I am klutzy. I trip over the tiniest variations in sidewalks, over cobblestones, up and down steps. Usually I can awkwardly recover before I go all the way down, but it’s still embarrassing. My sweet husband keeps count of the number of times I stumble when we are out together. I think I average 3-4 wobbles per outing. I never set out to trip. Usually when I do, it’s because I was distracted and not paying attention to my feet. I hit a hazard that I just didn’t see, and boom—down I go. It’s painful and humiliating.
Tripping is an accident that happens when I try to do too many things at once. My husband doesn’t get annoyed with me when I fall down. He doesn’t judge my ability to walk and shame me for falling. He laughs a little when I stumble, but he always grabs my arm to stabilize me. He gets concerned if I go all the way down. He doesn’t walk away; he helps me back up. I am, however, embarrassed and hoping no one else noticed.
Things are similar in our walk with Christ. I don’t believe that Christians set out to sin; it’s an accident. We trip over the place we didn’t see coming when we didn’t realize we were vulnerable. Sometimes we just stumble and sometimes we go down hard. Most of the time, these incidents are accidents, not a product of evil intentions. The fact that someone hides their sin and got caught, however, is not an indicator that they purposefully, secretly, set out to sin. It only means that they are embarrassed by it. It’s a normal, human response. This perspective should change how we deal with people. Instead of pushing people away when they fall, we reach out to stabilize and to support.
The Bible says that grace itself is a stumbling stone. When Jesus came, religious people didn’t see it coming. They were caught up in appearances and in following the rules to earn moral superiority. The free grace Jesus offered threw them for a loop. “The Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. 33 As it is written: ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.’” (Romans 9:30-33 NIV)
Jesus, grace embodied, is the ultimate stumbling stone. There are parts of Jesus that can be really hard to understand. There are things that God forgives that I have a very hard time forgiving. It trips me up and I don’t even realize I have stumbled over grace. Why would someone get a clean slate, free and forgiven, for major betrayals like adultery, or for swindling little old ladies? Does God forgive a pedophile? Does God forgive a murderer? Is grace big enough to cover these things? If Hitler repented on his deathbed and God decided to save him, my Jewish family would reject God because his grace is too inclusive. Muslims who follow Sharia law reject Christianity because of grace. It’s too loose, too free. Things that we hold on to, God lets go of. I’m happy for God’s grace to cover my junk, but sometimes grace looks like injustice when it covers someone else. Grace can be a stumbling stone.
We each carry the weight of our own failures. Most of us have secret places in our past, distant or recent, where we tripped and fell, but we keep them hidden because we are embarrassed by the errors. These things can make us feel under qualified to take our place serving or leading in the church. Do those things disqualify us from connecting to the church and sharing Jesus?
NAUGHTY NAUGHTY GIRLS
I noticed something truly interesting in the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew wrote his gospel to the Jews, to prove to them that Jesus was the promised Messiah. He rattled off the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of his book because where Jesus came from mattered to Jewish people. There are some truly illustrious men in that list—superstars like Abraham, King David, and King Jehoshaphat. The ladies that got a mention, however, are decidedly less so. They are kind of a who’s who of the naughty girls of the Bible, starting with Tamar, the girl who pretended to be a prostitute so she could score a one-night stand with her father-in-law, Judah. She wanted her father-in-law to get her pregnant. Shocking! Then there is Rahab, the prostitute and treacherous turncoat, followed by Ruth, the shameless woman who snuck into a man’s camp in the dark and slept next to him to force him to marry her. These are Jesus’s great-grandmas. The virgin Mary has a lily white image, but even she was a bit of rebel if you think about it. She would have had a sketchy reputation, having gotten pregnant and giving birth before marrying Joseph. If Mary had been my daughter, I would have married her off as soon as possible and said as little as possible, hoping people didn’t add up the months. Mary must have wanted to make sure that everyone knew Jesus wasn’t Joseph’s son. That’s pretty edgy.
The Bible doesn’t explain why these are the women included in Jesus’s pedigree. There must have been other wives that lived good, tidy lives who didn’t get a mention. God must have included these girls in the recorded lineage of Jesus for a reason. Perhaps it is to tell us that he doesn’t pass over girls who have made mistakes; who have stumbled trying to navigate life. Even the girl with most checkered past can be a God-carrier. The scandal and the babies that resulted from those scandalous relationships resulted in the most gracious perfect gift to mankind. It makes no sense; it’s a stumbling stone, but our failures and our foibles don’t disqualify us from serving up Jesus to the world around us.
I know some of you may feel an obligation to challenge this. There are some pretty stern passages throughout 1 Corinthians about people who sin, and some strong requirements for the people who lead in the book of Timothy. Yes, those who lead are judged to a higher standard. Yes. But are those leaders any less entitled to the same grace we enjoy? Or is their need for grace a stumbling stone for you?
WHEN LEADERS FALL
I’ve watched a few Olympic races. Sometimes, the racer makes an error and falls. The sportscaster will always replay the big moment in slow motion. They show the misstep and the athlete going down, mouth open, arms and legs flailing. Racers nearby get tripped up in the churning limbs, and the massive train wreck results in a jumble of bodies and injuries on the ground.
This is what happens when Christian leaders stumble. Usually their error affects the people closest to them, and can cause real pain for the people closest to them. When they stumble, they cause other people to stumble. Untangling those train wrecks and nursing the injuries is not a small matter. Every fallen leader has to carry the responsibility for this. It’s the getting back up part that I am chewing on. Jesus gives grace freely to each one of us. It’s very clear that none of us are perfect yet, no matter what position we hold. Do those mistakes disqualify fallen leaders for future leadership? If we don’t actually get back up but stay committed to our funk, clearly it does.
In church, no one has any obligation to stay or to serve or to give. People can leave at any time and go find another church. People only follow us to the extent that they respect us. If your life is a visible mess, people will not follow you. Ergo, you are disqualified from leadership because you are leading no one, because no one will follow you. I wonder if the qualifications for leadership that Paul gave to Timothy have more to do with this practical reality than anything else. We all require the grace of Jesus to stand righteous—every one of us. Our own righteousness did not qualify us for leadership to begin with, so it can’t later either.
God made a point by including only flawed women in his lineage. I wonder if Tamar will be embarrassed when I meet her in heaven. Out of her whole life’s story, the one snapshot that got included was her scandalous baby-making endeavor. Her story makes me feel pretty good about my flubs being redeemable. Our journey of grace doesn’t have to be a private one. If we are willing, our grace journey can show others the way, providing a pathway people can follow.
People root for the underdog. People love a comeback story. People will follow a fallen leader that gets back up and learns from their mistakes. God’s grace covered their sin the minute they put it under the blood of Jesus. Will his grace be a stumbling stone for us, or a point of victory?