Having completed my shopping and paid for my purchases, I was exiting the local K-Mart. As I did so, I was harshly scolded by a woman I did not know, and whom I had never met prior to this moment. My assailant was completely incensed by my rudeness because I did not politely hold the door for her as I exited the store.
The conversation that ensued between us was not a brief one. Though I had apologized for my insensitivity, the woman was unrelenting in her attack, and in her refusal to accept my apology. She was fully focused on verbalizing the degree to which I had behaved as an insensitive, unaware, discourteous cad. Stating again that I was deeply sorrowful, I informed the woman that I did not realize she was behind me. The now very animated woman was quick to point out that I would most certainly have realized she was behind me if I had taken the time to look, which is what people who understand common courtesy do. In her mind, clearly, I am not one of those people.
The truth of the matter is, as I was leaving K-mart, my mind was occupied with the young, disabled girl standing alone by the curb in front of the store. I wondered why it was that she stood there by herself, and I was concerned for her safety. As it turned out, the young girl was my assailant’s daughter.
My new life coach seemed to have a chip on her shoulder the size of Nebraska. I got the impression that she was deeply embittered about her life, and I just happened to be in her gun sites at a time that, for her, was particularly dissatisfying. As a result, she unleashed her diatribe on me, not because I actively injured her in some way, but rather on the basis of something I did not do for her.
What You Didn’t Do For Me
The encounter above reminded me of a similar encounter Jesus had with a man in the fifth chapter of John’s gospel. The event took place by a pool in Jerusalem called Bethesda, which appropriately means “House of Mercy.” The tradition of Jesus’ day held that the afflicted would lie on one of the five covered porches around this pool. On the occasion that an angel of the Lord stirred the pool’s waters, the first person into the agitated water would be healed of whatever ailed them. It was by this pool that Jesus encountered a man who had been lame for thirty-eight years. When Jesus spoke to the man, his question seemed rather abrupt and was arguably a little foolish.
When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, “Do you wish to get well?”
– John 5:6, NASB
Jesus’ question was absurd. Of course, he wanted to get well. How could the man answer with anything other than the affirmative? That was the reason he was lying by the pool of Bethesda, the House of Mercy, waiting for the angel to stir the waters.
Perhaps Jesus was asking his question rhetorically, not really expecting an answer, somewhat similar to the way we ask, “How’s it going?” or “What’s up?” when we truly have very little interest in an answer, and we do not expect the question to be responded to with anything other than “Fine” or “Not much.” Anything other than one of those two responses constitutes a breach of etiquette and causes an awkward hiccup in the conversation.
It is possible and, I might argue, more likely that the question with which Jesus greeted the man was not a silly question at all. Neither was it a rhetorical opening line. I believe Jesus asked the very question that needed to be asked, perhaps stemming from the fact that the man had been lying by this same pool, day after day, for thirty-eight years. It is difficult to accept that, over three decades, one who was truly motivated to improve his or her lot in life could not find some way of being the first person to get into the healing waters.
“Why are you still lying here? Do you even want to get well?”
The response the man offered to Jesus’ question did not actually address the content of the question. The man did not say, “Yes, I want to get well,” but rather said, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”
Staring his four-decade infirmity directly in the face, this man was unable to find within himself enough gumption or self-respect to rise above a pathetic whine about what someone else did not do for him. No one held the K-Mart door for this man, and as a result, he could not get to the water in time. It is the fault of others that his life is miserable.
A Society of Blamers
Humanity has long held to the practice of blaming our circumstances, inadequacies, and bad behaviors on others as a means of defending ourselves, and protecting our egos. In the 1970s, television comedian Flip Wilson popularized a line that became a national catchphrase, “The devil made me do it.” This blame-shifting seemed novel to a nation hungry for laughter, but it is as old as humanity. “Adam, why did you eat the fruit?” “Well, God, that woman you gave me…” Adam blames Eve to protect himself, and indirectly blames God, pointing out that it was God who gave Eve to Adam in the first place. “Eve, why did you eat the fruit?” “Well, God, you see, the serpent said…” Eve blames the serpent to protect herself, and to absolve herself of the responsibility for making a bad decision.
Rather than take responsibility for our actions/inactions, or for improving our circumstances, we offer up a tenuous blaming apparatus in our defensive efforts to explain why we should be excused from the repercussions of our choices. Every behavioral indiscretion must be excused because I can trace my behavior back to a trauma, or a time at which I was a helpless victim of something or other. It is the absurdity of my refusal to improve my outlook or my condition because I had a bad day in 1987; thus, my life-paralysis remains intact.
In some cases, we extend our blame apparatus trans-generationally. “I cannot get beyond my circumstances because my family history contains X, Y, and Z.” We blame our heritage, the troubles encountered by our ancestors, the upbringing style of our dysfunctional parents, the city in which we were raised.
The morning I wrote this, I heard CNN news anchor Ashleigh Banfield protesting a parent-teacher conference wherein she was called to account for her elementary son’s offensive behavior at school. Rather than take responsibility for the situation by focusing on her son, and possibly her own deficient parenting skills, Banfield mustered up a mountain of originality in pointing to televised behaviors of badly-behaved contemporaneous politicians, claiming that her son learned his rude behavior from them.
