Thursday, May 08, 2014

Stumbling Blocks and Scandals

Two quotes today.

First, for those who have never heard of him (which is probably most people), Justin Currie is a grumpy, unusually perceptive Scottish writer of pop songs. The first quote is a lyric that has been stuck in my head for a month, largely because of its sadness — and because in it he correctly assumes that we bear responsibility for the impact we have on one another’s lives, something that is increasingly uncommon in our individualistic society.

The Guilty Party

“Have you seen Priscilla? Was she trying to look away
From the pity in the mirror of your eyes as surprise held sway?
And did she look delightful in that frightful kind of way?
And could you still see the girl that loved me after all that I carved away?

A fist clenched in my heart when I heard you say
‘She has gone down the road called wrong.’
So go right ahead and cast the blame my way.

And when you saw Priscilla did you finally judge me
As the jailer and the killer of the glory she should be?”

The second quote is from someone considerably more perceptive than even Mr. Currie; someone who knows a great deal about sin and its causes:

“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin.”

The Scandal

The words “causes of sin” are also translated “things that offend” or “occasion of stumbling”. In the Greek it is one word, scandalon, from which we get the English word “scandal”.

However, our modern usage of that word carries some baggage that the Greek did not. When we refer to a “scandal”, we are primarily describing our own reaction to it. We are saying that we are shocked, or perhaps even titillated. In our typically modern fashion, we describe our own emotions, rather than the spiritual consequences of our acts and desires.

It is the same word the Lord famously and repeatedly used when he said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off”, “If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off”, and “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

We might say the term, as used by the Lord, carries the meaning to be “knocked off course spiritually”. It describes the sort of act, impulse or seething preoccupation that does damage to our lives, the lives of others, our relationship with God, and potentially theirs; damage that is ongoing and in some instances permanent.

Causes of Sin

The Lord taught that at the end of the age, all causes of sin will be rooted out of the kingdom, which is a great thing, because in this world, there are plenty of potential causes of sin.

First, our own desires cause us to sin. Lust is the example the Lord gives in Matthew, but he also teaches that the sin of lust, or inappropriate desire, takes place in the heart before and independent of any actions that may eventually follow from it. An adulterer, for example, commits multiple sins: the first and primary offense is against God (and against himself) in the privacy of his own heart; the second is the physical act itself; the third is that he causes his partner to sin; the fourth is that he sins against her husband, and so on. If she has children, I believe that he sins against them too, and the effects of his lust ripple through multiple lives.

Second, more frequently, perhaps, and also implicit in this imaginary scenario, is the Lord’s teaching that other people can cause us to sin. Or to put responsibility where it’s actually useful, let’s flip that: We can cause others to sin.

The Original Scandal

The first sin was like that, wasn’t it. The serpent started the whole thing with his lies and misrepresentations of the character of God. Then Eve came to desire the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate”. Her desire became a “cause of sin” or a stumbling block to her, and Adam was subsequently stumbled and caused to sin too. There was plenty of responsibility for everyone involved, and plenty of consequences attended for all parties.

And every sin since has followed some part of that same template.

The Lord described the current state of things like this:

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!”

By using the word “necessary” here, the Lord is not teaching that temptations or stumbling blocks are “required” or that they somehow serve his purposes (though, because he is sovereign, he can certainly cause them to do so), but rather that they are part and parcel of a fallen creation. They are a fact of life. Paul repudiates the inevitability of sin in the life of the Christian when he asks rhetorically, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Or, we might say, “Can a spiritually useful purpose be served by our sins?” or even “If God can make some good out of it, can I do it some more?”) Paul responds, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

It is the current condition of the world that temptations will come. But we will most certainly be held accountable for our part in bringing them into the lives of others.

An Impulse in Need of Curtailing

Furthermore, though I am responsible when I cause you to sin, you remain accountable too. The Lord’s teaching is that these impulses in each of us need to be swiftly curtailed: “Cut it off”, he says.

Paul adds something when he deals with the subject that even the Lord himself could not fully reveal before his death, and that is that while opportunities to sin will certainly come, succumbing to any individual temptation, stumbling block or “cause of sin” is no longer a given for the Christian. Paul reveals in Romans that, in Christ, we have died to sin. Sin no longer has dominion over us.

And to the Corinthians, he says (since we have been using sexual lust as an example), “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did.” In stating this he assumes that it is now possible for us not to indulge ourselves in the way Israel did, and he confirms it by adding:

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

Woe to the One

We often hear “She’s an adult”, “He has his own mind” or “That’s on him” used as excuses by people who have contributed to the downfall of others. And each one is true.

But my Savior, who would later die for my sins, says, “Woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!”

Everybody has a “Priscilla” or two, don’t they. I certainly do. There are plenty of people in my life who went down a “road called wrong”, and if I wasn’t there smiling and pointing the way down the broad road that “leads to destruction”, I was certainly not making any effort to hold them back.

For the Christian, it doesn’t have to be that way. In Christ, we must never confuse “necessary” with “inevitable”.

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