Personal Responsibility

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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Some years ago, while pastoring a church in Buffalo, New York, I received a phone call soon after Sunday morning worship. The sister of a woman who attended our church had been shot to death during a supermarket holdup that morning. The shooting had been senseless. The slightly built woman had been lying on her stomach when she was shot from behind by one of the thieves. She represented no threat to him whatsoever. There were a number of other people in the store who were not shot, so it was not because they were shooting all witnesses. Although the thieves were caught and prosecuted, I'm not certain that the reason for the shooting ever became known.

The funeral was a matter of general interest to the news media because of the sensational nature of the crime. Shortly before I was to hold the funeral service, a newspaper reporter entered the funeral director's office to interview me. One of the points I stressed was my belief that that a senseless shooting like this one would be much less likely to occur if the thieves believed that they would be accountable to God for eternity for their crime. When his front page article was published, although he reported other things that I had said, there was no mention of Divine judgment.

Listening to the television news night after night, I find a strange reluctance to charge people with personal responsibility for their actions. If there is a drug problem it is because someone doesn't provide enough education about the dangers of drugs or pay for drug rehabilitation, if there are teenage pregnancies and if there is an epidemic of venereal disease (especially AIDS) it is because people aren't provided with condoms, if there are crimes it is because people aren't given opportunities to earn a living, if people shoot other people it is because someone doesn't keep guns out of the shooter's hands; it isn't thought to be the reponsibility of the drug user, the person who commits immorality, the criminal, or the assassin. Missing from the report is the truth that many people choose not to use drugs, choose not to be immoral, choose to direct their energies toward self-improvement rather than vindictive crime, and do not shoot others even if they have guns.

To be sure, the reluctance of the media may be motivated more by a hesitancy to avoid offending viewers than to push an ideology. After all, people who are doing things that are wrong don't often appreciate having that pointed out to them, and may well avoid viewing programs that do so! But it also seems that there is an underlying belief that human beings are "prisoners" of their own humanity, creatures who cannot help but act in certain ways under certain circumstances. If this isn't the attitude of many reporters, it certainly is the attitude of many others thoughout our nation. In today's society, everyone seems to be a "victim" of something, no one is responsible for his or her situation or for self-improvement.

One of the heavy prices that this outlook carries with it is despair. If we cannot help ourselves, we are, indeed, prisoners of our own selves. Life is totally deterministic, you are either blessed or damned, governed totally by fate and circumstances; reduced to a creature who can merely become angry if things don't turn out right. The death of personal responsibility is also the death of respect for individuals, the death of respect for the capabilities God gave each person to cope with life, the death of hope for individual accomplishment. This unChristian outlook is part of the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). On the other hand, an outlook that includes personal responsibility, before the world and before God, is one of hope and life.

Jesus said, "he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God" (John 3:21). For the redeemed, personal responsibility means the opportunity to serve God, failure is an opportunity for effective grace; grace that becomes not just an escape from consquences, but a platform for effective service to Christ. It is God who enables us to seek grace for our weaknesses and challenges us to accept responsibility for how we live.

One cannot read the Scriptures and not be impressed with its emphasis upon personal responsibility. Both Paul and Peter taught that God is not a respecter of persons (Romans 2:11, Acts 10:34). Moses said, "Circumcise then your heart; and stiffen your neck no more. For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality, nor take a bribe" (Deuteronomy 10:16-17).

Ezekiel faced people who believed that God punished or rewarded each generation according to the lives of their parents. In Ezekiel chapter 18 and chapter 33:1-19 Ezekiel is told to make one of the clearest statements in all of Scripture concerning personal responsibility. These verses are well worth reading. They reflect God's grace, but also His fairness. As Abraham said to God, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?" (Genesis 18:25). Indeed, He always will!

The extent of our personal responsibility extends to every word that we speak (Matthew 12:33-37) and everything that we do, even in secret (Luke 12:2-5, Hebrews 4:12-13). We need to live as if we are always under the watchful eye of God. In The Revelation to John, Christ (and His Spirit) is portrayed as having seven eyes to underscore this truth (perfect vision, Revelation 5:6). This is not threatening if our intention is to serve God and if we keep up-to-date with Him in the confession of known sin. Here, I John 1:9 is well worth memorizing and applying.

Beyond this, we practice responsibility by being accountable to proper authority here on earth whenever God's law doesn't demand another course (Romans 13:1-7, I Peter 2:13-17). Christians discipline themselves by making themselves accountable to local congregations for their beliefs and practices. The tendency to "go it alone" is a failure to humbly become part of God's orderliness. Order and responsibility are a part of God's nature and, therefore, His kingdom. If the members of the Trinity submit to one another voluntarily, how much more important it is for us to do so.

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume III, Part 7, July 1995.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.