After man’s Fall, his first words to God were excuses. Adam blamed Eve; Eve blamed the serpent. On it went; still it goes. Name a behavioral decision or sin, and someone with a degree will slap a label on it. Gluttony and drunkenness? No, food disorder and alcoholism. Cutting back to live within personal or national means? No, that would be austerity measures, and we must keep the money machines going and consumer confidence high. The more guilt man feels the more excuses he makes. Excuses are guilt’s cracked shield before the Holy God. Excuses are the preferred propitiation of the gods of pride.
Even trusting in Christ and wanting to be his disciples, we often see in our own lives this self-excusing, victimization mentality. We blame circumstances to justify all manner of sins and to avoid the always uncomfortable transforming work of our Savior. Sins in our home are called “problems,” as if they are somehow more complicated than plain sin. I was born this way; or, this is my personality, so I cannot be expected to do this; or, I had bad parents, so how can I be expected to obey God and “command my household” in his ways (Gen. 18:15)? I am too tired. The list of our excuses is long and tedious. It is also paralyzing, for it prevents us from facing our sins directly and calling upon the Deliverer from sin. Is his name no longer Jesus? Does he no longer save men from their sins?
Sadly, we often make excuses to him. “Lord, if you would just change my circumstances, or make my children or spouse better.” Instead, we should simply confess our sinful responses to his providentially sent circumstances, judge our sinful selves before him, and ask him to cleanse and help us. Then, we need to trust and obey. Praying without serious effort to obey God is making excuses. It is telling the Lord, “Well, I have prayed; what are you going to do? How are you going to make this or that go away so that I do not have to deal with it, so that I am justified in remaining as I am?” True, God-honoring prayer confesses one’s sinfulness and weakness. It calls upon God for strength and asks for the Lord to change me. Then, trusting his promises, we must determine to obey him with a thankful heart, in dependence upon his promises.
Our Lord addressed more than once this tendency toward excuse-making. In his Parable of the Great Supper, he deals with business and family excuses (Luke 14:18-20). When bidden to come to the dinner, which is a symbol of his gospel call, one man declined the offer because he needed to survey some property he had just purchased. Another says that he must test five yoke of oxen he has purchased. A third man says that he is recently married and therefore cannot come. Business and family are still the two leading excuses that we make for neglecting service to God.
Business and family are legitimate responsibilities. Being a disciple does not mean we should let our families suffer or abandon our callings. These duties must be undertaken as extensions of our discipleship. We must follow Jesus Christ and his word in the way we lead and organize our homes and conduct our earthly business. In each of these areas, we must be “about our Father’s business” so that these become holy callings, living sacrifices to him. Never, however, must we use even a relationship as close as marriage to justify our neglect of God. “Well, my wife does not want to come to worship the Lord with me, so I will stay home.” Or, “He was ugly to me, so I am going to pout.” Or, “My business will suffer if I leave it alone on the Sabbath.” If these great duties of man, family and business, are illegitimate excuses for not serving the Lord, then what of the lesser things we often bring forward as excuses for not devoting ourselves to the Lord, seeking him, and rejoicing in his love? For not being with his people in worship, service, or fellowship?
Our Lord confronted other types of excuses for not being his disciple. One man came to Jesus and said, “I will follow you wherever you go” (Luke 9:57). Jesus responded: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests: but the Son of Man hath nowhere to lay his head” (v. 58). The Lord promises to provide for those who seek God’s kingdom (Matt. 6:19-34), so we cannot use the fear of not having enough or uncertainty about the future for not devoting ourselves to him. Self-denial and trust in the Lord’s faithfulness must be our main food.
Jesus commanded another man, “Follow me” (v. 59). He responded: “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” Jesus renewed the discipleship call to him: “Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God” (v. 60). This seems to be a hard saying, but we must allow for the fact that Jesus knew the divided state of this man’s heart. His call to be his disciples comes urgently to each one of us: “Come now! Devote yourself to me now! Do not look back! Allow nothing, not even the closest family ties and duties of respect to the dead to become an excuse to you to avoid the kingdom call. It is noble to serve our families in a way that promotes the Lord’s word and kingdom; it is dishonoring to the Lord and harmful to our families to use them as an excuse to withhold from the Lord some necessary service or obedience to him.
Another man promised to follow the Lord, but asked permission first to say farewell to his family (v. 61). Perhaps the Lord knew that this man’s family would pressure him to rethink his commitment. Jesus would never discourage his disciples from maintaining good family relations. But again, we must allow no family pressure to prevent us from serving the Lord. If we are household heads, then our families need instruction, love, and patient discipline so that each member becomes devoted to the Lord. Then, the family is discipled and becomes a support center for zealous discipleship and stronger churches. But never must we allow family ties to prevent our obeying the Lord’s clearly revealed will. If someone in your extended family says, “Do not waste so much time going to church, do not discipline your children, or do not tithe,” then you are duty bound to disobey, respectfully and humbly, urging your family to turn to the Lord with tears and prayers.
One aspect of the discipleship dynamic that is lacking today is this sense of duty, of Jesus’ imperative call to follow him, that I must obey my Lord or die trying. Many will scream “LAW, LAW,” whenever there is any emphasis upon duty. Smooth grace is the current fad. When we pit grace against law, we understand neither. We might as well accuse Jesus of being a legalist in the way he dealt with the excuses many made to him. Lord, you simply do not understand. I have good reasons for not following you in this area. Against this mentality, our Lord’s call comes urgently: “Follow me.” “If you know these things, you will be happy if you do them” (John 17:14). “Ye are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you” (John 15:14). What? No grace? No wiggle room for excuses?
Notice how the apostle speaks of grace. “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and fleshly lust, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world” (Titus 2:11-12). Grace teaches us godliness. Grace empowers godliness. Grace unites us to Jesus Christ so that instead of making excuses, we run to him for strength to obey him (Phil. 4:13). If grace is used as an excuse to disobey a command of God, grace ceases to be grace. It is license (Jude 4). It is a false gospel. It dishonors our Lord. He gives us grace so that we may obey him with thankful hearts.
Excuses, on the other hand, say to Jesus: “Lord, my problems are simply too great.” Or, “I cannot obey you and must fall back upon man’s wisdom to diagnose this issue.” Or, “Lord, you do not know my children, or my husband, or my boss.” Jesus Christ says to us: “I know all things. I warned you beforehand that a disciple must deny himself and take up the cross. If you will trust me, I will be your helper. I will encourage you by my Spirit to continue calling upon me.” His grace teaches us that we must make no excuse. We must come to Jesus Christ, cast our cares upon him, depend upon his promises, and move forward endeavoring to obey him. This is grace. It is the end of our excuses. When we embrace our Savior’s grace and call to discipleship, he is about to do great works in our families and congregations. Let us never think that grace gives us permission to offer him that which costs him nothing. We should live so that we shall cast crowns at his feet, trophies of his grace and strength, not excuses.