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A question of responsibility

Sin in complex circumstances is still sin

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Georges Clemenceau, premier of France from 1917 to 1920, mused on the origins of World War I: “We can say all kinds of things about the causes of the war of 1914, but we can never say that Belgium invaded Germany.”


The question of causality is the quiet backdrop of the nightmare that is Ukraine. As an American eavesdropping on the current French presidential elections, I heard one candidate try to thread the needle by saying Putin is culpable but that the West is responsible for cornering him by trying to put NATO on his doorstep—for essentially “poking the Bear.” This is more than I am qualified to comment on.

Nevertheless, I got to pondering the Word of God on questions of causality and responsibility.

Stresses, influences, and temptations do not exculpate the one who succumbs to them.

Adam tried blaming Eve, and surely she was at fault. But he was not off the hook, and suffered consequences. Eve fingered the serpent, and God did punish that wily snake, but also the woman. Who can deny that Moses was pushed to the limit by the daily drip-drip of Israelite recalcitrance (Deuteronomy 1:37) when he struck the rock rather than obeying God’s explicit command to speak to it? But he was still at fault (Numbers 20:12). See the care with which the Spirit phrases it:

“They angered him at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses on their account, for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips” (Psalm 106:32-33). Human reason wants a less ambiguous verdict, a clear-cut acquittal of one party and condemnation of the other, but we are not given the satisfaction.

Assyrian King Sennacherib wrongly reasoned that since he was God’s tool to punish Israel, he was justified in his cruel attack: “So now, was it apart from the Lord that I have come up against this land to destroy it? The Lord Himself said to me, ‘Go up against this land to destroy it’” (Isaiah 36:10; 2 Kings 18:25, BSB).

But not so in God’s eyes.

I know a man who cheated on his wife. I also know that that wife had deprived him of affection for years. In sorting out the grand implosion that resulted, we have to speak something like Clemenceau if we wish to be Biblical: “We can say all kinds of things about the causes of the ruin of that marriage, but one thing we cannot say is that the man did not go to bed with that other woman.” I notice that in the Old Testament the adulterer is stoned to death, no questions asked about how nice or not nice his wife was.

Likewise, though all kinds of stresses, influences, and temptations may be brought to bear on an unsuspecting person—and God will judge them all in due time—they do not exculpate the one who succumbs to them: “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:1-2).

Behold a nuanced position, convicting the one who causes the stumbling, while still calling the stumble “sin.” God understands that people abused in childhood are set up to abuse their own children, but for all their own scars they are not excused if they become abusers. We can say the same about people born predisposed to anger, alcohol, homosexuality, or whatever bad hands we are dealt in this fallen world. But here is God’s offer: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18). “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

Back to national events. I know not whether the harshly punitive Treaty of Versailles of 1919 “caused” World War II and made it “inevitable,” as some historians insist. But surely Hitler will have to face the God of the universe for his choices, as will Putin. As will we all.

Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her columns have been compiled into three books including Won’t Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides near Philadelphia.


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