A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

If you’ve had a toddler in your house at any time in the past 40 years you’ve probably heard of Alexander. His terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is the topic of an award-winning children’s book that teaches kids how to cope when they have one of those days when everything goes wrong. Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair, gets pushed in the mud, is forced to eat lima beans for dinner and watches a favorite marble go down the drain during bath-time. Alexander decides to move to Australia until his mother explains that everyone has bad days, even people who live in Australia.


Alexander’s mom is right, isn’t she? We all have bad days. On those days when we have the reverse Midas touch–everything we touch turns to crap–we can choose to react with grace and equanimity. Or we can choose to react like Alexander (who as a small child may have a legitimate excuse). How did you react to your last terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day? Let’s say you reacted badly, like Alexander and children often do. Now imagine that your embarrassing, child-like temper tantrum makes national news.

That’s the sticky situation in which James Beach placed himself last week. He was tired. All he wanted to do was to fly home to Colorado. Employed by a company that builds waste-recycling plants, he was on the final leg of a long business trip back from Moscow. Maybe the Russian airport authorities had been less than friendly to the American businessman. Maybe the ticket agent at the Newark airport was a bit surly when Beach arranged to fly standby back home to Denver. Maybe his bags ended up in Naples instead of Newark. What we do know is that Beach ended up in a middle seat on the Newark-to-Denver flight. We also know that instead of closing his eyes and resting while the plane winged its way toward the Rockies, he put his tray-table down and pulled out his laptop. He had to review that contract with the Russians. To make sure he wasn’t disturbed, he installed the Knee Defender, a device that prevented the passenger in front of Beach from reclining her seat. Except she was tired too. And she really, really wanted to recline her seat. Conflict ensued.

At the request of the flight attendants, Beach removed the device. He claims the other passenger then forcefully reclined her sear, almost shattering his laptop’s screen. That’s when Beach started acting like Alexander. He roughly returned the seat-back to the full-upright position and re-installed his Knee Defender. His fellow passenger reacted like an Alexandra: she threw a cup of soda in his face. The flight attendant quickly moved the woman to another seat, but Beach didn’t stop. He re-directed his ire toward the flight attendants, saying what he says were “bad words”. The pilot then re-directed the plane to Chicago where Beach and his fellow passenger were re-directed off the plane. (No word on whether they shared cocktails at an O’Hare bar.) Beach was not going to get home to Denver that night after all.

Then his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day got even worse. The Associated Press picked up the story and ran it nationally. Beach instantly became the poster-boy for bad airline-passenger behavior. Years ago Andy Warhol warned us that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 seconds. Beach was getting his 15 seconds–and then some.

What would I do if my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day was splashed over headlines all across the country? Would I accept responsibility for my bad behavior? I could do worse than follow the example of James Beach. In a follow-up story, Beach didn’t trash his on-board adversary. He didn’t make excuses about frayed nerves from a long business trip. Instead he told the Associated Press: “I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed by what happened. I could have handled it so much better.”

Careful readers of this blog will note, however, that Beach’s response wasn’t perfect. He could have used his 15 seconds of fame to give us all an A+ acceptance-of-responsibility lesson. How about these suggestions, Mr. Beach?

  • “Happened” is an acceptance-of-responsibility red flag. Blizzards happen. Cyclones happen. They’re no ones fault. What went down on that Newark to Denver flight did not just happen. It’s something you did. Would it have been better to say this? “I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed by what I did.” Or better yet: “I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed that I did the same thing to my fellow passenger that she did to me: forcefully re-position her seat. And then I made things worse by yelling and swearing at the flight attendants. They were just doing their job and trying to clean up the mess that I had helped to create.”
  • And how about an apology to your fellow passenger? An apology does not mean that the person to whom I’m apologizing was without fault. That’s because an apology is not about what she did; it’s about what I did. She need not earn my apology with an acknowledgment of her part in this sorry episode. I need to apologize for what I did wrong, even if she never steps up and takes her fair share of the blame. It’s about me and what I did.
  • And of course an “I’m so sorry” is needed for the flight attendants who were only trying to make everyone of the crowded flight as comfortable as possible.

I’ll give him a B-. And the lesson for me when I have that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day and “lose it” like little Alexander and James Beach–especially if I “lose it” in front of a national audience–is to step up and forthrightly accept responsibility for it. That means admitting what I did without excuse or finger-pointing, apologizing to anyone I’ve wronged, and doing what I can to make things right.


