The dog ate my homework: a biblical case for avoiding excuses

To grow and move forward in our faith and life journeys, we must take responsibility and stop making excuses.

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I was reading 1 Samuel the other day, when something stood out to me. It was an excuse. Blatant and obvious as a dog eating your homework (although I’m assured that this has in fact happened), there it was, the first king of Israel, making an excuse. 

Israel’s enemy, the Philistines, were building up an army to threaten Israel. King Saul, after some early success in his kingship, can feel the pressure building as well. He sees his people becoming demoralised at the size of the opposition against them. Morale is waning and people are sneaking away. 

So he decides to take matters into his own hands. Rather than waiting for the prophet Samuel, as he has been instructed, he chooses to perform the priestly duties himself. Samuel asks Saul “what have you done?” Perhaps Samuel’s voice is laced with disappointment or anger. In whatever tone he used, Saul knew he was in the wrong. 

“Saul replied, ‘I saw my men scattering from me, and you didn’t arrive when you said you would, and the Philistines are at Micmash ready for battle. So I said, “The Philistines are ready to march against us at Gilgal, and I haven’t even asked for the LORD’s help!” So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering myself before you came’”(1 Samuel 13:11,12). 

King Saul is caught doing something he should not be doing and his first response is to blame the person who called him out. It is an unfortunately common reaction to attack those who keep us accountable, to try to shift the blame back to them (or at least deflect it onto someone else).

It reminded me of some other significant finger-pointing moments in the Bible. The first one happens on the earliest pages. In the beginning, the man blames the woman, and the woman blames the snake. Instead of trying to salvage their relationship with God and each other, the couple fall to discordance and blame avoidance (read Genesis 3).

Another prominent excuse-maker actually comes from a family of excuse makers. Moses makes some excuses when God tries to call him—five times he tries various ways to get out of his calling in the burning bush scene. But I want to focus on his brother, Aaron. There is a difference between making excuses through lack of confidence and making excuses when confronted with wrongdoing. When approached by Moses, Aaron starts by blaming the people (Exodus 32). Aaron made legitimate arguments that he was under duress. But then he says something rather miraculous. That the gold was thrown into the fire and “out came the calf”. This excuse takes the cake. Why did he feel the need to make up a story about the supernatural origin of the idol? Exodus’ author has already shown us that Aaron “made” the idol, “cast” it into the shape of a cow and fashioned it “with a tool”. He then took it a step further, perhaps in a misguided attempt to give the honour to God, by building an altar as well as the idol. 

It’s human nature to try to worm our way out of trouble when it finds us. We attack, deflect, shift the blame, even try to confuse or attribute miraculous or divine intervention to our motives and rationales. Yet, all of this is just avoiding taking responsibility for our choices and actions. A real mark of spiritual maturity is to accept accountability (especially when it comes from a respected spiritual leader like Moses or Samuel, or the words of God Himself) and walk a path of confession and repentance if necessary. 

Spiritual growth can only come as our characters are refined to look more like Jesus. This can only happen if we are willing to abandon our rationalisations and justifications of our behaviours and decisions, as the Holy Spirit (or Holy Spirit led individuals) are able to point out where we have erred. A word of warning: Be careful claiming for yourself the title of “Holy Spirit led” and using that to justify telling others where they have fallen short. 

These biblical examples of excuses highlight these characters’ deeper disconnection from God. To grow and move forward in our faith and life journeys, we must take responsibility and stop making excuses.