If you ever take a class in Church History, there is one famous story that you are sure to read about: the childhood story of St. Augustine and the pear tree. It goes like this:
Little Augustine lived next door to a house that had a pear tree in its backyard. Nothing about the pear tree was appealing or enticing at all–it was kind of wilted looking and the pears didn’t taste particularly good. (Which I can relate to–I hate pears)
There was nothing about this tree that one should be jealous. But one day Augustine and his buddies got bored with their regular games, so they devised a plan to break into their neighbor’s yard, shake the pears out of the tree and steal them. And that’s exactly what they did–they made off with a truck load of pears.
And when they had accomplished this plan, did they eat them? Did they sell them for money? Did they throw them at Augustine’s little sister? No. They dumped them out, let some of the pigs eat them, and walked away. They wasted them.
As Augustine reflects on this incident in his book Confessions, you’d think that he’d chalk it up to teenage delinquency. I think we all know plenty of little boys who would pull something like that. But Augustine doesn’t make that move. He instead summarizes his motives this way:
It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error–not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in [God] to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.
In other words, he sinned for the sake of sinning.
In telling this story, Augustine highlights something about human nature that we often overlook. He reminds us that we are so profoundly broken that we do evil just for the sake of evil. And that is a concept that the modern mind struggles to understand, if it does not resist the idea altogether.
Today, everything is someone else’s fault. Even when we are the perpetrators of a wrong, it’s only because we were victims at some other time. A woman is promiscuous because her dad didn’t love her. A man beats his wife because his dad beat him. A girl has an eating disorder because the culture tells her she’s fat.
This victim mentality serves as a kind of escape clause in the face of taking blame. Yes, I may have done something wrong, but I can ease the blame by displacing it onto somebody else.
Well I began to question the validity of this perspective as I myself made some poor life choices. I found myself compromising in my dating life in some pretty major ways, all because of the need to get attention, acceptance and love from guys. And as I made these decisions, I started to ask myself, “Why am I doing this? Have I been missing unconditional love from my dad? Did I have a dysfunctional relationship with my parents or a boyfriend that caused me to be so insecure? There must be SOME reason from my past that I am acting this way. Someone did this to me!”
But the reality is, none of that was true. I have a wonderful relationship with my parents, and even though I had some rocky dating relationships early on, it was nothing that would have destroyed my entire self-esteem.
The real reason I made those decisions, the real reason I sinned, was because I was a sinner, and that’s what sinners do. I’m not broken because someone else broke me–I contribute to my own brokenness every day. Not because I’m a victim of someone else’s wrongdoing, but because sin is enjoyable and it makes me feel good in the moment. Like Augustine, I like to sin.
Many of the mistakes I made were done to satisfy my twisted desires. I wanted to feel good, have fun, indulge my anger, my lust or my pride–all the while knowing that those things were wrong, and doing them anyway. That said, girls aren’t promiscuous JUST because they’re insecure, but because sex feels good to them. Teenagers don’t shoplift because their parents aren’t providing for them, but because of the thrill of getting away with it.
While there are indeed times when our behavior stems out of past experiences, it’s important that we take responsibility for our own decisions. Sometimes, we do broken things because we are broken people.
And this is crucial to remember, not only because it will hold us in check when we’re tempted to excuse away our bad decisions, but because it impacts our relationship with God. If we believe that we’re all victims of someone else’s sin, then God has no right to hold us accountable when we act out. If we are mere victims, then we make God out to be unjust. He’s placing the blame on us while we believe the blame lies elsewhere.
What’s at stake is the very character of God. How we see God, and ourselves, will determine whether we repent or reject God when we are held accountable for our decisions.
Keep this in mind the next time you act out in anger, pride, or lust. It’s not your mom’s fault, your dad’s fault, your spouse’s fault or your kid’s fault. While any one of those individuals may have influenced you or tempted you, they’re not the ones who pull the trigger. So don’t underestimate your brokenness. Not for the sake of self-loathing or deprecation, but for the sake of truly comprehending just how much God loves you. When we truly understand our sin, we begin to understand God’s grace.
ah, personal accountability…the real victim here. While I have no doubt that people do act out in ways as a product of their environment, there are those of us who do not and know who we are. What a poignant post. so glad you wrote on this.
while I essentially agree with you. Everyone makes decisions. I also think you’re underestimating what brokenness and the power of generational strongholds can do to a person. Unless you’ve experienced that yourself, you won’t necessarily understand that kind of strength. A stronghold is called a stronghold because it has a ‘strong’ hold. Growing up under certain morals and values or lack of them, will shape certain things in us. If you’ve come from a family functional family then you’re not going to be able to relate to that because you’ve never experienced it personally.
And while I agree that all sin is still choice. Our upbringing and the person that shapes us in to can do a lot towards tripping us up later on. That doesn’t excuse our sin, and I love your point about trying to blame God for judging us over our own sin. And I agree that we sometimes sin simply because we want to. Absolutly.
But I would err more on the side of the strength of brokenness to weaken our own character then you would I think. But then I deal with a lot of broken people.
That doesn’t excuse it once the person knows better. But sometimes working out the fine points can take some time. However pastoring in those incidents and support, can make a big difference. That’s one of the primary reasons for the shepherding role in my opinion. It’s so a person is convicted and helped in their situation, yet still affirmed while not being allowed to continue in their sin and drag down other christians who they influence in the meantime.
opps typo. Sorry – I meant ‘fairly’ functional. My bad.
PPS And by ‘allowed’ I mean permitted or excused in it. But in the bible the early church was structured more as a community so everyone would have had more support and more challenging just through default of the christians around them. Yet pastoring is still a shepherding job.
Great post. I really get encouraged reading your blog. You bring up so many good points from different angles that I never really thought about before.
: ) Thanks for all of the work you put into this thing.