Forgiveness Is Not …

I’ve published close to 200 posts to this blog, almost all of them about accepting responsibility for poor choices, for decisions that hurt someone else . But I rarely write about the other side of that coin: what if it’s me who’s been hurt? What about someone who betrays me and then fails to accept responsibility for that choice–or even acknowledge that he or she has hurt me? What’s my responsibility then?

The short answer is this: forgive. But what is forgiveness? It’s not being a doormat. It’s not letting people push me around. Or take advantage of me. What is it? Sometimes the best way to define something is to explain what it is NOT.

  1. Forgiveness is not condoning bad behavior.
    To forgive another, I need not passively accept his bad behavior without objection. I’m required to be neither pushover nor perpetual victim. I need to call out betrayals; I must stand up to those whose thoughtless actions affect me. Neither is it making excuses for that person’s poor choices. The act of forgiveness is itself an acknowledgement that what he did to me was wrong: it was inexcusable. (A good choice–or an excusable bad one–need not be forgiven.)
  2. Forgiveness is not ignoring bad behavior.
    It’s always easier to pretend there’s no elephant in my living room. I vacuum around it. I dress it up with a pretty lace doily and tell myself it’s an end table. It’s easier to ignore the strange charges mysteriously appearing on the Visa bill, the unexplained evening absences, the furtive text messaging. Maybe I tell myself that I’m a good person, that good people forgive and that forgiveness means pretending that my loved one is not betraying me. Maybe I tell myself that I have to pretend there’s no elephant sitting in my living room. But forgiveness means no such thing.
  3. Forgiveness is not accepting responsibility for another’s bad behavior.
    I do the guilty party no favor by accepting blame for a betrayal. He or she will no doubt be eager for me to do it. Even encourage me to do it. Some of us are masters at blaming others for our poor choices. And people who habitually victimize others are adept at turning tables and blaming victims for the harm done to them. I suppose they do it so they can sleep at night and live in their own skins. But taking blame that isn’t rightly mine is not forgiveness. I cannot forgive anyone for a wrong unless I first affix blame for that wrong squarely on the shoulders of the person I’m forgiving. I can’t forgive unless I admit there is someone to forgive. And that that someone isn’t me.
  4. Forgiveness is not reconciliation.
    Lucy holds the football. Charlie Brown tries to kick it. But each time–every autumn for decades–Lucy pulls the football back. And Charlie Brown ends up flat on his back. One has to admire C.B. for his unflagging faith in the goodness of human nature and the possibility of personal transformation, but at the same time don’t we all think that he’s a fool? Forgiveness doesn’t require that I persist in putting myself in a situation where the same person can hurt me in the same way again and again. “I love you Lucy, but I won’t kick your football anymore” is entirely consistent with forgiveness. And some wrongs don’t deserve even a second chance. I may forgive you if you sexually molest my daughter or granddaughter, but buddy you’re never getting near that kid ever again even if you are her neighbor/uncle/pastor/coach.
  5. Forgiveness is not forgetting.
    Memory is not an act of the will; I cannot choose to forget. Forgetting is something that happens passively, gradually over time as memory fades. I can choose not to dwell on a past betrayal, not to nurse a grievance like it was the refrigerator’s last cold beer on a hot day. I can choose not to mention it, not to bring it up in the heat of future arguments. But I can’t choose to forget it. And sometimes it’s best to keep a betrayal in the back of my mind in order to protect myself from a repeat performance. (I forgive my cheating spouse, but I’m still checking the Visa bill and cell-phone records every so often.)

forgiveness 20140201

So, what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is letting loose of the hold a guilty person on my heart. Forgiveness is letting go of my bitterness toward that person before it spreads and infects other areas of my life. Forgiveness is a gift I give to myself, not to the person who’s betrayed me. Forgiveness is choosing not to hate. Forgiveness is foregoing vengeance. Forgiveness is admitting I’m not perfect, and I’ve been forgiven when it’s me who screwed up.  Forgiveness is letting go of the past and pressing on to greater achievements of the future. Forgiveness is severing the anchor chain holding me to the past and setting sail into new waters. Forgiveness is freedom.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
–Nelson Mandela

This post was inspired by a sermon given by Mark Beeson, my senior pastor at Granger Community Church, He based his message on Pete Wilson’s book, Let Hope In.  I have few useful thoughts that are my own, and I thought their insights were too important not to share. Of course, any misguided statements, faulty analysis or insensitive remarks are mine and mine alone. I take full responsibility for any errors in the content.

Redemption for Ray Lewis?


