“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” Romans 14:13, ESV
We are familiar with this verse from Romans. It precedes a passage that explains how spiritually mature Christians ought to prevent their liberties from violating the conscience of a brother in Christ. “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9, ESV). Out of Christ-like love we care for the consciences of our brothers and sisters, never letting our freedom cause us to wrong them.
We have, however, heard fellow Christians refer to “stumbling blocks” outside the context of this passage. Haven’t we heard that a too-short skirt is a “stumbling block” to our Christian brothers? Going to a secular school, having unsaved friends, hearing swears and pop music? All stumbling blocks.
These Christians warn us that the world in which we live is full of stumbling blocks in our walk with Christ, and they’re right. The temptation of sin is real and hard to resist. Indulgence in the world’s pleasures leads to the highway of sin, the highway so many around us speed happily – and ignorantly – along. If we as Christians are not careful, we too will become entrenched in habits of sin and self-serving.
But are we right to try to cut off all worldly influences from our brothers’ eyes and ears? Are Christians better off when we try to isolate ourselves from the supposed “stumbling blocks” of the world? The passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians only deal with our freedom in Christ and protecting the consciences of our brothers and sisters. They do not tell us how much exposure to the world is okay and how much is too much. However, isn’t there more to living a Christ-like life than hiding from any possible cause to stumble, causes that could come from our very own hearts?
Maybe we need to think about Christians’ exposure to temptation differently. Rather than asking how you can remove stumbling blocks from your brother’s path, instead consider asking, How can I build my brother up so he is able to conquer the temptations of this sinful world?
The world is a battle for the heart. We idolize the comforts God has blessed us with; we are drawn to carnal pleasures, power, and prestige. While God is patiently leading us along the straight and narrow path, our sinful human nature constantly skews our steps and causes our feet to stumble. However, we are not hapless victims in all this. God enables us to do the impossible. “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” (1 Corinthians 10:13b, ESV).
It boils down to self-control. If we do not have self-control, even the longest skirt or the mildest music can cause sinful thoughts. We cannot cut ourselves off from the evil of our own hearts…at least, not by ourselves. Cushioning ourselves with Christian fellowship and expecting their efforts to protect our hearts from evil is not exercising self-control. When Christ was faced with temptation, He and the devil were alone in the wilderness, yet Christ still exercised perfect, sinless self-control. How can we and our fellow brothers and sisters conquer temptation if we rely on each other rather than the One who overcame the tempter?
We are still in our imperfect, human bodies in this sinful world. We cannot turn to other imperfect humans and expect to be perfectly upheld by them. No, our source of strength can only come from God and His Spirit in us; He alone is qualified to be the guardian of our hearts.
Don’t forget, the battle for the heart takes place in the heart. We want to obey God and live out His will for us, but our flesh tells us to disobey God and gratify ourselves. Paul says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:16-18a). In Matthew, we learn more of the battle between flesh and spirit: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41, ESV).
However, God’s perfect and holy Spirit is more than willing to come to the aid of our souls when we find ourselves in a battle with sin. We must set our hearts and minds on Him to see the way of escape. “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6, ESV).
When we try to remove any and every cause to stumble from our Christian brothers’ path, trying to protect their hearts by our own actions, we undermine the Holy Spirit’s power to work in their lives. It’s not up to us alone. What each person exposes him/herself to is between that person and God. The Spirit is the one who ought to guide their decisions, not us. The charge for us Christians is to support our brothers and sisters in their walk with Christ. Paul explains to the brothers and sisters in Galatia:
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ… But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.” – Galatians 6:1-2; 4-5, ESV, emphasis added
We bear one another’s burdens, but we ultimately bear our own burdens. The greatest trials God puts His children through cannot be withstood by fleeing to other Christians. We must flee to God. We should be so anchored by faith that we can say, just as the Psalmist did in Psalms 26: “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness” (vs. 2-3, ESV).
When we cushion our brother’s heart in a bubble of manmade holiness, not only do we undermine the Spirit’s work, but we also hinder the testing of our brother’s heart. In the Galatians 6 passage above, each Christian is commanded to test him/herself just as God tests His children, so that each person may know their steps are centered in Christ.
We are commanded, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:2, ESV), but we sometimes take this too far. By all means, build them up and help them conquer sin in their lives, but do not weaken God’s children by replacing their need for God with your Christian influence. Help your brother put on the armor of Christ, help him stand firm for Christ in a world that seeks to ensnare his heart, but then stand aside. Let God do the work in each of our hearts that He alone can do. Only then will our hearts and minds be equipped to navigate the world with vigilance and stay on the narrow path.
We are commanded to build up, to serve, and to love. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:13-14, ESV, emphasis added). In this way, we both guard our own steps and behave lovingly towards our brothers and sisters, to build them up. In fact, loving God’s children is a characteristic of a true follower of Christ. “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling” (1 John 2:10, ESV).
Hear the encouraging blessing Paul wrote to his brothers and sisters, that “according to the riches of [God’s] glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being…and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16;19, ESV).
God’s rich and powerful work in us is meant to spur us on in love to build one another up, and so keep our feet from stumbling.