out and said it. Mary and Martha had sent word that their brother, Lazarus, was near death, but Jesus had delayed. When he finally arrived, Martha said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Her unspoken accusation: “You could have healed him, but you didn’t come, so this is your fault.”
Jesus didn’t defend himself. Instead he gave her the assurance that she would find God’s grace on the other side of the tragedy: “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23). But some might wish that Christ had answered her accusation, so that we could have a definitive answer.
Yet even without a direct statement from Jesus, we are able to know who gets the blame for bad things.
The original blame game
In Genesis chapter 3 we learn not only about the origin of sin but also about the original blame game. When the Lord graciously seeks out Adam, inviting repentance, Adam doesn’t take responsibility for his disobedience but blames Eve for giving him the fruit to eat. He even takes things further by calling her “the woman you gave to be with me.” He essentially said the whole mess was God’s fault. When Eve is confronted, she points the finger at Satan in his serpent form, who “deceived” her.
When God speaks to the serpent, we hear no response, but why would we? The devil would offer no excuse, because he had done exactly what he intended to do. He had succeeded in bringing evil into the Lord’s previously perfect creation. The devil was happy to take the blame.
But he was not so pleased, perhaps, to hear the Creator’s curse. God not only condemned the snake to a life of eating dust but also spoke a promise that told Satan his success would end. From the woman’s seed would come a Savior who would crush the serpent’s head. This good news of grace and salvation was God’s answer to Adam’s accusation that this whole mess was God’s fault. God didn’t bring evil into the world, but he was going to put an end to it.
Our first parents weren’t off the hook, though. The curses the Lord spoke to them made clear that they were still responsible for the sinful choices they had made. They were also responsible for the bad things that came from those choices. There were consequences for them and their lives immediately. Still, because God is gracious, they got much less than the immediate death and destruction their disobedience deserved.
So who is to blame?
What about the man born blind? What about my brother dying so young? What about Mom’s cancer, Dad losing his job, that hurricane, terrorism, war, abortion, and this accident that not only dented my car but ruined my day? The universal truths about sin and evil and a cursed creation don’t always satisfy our urge to blame someone.
It’s tempting to make God responsible for everything. But the truth is that since the Lord is perfectly holy, he is absolutely incapable of causing anything unholy. When he permits evil to happen or uses bad things for his good purposes, he is not in any way the author of evil. In his wisdom and love he allows the unholy and incorporates it into his plans. He doesn’t get the blame for sin or the consequence of sin.
So can we go the opposite extreme and simply blame the devil? Yes and no. Yes, Satan started it all, encourages it all, and does what he can to organize it all for his evil purposes. But no, unlike the Lord, he is limited in both presence and power. He simply cannot be everywhere, nor can he be responsible for all that happens. So we can blame him generally for the spread of pornography that has corrupted so many people, but not necessarily for the fact that your brother Sean is addicted to it. We can blame the devil for false religions like Islam, but not necessarily for your neighbor Ahmed backing his car onto your lawn.
Throughout Scripture we find God changing the conversation from “Look at this evil someone has done or the trouble someone is in” to “Look at the love the Lord shows to sinners!”
Should we just blame other people then? It can be satisfying to point out how others’ bad choices lead to their bad consequences. It can be comforting to shift responsibility for what’s wrong in your life to someone else’s actions. Oftentimes we’re even right.
But just as often we need to be honest and take blame for our own choices and their consequences. I failed that exam because I didn’t study. Your marriage is unhappy because you don’t love your wife or respect your husband. We lost our house because we didn’t pay our bills. Anytime we look to parcel out blame for bad things, we should begin by examining ourselves and repenting of our own sins.
Even so, we can’t always find someone to blame. Smithstown is flattened by a sudden summer storm. Sally gets lung cancer, but neither she nor anyone around her has ever smoked. These things we must blame simply on the fact that we are sinners living in a sin-sick world. All creation has been corrupted since Adam’s fall, and bad things happen to the evil and the good alike. We all live here.
This is where God comes in again. He ignores no one’s suffering and turns a blind eye to no one’s sin, but throughout Scripture we find God changing the conversation from “Look at this evil someone has done or the trouble someone is in” to “Look at the love the Lord shows to sinners!” If we consider how much you and I sin, how thoroughly corrupted our world is, and how intent Satan is on destroying all that is good and godly, it’s amazing that we don’t suffer more than we do. God wants our focus to be on his goodness and grace and on how he solved the problem of evil once and for all by sending his Son. The more we busy ourselves with giving God credit for the good he shows us, the less we will care about casting blame for what’s bad.
The Scripture references used in this article are from the Evangelical Heritage Version.
Author: Jeffrey Samelson
Volume 107, Number 03
Issue: March 2020