Why Most of Us Are Scapegoats, Not Saintly Martyrs

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Every society, every culture has a tradition of a scapegoat: a person or group of people to blame and punish for the sins of that particular society. Centuries ago, old women were blamed for poor crops, cows which failed to produce milk and any birth defects. Less superstitious societies turned on each new group of immigrants to blame for their economic woes and rising crime rates. And, in the beginning of the spiritual life when we are confronted with our own sinfulness and those around us, we also tend to act just like scapegoats. Even if we live a devout, disciplined, ascetic lifestyle with a daily round of Mass, rosaries, Eucharistic Adoration and frequent confession, most of us still fall into this scapegoat trap as we try to become devoted disciples of Jesus.

Suffering For Our Own Sins

When we suffer in isolation for our own failings or act like a scapegoat who suffers as the result of others who sin against us, we like to think of ourselves as saintly martyrs, but our suffering is anything but holy and especially not redemptive. In fact, there is no act filled with more pride because we are in fact stealing Christ’s job. It takes humility to realize our miserable, self-inflicted suffering does not save anyone, least of all ourselves. The only way to become humble is to trust in God to save us because we realized our own efforts have failed.

It is not easy to let go of pride because I am naturally wired to act just like a scapegoat vacuum cleaner, sucking up all my children’s pain. Likewise, my children are compassionate vacuum cleaners, who attract other people’s negative emotions. They are all aware they learned this dysfunctional behaviour not only from observing my husband and me in action but also because they have inherited this trait as members of the human race.

The Vacuum Cleaner Syndrome

This problem, The Vacuum Cleaner Syndrome, is a difficult disease to cure. As my daughter and a fellow vacuum cleaner, Grace, asked during a family discussion,

“How can one vacuum cleaner help another vacuum cleaner?”

Four of us around the circle smiled at the image. Then I blurted out, “Why, show the other vacuum how to reverse the hose and blow out the dirt and not suck it in, collect it or try to control it.”

That humourous comment released waves of uncontrollable laughter which blasted clean air through all of us and helped us let go of control. Compassion and empathy are vital in close relationships but my tendency is to try to fix my husband and kids by hoarding their pain within my heart.

Do my seemingly selfless actions weigh me down?


Is anyone fixed or set free as I sacrifice my peace and happiness to try to help my family?


Does this Vacuum Cleaner Syndrome destroy everyone’s peace and joy when I try to control everything?


The good news is a silly image picturing mum as a vacuum cleaner reversed this self-defeating, addictive pattern because it made it easier for everyone to understand how ludicrous I had been acting. The laughter which followed released the tension used to keep emotional pain locked up inside.

I am not the saviour; we are all children of God.  Jesus is the only vacuum cleaner who has the ability to literally suck up everyone’s emotional pain and sin, then blow in joy, peace and new life back in. The only prerequisite is to give Him permission. This is the great exchange; surrender dirt and receive the bright, clean breath of God, then laugh at how long it took you to let it happen. Yes, my life is one of devotion and dying to my false self but I do not serve my family or God in my own strength. I live and move and have my being in Him; His strength, love, grace, and mercy sustains me and flows to my children. No room for arrogance.

Only Jesus is Saviour

Accepting Jesus as our Saviour really goes against our grain as human beings, because we want to earn our salvation, purify ourselves by suffering out of a misplaced sense of guilt. It is a type of piety which, in the end, focuses on ourselves, our actions and efforts to suffer for our sinfulness as we strive to save ourselves.  We are at the centre of our attention, not God. Ironically, it usually takes suffering to break down our ego and pride. Once exhausted by trying to save ourselves, we often must hit bottom before we are desperate enough to change, to let go of our pride and control and surrender in humility to Christ our Saviour. Only the drowning man even realizes he needs to be saved, only a sick man realizes he needs to be healed.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 601-602

The Scriptures had foretold this divine plan of salvation through the putting to death of “the righteous one, my Servant” as a mystery of universal redemption, that is, as the ransom that would free men from the slavery of sin [Isaiah 53:11-12; cf. John 8:34-36; Acts 3:14]. Citing a confession of faith that he himself had “received”, St. Paul professes that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” [1 Corinthians 15:3; cf. also Acts 3:18, 7:52, 13:29, 26:22-23]. In particular Jesus’ redemptive death fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering Servant [cf. Isaiah 53:7-8 and Acts 8:32-35]. Indeed Jesus himself explained the meaning of his life and death in the light of God’s suffering Servant [cf. Matthew 20:28]. After his Resurrection he gave this interpretation of the Scriptures to the disciples at Emmaus, and then to the apostles [cf. Luke 24:25-27, 44-45].

Consequently, St. Peter can formulate the apostolic faith in the divine plan of salvation in this way: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers … with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake” [1 Peter 1:18-20]. Man’s sins, following on original sin, are punishable by death [cf. Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:56]. By sending his own Son in the form of a slave, in the form of a fallen humanity, on account of sin, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” [2 Corinthians 5:21; cf. Philippians 2:7; Romans 8:3].

The reason, Jesus had to die was because we cannot save ourselves or anyone else. Christ came to suffer and die on the cross for our sins. He is the one and the only sacrificial lamb who takes away all sin. He is just like the scapegoat of the Old Testament, burdened by the sins of the people who by his death and resurrection, justifies everyone by the power of His blood in the eyes of God the Father.

