Genes may be to blame for marital infidelity. A professor at a London hospital
caused a storm by suggesting this, even though he stopped short of saying that such
a gene had been positively identified and added that social factors could also be
Human beings have always been good at blame-shifting, and many married people with
wandering eyes would love to be able to claim, ‘It wasn’t me; it was my genes that
made me unfaithful.’ Blame-shifting, in fact, has one of the world’s oldest pedigrees.
It dates back to Eden. Adam’s reply, when God challenged him about the forbidden
fruit, was, ‘The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree,
and I ate it.’ It was all Eve’s fault. So God challenged Eve, who replied, ‘The serpent
deceived me, and I ate.’ It was all the serpent’s fault. And when God addressed
the serpent, the poor creature hadn’t a leg to stand on.
The pattern has continued ever since: it’s always the fault of someone or something
else. An American pastor of Italian extraction told me, ‘I committed adultery. So
what? I’m Italian!’ In my school-teaching days I often broke up fights in the playground,
and both parties would protest, sometimes in unison, ‘It wasn’t me, sir; it was him,
sir!’ The variations are endless: ‘I’m on cocaine because my Mum forced me to use
the potty too early.’ ‘My anti-social behaviour is because society has let me down.’
‘Yes, I get violent. It’s my foul temper. I get it from my Dad. He was Irish and
had red hair.’ And now we have a new option: ‘I was unfaithful to my husband/wife
because I’ve inherited the unfaithfulness gene.’
Some of these factors may help explain certain behaviour, but they certainly don’t
excuse it. Godly people in every age have known this, including the prophet Ezekiel.
He lived at the time when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came against little Judah,
a nation he went on to destroy in stages over ten years. Ezekiel himself had been
taken to Babylon in 597 BC with the first wave of exiles, aged 25. It was there that
he prophesied to them. At that stage Jerusalem and the Temple remained intact. It
was only when the puppet-king in Jerusalem rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar that Babylonian
troops came and sacked city and Temple alike.
The exiles in Babylon could not at first believe that the Temple would fall and Jerusalem
be destroyed, but Ezekiel insisted they would. Eventually, accepting the truth of
his message, they lost all hope for the future. Pessimism set in and, with it, blame-shifting.
They blamed the previous generation of Jews for provoking this disaster by their
sins, and they obliquely blamed God. He was unjust, they said, to punish them for
the sins of previous generations. A proverb was doing the rounds: ‘The parents eat
sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
Maybe these Jews found a proof-text for their view in God’s own declaration: ‘I,
the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents
to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand
generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.’ If so we could remind
them that the thousand-generation extent of God’s love far exceeds three or four
generations of punishment. And in any case the ‘third and fourth generation’ are
punished because they, too, ‘hate me’—so it’s not all the parents’ fault. Another
mitigating factor is that while people may suffer as a result of the sins of previous
generations, no Old Testament passage teaches that they will perish as a result of
Ezekiel may have said all these things to the up-tight Jews of his day. But the key
point he made to them was that while the society aspect of deserving punishment is
important, God deals ultimately with the individual. That is his message in Chapter
18, which you should stop and read right through at this point.
God couldn’t say it any more clearly, and there are some vital lessons in this chapter
for us today. The first one is that we must not accuse God of being unjust.
The Jews were making exactly such an accusation—and more. ‘If we’re doomed because
of the sins of our ancestors’, they complained, ‘there’s no point in bothering about
our own behaviour because we’ll get clobbered anyway. God is simply unfair.’
God will certainly seem to us to be unjust at times, but that’s because of our limited
perspective. I think of a lady missionary I knew, dedicated to serving the people
of Africa. At the peak of her powers and active service she got cancer and died.
Where’s the justice in that, especially when some wicked time-wasters live long and
prosperous lives? I don’t know. I can’t see it. But I dare not accuse God of injustice,
since he is altogether bigger than me and has a totally different angle on things.
As Elihu correctly observed, ‘It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the
Almighty would pervert justice’.
Much of the suffering we see and feel, of course, comes simply from being part of
a fallen creation. But God must have known that the pain of fallenness would be worth
the ultimate glory that he has planned. You need to believe that. It’s not easy,
but it’s essential. And if you are tempted to accuse God of being unjust, repent!
That is Ezekiel’s message to the Jewish exiles, and to you.
A second lesson we can learn from him is that in our challenging and difficult circumstances
we must discern God’s grace.
The people of Judah were suffering the pain of exile, true, but this was in fact
God’s grace to them, said Ezekiel. For they would at least live! They were not back
in Jerusalem, where death for the besieged inhabitants was certain. Of course the
exiles would never have chosen their current circumstances, but God, with his higher
perspective, really did have their good in mind. This turning of tragedy into triumph
seems to be a crucial principle of God’s dealings in general. What was more cruel
than the cross of Christ? Yet nothing brought greater blessing. How tragic that persecution
scattered the first believers in Jerusalem. But how wonderful that, once scattered,
they spread the word and the gospel prospered more than it could have done had they
I have to admit that my most painful times have proved, in the longer term, the most
enriching. God’s grace always lurks in the shadows. What are your own difficult and
challenging circumstances at present? Whatever they are, God is working in them for
your ultimate good and blessing, whether you get to see it in this life or only in
One summer I saw a young mother with her baby in the local park. The baby was at
the stage of being able to crawl and wanting to touch everything, and suddenly it
took off, its eyes fixed on something sparkling in the grass nearby. Then I saw the
mother leap to her feet ahead of the baby, pick up whatever it was and thrown it
in a litter-bin. ‘It was a piece of broken glass,’ she explained to me. Her baby
did not appreciate her action. It set to wailing in frustration. But had the mother
tried to explain that her action was motivated by nothing but love and her child’s
welfare, the infant would not have understood. God is like that with you.