The same morning’s news contained yet another example of blaming others for one’s own shortcomings. Former law student Anna Alaburda of Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California, sued the school because, though she successfully graduated in the top tier of her class and passed the bar exam on her first attempt, she has been unsuccessful in landing full-time employment that is to her liking. Though she has had offers, none of them have been deemed worthy of her acceptance. Naturally, she has concluded that the fault lies not within herself, but rather with the school.
News stories similar to those are a daily occurrence, and they reflect a disturbing societal trend of failing to take responsibility for our lives and circumstances. If we allow this mentality to creep into our spiritual core, we make repentance and growth impossible because we refuse to acknowledge that the primary offender in the challenges of our lives is our own granite heart. In response to our spiritual blame-shifting, Jesus asks us, “Do you even want to get well?”
Owning My Circumstance
The fact that we are alive means that we will sometimes find ourselves in circumstances we deem unsatisfactory or unpleasant – even unfair. This has been true for every generation before us. Each could stir up valid-sounding arguments for placing themselves into a victim status by outlining the life-impairing traumas they had been made to endure.
When we allow ourselves to embrace a victim mentality, we expect to be excused from any responsibility related to our bad behavior, or for our emotional paralysis. Contemporary society has invented a flurry of new, fine-sounding syndromes and disorders to label each (mis)behavioral trend. The application of such a label to bad behavior has the curative effect of absolving the offender of responsibility for the behavior.
This victim trend has led to a society of what psychiatrist/family therapist Dr. Frank Pittman calls “adult children.” Pittman addresses this phenomenon extensively in his book, Grow Up!, wherein he describes our society of victims and responsibility escapees:
Some of them are adult children, people who have had some pain or disappointment in their lives and are now waiting for someone else to come along to kiss it and make it better. Adult children give nothing back since they believe they weren’t given enough in the first place. They owe no loyalty to others but they expect others to take care of them and are angry when they don’t.
The Christ-follower is called to know nothing of this type of victimization and escapism. Several cogent examples from the life and teaching of Jesus make this clear.
The Midnight Visitor
Then he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.’ Then the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
– Luke 11:5-8, NIV–1978
If we take this parable at face value, it seems to be teaching us to pester God with our persistence until we get from him what we want or need, even after our original request was denied. There is much going on theologically in this parable that is outside the scope of this blog posting. In truth, the parable is presented as something of an absurdity in which Jesus contrasts the honor of our God with the shameful hypothetical behavior of the man in the house.
For our purposes, what interests me is the persistence of the man needing the bread. The man did not shrug his shoulders and walk away. He had guests in his home, and he was unwilling to allow them to go to bed hungry. His personal honor was on the line, as was the honor of his house, and even that of the village. It did not matter that no one held the K-Mart door for him. He was determined to resolve his issue and get what he needed.
The Canaanite Woman
And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.
– Matthew 15:22-28, NASB
The unrelenting determination of this woman is impressive. Numerous points of her encounter with Jesus could be called upon for claims of victimhood. She overcame cultural barriers, gender barriers, racial barriers, and barriers of opposition from the disciples of Jesus. She could have walked away from this meeting with Jesus in a huff, and with justifiable resentment of this new rabbi, but she refused to do so. She owned her circumstance and was determined to endure any insult or opposition that may come while getting a resolution to her issue. It is as though Jesus were testing her to see what depth of conviction she had regarding him and his ability to help her. In the end, he commended her faith and healed her daughter.
In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, “Give me legal protection from my opponent.” For a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, “Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.”
– Luke 18:2b-5, NASB
Similar to the parable of the friend at midnight, this parable was told to contrast the benevolent behavior of God with the arrogant stubbornness of man. And, as with the parable of the friend at midnight, I am impressed with the persistence of the woman who would not be deterred in going after a resolution to her situation. By approaching this judge the way she did, she put herself in a culturally precarious and somewhat humiliating position. Apparently, she had no male family member to argue her case for her, as was the cultural norm. As a widow, it is likely she had no financial means that would enable her to bribe the judge – again, a cultural norm.
Jesus painted a picture of utter helplessness. The widow’s case was as hopeless as that of the lame man by the pool of Bethesda who could not get to the water in time. But rather than drown in her self-pity, as the man by the pool did, she took control of her situation and pursued the judge to the point that he humorously said she was going to ὑπωπιάζῃ με (hupopeidze meh) – she is going to “blacken my eye” – with her continual coming and pestering.
We are not victims of fate or circumstance. My life is what I make of it. God gave me the ability to choose, and I am where I am in my life because of the choices I have made. The empowering reality in that statement is that I always get the chance to choose again, to choose better, to choose differently. I cannot undo past choices, but I can make better choices – corrective choices – going forward. I cannot make a new beginning, but I can certainly start where I am, choose differently, choose better, and make a new ending.
The circumstances in which I find myself are nothing more than the threads I use to weave my tapestry. I can be intentional and creative, and weave something beautiful, or I can whine and moan, looking outside myself to identify potential excuses for the ugly circumstance in which I wallow. The choice is fully my own.