The Scapegoat of the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the Azazel goat, translated as a scapegoat, was one of two goats chosen for a ceremony on the Day of Atonement. The first goat was sacrificed, but a priest would lay hands on the second goat and symbolically transfer all the sin and guilt of the community on to this animal. The scapegoat was then driven into the desert, to die, thus cleansing the community of its sin.

“And when he has made an end of atoning for The Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat; and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land; and he shall let the goat go in the wilderness.”   (Leviticus 16:20-22 NASB)

When Suffering is Redemptive

Yes, there is a place for redemptive suffering.  But what most of us experience is far from redemptive, because our suffering is not in union with Christ’s; we are simply falling into the scapegoat trap. Redemptive suffering is not long-faced misery, but in fact joyful because it is life-giving and life-affirming as we live in, with and through Christ our Saviour. It might involve physical pain, but it is lived in the Light, in peace, and in joy. When we are no longer the centre of attention, but Jesus is the centre; all heavy, psychological despair and mental anguish dissipates like insubstantial mist under the burning sunlight.

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NASB)

To make a shift from an egocentric lifestyle to a God-centered lifestyle is tricky business. Thank heavens the Catholic Church has always understood the need for spiritual directors. But the fundamental difference between self-centered piety and true, vibrant life in Christ is when we give up trying to save ourselves and surrender to Jesus. When we consciously choose Christ, the switch is immediate from misery to joy, even if we seem to suffer just as much in our external lives we are no longer pitiful scapegoats.

During the Mass, we proclaim the truth, even if we don’t really understand what we are saying:

A: We proclaim your death, O Lord,
and profess your Resurrection until you come again.

B: When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord,
until you come again.
C: Save us, Saviour of the world, for, by your Cross and Resurrection, you have set us free.

Come Lord and save us from ourselves and our feeble attempts to save ourselves.

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11 thoughts on “Why Most of Us Are Scapegoats, Not Saintly Martyrs”

  1. I wasn’t aware that you have been gifted with the ability to read a person’s soul and know when they are behaving like a scapegoat. You imply that suffering has no meaning if joy doesn’t accompany it. I’m aware that most of us behave like the Prodigal Son’s brother, however, that doesn’t mean our suffering is any less valid or real. And yes, I cannot save myself, only in Christ can that happen. However, every person has a part in their salvation. I can actively try to live a virtuous life and try to follow God’s will or I can reject God’s mercy and willingly choose hell as my home in the next world. Lastly, I know all the Saints offered up their suffering to God with joy, but can you actually name one Saint who, during those trials, never experienced anguish? Did it make their suffering less meaningful and useless? God always uses our suffering for good even if we don’t always find joy in it right away.

    1. You are right; it is a paradox. Yes, God uses our suffering to humble us and bring us out of our egocentric point of view. We are born viewing others and God through our eyes, as if the world revolves around us. To come to the place where we stand in the community of saints praising God with Christ in the centre of the universe, we MUST first SUFFER, in misery, joyless and hit bottom. Then we wake up and realize our suffering does not redeem us and look up to the Cross. I am not pointing a finger in a self-righteous manner, rather revealing how all of us tend to try to save our selves with our own striving and suffering. It takes humility to allow Christ to truly redeem us in reality, in the nitty-gritty of our daily lives.And there is a great joy which bubbles up inexplicably when I live in with and through Christ, no matter what is happening to me.

  2. Too black and white, the advice in this article. But there is a long tradition of holiness in accepting the suffering that comes one’s way as deserved, then in an act of faith in the mystery of Christ’s redemptive suffering, offering that suffering up to Christ, for him to make holy and redemptive. Think St. Dismas.

    1. Agreed- suffering is holy when we suffer in unity with Christ, in with and through Love

  3. Great article, as usual, Melanie! I prefer the term “emotional sponge” to vacuum cleaner because sponges can be squeezed out. I am a true sponge, sucking in people’s emotions,though I tend not to share my own pain with others. Jesus took on others’ pain and in some sense, we’re called to share each others’ burdens but you bring up an important truth about personal guilt. We forget that “Jesus paid it all…all to Him I owe!” – that we are not supposed to wallow in self-pity and guilt, but to release our sorrow, our sin, and our pain to the One who took it all to the cross. It’s also a wonderful thing to see that the Catholic Church teaches this truth – Protestants need to read this!!! – and we should never hold onto that guilt because it keeps us down. And talk about out of the mouths of babes! We do need to release that pain to find that peace! it makes me think of so many in the Gospels who experienced that healing touch when they released their sin and their pain to the Lord. Sorry for going on so long, but it is such an important truth we need to learn!

    1. You understand the difference between Christ’s redemptive suffering and when we try to glorify our own suffering rather than releasing it to HIM. You explain this well..perhaps you will reach those I could not

  4. I enjoyed your essay. I am not a parent so although I could not relate to the scapegoat attitude of vacuuming up hurts and suffering for ones children in an unhealthy way, I did however, relate to the idea of self pity and the inclination to amplify insults. Your essay has a lot of depth and I plan to read it several more times after prayer and at different times. The Holy Spirit uses so many tools as an opportunity to grow in wisdom, Catholicstand has so many wonderful essay which do that. Thank you. Great essay and very deep.

  5. Pingback: TVESDAY CATHOLICA EXTRA | Big Pulpit

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