What if I (Cause You to) Stumble?
Twenty years ago, DC Talk released an album that would turn the contemporary Christian music world on its head. Jesus Freak, a record as outstanding as its simple title would suggest, boasted numerous hits. Of all the songs 90’s youth group kids were spiritually compelled by, none connected so well as the song What If I Stumble?
DC Talk pushed us into conversations as to what it looked like to stumble, and how would the reaction be if they (or we) ever did? And while we likely all know what it means to “stumble” in our Christian faith, what does it look like when we cause someone else to stumble?
Stumbling in and of itself is basically the same as sinning; an ungraceful trip-up on the journey to being Christ-like. Certainly this bears a serious weight for believers, but when we are the cause for another believer to sin, it’s a terribly grave offense according to scripture.
In fact, when we look at Jesus’ words from Matthew, causing another person to sin is worthy of much worse than just death. Matthew 18:6 says “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” I’m no expert on millstones, but they sound big and heavy, and probably would guarantee death if they were attached to someone flung into the ocean. But Jesus says that kind of death would be preferable over the punishment when we cause someone to sin.
The “little ones” Jesus refers to here has been debated by theologians over the years. Is He talking about children or new believers? In either case, the subjects are spiritually immature and vulnerable to various temptations to sin. The responsibility of mature believers is a great one indeed.
What might be some specific examples of causing someone to stumble? The scenario most often used is that of the recovering alcoholic who has recently become a believer, and his Christian buddies going out to a bar. They invite their friend who is a new Christian but struggles with drinking, and he in turn stumbles and falls back into drinking much more than he should. While that is certainly a situation that exemplifies “causing one to stumble”, there are other, perhaps more subtle ways this takes place.
There’s the group of Christian friends who gather at church and gossip about other church members. The new believer in the group goes along because he or she sees gossiping about others as no big deal. There’s the group of Christian guys who can’t help but thumb through the latest Maxim magazine together. The guy in the group who just began to follow Christ now joins in, likely unaware that Christ strictly forbids lust, though the other “mature” believers in the group all seem to be okay with it.
Then you have situations like we’ve seen recently where pastors, youth ministers, and other Christian leaders abuse their power and deceive young believers in various ways that completely defy God’s word. These abuses are detrimental, often leading believers who were new to Christianity to completely turn from faith in God.
We read earlier in Matthew during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about what we should do if we cause ourselves to stumble. He was radical in His approach to things that cause us to sin. In speaking specifically to sexual sin, Jesus said “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away…and if your right hand causes you to sin, 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 5:29,30) That punishment sounds excessive, but Jesus’ desire was teaching us to cut ourselves off completely from sin.
I once heard a former airline pilot talk about his great struggles with pornography. He was a new believer, but found it difficult to shake the temptations of being on the road constantly with access to porn in his hotel room. Finally he decided to take a radical approach to his sin. On every trip from there on he had a co-pilot physically remove the TV out from his hotel room so the temptation wouldn’t be there.
If causing someone to stumble is a grievous offense (Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 8:12 to do so is a “sin against Christ”), then what correction needs to take place? Christians that are mature in their faith would hopefully never be the cause of someone else’s sin, but when it happens, we need to confess immediately that we were wrong. Jesus was tempted to sin, yet never caved. We are to be Christ-like in our words and actions, and part of that involves discipling and caring for Christians who are still spiritually immature and vulnerable to temptation. Just like babies and toddlers need guidance as they grow, so do new believers. Leaving them to figure out things on their own is like releasing a prisoner from jail, but not giving him any help finding food or a place to stay. Just as we confess and seek forgiveness if we are a cause of another’s sin, we must show a tremendous amount of grace when those young believers stumble.
My two preschool-aged daughters love balloons. They also love to let their balloons go and dance around in the sky as they get smaller and smaller. Recently they got balloons and as my youngest got out of the van to run down the driveway and let her balloon go, she stumbled. She tripped and fell, skinning her knee as little children are prone to do while her balloon flew away, high into the blue sky.
My reaction could have been anger. I’ve told her before to not run on the driveway because she could fall and get hurt. It could have been disappointment because she disobeyed. It could have been annoyance and frustration, because kids constantly fall and need help. Instead, I picked her up to comfort her. To show her grace.
Causing someone to stumble is wrong. It’s sinful in its own act. But it’s important that when it happens, we correct it from our end, and reach out a hand to help up those that fell down from their walk with Christ. Like DC Talk asks in that famous 90’s song “will the love continue when my walk becomes a crawl?” the answer should always be yes. The love will continue, because God’s love never fails, never stops, and never stumbles.