Ray Lewis is about to play in the Super Bowl, the very last game of his All-Pro career. But there’s one thing he won’t talk about. He’ll talk about his Baltimore Ravens and how they’re the surprise team of this year’s NFL playoffs. He’ll talk about his decision that this season will be his last. He’ll talk about his remarkable 16-year career as one of the greatest middle linebackers who have ever played the game. He’ll talk about his charity work, especially the Ray Lewis 52 Foundation and its mission to lift the young people of Baltimore out of poverty. He’ll talk about his life-long Christian faith and his worship at the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore. But there’s one thing he won’t talk about.

In the media feeding frenzy preceding this Super Bowl, that one thing is what reporters want Ray Lewis to talk about. They want to talk about a street brawl in Atlanta 13 years ago after Super Bowl XXXIV, a fight which left Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar bleeding to death on the pavement while Lewis and his entourage sped away in the star linebacker’s stretch limo. They want to talk about Ray Lewis’s part in the fight. They want to talk about the knives that Lewis says his friends Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting bought earlier in Super Bowl week. They want to talk about the fatal wounds inflicted on Baker and Lollar and whether those wounds were consistent with the self-defense claims of his pals. (According to the New York Post, “Lollar suffered five stab wounds: two to the heart, one to the chest and two to the abdomen. Baker, too, was stabbed directly in the heart and in the liver. Both died before they made it to the hospital.”) They want to talk about what happened to the blood-stained clothes Lewis was wearing that night, the clothes that the police never found. They want to talk about why Baker’s blood was found in the limo.

But Ray Lewis wants to talk about none of those things, and the football star loses it when reporters who are supposed to be asking feel-good questions about his triumphant ride into the NFL sunset instead insist on asking hardball questions about the deaths of two young men 13 years ago. Earlier in Super Bowl Week, Deadspin reported this response from Lewis to one of those questions he doesn’t want to talk about:

Nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions. I just truly feel that this is God’s time, and whatever his time is, you know, let it be his will. Don’t try to please everybody with your words, try to make everybody’s story sound right. At this time, I would rather direct my questions in other places. Because I live with that every day. You maybe can take a break from it. I don’t. I live with it every day of my life and I would rather not talk about it today.

Ray Lewis “would rather not talk about it today”. One of the great things about accepting responsibility for a poor choice is that it allows you to put that poor choice behind you. People stop talking about it. You’ve come clean. You’ve paid the price. Fans forgive. The media move on. It’s old news. Case closed. But try to dodge accountability, try to skate through by disclosing as little information as possible, and your one bad night becomes a raspberry seed in the media’s teeth. It’s stuck there. It won’t go away. It just sits there getting more and more irritating all the time. And the press keeps coming back to it. Over and over. Even when you’re about to retire and you want the story to be about your 13 trips to the Pro Bowl and your two defensive player of the year awards and your role as the inspirational leader of this season’s team of destiny. Instead the reporters keep talking about that one thing you’d rather not talk about today.

Martha Stewart avoided a $45,000 loss by dumping stock based on insider information, a violation of federal securities law. A jury found her guilty, she served a prison sentence and paid a hefty fine. Since that time, her cooking show is back on cable TV, she shows up in commercials for Macy’s with Donald Trump and pulls down $2,000,000 in annual salary plus perqs from the company she founded. Former Nixon aide Charles Colson allegedly said that he would walk over his own grandmother to re-elect his president. Colson later pled guilty to obstructing justice in connection with those re-election efforts and, like Martha Stewart, became a guest of the federal prison system. He went on to become one of the most beloved and influential Christian evangelical leaders of his day. Two years ago Late Show host David Letterman confessed on the air to having sex “with women who work with me on this show.” He recently followed up his full disclosure with a an extended confession and apology on Oprah Winfrey’s show. He is as popular as ever.

We are generous with our celebrities. We love a comeback story; we love second chances. We are quick to forgive and embrace our fallen heroes.  But forgiveness and redemption must be preceded by confession and contrition. When we find ourselves mired in the mud of our unwise choices, our only wish is to extract ourselves from the mud and move on. But we can’t move on without cleaning off the mud. If Ray Lewis’s victory lap is spoiled by talk of the killings of two young men thirteen years ago, then Ray Lewis has only Ray Lewis to blame. He never cleaned off the mud. It’s still there. And reporters are still asking questions about it. 




