I recently saw an advertisement for a book about relationships and conflict. It had the intriguing title: People are Never the Problem. Wow. What a thought-provoking and heart-searching concept. In fact, for me, it was a convicting moment. This conviction, however, was just beginning. A few minutes later I noted an email in my inbox from the ministry of Paul Tripp. In his attached article, “External Change,” Tripp highlighted again that, when it comes to our sin, other people are really never the problem. At that point, I surrendered to the Lord’s gracious, ceaseless and needful word of chastening. Indeed, my sinful responses in this life are my responsibility and mine alone. It was a message that I needed to hear and heed. And I trust that it will prove to be a continued stimulus to increasing sanctification.
All too often I assume that if so-and-so was not in “my way” then I would be so much happier and even holier. But of course that is precisely the problem. “My way” is not the issue. At least, it shouldn’t be. God uses people and circumstances to shape and sharpen me. But all too often I am guilty of a sharp response. I pray that the lessons I am learning will go a long way towards blunting my natural (read: sinful) response and rather that God will sharpen my spiritual perception to see that He is at work in my life through the life of another.
Today marks a 35th spiritual birthday for me. It was on this day, as a first-year Varsity student, that the Lord graciously brought me to Himself and set me on a new path. I have often wandered from that path and, more times than I care to confess, have failed to obey Him. Yet He continues to grow me, and I have the promise that one day I will be like Jesus Christ with a glorified character and conduct. I long for that day. But until then I need to face life with the daily resolve to respond righteously to the trials and temptations that I encounter. A huge part of that righteous response is to take responsibility for myself and stop blaming others. As the Lord is so mercifully and tenaciously teaching me, people are never the problem. Rather, it is this person (me) who is the problem!
Paul Tripp has said this so well that I would be foolish to try and explain it using my own words. Please read to great personal profit and to greater corporate harmony and holiness.
You’re a natural born expert in self-defence. I don’t mean that you have a belt in mixed martial arts. No, I mean that you and I have the compulsive tendency to always justify ourselves when accused.
Adam is the first human being to master the art. When God asks if he ate the forbidden fruit, his response is to justify: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12)
Adam does admit to wrongdoing, but not before declaring himself innocent. God is the guilty party, making a mistake by placing Eve in the garden with him, and Eve too is a guilty party, providing Adam with the fruit. When the same question is posed to Eve, she declares herself innocent and pins the blame on the serpent.
Adam and Eve are the innovators of what I call self-atoning externalism. In other words, whenever we’re accused of violating God’s standard, our immediate reaction is to find something, or someone, to blame. “Had it not been for __________ [fill in the blank], we would have never stumbled into sin.”
I had a mother communicate this with such clarity. She said, “I know that the Bible says ‘a soft answer turns away wrath, and a harsh word stirs up anger,’ but whoever wrote that didn’t have my children!” What’s her logic? If it wasn’t for rebellious and disorderly children, she would be an otherwise righteous woman.
The Bible portrays a different reality, using David as its spokesperson. He says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5). Instead of atoning for his sin by blaming external factors, David humbly admits that his sinful heart caused his moral failing.
Had David had followed in the footsteps of Adam and Eve, he would have written something like this: “The woman whom you put on the roof, she was naked and beautiful, and I committed adultery.” It seems absurd when we hear someone else say it, but it’s what you and I do every day.
Husbands and wives, your spouse is not the cause of your moral failing—your own sinful heart is. Parents, your kids are not the cause of your moral failing—your own sinful heart is. Pastors, your congregations are not the cause of your moral failing –your own sinful heart is. Christian, this fallen world and the difficulties in it are not the cause of your moral failing—your own sinful heart is.
This is so important to understand: changing your external situations and relationships won’t change you. If you want to see lasting change and personal transformation, you can’t start externally. Instead, like David, we need to start with the iniquity in our own heart.
If the Bible’s description is accurate, then God’s grace is our only hope. Changing our environment won’t help, so each one of us needs grace—grace that’s not only big enough to rescue us from our sin, but also powerful enough to free us from the self-atoning prison of our own righteousness. Cry out for that grace today and watch the Lord provide in abundance.
Thank you, Paul, for reminding us that, though people are never the problem, yet the gospel of the grace of God is always the solution. So preach it to yourself—and watch the change.