Once, when I was a bored teenager, I invented a challenge for myself. I was selling Christmas trees on our family’s Christmas tree farm, and in between dragging, shaking, baling, and lashing long trees on short hatchback roofs, I found myself with nothing to do. There I was, standing beside the chainsaws and stump trimmings, idle and young. Trouble brewing.
“Hey,” I said to my friend and coworker. “Wanna bet that I can throw this little tree stump over the gift shop?”
Customers often asked us to make a fresh cut on the bottom of the tree so that it would take up water better and last longer in the stand. This meant an accumulation of odd slices of stump lying about, some with a scraggle of lower branches. Just then, those stumps looked like perfect track-and-field material to me. Who’s up for the hammer throw?
“I don’t know,” said my friend. “Maybe you shouldn’t.”
That was encouragement enough for me. I took my stump by the branch, testing its weight and balance. And then I windmilled it with my arm and snapped it through the air toward the gift shop roof.
It had a lovely arc, but not enough height. Instead of sailing cleanly over the roof, it collided with the side of the shop with a mighty thunk. Epic fail. It was a little less Robin Hood and more Thor’s hammer than I had hoped.
I didn’t really answer. How do you explain something like that? Instead, I pointed to my friend and said, “He did it!” That wiped the grin off his face.
This is pretty much the universal human response. Don’t blame me. This sort of thing has been going on since the beginning of time, since back when God asked Adam if he had eaten from the forbidden fruit, and Adam responded “The woman you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Gen. 3:12). In other words: “She did it!”
She did it. He did it. Somebody else did it. We aren’t always the best at taking responsibility for our actions. I’ve found that taking responsibility is hardest when the mistake has to do with our identity, with something that matters to us. It’s hardest when our mistake calls into question our judgement or rightness or deeply held beliefs. Rather than facing up to the fact that we’ve made a mistake, most of us prefer to dig in–or blame somebody else.
Yet the Scriptures remind us that our identity doesn’t come from our capacity to make all the right choices. Our identity comes from God’s mercy meeting us in our brokenness. God chose us first, knowing our exquisite imperfections, mistakes, and sins. We’re children of God now, in spite of all that (1 John 3:2).
Being a child of God grants us a very powerful freedom: the freedom to confess and say we’re sorry. We messed up. Mea culpa. That’s a very precious freedom.
And about that stump throwing: ten minutes later I confessed to my mother and exonerated my friend. I did it.