Reasons, excuses and a broken watch

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During my short time as a professional athlete, I discovered that some of the best philosophers and counselors I ever encountered were coaches. Once in a film session after losing a game, a certain player was describing in detail why he was in the wrong place and failed to carry out his assignment. He waxed eloquent for a few minutes and after he stopped talking, the coach paused and said. “Your reasons for not catching the pass were understandable, logical and well argued, but you have no excuses. Your ultimate reason for failing was that in your own heart, you believed you knew better than everyone else on your team.” There was silence in the room. The coach had identified the ultimate reason our team lost the game. What our coach did was differentiate between what philosophers call “proximate” and “ultimate” reasons. The proximate reason for our team losing was the other team played better and scored more touchdowns. The ultimate reason was one player made a personal decision to disregard his agreement with the rest of the team for all of us to execute our tasks according to plan. The coach made sure to drive home the point, that it was not a lack of talent, ability, or opportunity. It was ultimately a choice.

Another philosopher comes to mind regarding proximate and ultimate reasons. William Paley made famous, the popular “watchmaker argument” for the existence of God. His illustration was that if he was walking through a field and came upon a perfect watch lying on the path and working in perfect order, you could logically infer that there existed somewhere, a watchmaker who created it. He then applied that same argument to the existence of orderly and working human beings and ultimately an orderly and working universe.

What does all this have to do with homelessness and addiction? A few weeks ago I was in downtown Visalia early in the morning to meet with some of my board members for breakfast.  I arrived in the parking lot about a half hour early to do some reading while I was waiting for my friends to show up. I looked up and saw a young disheveled bearded man with a shopping cart filled with filthy junk. He was screaming at his cart and kicking at it, and then would bury his face in is hands weeping and moaning loudly. I recognized him as an occasional guest in our overnight shelter. I walked up to him and asked if I could help him and he recognized me. With tears running down his face, and snot dripping out his nose, he smiled and said he was just fine, and that he was just singing a rap song he heard on the radio once.  We both knew he was lying. My heart was aching as I walked away. I said out loud to no one in particular, “he’s like a broken watch. All the parts are there, just disordered and not working.”

There are all kinds of reasons people are broken. Maybe trauma, abuse, personal disaster, disease, yet we have no excuses before God for the way we often behave. The proximate reasons for my homeless friend being broken were likely most of the above.  The Bible says the ultimate reason for human brokenness is sin; not only in my homeless and addicted friend, but in all of us. There are no excuses for sin. A theologian friend of mine once said, “Sin can never be excused, but it can be forgiven! In forgiveness, somebody else always pays, just not you.” This is why Jesus died. He paid in order to forgive, but not excuse our sin.