Why do other people hurt us? It can be very difficult to process and understand the sins of others, especially when they sin against us. The question is asked by hundreds, thousands even, of people in a wide variety of situations. “Why does my husband hit me?” “Why did my wife leave?” “Why did my parents give me away?” “Why did my pastor give into that temptation?” Why, why, why, why. There is a real temptation when we don’t understand another person’s sin to take some responsibility for it. Taking responsibility for another person’s sin is a way to try to maintain control of our world. It is, however, a faulty way to process our pain. Blaming ourselves for someone else’s sin is always a lie.
Betrayal is one of the deepest wounds we can experience in this life. We all know that wickedness and evil exist in our world, and yet we never expect it from those we are closest too. “My spouse would never do that,” we tell ourselves. “My friends would never turn on me like that,” we say. “I can’t imagine my parents acting that way towards me,” we assure ourselves. Yet what seems impossible is in fact very possible in this fallen world. How we process the pain of betrayal is important. Blaming ourselves is one way we try to process the pain caused by betrayal. If we can deduce a logical explanation for their wrong then we believe it will make the pain more bearable, it will grant us a sense of control. “Blaming ourselves is a survival skill,” says Melody Beattie. “It helps us feel in control when life doesn’t make sense…” (The New Codependency, 2). Blaming ourselves gives us the illusion that we can change the situation, alter the relationship. If their sin was a result of something I did then I can control the future, I can change the relationship. I simply need to stop doing whatever caused their reaction. Suddenly the betrayal makes sense, it gives me a means to manage the relationship and the conflict within it. Blaming myself allows me to process this pain in a logical way and survive the betrayal of someone I love, or so we think. Blaming ourselves for someone else’s sin, however, is always a lie.
There is a big difference between “contribution” and “responsibility.” I obviously play a part in the creating of contexts, conflicts, and relationships, but I do not control what others do in those contexts, conflicts, or relationships. I can contribute to scenarios in which others respond sinfully, but I do not cause them to respond sinfully. Their responses are not my fault, but their own. The ways that we blame ourselves reveal a lack of clarity on this point. We blame ourselves by pointing to our sin as the cause of another’s sin. We blame ourselves by trying to fix the mess others have made. In both cases we are assuming more control than we actually have, and in the process we are making things worse. In particularly we are attempting to live within a relational lie.
Living in this lie will develop a progressive pattern of relating to others that breeds personal confusion and anxiety. For starters, when we don’t know how to properly attribute responsibility we don’t know what to expect from others. As Brad Hambrick says, “The struggle to rightly assign responsibility makes it hard to determine ‘reasonable expectations’ of others” (“Overcoming Codependency,” 8). What should I expect of them if I am taking the blame for all their wrong choices, actions, and words? This uncertainty about relational expectations inevitably leads to difficulty managing my own emotions. Betrayal hurts, and a natural and healthy response to such betrayal is anger. But if I am refusing to hold the guilty party responsible then I will feel confused about my anger. We say things like, “I don’t know why I am so angry at him, it’s really my fault.” The inability to regulate our own emotions will, then, leave us feeling exhausted. Our emotional and relational health (and potentially our physical health too) will begin to dwindle. Living with this sort of cognitive-emotional dissonance is draining. We feel confused, anxious, uncertain, and depressed, in part because we are refusing to live in the truth. Living with this lie will destroy us and our relationships.
Blaming ourselves is always a lie because sin requires repentance and I cannot repent on behalf of another. In order for real change to take place those responsible for sin must own it and confess it and seek to turn from it. Repentance is a change in the heart and therefore is always individual and internal. In Acts 8:22, for example, Peter speaks of “repentance” in terms of the “intent of your heart.” In Matthew 21 Jesus tells a parable to demonstrate the importance of internal remorse as an aspect of repentance (v. 28-32). Paul too recognizes the internal dimension when he speaks of repentance stemming from “godly sorrow” over sin (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). Finally, we may see how John points to an internal change by calling the churches to “return to their first love” (Rev. 2:1-7). Sin requires repentance and repentance comes from a changed heart. We cannot repent for someone else, and attempting to take responsibility for their sin not only fails to make changes in our relationship with them, it not only harms us and creates more internal tension for us, but it also diminishes the urgency for the real responsible party to repent. It forces us all to live in a lie.
Blaming ourselves for someone else’s sin may make us feel, for a very brief moment, like there is a logic to betrayal. It may make us feel, for a very brief moment, like we are in control of what happens next. In the long run, however, it will minimize the consequences of the responsible party and increase our own consequences. Taking responsibility for the sins of others will create greater emotional turmoil in us and lead all involved in that relationship further from the truth. Taking responsibility for someone else’s sin is always lie. Refuse to live in that lie.