A Difficult Question of Morality and Accountability

I find it very hard to fault people for their thoughts, feelings and inclinations, even when they are clearly wrong; probably because I haven’t learned to control my own thoughts. And I can’t deny, part of me feels like it isn’t possible. I am ashamed of this meagerness of faith. I do believe that right thinking is a gift that God bestows in increasing measure as we grow in Him. This train of thought, though, has me wondering about sin and accountability.

The Bible tells us that our thoughts can be sinful, just as our actions can be sinful. Matthew 5:28 is a good example:

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

This verse has always been hard for me. How does one keep things from occurring to them in the first place? I don’t believe that Jesus would tell us not to do something if we had no ability to abstain from it. Again, I think we have to rely on God for help.

But what about people who have diminished capacity, or some other circumstance that brings their accountability into question? For example, I’ve known people whose childhoods were full of painful abuse and neglect. Consequently they lacked understanding of appropriate behavior in some way or another. Impulses and desires learned in childhood don’t always go away with age. One person in particular that I’m talking about has these disadvantages coupled with decreased capacity. I don’t know what his developmental age is, but I know it doesn’t match his physical age. Now, as an adult, he knows what he is not supposed to do, knows that at least in name, those things are “wrong.” He still does them, or at least tries.

I don’t know much about Catholicism, but the Catholic acceptance of an age of accountability has always intrigued me. I don’t know if this idea is biblical (if you know any applicable scripture, please share), but I vividly remember changing – a sort of transition from childhood – when I was 11 years old. I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but it is an oddly distinct memory for me. My question is this: What if, developmentally, some people never reach that age of accountability? Is the evil they do really their own? And what if they don’t turn to God in their lifetime because they simply have no concept of God? Or must we assume that every single person has the capacity to know God? That simply by virtue of being, they already do? John 1:9 could be read that way, I think:

There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.

These are tough issues for me. I have a hard enough time with absolutes, but when they concern what goes on in someone’s head… well, that’s harder, still. I can’t know what happens in anyone else’s brain. Very often I can’t even follow what’s going on in my own! But the Bible does use words like “every” and “all.”  My views and beliefs are becoming more specific, but accepting the things that are black and white is an ongoing struggle.

I’d love to know how other people think and feel about these things – please feel free to share! And if you have scripture that might help clarify a related biblical position, it would be very much appreciated. Thanks for reading and have a GREAT weekend!

6 thoughts on “A Difficult Question of Morality and Accountability

  1. These are some great questions. I have been thinking much of the same. Daring to delve into the mind of God can be scary and rewarding. I have been doing so for over 35 years. I do have thoughts on your concerns, but would rather have a meaningful conversation than a trite comment. If you are interested.
    You can check out my blog as well to get my background. Let me know.


  2. Hi there! I hope you know that when you don’t get much interaction, it is probably because your questions are too hard and no one feels qualified to answer – not because your content is somehow lacking! 🙂

    The most helpful thing for me when I think about this sort of stuff is to remember that ultimately, the answer is found in my trust in the character of God. God is just and he won’t skimp on that…but the overall message of the Bible tells me that if there is anything in a person’s heart that allows them to be justly reconciled to God, they will be. That is God’s desire more than mine and his mercy is great!

    I have to believe there is a sort of “age of accountability”. I’m sure there’s much more Biblical support, but what immediately comes to mind is Christ’s words in Matthew 11:21-22:

    “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.”

    This indicates to me that God definitely takes into account what we know and what we have been given.

    We have to be careful where we take that, though, because he also makes it clear that we all know a lot more than we like to admit, and the gate is definitely narrow…

  3. I don’t know of any biblical evidence for an age of accountability, but most developmental psychologists would agree that such a transition does occur in early adolescence-probably not exactly the same age for everyone.

    The issue of people with diminished capacity is an interesting one. The Bible speaks of a God of grace, and I believe we are judged based on our capacity. Clearly controlling our thoughts is more difficult than controlling our actions, but we are challenged to work at this. Much of what we dwell on mentally is impacted by what we put into our heads, but we cannot control what others put into them. We can, however, mentally “switch the channel,” when inappropriate thoughts come in.

    I find Philippians 4:8 helpful in this regard, “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy, meditate on these things.”

  4. Hi! I have two separate answers, our maybe these answers are the same. I am Catholic with a protestant background, fyi. From the Catholic standpoint, I recently learned that the word “sin” is Hebrew for “missed the mark”. We were never intended to be capable of sin or suffering, but then Adam and Eve lost their faith in God and ate from the Tree. When that happened, sin entered the world and all people would struggle with sin or falling short. Catholics have a sacrament called confession, where you confess to a priest your sin and he blesses you and absolves you of that sin and gives you a penance.
    Now, there are benefits to confessions, a usually a priest can help you with that sin so that you can find a way to prevent yourself from committing it again, but from a protestant background, my answer is that you confess it to jesus, and declare him lord, his blood covers you and you are forgiven. With both ideas though, the purpose is to try to not fall short again, but this is where God’s infinite patience blesses us.
    As far as the mentally incapable and the immature, I do not know how God handles them and am curious as well.

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