How Not to be a Stumbling Block

My previous article caused many to do a double take when I presented to you Jesus as a stumbling block. And if we cause someone to stumble because we fail to meet their wrong expectations, we need not take a guilt trip.  Singapore Christians love to take other Christians along for such a trip.

The term “stumbling block” is an image in the Bible.  We need to picture a path we are walking as we journey to God to receive our full salvation in the resurrection.  This path has a curb to help us stay on track. But if we choose to wander off the path, there is a great likelihood that we are going to kick over the curb that is intended to keep us on the path.  Jesus himself is the great stumbling block, in that he is like that curb because they have wrong expectations of him.  And instead of aligning their thoughts to God’s, they trip over the curb when they should be keeping to the path.

Singapore Christians are right in their greater carefulness (than Christians in other countries I meet) about not tripping up other people in their faith journey. But we are not very clear on what that means.  I have seen too many people placed on guilt trips that are unnecessary or wrong. There is a true guilt and a false guilt.  Last week, I talk about false guilt, and now, I share with you true guilt.

Warning by Jesus

Jesus himself gives us a clear warning about tripping up another person.

Luke 171 Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves. (NIV; cf. Mark 9:42; Matthew 18:6-7)

NO stumbling blocksA “stumbling block” is an image that tells a message.  The context tells us the meaning. It means to cause another person to sin, especially in such a way that the person’s faith walk is compromised and he may fall away (= apostatize) and not arrive at salvation. I think the NLT does a great job in helping us understand what it means to “cause a person to stumble” by removing the imagery. It reads:

Luke 17 1 One day Jesus said to his disciples, “There will always be temptations to sin, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the temptingIt would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around your neck than to cause one of these little ones to fall into sinSo watch yourselves!

To stumble in the faith means to sin or trip up in such a way that we jeopardize our salvation. Here, to cause another to stumble means we tempt people to sin in such a way that they trip and put their salvation at risk. The references to stumbling (skandaliz­ō) are not exclusively about salvation, but there is a heavy leaning towards that nuance. Even when Jesus is the stumbling block, we see that those who trip over him place their salvation in jeopardy.

It is so serious that Jesus said (again figuratively), 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5, NIV)

Jesus told Simon Peter that Satan was using him to entice Jesus to ditch God’s redemptive plan, and the term “stumbling block” is used: Matthew 16 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (NIV)

We don’t want to be stumbling blocks.  Sometimes, our good intentions can trip another person up (as in the case of Simon Peter). Sometimes there are things in our life that we love dearly and they trip us up. Sometimes we tempt others to sin or they tempt us to sin – this is clearly unacceptable.

Tempting a person to sin

It sounds easy not to fall foul of this one. Most of us will say we have never tempted another to sin.  So men and women don’t seduce each other into a wrong relationship, right? Children don’t test their limits with their parents, and parents do not set poor examples of faith for their children, right? I know I am guilty of tempting others to sin through my failures.  As a pastor, my actions become public. It is easy for another person to look at me and say, “Since he can do it, I can do it too.” Most will not say it openly, and most will know that is just a rationalization for sin. But Satan will surely whisper it in your ear, and even though in your heart, you know that such perverse reasoning is a lie; you want to sin and so you believe it. 

Strangely, people cause me to trip up with their sin also. There are people who hate me because of my failures and that makes me want to give up.  It took me a long time to understand this is not the voice of conscience, or of the Holy Spirit.  It is the voice of the devil himself.  The dynamic of temptation is that the devil first tells you it is ok to go ahead and sin.  After the sin is committed, he then tells you, “You are useless, worthless, guilty, unforgiveable.”  This leads us to more sin.  “Since I am already in this rut, I might as well live it out.” It is the forgiveness of God and his redemption that takes us out of sin and gives us a reboot.  When we are cruel to others who wish to turn around, we are stumbling blocks to them. That trips up a brother or a sister also!

We need to go deeper and ask how others have tempted us to sin and how we have tempted them to sin; and the role of Satan in all this.

Paul urges us not to trip others up

Paul addresses the grey issues that crop up after the Christian community came into being. What if the action that trips others up is not wrong? What if I do something that is acceptable but another person trips? Paul addresses this issue in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8,10.

In the case of Romans 14, it is likely Paul was talking about the “Agape” or “Love Feast” practiced by the early Christians.  When Christians got together, they shared a meal expressing their love for each other.  Some would bring more food, some less, and some not at all. This meal is closely tied to the commemoration of the Last Supper. (The food part is similar to our dinner fellowship @theWell.) It is the “Love Feast” not because there is feasting, but it is a feast of love; Christians loving one another and expressing that love in their sharing of a meal. 

