Want to Thrive? Stop Blaming Everyone Else

In the movie Shanghai Noon, Owen Wilson’s character, Roy O’Bannon, enters a gunfight. Throughout the movie’s plotline, it becomes painfully apparent that O’Bannon is not particularly skilled with the gun. However, after unloading his two borrowed six-shooters at a close-up target right in front of him and missing with every shot, he looks down at his weapons and says, “These guns are really weird.”

O’Bannon comedically illustrates a universal human phenomenon. When confronted with our own inabilities and failures, human beings have a universal disposition to look outside of ourselves for a fault that is actually within ourselves. We find it excruciatingly difficult to admit that we are the problem. There is an ever-present tendency to look somewhere else first for the source of our trouble.

This pattern is not new. In fact, it’s as old as sin. After the debacle with the serpent in Genesis 3, Adam tries to hide himself from God. After rebelling against his loving Creator, Adam feels the shame of his sin. He is all-of-the-sudden aware that he is naked, and God, knowing already what has happened, asks Adam to explain how this knowledge came about.

Adam’s response is predictable to anyone who has been living on this planet for any length of time, for it perfectly illustrates the blame-shifting impulse described above. Adam says, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). If you look carefully, you’ll notice two causes in Adam’s self-justifying mind. Not only does he blame the woman, but he also subtly blames God. After all, he wouldn’t have to deal with this problem if God had never given him the woman in the first place.

Such blame-shifting is detrimental to human flourishing. Ignoring the social ramifications of blaming everything and everyone around you for problems that clearly originate in you, this tendency is also self-destructive. As long as we place the blame for our deepest problems outside of us, we obliterate the ability to change what’s really wrong.

At the beginning of every baseball practice, I have my eleven-year-olds answer the question, “What can I control?” with this answer, “I can control my character, my attitude, and my effort. I cannot control the outcome.” The purpose of this exercise is to ingrain within them a habit of focusing only on the things that they have control over.

Is it true that sometimes the sun gets in the outfielder’s eyes and causes him to miss a routine pop-up? Yes. Does it help him to focus on that? Not at all. There’s nothing he can do about the brightness of the sun. He can’t control that. He can, however, control his response. He can take responsibility, try his best, make sure he wears sunglasses, and determine to catch the next one.

When I do marriage counseling, I usually spend the first couple of sessions trying to convince each partner that the main problem in the marriage is not the other partner. When I ask them to tell me what is wrong in the marriage, each one predictably describes the problem using exclusively third-person pronouns. My goal is to get them to start talking more in the first-person.

It is only when each person shifts the focus to him- or herself that change becomes a possibility. We can’t control what other human beings do. We can, however, change our response. We can focus on our own problems. When both partners make this transition, a beautiful thing begins to happen. When personal ownership replaces blame-shifting, transformation becomes possible.

The applications for this are endless. Are you having a hard time finding the right church even though you are surrounded by several that preach the gospel and uphold the truth of Scripture? Maybe the problem isn’t the church. Do you struggle to cultivate meaningful friendships as an adult because everyone around you seems shallow or uninterested? Maybe the problem is not everyone around you. Are you enabling your children to look elsewhere first for the source of their problems?

The clearest application, however, has to do with the salvation of your soul. As Jesus reminds us, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). If you refuse to see that you are your own biggest problem, you remain barred from entering the clinic of the Great Physician. Salvation is only for those who need to be saved. Jesus came to save sinners.

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