Monday, October 04, 2021

Anonymous Asks (165)

“What does it mean that God is able to keep us from stumbling?”

You are probably thinking of the last two verses of Jude: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever.”

Supernatural vs. Natural Protection

The Greek word Jude uses for “stumbling” in his doxology suggests a sin that could lead to a major fall, though it doesn’t have to. Sometimes the shock of losing your footing is enough to make you scramble for your balance and right yourself. James writes, “We all stumble in many ways.” He goes on to talk about how the most common source of stumbling is our speech.

When we speak of God keeping his children from stumbling, we may have in mind a host of invisible angelic presences steering us away from temptation and dutifully reordering our circumstances to keep us on the straight and narrow. Well, it is often said that God helps those who help themselves. Let me suggest that while God is certainly able to command his angels to watch over his people and guard them from falling if he so chooses, that is an exceptional scenario, not least because people who are constantly steered away from temptation without their knowledge learn nothing and never mature in their faith. God is interested in our willing participation in his plan for our lives, not in micro-managing helpless automatons.

It is not so much that God is willing to help those who help themselves; it is that he already has. God has provided effective, non-miraculous means by which we may avoid stumbling ... if we are prepared to pay attention to his word.

Let me suggest a few.

Seven Non-Supernatural Ways to Avoid Stumbling

1/ Pay attention to the wisdom literature of scripture

Approximately 3,000 years ago Solomon wrote, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble.” If you want to avoid disastrous mistakes in the Christian life, get familiar with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. They are great sources of spiritual common sense.

2/ Don’t listen to the wrong teachers

Malachi wrote about priests who failed at their job of teaching the people because they themselves had “turned aside from the way”. His accusation: “You have caused many to stumble by your instruction.” Just because someone has been to seminary and found a job teaching in a church does not mean he is equipped to lead God’s people. A tree can be judged by its fruit. Before taking counsel from Christian teachers, pay careful attention to how they conduct themselves and whether there is real evidence of Christ-likeness in their lives. Are they sacrificial or selfish; humble or self-confident; meek or abrasive; service-oriented or just disposed to issue orders? All these things add up.

3/ Obey what you already know

Peter writes about those who stumble “because they disobey the word”. Christ became a stone of stumbling to the leaders of the Jews because they refused to humble themselves and obey him. If you are not willing to make use of the light you already have, no more will be given to you, and you’ll find yourself stumbling around in spiritual darkness. “To everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

4/ Don’t try to make scripture say things it doesn’t

Peter wrote about how ignorant and unstable people twist the scriptures, then counsels, “Take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.” Those who twist the scriptures do so to their own destruction. In order for the Bible to be of any help to us, we have to accept what it actually says, not what we would like it to say.

5/ Don’t be independent

Solomon (again) wrote that a haughty spirit comes before a fall. Jesus counseled his disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” It’s all too easy to think we have things under control, and to stop looking to the Lord for help. That was Peter’s mistake. He thought his devotion to Christ was sufficient. He needed to learn dependence. “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”

6/ Don’t be afraid to run away

Paul assured the Corinthians, “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.” A way of escape is worthless unless you take it. Hovering around a source of temptation is asking for trouble. So it should not surprise us that the New Testament writers regularly counsel flight as the best option: flee youthful passions, flee sexual immorality, flee idolatry, flee the love of money. In a word, run. It worked for Joseph.

7/ Avoid abusing alcohol

Isaiah writes about those who “stumble in giving judgment” because they are severely inebriated. Their judgment cannot be trusted because they themselves are out of control. This is true of other kinds of addiction as well.

Once in a Blue Moon

All that being said, there are times when we may be doing all the things God has recommended to help us avoid stumbling, and still find ourselves at risk of stumbling because of circumstances beyond our control or factors of which we have no knowledge. Perhaps someone in whom we have every confidence deliberately misleads us. Genesis 20 tells the story of Abraham and Sarah in Gerar. King Abimelech had no idea Sarah was Abraham’s wife because both Abraham and Sarah lied to him about it. Who could see that coming?

So Abimelech protested to the Lord, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” And God replied, “It was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.”

So hey, sometimes men and women are miraculously preserved from stumbling. Just don’t count on it happening if you choose to ignore the many ways God has already given you to preserve yourself.

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