How can we avoid causing someone to sin?

gospel of mark sin

From time to time, you’ve probably heard me mention something about my love for music.  I mention it a lot.  I enjoy just about every genre and style, and I’m always on the hunt for something new to listen to.

 I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this before, but in many respects, I have personally come to believe that musicians are our modern day poets, and the lyrics they write frequently reveal the emotional, relational, and spiritual longings of our culture.

 Recently, I took a quick look at the top 10 songs that are charting in popular American music.  I wasn’t familiar with most of the artists, so I took some time to listen to most of the songs on the list.  Several of the songs seemed predictable and didn’t interest me.  One song in particular was really good so it’s probably going to remain in my listening rotation.  Several songs on the top 10 were from the same artist, so I checked those out as well.  In some ways, I wish I hadn’t because what I discovered was disturbing.

 I won’t go into great detail about what that particular musician shared in his lyrics, but I’ll give you a general overview.  His words, as far as I can tell, primarily glorified greed, drug use, and the objectification and abuse of women.  I was shocked, not only that a record company would be willing to produce content like this, but that it made it to the top 10 chart.  That means that in all likelihood, there are millions of young people throughout the country and the world who are memorizing every line and internalizing this artist’s philosophy as their own approach to life.

 If the Lord ever entrusts you with the opportunity to influence another person, particularly a young person, aim higher than this artist is aiming.  Remind yourself that we will give an account to the Lord for the ways we influence the faith, the lives, and the activities of others.  Jesus makes that very clear in Mark 9:42-50.  He begins that passage with these words…

“Whoever causes one of  these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”  (Mark 9:42)

 You’re going to notice as we work our way through this passage that Jesus uses very strong and descriptive language to make multiple points.  He uses this kind of language as a way to communicate emphasis, not as an encouragement to commit violence against others or inflict self-harm on yourself.  I wanted to mention that at the outset because there are many people who, throughout the centuries, have misunderstood the point of Christ’s words in this passage.

 Prior to this passage, when teaching the disciples about the nature of genuine faith and humble service, Jesus pointed to a child as an example.  Now He was expressing a word of caution toward those who are in a place of influence over a child or someone who is new to the Christian faith.

 Jesus cautioned those who would one day read His words not to cause a child, a young believer, or anyone to sin.  That’s a serious caution we should all keep in mind because we all have the capacity and the opportunity to influence the lives of others.

 From the perspective of eternal consequences, Jesus says, it would be better for someone who is inclined to influence a young believer to sin to have a gigantic millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea than to actually bring harm to a child or a young believer.

 There are multiple ways we could apply this teaching, but for starters, it’s a caution not to lead another person astray.  We’ve all seen examples of people who have done this in subtle or overt ways.  I knew someone when I was growing up who may be spending the majority of the rest of his earthly life in prison because of something he did to a child.  We also regularly see news stories of people in positions of power and influence who have misused their position as an opportunity to bring all kinds of harm to the lives of young people.  Christ warns us in this passage that such activity is going to be dealt with by God, and if our lives have been going in this direction, I believe His words offer a strong encouragement to repent while there is still time to do so.

 There’s something else that’s important to consider when looking at a passage like this, and it has to do with what we may consider our rights and privileges in this world.

 There are certain things in life you may actually have a right to do, own, or engage in that you may need to forego in order to avoid causing another believer to stumble.  This is particularly true if you’re in a position of leadership or influence.  The apostle Paul gave a few examples to the church in the city of Corinth that are worth considering.

“This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?  Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.  For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.”  (1 Cor. 9:3-5, 12, 19) 

I think about Paul’s words in this passage often.  Basically, he said he was willing to give up certain things that he technically had a right to so as not to place a stumbling block before others that might get in the way of them understanding the gospel and coming to faith in Jesus.  Paul looked at this as a way he could serve others for their good instead of fixating and idolizing what would have been to his benefit.  He adopted this attitude because this is the exact attitude Jesus demonstrated while serving us.

“And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’”    (Mark 9:43-48)

Jesus went on to address the subject of temptation even further by encouraging us not to give it a place of dominance in our lives.  If we make a pattern of giving into sin, we’ll not only develop a propensity for hurting others, we’ll also bring harm upon ourselves.

 Jesus speaks of three parts of the body in this passage.  Those designations are very intentional because they represent categories of sin that are prone to tempt us.  Jesus speaks of the hand because it’s with the hand that we’re likely to harm or steal.  He speaks of the foot because it’s with the foot that we’re likely to wander toward sin and spend time in places we don’t belong.  He speaks of the eye because it’s with the eye that we’re likely to covet, lust, and commit mental adultery.

 When Jesus speaks of cutting off the hand, cutting off the foot, or plucking out the eye, I promise you that His greater point wasn’t to encourage us to maim our bodies because you and I both know that literally cutting off our hands and feet or plucking out our eyes wouldn’t correct the internal problem we have with sin.  As human beings, we sin by act, attitude, and nature, so Christ’s words are meant to get our attention and illustrate a point, but He isn’t directing us to chop ourselves apart.

 Jesus is however encouraging us not to feed or accommodate the lusts of the flesh.  As your faith in Christ grows, your desire to sin against Him lessens.  Your joy in obeying His teaching and leading grows.  The power of the Holy Spirt who is at work within you to produce holiness in your life becomes more evident.

“For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”  (Rom. 6:19)

A good way to think of the phrases “cut off” or “tear out” is “prevent.”  Don’t give the parts of your body more and more opportunities to be exposed to the things that tempt you to sin.  A great example of the way temptation creeps up on us is given to us in the very first Psalm.

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;”  (Psalm 1:1)

 Consider what the psalmist is making clear in that passage.  We tend to fall into sinful activity gradually by walking toward it, standing near it, then sitting in the midst of it as it becomes our way of life.  Psalm 1 tells us we’ll be blessed if we avoid that error, and Jesus explains that we should make no provision for the flesh to go in the unhealthy direction our sin nature would like to take us.

 Of course, to succeed in this respect, you’re going to need to be convinced that Jesus truly is sufficient to meet your every need.  When our hearts are satisfied in Him, our lives will likewise fall in line with His teaching.  We’ll delight to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to guide, counsel, and enable us to walk by faith in Jesus.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:49-50)

 As this passage concludes, Jesus used a reference to salt and fire which are both purifying agents.  People often debate what He meant by these words, particularly because this statement is only found in Mark’s gospel, but in part, it may indicate Christ’s desire for us as believers that we avoid the corruption of sin as we go through our day to day lives in this world.  And as we avoid sin’s corrupting influence, we’ll be more likely to live at peace with one another instead of taking advantage of each other in hurtful ways.

“There is no point in praying for victory over temptation if we are not willing to make a commitment to say no to it.”

“[We must] pray constantly for His enabling grace to say no to temptation, of choosing to take all practical steps to avoid known areas of temptation and flee from those that surprise us.”  -Jerry Bridges

 The things of this world that have the capacity to tempt us are common to us all.  They invite us to damage others and destroy ourselves.  But in Jesus, we are made a new creation, and through faith in Jesus, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit who indwells us, strengthens us, and enables us to say no to the deceptive enticements of sin and Satan.

© John Stange, 2024


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