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.”—Luke 17:1,2
I had a conversation once with someone who had been hurt by a church a long time ago. It wasn’t a great big scandal or anything, just an experience of rejection by someone who probably had no idea of the effect of their actions. But it left a deep scar, and it affected this person for many years afterward, in a number of ways. It changed the way this person saw themselves, and the way they saw the church. It made them susceptible to the lies of the enemy. It became an excuse to sin. In time, God brought about healing and restoration, but in the meantime real damage had been done.
That conversation made me wonder how many times I have hurt someone in the church without knowing it, and what the ongoing effects of those sins and mistakes might be. It also brought to life something I had never really thought much about: it really is possible for us to cause other people to sin. This is not to take away all of their responsibility. When someone makes a sinful choice, God holds them personally accountable for it. But the Bible seems to indicate that He also takes into account the sins of others that might have inclined them to make that choice.
In Luke 17 and Matthew 18, Jesus says it you have a choice between causing other people to sin and drowning in the ocean, choose drowning. It’s that big of a deal. It is no small thing to be the cause of someone else’s spiritual struggles, especially a child. He also says in those passages “things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to those through whom they come.” In this world, no one is going to escape temptation, and no one is going to avoid being sinned against. Sin is everywhere and we will all be affected by it. But that doesn’t change the fact that being the cause of sin is something to be avoided at all costs.
I’ve been thinking about those things this week as news has surfaced of something truly awful happening in our community. A high-profile member of one of our sister churches in town has been arrested for multiple counts of child abuse. Reading the details of the case is sickening and heartbreaking, and it’s hard to know how to feel. Honestly, the first response of my heart is to pray, “Dear God, how can you stand it? This world is such an awful place sometimes. How long, O Lord?”
There are so many levels of damage that have been done. First of all, of course, our hearts go out to the victims. They have been wronged in ways we wouldn’t wish on anyone, wounded so deeply it’s hard to imagine how anyone could ever recover without God’s help. And the reality is that many won’t. They have been given such a powerful reason to reject God and His church that they it may be years before they’re open to the Gospel, or they may never be open. If they ultimately reject Christ, only God is wise enough to sort out how much of that is their own sinfulness and how much is the fault of the one who wronged them.
And that is just the beginning. Their families have been affected, emotionally and spiritually, in ways that will change them forever. Their future spouses and children have been affected. Our community has been affected. Everyone who hears the story is affected, and unfortunately, for some who were already inclined to be suspicious of the church, this will just be one more great excuse to dismiss us and the God we represent.
And then of course there is the perpetrator, and those who know Him and love Him, his family and friends and church. They are hurting too. For those who are close to Him, we can pray for comfort and healing, and we can show them grace, recognizing that they are in an awful, impossible situation. And for the man himself, we can remember that the Gospel is always true, and we can pray for genuine repentance, because when there is true repentance there is forgiveness for every sin at the foot of the cross. At the same time, we can say with all the authority of our Lord’s own words that he would have been better off if he had been tied to a rock and pushed off the side of a boat thirty years ago.
I’ll confess I’m angry. But I’m also sobered. Have I ever been someone’s excuse to stay away from the church? Am I giving my children reasons to trust Christ, or reasons to push Him away? Jesus’ words aren’t just for the extreme cases. They’re meant to remind all of us that we affect the people around us more than we know. In the end, will the net effect of our lives be to draw people closer to God, or will we be a reason they keep Him at a distance? This week, as you pray for those affected by this tragedy, pray also that God will help you to represent Him well in the lives of those around you. I’ll do the same. May David’s words in Psalm 69 truly be the cry of our hearts:
Lord, the Lord Almighty,
may those who hope in you
not be disgraced because of me;
God of Israel,
may those who seek you
not be put to shame because of me.—Psalm 69:6