Top Ten – Words of Advice to Lance Armstrong

Today is the Super Bowl of responsibility acceptance. It’s the World Cup of manning up. It’s the day Lance Armstrong talks to Oprah about allegations that for years he’s been conning the cycling world, the cancer community, and a legion of fans with a story that it was his hard work, his tenacious determination, and his will to win that propelled him from a victory over testicular cancer to seven straight titles in the Tour de France.

Giants get their feet of clay* exposed with remarkable frequency. Confession to Oprah is a standard stop on the journey to rehabilitation, and Lance Armstrong is following that well-worn path. But sometimes those clay-footed giants miscalculate. They think their best strategy is to confess as little as possible, accept minimal responsibility and then combine half-baked excuses with lame apologies in the hope it comes across as humble and contrite.

Lance, you’re paying big bucks to those publicists of yours. I hope they’re giving you some good advice, but here’s a little from me–no charge. Accepting responsibility means pushing all your chips to the middle of the table and going “all in”. No half measures.. Try these ten things in your mea culpa and you’ve made a good start at regaining the trust of the millions who once held you in such high regard.

10. Don’t tell me “Everybody did it” or “That’s just the way things were in cycling.” Your own poor choices are not excused by the poor choices of those around you.

9. Don’t tell me that your competitive streak was just so intense, your hunger for victory so strong, that you couldn’t help yourself. It’s a bad move brag about a good quality and then blame that virtue for your personal failing. Don’t sing me any songs about your tenacity and dogged determination.

8.  Don’t begin your apology with “If I’ve hurt or offended anyone …”. Of course you’ve hurt and offended and disappointed and betrayed people. Tons of them. Don’t pretend there’s a possibility they don’t exist. Apologize to them directly.

7. And while you’re apologizing, mention the people to whom you owe that apology. Be as specific as you can. You reputedly were a thug and a bully to anyone–including friends and teammates–who dared break the code of silence you created to protect you.

6. No, you weren’t the only one who broke the rules. Some of them did it on their own, some were sucked into this cycling sinkhole by you. But this isn’t about them. Today’s it’s about you, about what you did and about what you’re going to do about it. Focus on yourself.

5. And while I’m talking about others, please don’t try to shift blame onto others like teammates who wanted too much to win, sponsors who pressured you to produce, and suppliers who were all to eager to accommodate. You’re a big boy. You made your own decisions. You’re responsible for your own choices.

4. Please include in your apology all those honest, clean cyclists whom you pushed off the victory stand. Yes, they were out there, and they were competing against you and the deck you stacked against them. They will never, ever get to wear the yellow jersey to which their years of hard work entitled them.

3. Yes, I know you’re not 100% villain. You have plenty of good qualities. You, me, all of us–we’re a complex mix of good and bad, desperately in need of God’s grace and the forgiveness of those who love us. But don’t waste time telling me that “I’m not a bad person” or “This was completely out of character for me” or “My charity was doing lots of good work”. Just tell me simply and directly what you did wrong.

2. Acceptance of responsibility is more than just words. It’s action too. It’s doing your best to make things right, which in your case means return of the millions you took under false pretenses. Yes, your lifestyle will take a hit; it might even mean bankruptcy. Just give it back.

1. Say “I’m sorry.” Don’t use some squishy word like “regret”. Just man up and utter those painful words. They pack a real punch. Use them.

An alternative Top Ten list by the master of Top Ten.

*King Nebuchadnezzar asked the prophet Daniel (the one whom God saved from the lions’ den) to explain a strange dream about a statue with a head of gold but feet of clay. Daniel did not give the king good news. The feet of clay would soon make the gold-headed statue tumble, an omen of the fate which awaited the king and Babylon–the same fate that strikes golden boys today, thousands of years later.

Justice or Mercy?

“He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.”
Micah 6:8 (NIV)

Inspector Javert believed in justice. Offenders should get the punishment they deserve; they should receive the full consequence of their poor choices. Inspector Javert also believed in duty. If one’s job is to bring offenders to justice, then one must pursue those offenders tenaciously, however long that pursuit might take. Javert’s world was simple: there were good guys and there were bad guys. He was a good guy, and it was his job to find the bad guys and bring them into court so that the bad guys could get justice. For Javert, justice meant that those offenders got the punishment they had earned.

Jean Valjean believed in mercy. He believed there were times when one must not insist on full consequences when one is wronged. Valjean’s world was complicated. His world was not divided into good guys and bad guys; there were just guys. Everyone makes poor choices from time to time and sometimes it’s appropriate not administer the full consequences for a poor choice. For Valjean, sometimes the right thing to do is to be merciful.

