Stumbling Block

Stumbling Block – An obstacle to someone’s faith. (This phrase is found originally in Romans 14, where Paul suggests that when it comes to the gray areas, Christians ought to keep in mind those whose faith is weak and avoid deliberately doing something that could cause them to falter.)

It seemed like the whole of the evangelical culture was busy building boundaries in those days, the air thick with the dust of all that construction.

We were pinpointing things that could cause a person to lose his way, and we were isolating them; we were building up walls to keep them out.

A short list of potential stumbling blocks:

R-rated movies, PG-13-rated movies, songs with sexual innuendo, rap.

Two-piece bathing suits, tight sweaters, goodnight kisses, dating.

A cupboard full of wine. A six-pack in a refrigerator.

MTV, reality TV, any TV.

Ghostbusters. A lit cigarette. Harry Potter. An unlit cigarette.

Any of the four-letter-words.

People who took part in any of the aforementioned things.

I think this is how it all started, that Christian subculture with its bookstores and music festivals and t-shirts. All that building, all those boundaries rising up around us until we were enclosed in them. Here it is safe¸ we told each other. Here you will not stumble.

Here is an interesting thing that happened to many of us in the growing up. The boundaries that hedged us in became themselves blocks, and we were stumbling over them, tripping, falling down flat.

For me, it was the big church-shaped boulder that did it. I was stumbling over judgment, over hypocrisy, over loneliness and isolation, over not really belonging. It was programs and party lines and broken promises, and I was face-down drunk under the weight of it all.

We try, we try, we try. We build up boundaries, we tear them down. We try to protect ourselves and each other, and still there is all of this stumbling, all this crashing down, and I think maybe that’s just how it is.

Faith is a bizarre three-legged race, and we are all of us forced together, bound awkwardly by the love of Christ. We are all living it differently, interpreting it differently. We are doing it right and doing it wrong, and maybe stumbling is just part of it.

Liam is learning to walk, cruising tentatively, slowly along the too-sharp edges of the furniture.

All my life, I’ve thought that faith is like walking: it starts out rocky, but eventually you get the hang of it and it becomes as natural as breath.

But I watch him pick up one foot, put it down, pick it up, put it down, and I am seized with empathy, with compassion, with understanding, because I too am propped precariously against the edge of it all.

I am losing my balance all the time. I am tripping over the forgotten thing, the careless word, the unintended hurt, and I want to tell you that it’s just like this. That faith, too, is a kind of stumbling. That there is grace for that.

You fall, you stand, you slowly make your way around that thing that is tripping you up. And, in the end, you stumble on.

11 thoughts on “Stumbling Block

  1. Yes, Addie. I had the same experience with my upbringing, and it still — still! — feels somewhat precarious not to be hedged in by the Christian subculture. Why? I felt so suffocated by it at the time. I can’t stand stepping into the sickly sweet, quiet atmosphere of a Christian bookstore anymore (or into a church, but that’s another thing), and yet I’m trying to write a book for that market. I suppose I’ll always be attached to it somehow.

    My impression is that all those protections and warnings against “stumbling blocks” are based purely on fear. I’d love to read a blog post from you about how so many of us evangelical Christians walk through life afraid of nearly everything around us.

    You’re so right about the stumbling. I’m sure it never gets easier. When I see the beautiful elderly couple who seem so amazing, so secure in their faith, I imagine it’s not easy for them, either. They’ve probably just learned humility over the years.

    1. And how fascinating is it that as we once were baby stumbling, in even our old age we return to another form of stumbling. Our only mistake was believing that somewhere along the way, you know, “in our prime,” we actually had the walk mastered without any stumbling.

  2. If “sin” is missing the mark (an archery term for anything less than the bulls-eye), then how different is it to stumble, you know, off the straight and narrow path? I’ve bristled at the idea of “falling from grace.” Since sin is an indispensable part of grace (without it there is no need for grace, with it, God gets to revel in His most pleasurable role: re-creative redemption), stumbling is within the framework of God’s design. We think He didn’t know? We think He gets as upset over stumbling as “The Church Lady?”
    I marvel at how many years I spent both condemning myself and judging others when arrows hit the white or yellow circle on the target, instead of sticking that bad boy in the pupil of that stinkin’ bull’s eye! Now I know that when arrows whistle right past that target without hitting anything, it is an expression of what it means to be a man, and I don’t quit taking the shot. I bend my bow again, without fear of missing, and at rest in knowing Jesus is back there catching stray arrows.
    My greatest grief, because they are my favorites and my greatest love, is wrapped up in your phrase:
    “People who took part in any of the aforementioned things.”
    It reminds me of how we were coached compellingly to “focus on the family.” In so doing, 5 or 6 generations built walls up to keep them out. And we all gave hearty approval of it. People perished, we became distinguished for our hypocrisy, and all the while we believed we were keeping our little ones from stumbling.

    1. Great comment. Last paragraph was killer. I see a “focus on the family” post in my future.

  3. I definitely relate. In college especially, belonging to a para-church organization, there was just such attention to what we should and should not do. Not only that, but there was such attention to inward motivations, to one’s thought life, to the minutiae of one’s inner sanctum. Suffice it to say, being in this environment and having OCD were not an especially good combination. I cannot help but think it is better to stumble along joyfully than to spend all of your waking hours trying to identify and eliminate every potential stumbling block from your life.

  4. So, it was Joe Aldrich who first introduced an idea to me, in his book, “Lifestyle Evangelism.” He addressed the verse that says we should “avoid every appearance of evil.” And the references to “the weaker brother.” He boldly reversed a couple decades or more of thought by saying, “Teach the weaker brother!” In other words, instead of shedding the liberty and freedom the mature have in Christ for the sake of never offending ANYONE, we need to see those who tend toward legalism as weaker and strengthen them through our teaching them into liberty in Christ. The truth sets the stumbler free!

  5. Heavy. That is how I have been feeling. Your post spoke to me, and I thank you for letting me know that I am not alone.

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