A third lesson from Ezekiel 18 is that righteousness as a way of life is a choice—and
so is wickedness. You’re responsible. You, and you alone, choose whether righteousness
or wickedness will be your lifestyle. And that goes for the times when you are hurt
and feel God has been unjust. You decide whether to give way to bitterness or praise
Through Ezekiel God talks about people making the choice to turn from good to evil,
or vice versa. He isn’t saying that the good person never makes the occasional slip,
or that the bad person never does the occasional good deed. But he is saying that
you yourself determine whether to live a good or a bad life overall, and that you
will be judged accordingly. The choice is yours. If you have never made a conscious
decision to live righteously before God, it’s never too late to do so, and to say
with Joshua, ‘If serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves
this day whom you will serve… But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’
A fourth lesson from Ezekiel, especially in light of the New Testament truth subsequently
revealed, is that salvation is by grace, not works—but we are to co-operate with
Some would say that Ezekiel’s message is a typical Old Testament black-and-white,
salvation-by-works message. But the New Testament pushes all that aside, they add,
by showing that we are saved by grace alone, received by faith. But the difference
between the testaments is not as great as we sometimes imagine. There are more than
a few New Testament statements to the effect that our works will govern our final
destiny. I’m thinking of passages like Romans 2:5-10, Matthew 16:27 and Revelation
22:12. The point is, of course, that a genuine experience of God’s grace will inevitably
find expression in righteous living. A genuine apple tree will produce apples. The
fruit is the indicator that ‘appleness’ is the tree’s essential nature.
A genuine believer will always produce good works. And God invites you to co-operate
with him in their production. His life inside you, your new sanctified nature as
God’s child and the power of the Holy Spirit will get the fruit going. But if you
are a wise farmer you will take some commonsense actions to boost the output in the
orchard of your own life. You could, for instance, do a spot of judicious pruning-back
of appetites that may have got a bit out of hand. You could take action to deal with
the insect-pests that can spoil the fruit—pests like bad attitudes, bitterness and
pride. You could dig some fertiliser into the soil: some prayer, time with God, mediation
on the Scriptures and sound Christian company. God won’t do that for you; it’s a
DIY job. You’re responsible!
Peter is clear about this. It’s not a case of sitting back and letting God’s grace
do everything. He talks about the need for you to ‘make every effort’ to ‘add to’
the virtuous fruit in your life so that these good qualities mark your character
‘in increasing measure’. This way, you will ‘confirm your calling and election.’
Are you doing that?
In saying, ‘You’re responsible’ I’m simply saying what Ezekiel made clear to the
Jewish exiles in Babylon: that such choices are a matter between each individual
and God. They would stand or fall on their personal choice of righteousness or wickedness.
They couldn’t legitimately blame anyone else for their own failures. It was true
then, and it is true now: ‘Each one of us will give an account of himself to God.’
The blame-shifting that began in Eden will have no place in the new Eden of the age
to come. Revelation 22 portrays that age as paradise restored, a return to Eden.
The tree of life will be there, and so will the life-giving water. And so will God’s
disapproval of blame-shifting. You will not be able to blame a failure to pursue
righteousness on your parents—or lack of parents; your upbringing; the person who
gave that phoney prophecy that you believed and acted on with disastrous consequences;
the falling stock market; someone who abused you sexually, verbally, mentally or
physically; your genes; the doctor who persuaded you to have an abortion; your circumstances;
the easiness of getting credit cards; the geography teacher who showed you up in
front of the class; finding the body of someone who had committed suicide; the bully
at school or work; the con merchant who diddled you out of your money; the person
who spiked your drink; the Christian leader who let you down.
In the end what matters is not what happened but how you choose to react to it. Any
of the above, and more, may help explain some of the problems you have faced but
they can never excuse a failure to put things behind you and press on with God. That
means you. That means now.
God was gracious to the exiles in Babylon. He would not hit them hard for anyone
else’s sins. Each of them could make a choice to be right with God or to be at odds
with him. How much more gracious has he been to you! Are you a genuine Christian?
Then respond to God’s grace by tending the ‘apple tree’ that is your life to ensure
that the fruit it bears is the very best—for him.
This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous
buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in
the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.
The gist of this article
When we’re in trouble it is all too easy to blame somebody or something else. That’s
what the exiles in Babylon were saying: ‘Our ancestors displeased God and now it’s
we who are suffering.’ But God says, ‘No. It’s between you and me.’
1. Prof Tim Spector of St Thomas’s Hospital, London, in a BBC news report in November
2. Genesis 1:12-13
mentations 1:1; 5:16
3. Ezekiel 18:2. The Message renders it: ‘The parents ate green apples, the children