A government minister taking responsibility? Resigning without being forced out? Hard to believe! Not exactly unprecedented, but very rare. On 31 January Lord Bates, the international development minister, resigned when he arrived late for work in the House of Lords. The Conservative peer sparked confusion when he gave an apology for not being on time to answer questions from the dispatch box, having missed a question from a Labour peer. According to press reports, Lord Bates commented, ‘I have always believed we should rise to the highest possible standards of courtesy and respect in responding on behalf of the Government to the legitimate questions of the legislature. I am thoroughly ashamed of not being in my place and therefore I shall be offering my resignation to the Prime Minister with immediate effect.’ His reaction was met with amazement and cries of ‘No!’ One Labour peer suggested that an apology would have been adequate to address the issue. Most present agreed.
We have no mandate to comment on the motivation for Lord Bates’ action. He resigned dramatically in 2016 to undertake a solo 2,000 mile walk from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro, so perhaps it’s something in the blood. Not our business. But a minister taking responsibility for failing to reach what he believes are the proper standards for a minister most certainly is.
We do not live in a society where taking responsibility is common. More often we meet with blame-shifting, prevarication, finger-pointing, flat-out denial. At school it starts with ‘It wasn’t me, sir’ and goes on from there. Whatever goes wrong, it is somebody else’s fault, or something else’s fault – my environment, my education, my parents, the government, the stars – you name it, someone claims it. One thing is sure – it’s not my fault.
Not new is it? Ancient, in fact. ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate’ (Genesis 3:12). When confronted by God regarding the first human sin, Adam’s response was to try (in vain) to shift blame onto Eve and, implicitly, onto God himself. If he had done a better job, it seems, Adam would not have ended up in the predicament he now faced. Eve learned fast and tried to dump blame entirely on the serpent. None of it fooled the Lord as the succeeding verses show. Every guilty party was called to account and received a just sentence.
We are in no better position. Refusing to take responsibility for our sins simply does not work. God is not fooled and still calls us to account. Worse still, refusing to take responsibility actually closes off the one route to a solution. If we will not face up to the reality of the disease, we will never seek or accept the cure. Most of us have met people who, although seriously ill, insist that ‘I’m fine’ and act accordingly. They will never seek the necessary treatment since they do not believe there is anything wrong with them. People die proclaiming, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.’
For sinners, in fact, the situation is even worse. The sinner asserts ‘I am alive’ when in fact he is dead. How much worse, and how much more foolish, could it be? Denying responsibility for sin precludes seeking the salvation God has provided in Christ crucified and risen. That was David’s experience in Psalm 32. He recalls, ‘For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long’ (verse 3). Even his body was severely affected. The solution? Instead of ‘covering’ his sin, he confessed it to the Lord. ‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity’ (verse 5). The result was cleansing and forgiveness – ‘you forgave the iniquity of my sin’.
That is the heart of the gospel. True repentance – taking responsibility for our sin as an offence against God – opens the way to the lifting of the burden of guilt and healing of the whole person. Rightly David sang, ‘Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’ (verse 1). Until we take responsibility, that door remains firmly closed.