Look upon my adversity and misery and forgive me all my sin. (Psalm 25:17)
Cyclist Lance Armstrong made headlines last week when he publicly acknowledged, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, that he had used illegal drugs to help him win a record seven Tour de France races and other events. Armstrong's statements end years of denials and lawsuits contesting efforts by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to prove that he had used illegal drugs to achieve his victories. His comments are a window into the human psyche.
First, Armstrong's public remarks appeared to fall short of the requirements for a genuine and healthy spiritual confession. Commentators consistently described Armstrong as a man whose pride inhibited him from taking full responsibility for his actions. Perhaps most significantly, he expressed little responsibility for having bullied his staff into helping him and his teammates into using the illegal drugs with him.
Personal responsibility is an unpopular concept. Accepting culpability for one's actions generally depends upon having some degree of personal responsibility. Scholars from various disciples are asking important philosophical and scientific questions about the degree to which humans can actually exercise choice. Pundits and other opinion makers have turned that issue into a bandwagon, pointing to mitigating factors that range from genetics to environment, as reasons why a person – including Armstrong – may not be fully responsible for his or her actions. Typically, nobody knows, perhaps cannot know, the degree to which he or she is personally responsible for actions.
Nevertheless, real confession requires accepting personal responsibility. Pointing a finger elsewhere may unhelpfully shift the locus of responsibility from self to another. Conversely, accepting too much personal responsibility by attributing too little influence to genetics or other factors has only one potential downside: accepting a disproportionate amount of guilt.
Guilt for having erred can be a powerful motivator for change. The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, assures people that God forgives the repentant sinner all sins, great and small (incidentally, other religious scriptures offer similar assurance). Who is a person – God's creature – to hold onto sin that God has forgiven or to wallow in guilt instead of accepting God's healing embrace?
Our current age's discomfort with guilt is partially a result of the Victorian age's misguided emphasis on guilt and the unlikeliness (if not impossibility) of forgiveness. Series 3 of Downton Abbey, broadcast on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre this season, features a former housemaid who became unemployable and so turned to prostitution to support herself after having had a child out of wedlock. Neither she nor the other characters – both upstairs and down – can forgive her for what she has done. This clearly distorts biblical teaching. Jesus forgave the woman charged with adultery that his opponents brought to him. The prophet Hosea married a prostitute.
Yet, trying to eliminate guilt is unhelpful and unscriptural. To some extent, major or minor, individuals are responsible for their actions. Taking more rather than less responsibility seems to promote healthier, more abundant living. Dealing forthrightly with mistakes and the attendant guilt also promotes healthy, more abundant living. No sin, no wrong, is unforgivable. (The Bible labels only one sin unforgivable, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit; this phrase denotes a person consistently and persistently refusing to harken to God moving in her or his life, in which case God's forgiveness is impossible because the person refuses to accept God's life-giving, transformative love.)
Second, genuine confession opens the door to transforms guilt from an emotion that blocks growth and inhibits relationships into a catalyst for deeper, more genuine relationships and personal development. Armstrong told his thirteen-year-old son to stop defending him. What Armstrong, at least in public statements, has not done is explain to his thirteen-year-old son that he had erred and the importance of taking responsibility for one's actions. By modeling genuine confession, Armstrong could have established a deeper relationship with his son and been a better father by being a catalyst for his son's moral development.
Third, genuine confession leads, when feasible, to atoning actions. Atonement means attempting to set things right. Sometimes this is impossible, e.g., the one injured has died or refuses to communicate with the offending party. Many times atonement requires thinking creatively: how can the one who has erred make reparations to the injured, either directly (payment for theft or injury) or indirectly (help others to avoid the same error)? Too often Christianity wrongly downplays the importance of atonement, or even focuses exclusively on Jesus having atoned for all sin. The various Twelve Step movements (Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.) have attempted to correct this distortion with their eighth and ninth steps that direct an individual to make amends to anyone injured, except when doing so will cause further harm. Intriguingly, the Twelve Step programs incorporate this emphasis on making amends even though they concurrently teach that addiction is a disease rather than moral failure, i.e., take personal responsibility for the consequences of actions attributable to disease rather than sin.
Fourth, genuine confession entails repentance, i.e., a change in life. Hypocrites do the opposite. They apologize, express regret for their actions by saying sorry, and then continue to act as before. The genuinely repentant person engages in a good faith effort to change their behavior, even if the change is slow and inconsistent. Repentance frequently has multiple dimensions, including living one day or moment at a time, seeking help and support from others for the journey, starting over numerous times, etc.
Lance Armstrong achieved much of his success as a cyclist because he refused to accept failure. Had he confined his behavior to the legal and ethical, refraining from using banned drugs and bullying others into cooperating with his illicit acts, I think that he would still have achieved considerable success. Maybe he would only have won the Tour de France once instead of seven times. Maybe he would only have earned hundreds of thousands instead of tens of millions from product endorsements. But he would have avoided the humiliation and scandal of being a cheat.
What's next for Armstrong? Will he overcome his pride and make a genuine confession that will transform guilt into constructive atonement and healthy amendment of life? Or, will his pride and remarkable perseverance block his development as a human, inhibit his relationship with his children and others, and prevent him from becoming a positive role model for generations of athletes and others?