Personal Responsibility for Sin

Question: “We live in a time when it has almost become common to hear about school shootings, deranged killers in malls, or people going ‘postal’ at work. Something must really be wrong with the people who do these things! It seems that most of them have been mistreated or abused in some way—by family, bosses, coworkers, others at school, etc. Does this explain why these people go on these killing rampages? And does it excuse what they do?” (L. in Pennsylvania)

My Answer:  I remember the horror at hearing about the Columbine shooting in 1999. Thirteen people senselessly killed at the hands of some misguided, disturbed, and (yes) very evil teenagers. My sense of outrage and sorrow over this tragedy was compounded by the way some people dealt with the event. At the time the media was tripping over themselves trying to find an explanation. It was Hollywood’s fault. It was the fault of the NRA and those rabid 2nd Amendment folk. It was their parents’ fault. Perhaps most commonly heard was the hindsight analysis that these two boys had been bullied, made fun of, and picked on. Here was the reason for their outrageous behavior. I distinctly remember one lady in our church almost defending the killers—she understood what it was like to be the brunt of bullies. She felt sorry for them. 

I don’t know about your experiences in life, but in my life I have been bullied. I have been made fun of. I have been picked on. I have experienced this in school, at work, even in church (and in case you don’t it, the church can have some really mean bullies). But you know what? I have never one time considered taking an Uzi to school, work or church and blowing away all the bullies. And even if I were to do such a horrendous thing, I don’t think that the actions of the bullies would in any way justify my own behavior. Simply stated, if I sin the fault lies with me and no one else. I have chosen, decided for myself, to act in this evil manner.

Now let me make one thing clear. I do not excuse nor justify the bullies who picked on those young men in Columbine. Their sin is also evident. Yet their sinful and wicked behavior does not excuse nor justify their victims becoming killers. In one of his writing C. S. Lewis deals with this idea. He talks about how various factors can give us an understanding of a person’s sinful behavior. But understanding does not excuse. And where there is no excuse there is no righteous justification for the action. But thankfully where we cannot excuse, we can forgive. Indeed, understanding does engender compassion. And compassion prompts forgiveness. But it still does not justify or excuse the very sinfulness of the evil act.

Scripture itself makes this point. Consider Proverbs 6:30-31: “People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy himself when he is starving. Yet when he is found, he must restore sevenfold. He may have to give up all the substance of his house.” See the picture. We can understand a starving man taking food that does not belong to him. We can appreciate his rationale for this. We can have compassion on such a fellow. Yet, the sinfulness of the action is still there. And the consequences of sin must still be borne by this fellow. His pitiful circumstances do not absolve him of personal responsibility for his sinful acts. And they certainly would not foist the blame for his thievery on the government, his parents, the employer who had to lay him off, or his neighbor who was inconsiderate enough to still have a job.

This is an important question to consider in our day. We do indeed live in a warped, corrupted, perverted world. And in this wicked world many people are abused and mistreated. Sad to say, this often twists them into warped people. And the result of their mistreatment, their hurt, their pain, their being bent by sin, is sometimes violence and destruction. However, we must never remove personal responsibility from such individuals. This only exacerbates the error. It feeds the sickness of society.

I believe that one of the great sins of our day is that people have lost a sense of moral responsibility for their own actions. It is easy to find excuses, to blame others. But to sin is a personal choice, and bears personal accountability.

A final thought: As we have stated, knowing the reasons why someone may sin does not excuse the sin. But the Good News is that what cannot be excused, can be forgiven. Now in the biblical understanding of this matter there is a great truth: We are already forgiven. This happened on the Cross. And for each of us this forgiveness can be appropriated individually and personally through God’s grace. This is part of the wonder of the Christian message. The Savior has come, and sin has been dealt a deathblow. For this we shout: Hallelujah!

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