This tension between justice and mercy–the conflict between Javert and Valjean–lies at the heart of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the movie version of which is now showing at a multiplex near you. Valjean, sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children, violated the terms of his release from prison. Justice dictated that Valjean therefore go back to prison.  In Inspector Javert’s mind the situation was simple and his duty was clear: Valjean was a bad guy–a thief–who had earned a trip back to prison and it was Javert’s job to put him there.

Valjean learned his life-changing lesson about mercy when a priest extended mercy to him, refusing to prosecute for Valjean’s theft from the priest. Valjean took that mercy–receiving something he in no way deserved–and turned his life around. Javert, on the other hand, had never been shown mercy. He fought his way up from a humble background and had earned everything that life had afforded him, including his position as a trusted officer of the law whose duty required him to pursue and apprehend parole violators like Valjean. It mattered not a bit to Javert that Valjean had turned his life around and was now not only the mayor of his town but the employer of hundreds. The law was the law, and the law required that Valjean be found and given the punishment that he had earned.

The merciful priest must have been familiar with the passage cited above from the prophet Micah’s book. God requires us to do justice while also extending mercy. Be fair, punish people no more than they deserve. But also be kind. Be compassionate. Be generous. And be humble. Justice that is not tempered with mercy is too harsh, too cold.

The hard part, of course, is knowing when to be merciful. Were no one ever to receive the consequences of poor choices, chaos and anarchy would ensue. An ordered society requires that a negative consequence follow a bad choice. Anyone who has raised a child knows that fair punishment for poor choices is one of the ways that a parent teaches a child to make good choices. A good parent, though, knows that one can break a child’s spirit if one always insists that the child receive the full consequences of a poor choice. If a parent extends mercy to a child at the right time–giving the kid a break–mercy might turn out to be a more effective life-molding tool than punishment. Like Jean Valjean’s response to the priest’s gift, the kid might remember the break he got, be grateful for it and turn things around.

Don’t we all know people like Inspector Javert? They are not bad people. They are not evil or malicious. They’re just single-minded. Actions have consequences. For them, right is right. Wrong is wrong. Black is black. White is white. There are no shades of gray. But the world would be cold, cruel and unpleasant if my every poor choice brought a commensurate consequence. What a terrible place this would be if I always got what I deserved.

Do justice. But love mercy. And walk humbly.

Let Nothing You Dismay

Twenty children murdered just days before Christmas. Six adults shot dead trying to protect those twenty kids. But, as dreadful as those deaths in Connecticut were,  it was a lightly-reported incident that particularly troubled me throughout this holiday season: some Newtown residents took down their Christmas decorations. They apparently believed that expressing the joy of the season was out of place and insensitive in light of the loss suffered by so many of their neighbors.

149 years ago another resident of New England, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was also grief-stricken on Christmas.  The author of Paul Revere’s Ride lost his wife earlier that year. In November his eldest son Charles was seriously wounded in battle after enlisting in the Union Army over Longfellow’s objections. Just a few weeks before, President Lincoln had given a brief speech in Pennsylvania reminding the nation that “we are engaged in a great civil war” and dedicating a plot of land in Gettysburg “as a final resting place” for the thousands who had been slain in battle there the preceding July. (The Civil War would continue for another year and a half, ultimately claiming more than 600,000 lives.)

The joyous pealing of church bells in his Massachusetts town seemed cruelly inappropriate to Longfellow on that 1863 Christmas morning, just as holiday decorations seemed to clash with the grief of Newton, Connecticut, in 2012.  After considering the seeming incongruity of Christmas joy in the midst of personal and national tragedy, Longfellow sat down to write a poem he called Christmas Bells. His 19th Century anguish found an echo in 2012:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth good will to men!”

We know this poem today as the familiar carol: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Despair at Christmas is not new in 2012, nor was it new in 1863. It has always been. This is readily apparent from many songs we sing during the holiday season, not just I Heard the Bells. But if, like me, you tend to sing those Christmas carols without paying much attention to the words, you may have missed it, as I did. And while pondering Newtown’s removal of holiday decorations, the words of those carols jumped out at me. Tragedy and Christmas are not conflicting forces but weird holiday partners. The carols tell us that the joy of Christmas is the antidote to despair.

The guys who are the subject of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen are not joyous gents; they are dismayed. They are troubled by tragedy, by a world in evil’s grip. The song’s prayer is that God give these gentlemen merry rest, that they realize that Christmas is a not a season of dismay; it brings “tidings of comfort and joy” because “Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan’s power”.

