Leave the Circle

F. Burton Howard
From an address delivered in April 1991 general conference.
It’s called “pin the blame on the next guy.” Trouble is, this is a game everyone loses.

In a school yard game young boys form a circle, and one hits another on the shoulder and says, “Pass it on.” The one who receives the blow transmits it to the next in line and says, “Pass it on.” The third promptly punches a fourth, and so on, as each in succession, by “passing it on,” tries to rid himself of his pain, and the responsibility for it, by inflicting it on another.

Many of us are like these schoolboys. Perhaps without realizing it, we continue to play the same childish game and risk far more than a bruised shoulder in the process. Unwillingness to accept responsibility for and consequences of one’s actions is an all-too-common condition in today’s world.

Who has not heard of the drunken driver who sues his host for allowing him to get drunk, or the accident victim who claims damages from the physician who tries to help him? Perpetrators of the most horrible crimes often plead innocent by reason of insanity or claim they are victims of society’s ills.

The habit of shifting the burden of guilt onto someone else has even more serious consequences in a spiritual setting. Cain, who murdered his brother, blamed God. “I was wroth,” he said, “for his offering thou didst accept and not mine” (Moses 5:38). Laman and Lemuel blamed Nephi for nearly all their troubles (see 1 Ne. 16:35–38). Pilate blamed the Jews, but he permitted the crucifixion of the Savior (see Luke 23:4, also Matt. 27:24).

Today the practice continues. We hear at every hand phrases such as, “Everybody does it,” or “It wasn’t really my fault.” The second great commandment (to love our neighbor as ourself—see Matt. 22:35–40) is broken routinely by those who say, “He started it,” or “She deserved it.”

When faced with the consequences of transgression, many of us tend to blame someone else. Rather than getting out of a vicious and senseless circle, we blame our neighbor for our pain and try to pass it on. But to repent we must leave the circle.

The first step in repentance has always been simply to recognize that we have done wrong. If we are so proud that we can’t admit we are part of the problem, we are in trouble. We then may not even know of our need to repent. We will have no idea whether the Lord is pleased with us or not and may become “past feeling” (1 Ne. 17:45).

“We believe that men will be punished for their own sins” (A of F 1:2). This not only means we will not be punished for what Adam did, but also that we cannot excuse our own behavior by pointing a finger to Adam or anyone else. Misconduct without repentance may seem pleasant at first, but it will not be for long. And it will never lead us to eternal life.

Just as foolish as believing we can “pass it on” is the idea expressed by the phrase, “The end justifies the means.” Such a belief can also impede the repentance process and cheat us out of exaltation. Those who teach it are almost always attempting to excuse the use of improper or questionable means. Such people seem to be saying, “My purpose was to do good or to be happy; therefore any little lie or misrepresentation, or lapse of integrity, or violation of law along the way is justified.”

In certain circumstances, some say it is “okay” to conceal the truth, to dig just a small pit for your neighbor, to pursue an advantage of some kind—such as superior knowledge or position—against another. “This is just common practice,” they say, or “I’m just looking after Number One.” But if the means which prompt the saying of these things are wrong, no amount of verbal whitewash can ever make them right.

To those who believe otherwise, Nephi said: “Yea, and there shall be many which shall teach after this manner, false and vain and foolish doctrines, and shall be puffed up in their hearts, and shall seek deep to hide their counsels from the Lord” (2 Ne. 28:9). The truth is, we are judged by the means we employ and not just by the ends we may hope to obtain. In Doctrine and Covenants 137:9 we read, “For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desires of their hearts.” [D&C 137:9]

Even if the goal is good, it would be a personal calamity to look beyond the mark and fail to repent of any wrong we do along the way.

Of course we have the right to strive for happiness. But as we do we should pause every now and then and look to ourselves. We should remember that “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). The sweet peace the gospel brings never comes at all when we justify our misconduct or blame others for our unhappiness. But there is a way out. We need only remember a pointless, irresponsible childhood game, and quietly walk away. Face up, quit, get out, confess, apologize, admit the harm we have done, and just plain walk away.

So to those, including myself, who from time to time have said, “I am not at fault—I was compelled by circumstances to do what I did,” I say, “That may be so, but there is grave danger here. If there is any doubt at all, let us simply repent.” Then we can turn to the Lord, and through his atonement, seek forgiveness for our sins.

[photos] Photography by Jed Clark