The Sin of Categorizing Failures: Why Our Explanations Often Fail


We all do it. We categorize sins and failures to explain why they happened. This habit is not new. Our first parents did it. Adam and Eve knew of their choices and yet laid the blame at another’s feet.

We do it too, whether for ourselves or for others. We hear of the sins of others and provide a ready explanation.

He’s a jerk…she comes from a dysfunctional family…he has a chemical imbalance…a disease…low self-esteem…narcissism……

When we think about our own failings, we also provide simple explanations to categorize the problem:

I was tired…You made me…I forgot the Gospel…I just loved you too much…I didn’t love myself enough

Usually these explanations and categorizations fail. (Who was it who said that every complex problem has a simple, neat but wrong answer? Mencken?)

 Why do we categorize in simple but incomplete fashion? 

In short, it serves a purpose. It enables us to communicate something we find important. Yes, we may lay blame on others or remove blame from self, I don’t think that is our first or only goal. What we really want to do is point out a factor we fear is going to be missed by others.  Consider these two examples:

  1. A christian leader is revealed to have an affair. How will we categorize it? Some might focus on the impossible pressures of ministry. Others might focus on a pattern of arrogance and narcissism. Still others might focus on childhood trauma.
  2. You falsely accuse someone of wrongdoing. How will you categorize it? Talk about your history of being mistreated? Talk about misunderstanding the facts? Talk about having a demonic influence? Talk about a psychological illness?

These explanations may well carry some weight. They may be, in part, true. I would suggest that our motivations for emphasizing one reason over another has much to do with comfort. It settles matters. It avoids blame. It separates things we love from things we hate.

What to do?

When listening to our own explanations or those of others, I think it might be best to use this blog entry by Ted Haggard penned after the recent suicide of a well-known preacher and preacher’s son. You’ll recall that some years ago, Ted went through his own public hell after evidence of misconduct including same-sex activity and meth purchase was released to the public. The purpose of Haggard’s writing now is to identify false theology behind the reasons why we Christians jump to conclusions about the reason for moral failings,

In the past we would try to argue that Evangelical leaders who fall were not sincere believers, or were unrepentant, or that they did not really believe their Bibles, or were not adequately submitted. And in the midst of these arguments, we KNOW those ideas are, in some cases, rationalizations.

It is much more convenient to believe that every thought, word, and action is a reflection of our character, our spirituality, and our core. They think the Earth is flat. Everyone is either completely good or bad, everything is either white or black, and if people are sincere Christians, then they are good and their behavior should conform.

Not so. There are more grays in life than many of our modern theological positions allow. It would be easy if I were a hypocrite, Bakker was a thief, and Swaggart was a pervert. None of that is true.

Haggard then explains that the problem is that we buy too much of the legalistic view of sin/holiness (A pharasaical view) and do not apply the Gospel of repentance and faith in a fallen-in process life. Actually, he doesn’t quite spell it out what it should be but points to the fact that we too often just label our failing leaders as sinners without seeing our own sin.

True, but maybe we can do better than this. What if we

  • Listen first and validate. What does the explanation given  reveal about what you or others think or feel?

Notice this from Ted about his own scandal (all emphases are mine)

The therapeutic team that dug in on me insisted that I did not have a spiritual problem or a problem with cognitive ability, and that I tested in normal ranges on all of my mental health tests (MMPI, etc.). Instead, I had a physiological problem rooted in a childhood trauma, and as a result, needed trauma resolution therapy. I had been traumatized when I was 7 years old, but when Bill Bright led me to the Lord when I was 16, I learned that I had become a new creature, a new person, and that I did not need to be concerned about anything in my past, that it was all covered by the blood. I did become a new creation spiritually, but I have since learned that I needed some simple care that would have spared my family and I a great deal of loss and pain.

Contrary to popular reports, my core issue was not sexual orientation, but trauma. I went through EMDR, a trauma resolution therapy, and received some immediate relief and, as promised, that relief was progressive. When I explain that to most Evangelical leaders, their eyes glaze over. They just don’t have a grid for the complexity of it all. It is much more convenient to believe that every thought, word, and action is a reflection of our character, our spirituality, and our core.

Seems Ted is trying to tell us that sexual orientation doesn’t tell the whole story; sin doesn’t do the story justice. But note he calls it only a physical problem, a trauma problem. He actively rejects it as a spiritual problem. Why? His entire being had a problem. He can’t really compartmentalize himself in this way. But by emphasizing the physiological, he communicates that we Christians far too quickly just stop at the problem of the will. Ted’s problem was more than just not believing the Gospel. There were far more complex factors in his heart and life, apparently far more than Ted knew or let on to himself.

Point taken.

  •   Consider additional factors. What am I ignoring or minimizing?

Since Adam and Eve, we minimize our own failings and maximize those of others. So, if we are going to find more accurate explanations for failures, we had better acknowledge some of the (not so) little gods we have served all these years. They may not show up on a psychological exam, but we all have them.

  • We want power, prestige, control, accolades
  • We want protection, love, purpose
  • We want our weaknesses to be hidden and our strengths to be cherished by others

The problem isn’t that we want these things. Rather, it is that we fail to acknowledge that we use them to excuse, dismiss, or cover our actions from examination–from self, from God, from others.

  • Look at all the partsBe honest to self and God but look to Him for the right response.

Too often we look at self or other in all-or-nothing lenses. Either we are all victim or all perpetrator. The truth is everyone is full of parts. Part of us want holiness. Part of us want to look holy but practice sin. Part of us does a good thing to serve another and another part does the same thing to get praise. This is what the Apostle Paul speaks of in Romans 7.  Thankfully, Paul doesn’t stop with the split. He continues in chapter 8 to point us to the fact that the power of sin is broken giving us the freedom to do good and the Holy Spirit’s help.

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5 Comments

Filed under Christianity, Uncategorized

5 responses to “The Sin of Categorizing Failures: Why Our Explanations Often Fail

  1. Andrew Hartslief (Port Elizabeth South Africa)

    Reading Ted Haggert`s piece he mentions that his problem was “spiritual,” but I would assume from the context of the whole article that his use of the word “spiritual” implies “demonic forces” (as understood in the particular world view of his church ). Your use of the word “spiritual” I assume would be best defined as the “old man” within as in Romans…any comment?

    • Ted says at one point, his problem isn’t spiritual but historic trauma. Another place he does say it is spiritual (outside forces). My use of spiritual wasn’t explained well. Spiritual, to me, connotes our entire being as it relates to God. Nothing we do is ever outside spiritual. We are always acting/being before the face of God. And yes, I would mean both old and new man as Paul talks about it.

  2. D.S.

    Isn’t this a true statement?

    - every thought, word, and action is a reflection of our character, our spirituality, and our core.

  3. D.S.

    The response of someone I know, upon hearing about the sin of one of her revered spiritual leaders, was “conviction” that she should have been praying more for him. (pray for your leaders) What do you think of this response?

    *Note: the specific failing was “an affair,” more specifically, a prominent religious leader/pastor having a long-term sexual relationship with a parishioner, which began when she was under the age of consent.

    • Well, I don’t think it would be wrong to wish to pray more. But the way it is put suggests that the primary prtection is thru the prayers of the laity. How about being angry about the lack of integrity, the sexual abuse?

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