The problem they faced is that some were Jews and some Gentiles.  The Jews who have recently come to faith have a problem with the food the Gentiles eat.  They may know in their head that all food is fine, but they just cannot bring themselves to break the Jewish dietary laws. If the food damages the conscience of the newly converted Jewish believers, it is better to just eat vegetables at these meals.  Love is better expressed at the Love Feast by concession than insisting that those with a weak conscience are pushed to eat food that injures their faith.

Let’s say we have converts from religions that do not eat certain meats: pork, beef, etc., So what do we do? What else? Eat a universal meat! “Eat mor chikin,” the cows of Chick-fil-A will say.

Not too long ago, I met a Hindu convert.  He is vegetarian, and Christians are not.  When we have our dim sum and other delicious food, the smell makes him sick.  But he understands that it is him.  He understands that having spent his entire life as a vegetarian, his revulsion towards meat is not something he can control, and he does not expect others to conform to him. It was not a conscience issue but a diet issue. So I let this matter drop. But if he joins in our meals and is wrecked by a guilty conscience, what should we do?  If that is the case, Paul tells us we should then go vegetarian and include him in our Love Feast.

Let’s paint another scenario.  Let’s say there are some people at the meal who argue that the dietary laws of the OT are still applicable today.  They take great offense that we choose not to keep the OT dietary laws, and regard us as inferior Christians.  Should we give in to them?

The two situations look similar from the food point of view.  But this is not about food.  It is about people. The proud “better-than-you” Christian is not in danger of tripping over food; he is straying from the path and becoming a legalist. He is not the brother with a weaker conscience, but a brother with pride.  He is not feeling guilty because he does what you do.  He is saying you are inferior and must become like him.  It is not about food, it is about the person.  We avoid nothing on account of such people. They are tripping themselves up on account of their rejection of God’s grace. We cannot join in their legalism.

Diet is a non-issue for most Christians in the west, but in many parts of Asia, food remains a sensitive issue over which we need to exercise love.  Take the example of food offered to idols or some other such related issue which Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 8,10.  We will miss Paul’s point if we look for exact equivalency and become legalistic.  In our context, a person can walk into a Buddhist temple, sit at table, and be served a Buddhist vegetarian meal.  In this instance, it is not a meat issue.  There is no sacrifice given to Buddha. If I am an elder in a church and I partake of such a meal at the innocent invite of a co-worker, I need to ask if my action can have unintended consequences. Will my other co-workers begin to think that I find Buddhism acceptable?  Will others who see me there think I am both Christian and Buddhist? When a Christian with a weaker conscience also does this, will he begin to think that there is no distinction between Christ and Buddha?

These are the issues Paul wants us to address. It is not a question of whether the actions hurt you, it is a question of whether you hurt the weaker brother, and cause him to sin, or worse, to kill off a budding faith.

1 Cor 8 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

1 Cor 10 31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble ….

John’s take

The Apostle John talks about how to identify the true believers from the fake one in 1 John. In that setting, he explains:

1 John 2 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.10 Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.

Like Paul, he explains that those who love (true believers) live in the light, “and there is nothing in them (the lovers [subject]) to make them (others [the object]) stumble. Expressed in another way, John is saying, the true believers who love others will live in a way that does not cause the vulnerable to stumble.

In Revelation 2:14, John points to how Israel was tripped up by the action of those who successfully tempted Israel to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by sexual immorality. That is the exact meaning of “stumbling block” given by Jesus.  The enemies of God’s children pose as friends and got the Israelites to engage in idolatry and sexual immorality, thus bringing God’s judgment on them.

Conclusion

Our main discussion here is about how not to cause another to stumble and fall.  But we have also briefly addressed how we should not trip up. Tripping others up in the faith is a serious thing.  We must take great care not to trip others up by (1) tempting them to sin or (2) by doing things that cause others to do the same, when it injures their faith.

When legalists come into our life and tell us that we must conform to their preferences, they are placing stumbling blocks in the path of those who are seeking Christ.  They should be rejected. We are not causing them to stumble simply because we are offensive to them.  They are the haters in 1 John – the legalists.  It is easy to mix the two up.  But to differentiate them is to remove the power of the legalists and to sensitize us to the plight of the weaker brother or sister.

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