What are stumbling blocks? The metaphor of “stumbling block” is used in various ways throughout Scripture, but it often depicts an obstacle along the path of life that makes us stumble. Stumbling blocks in our path are important for us to watch out for, but we must also be vigilant that we ourselves aren’t placing stumbling blocks in the path of others. Many of us walk through our daily lives not thinking much about how our actions and words could be affecting others, or how we could be acting like a stumbling block without even realizing it.
When I was sixteen, I was at a cafeteria table when two people who claimed to know Christ condemned me to hell for my first tattoo. Now, I do not know where they stood with Christ when they made these statements, but the claims stuck with me. In fact, it was one of the things which made it so that I didn’t even want to hear the gospel for a long time.
So why do I bring up this story from my past? I was reflecting on this statement from Jesus found in Luke 17:1-4:
“Now He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to one through whom they come! It is better for him if a millstone is hung around his neck and he is thrown into the sea than that he may cause one of these little ones to sin. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” (Luke 17:1-4, NASB)
“It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to one through whom they come!”
You see, after doing an introspective look, I could not help but ask myself if there have been ways I have been a stumbling block like those two at the cafeteria table. We sometimes take the above verses to reflect primarily on being a stumbling block to children, but what if it is more than that? The Greek word mikros (these “little ones”) can range from age to status. So, what if it could also refer to young believers or even have application for our relationships with non-Christians?
What Are Stumbling Blocks in the Bible?
The New Testament depicts us as walking with Christ once we make our decision to be baptized. However, this imagery of a path is used throughout the Old Testament as well. We see the imagery of a stumbling block pop up in depiction as something that causes someone to fall when walking along life’s path.
As our path is meant to be walked in God’s wisdom, when we stray from that wisdom, we encounter stumbling blocks that cause us to fall down on the path. Ezekiel highlights this best in Ezekiel 14:3-7 when he talks about what happens when we follow idols over God. By doing this we begin to erect stumbling blocks that cause us to fall along our path. In Ezekiel’s words, his audience is in danger of “set[ting] up his idols in his heart, put[ting] in front of his face the stumbling block of his wrongdoing” (Eze. 14:4, NASB).
Leviticus 26:37 describes the panic that will follow them when they reject God and are forced into exile: “They will then stumble over each other as if running from the sword, although no one is pursuing; and you will have no strength to stand before your enemies” (NASB). We sometimes forget that we are in a war against our “flesh” (selfish desires which lead us away from holiness). We set ourselves up for loss after loss in our internal battle against sin when we ignore moral stumbling blocks in our path.
Stumbling Blocks: “We set ourselves up for loss after loss in our internal battle against sin when we ignore moral stumbling blocks in our path.”
In a different usage of the phrase “stumbling block,” the Bible sometimes talks about God being a stumbling block to the wicked. In Isaiah 8:14-15, we see God causing them to be unable to walk in their ways without falling over the inequity of their sin. In Romans 9:32, we even see Christ being considered a stumbling block to the wicked as well, against the foolishness of the world.
All these examples show us ways in which a stumbling block is an item that causes someone to falter from the path they are choosing to walk, whether that path is with or against God.
What’s at Stake with Stumbling Blocks?
Before we dig into how we can avoid becoming stumbling blocks, we need to understand why this topic is important. What’s at stake if we allow ourselves to become stumbling blocks for children, new believers, or even outsiders? For one thing, we as Christians are meant to be Christ’s ambassadors to the world. This means that we are here for a specific purpose. This is delivering the good news of our King, without alteration or error. Being a stumbling block means our words, actions, or behavior is hurting the cause of the gospel.
How people perceive us and our actions will influence how they see and come to know Christ and his message. So, if our actions can either glorify or hurt the message of Christ, we should take the possibility of being a stumbling block very seriously—especially as our world becomes more averse to hearing the message of the gospel preached.
Stumbling Blocks: “Being a stumbling block means our words, actions, or behavior is hurting the cause of the gospel.”
The last thing we want is to cause someone to not want to hear the gospel even before we get a chance to talk to them. As for new believers, or even seasoned believers, we also do not want to cause them to stumble by modeling actions or beliefs which go against the message of Christ. It’s worth keeping in mind that being a stumbling block does not apply only to our evangelical mission outside of the church, but also to our discipling mission within the church (see Luke 17:1-4 above).
How Do We Become Stumbling Blocks? By Changing the Gospel.
Now that we have looked at the importance of not being a stumbling block to both those outside and inside the church, let’s look at ways in which we can unintentionally become stumbling blocks. Although there are many ways this can happen, there is one reason that feeds into all of the others and it’s revealed in a very famous section of Scripture:
“But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s purposes, but men’s.” (Matt. 16:23, NASB)
In this verse, we find one of the root causes of being a stumbling block. We can become an unintentional stumbling block when we focus on the purposes of man, but not on the purposes of God. We see this played out in the verses leading up to this, as Peter is fixating on his preconceived notions of what the Messiah will be. Earlier, he openly declared that he knows Jesus is the Messiah, yet instead of submitting to what Christ says must happen, Peter tries to impose his will onto the situation and tries to dictate what must happen. Peter wanted a gospel minus the crucifixion.
