“But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ (Luke 14:20-22)” An excuse is a justification for not doing what you are called to do, or not fulfilling a commitment that you’ve made. When the value expected or promised by one is not delivered, there’s a choice; to seek an explanation or offer an excuse. An explanation can start people back onto the road to growth. It seeks to account for what happened or what didn’t. It looks to make the reasons for what happened clear and understandable. In that way, a failure becomes an opportunity to learn a chance to succeed. For many people, however their response to falling short of their goals is to make an excuse. The excuse may or may not be dressed up as an explanation, but fundamentally an excuse is something very different. An excuse is a plea in defense of some action or behavior. Its goal is to obtain a release from an obligation or duty. They are designed to protect the individual who isn’t delivering. Like termites eating away at the internal structure of a building, excuses undermine the efforts to fulfill the one’s obligations.
As a critical aspect of spiritual formation I find it helpful to focus on strengthening a person’s “spiritual muscles.” An essential aspect of anyone’s spiritual development lies in a person’s self-control. There are two equally important elements. One element is the ability to make yourself do what you should do, even when you don’t want to, because it is the right thing to do. The other is the ability to stop yourself from doing something that you want to do because that is not the right thing to do. Both of these abilities require practice and a focused discipline. Building ones “muscles” on the little choices of daily living gives people the strength to resist the bigger temptations when they present themselves. Excuses leave us weak and vulnerable to temptation.
As John (15:22) has said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.” Excuses are corrosive to the strong practice of faith. If we work to exhibit the seven cardinal virtues in our lives, a shortfall, followed by an excuse, simply seeks to justify our failure. “I didn’t take this or that opportunity to love my neighbor as myself because she is really different than me.” It’s not my fault. “I didn’t share from my larder because the person begging for my help was probably just lazy and looking for a hand out.
What happens when we accept our own excuses, or when a pastor accepts excuses from the congregation?
- Legitimizes personal failure – The simple fact that excuses are accepted means that failure is allowed, as long as one has a good excuse.People find that it takes less effort to generate a good excuse than to generate a good solution to a difficult situation.Once failure is legitimized, in this way, it becomes contagious and very hard to reverse.
- Creates a culture of blaming – In relationships or in communities, finding someone to blame for your shortfalls often creates enough confusion and uncertainty that no one is held accountable.People don’t address or solve relationship problems, because they are too valuable as future excuses.
- Invalidates personal responsibility – An excuse says, “It’s not my fault; someone or something else is responsible for my failure.It implies that the person doesn’t have it within his or her power to get the job done.
- Weakens collaboration – When excuses absolve people of personal responsibility for their results, committees or teams falter. A few people, those most invested in the outcome, will do most or all of the work and others fade away.
So, on a personal or congregational level, accepting excuses inevitably leads to an erosion of the values we aspire to live by. Hold yourself accountable. Hold your congregation to its responsibility to live its faith. “To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59-62)