The streets of O Little Town of Bethlehem are “dark”, and not just because it’s evening. It is a place of “fears” that have lasted for “all the years”. It sits in “a world of sin” that has “hopes” for deliverance. Yet there is joy because:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Hark! The herald angels are singing because God and sinners are reconciled. Christ brings “light and life to all”, and the risen Christ has “healing in His wings”.

What  is it that “Came upon a Midnight Clear”? It’s angels bending near the earth, a “weary world” marked by “sad and lowly plains” and “Babel sounds”.  They foretell a time when “peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling”.

And what is there to be joyful about in the world of “Joy to the World”? Even though that world is a place where “a curse is found”, a place where “sins and sorrows grow” and “thorns infest the ground”, there is cause for joy because “the Lord is come” and “the Saviour reigns”. Let “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.”

Tragedy at Christmas is nothing new. On Christmas Day an article on the front page of my local paper had this headline: “Kids die every day from gunfire in U.S.” In Jesus’ day, King Herod responded to the news of the blessed birth by slaughtering every boy who’d been born in Bethlehem over the last two years.  (Joseph and Mary, alerted in a dream to this danger, escaped to Egypt with their boy.)

No, tragedy at Christmas is nothing new. But holiday carols–and the Book from which those songs spring forth–tell us it should not be a season of bleak despair but one of joyous celebration. That’s what Longfellow decided too. This is how he ended his poem:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

May God give you merry rest too. Let nothing you dismay.

Can Keeping Quiet = Accepting Responsibility?

When King David was supposed to be commanding his troops in combat, he instead was in Jerusalem committing adultery with the wife of one of his bravest warriors. When she inconveniently became pregnant while her husband was off fighting for his king, David made sure Uriah was killed in battle so he could quickly marry Bathsheba and avoid public disclosure of the affair. Not surprisingly, this ploy did not fool God. He sent the prophet Nathan to let David know that He wasn’t fooled. And He wasn’t at all pleased.

General David Petraeus, like King David, was usually no stranger to the battle. In Iraq and Afghanistan, he turned around wars that our country seemed to be losing. And like King David, he couldn’t keep his hands off another man’s wife. Like the king, he did nothing until his poor choices were discovered. But it wasn’t a prophet who paid him a visit; it was an FBI agent.

The response of those two leaders raises a question: Just what is the right response after one cheats on one’s spouse? To tell or not tell? Does acceptance of responsibility require that one “come clean” and make full disclosure before one can move past the betrayal? Is it essential that the victimized spouse be told everything and receive a full apology for there to be a full acceptance of responsibility?

The answer: It depends.

It depends, but it doesn’t depend on me and what would make me feel good after my infidelity. I might think that I need to get everything off my chest before I can move on. I might think that I cannot “live a lie”, and I need to be completely honest with my spouse if the marriage can have any chance of preservation. But what might be good for me is quite beside the point.

It depends. What it depends on is the person who was betrayed. What would be best for him or her? Some spouses woud feel doubly betrayed if, in addition to the extramarital sex, there was no disclousre. He or she might feel cheated again if the adulterous spouse just went on as before, pretending like nothing had happened.

But some spouses do not want to know. They do not need to know. For the cheater who is married to this person, acceptance of responsibility means shutting up. For me to make a clean breast of things just so I personally can move one with a clear conscience means being selfish twice. I have to do what’s best for the person whom I betrayed. The consequences of adultery may very well be living with the secret and the shame for the rest of my life.

But don’t confuse doing what’s best for your spouse with doing what’s best with your God. Keeping quiet with Him never works. (Pssst. He knows already.) He stands ready to forgive, but only if you come to Him in humility and contritely admit your sin. As soon as Nathan confronted the king, David did not make excuses or try to shift blame. He fell to his kness and confessed: “I have sinned against the Lord.” 2 Samuel 12:13  Then for seven days he prayed and prayed to God about the consequences of that sin. When those dire consequences came to pass, David knew he had no one to blame for that tragedy but himself. No blaming of God; it was all on King David.

Keeping quiet with God never works. That’s never acceptance of responsibility when it comes to Him. But a human being with whom you’re in close relationship–that could be another story. You should know your spouse. He or she might need to know everything. But it’s also possible that telling him or her the sordid details would do no good at all. If that’s who your spouse is, then just shut up, confess it to your God and commit yourself to never, ever do it again. Keeping quiet may be the only way to accept responsibility. It depends.