Stumbling Blocks: “Peter wanted a gospel minus the crucifixion.”
How often do we fall into this same trap? Often, we can be willing to tell the truth—if we can soften it and make it palatable. It’s all too easy for preaching and teaching to mainly be about making people feel good. We forget that the purposes of God’s Word involve rebuking, correcting, teaching, and training (see 2 Timothy 3:16). We forget that following Christ also involves taking up our own “cross” (Luke 9:23). We can begin to twist the words of God and the concepts He has defined to play well with human unwillingness to own up to our sin. We can be afraid to confront people with the truth because it might hurt their feelings or negatively affect their perception of us. Instead of teaching people to resist the temptations of their old life, we try to coddle them by creating a theology that accommodates sin.
How Do We Become Stumbling Blocks? By Corrupting the Impressionable.
Like many I know who have walked the Christian walk, the name that I am about to mention is one that at some point we all revered as a great thinker in the world. A man who could draw crowds to hear his insightful knowledge and bask in the gift he had for talking about the Word. Ravi Zacharias was a man whose quick wit and deep answers provided insight into the Word of God. He grew in spiritual stature and respect to the point where when he passed away even secular news outlets praised his work and approachability. In the following weeks though, it would be shown that apparently Mr. Zacharias had a powerful secret that he kept even from his family.
Evidence came forth that Mr. Zacharias used the power and influence he gained to take advantage of women, at least one of whom had come to see him as a spiritual father. No longer were the headlines showing respect to a man once deemed a great apologist of the faith. Instead, they turned to hit pieces of another Christian caught sexually abusing those who were influenced by him. Those who owned his books had to deal with internal struggles of whether to discard them, keep the books to themselves, or continue to recommend them to newly growing Christians. No longer could we talk about his wise arguments or use his writing to help enhance our own. Many Christians, including myself, who had discovered Mr. Zacharias and used him to help enhance our understanding of the faith now doubted if any of the words he uttered we could take as true.
Stumbling Blocks: “Those who owned his books had to deal with internal struggles.”
If Mr. Zacharias didn’t live even in secret as if he believed in the gospel that he talked so eloquently about, should we? If his cunning arguments and public engagements had become a cover to abuse victims, then was he really sent by God to teach an understanding of the Word? Is what he taught or said still profitable to us as believers? Is my foundation as solid as I thought?
The actions of the late Mr. Zacharias continue to cause a lot of stumbling among believers and non-believers alike. They cause a lot of hurt to be put out into the world and a shadow of doubt to be cast over the gospel of Christ. It was in moments like this that I was thankful for the words of apologists like Greg Koukl. In his article “When Spiritual Heroes Fall,” he provides insight into how we should respond when public figures, or even local figures, become stumbling blocks through their actions. The biggest takeaway from Koukl’s article is that we do not place our faith in fallen men.
We are all fallen and will fail those whom we disciple, teach, and lead. This is why it is critical that the cornerstone of our foundations and teachings be built on Christ, the perfect man. So that when we fail, the foundation of someone else will not be shaken.
“This is why it is critical that the cornerstone of our foundations and teachings be built on Christ, the perfect man.”
This example is but one way we as Christians can become stumbling blocks for impressionable people (think “these little ones”) both within the church and outside of the church. We can multiply additional examples, for example, causing dissensions and hindrances within the Church, hypocritical judgmentalism, hating our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, Idolatry, and sexual immorality of any kind.
How many of us can recall a story in the past five years where a public figure who was identified with the church fell into one of these? How many of us can recall a story of someone we know in our own church who has fallen into one of these? In what ways might you have been a stumbling block to a person on whom you’ve had influence?
How do we recover when we stumble?
So, what do we do if we realize that we have been a stumbling block for someone?
The excerpt from Luke 17 (quoted above) provides us with insight. First, we need to confess what we have done. We need to be open that it hurt the message of the gospel, that we were poor ambassadors, and that we caused someone to stumble. We need to go to God and ask for his forgiveness. If able, we then need to go to the person or persons we may have wronged, admit we were wrong, and ask for their forgiveness.
“If able, we then need to go to the person or persons we may have wronged, admit we were wrong, and ask for their forgiveness.”
Confession needs to be accompanied by genuine repentance. We need to turn away from our wrong decisions and be diligent about not falling into the same behavior. This means being on guard. We need to keep our shields up and be ready for an attack from the enemy. We can do this by saturating ourselves with Scripture, taking note of what spiritual influences we are letting influence us. We need to also be praying and asking for the Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us.
Just because we put up the stumbling block does not mean we cannot help tear it down to prevent further stumbling. We can use our testimony of God’s grace to help show the strength and forgiveness we have received in Christ. As Proverbs 11:2 says, “When pride comes, then comes dishonor; But with the humble there is wisdom.”