The Stumbling Block Principle & Shame's Cure


I’d like to first focus on our scripture from I Corinthians 8.

It is a fascinating passage. Paul gives us a principle that I think is rather important, one we would be wise to implement in our own lives. I’m dubbing this principle, the stumbling block principle.

This is what Paul is getting at:

For Paul, no thing is evil in and of itself. How a thing is used might be evil. The results from a thing being used might be evil. But the thing that is used itself isn’t evil. An inanimate object is neutral.

Here’s an example – cyanide. Now, we all know that cyanide is toxic, a deadly poison. But cyanide isn’t evil in and of itself. It has positive uses, after all. The development of photography, that process, uses cyanide, for example. Cyanide salts are used in metallurgy for electroplating, metal cleaning, and removing gold from its ore. Apple seeds contain trace amounts of cyanide. Does that make apple seeds or apples evil? No, cyanide isn’t evil in and of itself. But as Agatha Christie would remind us, using cyanide to do away with someone, that is evil.

Why does this matter? Well, there is a specific situation going on in the Corinth church. There is an argument inside the church happening. It is related to food offered to idols, idols being physical objects used to represent pagan gods.

Some argue that food given to idols is made corrupt and evil in God’s eyes, and so it is to be avoided at all costs. Others say no, these other gods are not real, the idols are just blocks of stone, and so, the food is fine. These folks have no hesitation in eating the food offered to objects representing nothing.

Paul agrees with those who looked past the fake truth of fake gods and felt free to eat whatever food that nourished them. Paul sees this sense of freedom as indicative of spiritual maturity.

But Paul is also mindful that not everyone is as spiritually mature. So, he gives a principle that places a limit on spiritual freedom, the kind of freedom that would eat meat offered to idols knowing it is just food. What is that principle placing a limit on freedom?

I’m calling it the Stumbling Block Principle.

If eating the food offered to idols causes someone less spiritually mature to stumble in their faith, partaking of that food is to be avoided for the sake of the other. When it comes to an activity that is otherwise unharmful and allowable, if partaking in that activity causes someone observing you to stumble, to question their faith, to doubt things, don’t partake in that activity. Do no harm! If eating meat offered to idols harms someone’s spirit, don’t do it!

In other words, for Paul, your rightful freedom stops at another’s struggle with that freedom.

I think this is made beautifully clear with the example of drinking in front of an alcoholic. Once in a great while, I like to have a beer with a friend. I feel free to do this. By the grace of God, I don’t struggle with alcohol and always stop at one. That said, if I’m with a newly sober acquaintance, using my freedom to drink in front of them at such a vulnerable time would be unwise and even calloused, right? I place a limit on my freedom to have a beer for the sake of the other, for the sake of someone struggling with alcohol addiction. My drinking in front of them could easily cause them to stumble in their new journey of sobriety.

What’s lies behind this Stumbling Block Principle? Where does it come from?

Love. We are called to love one another. And to love another means to have their best interest at heart, and not just your own interest.

Freedom without love and compassion is a recipe for disaster, a recipe for communities full of competing me me me’s with no sense of we or of another’s needs.

That’s why the church is so important. If done right, church reminds the world of me-first and me only of the necessity of love and compassion and community.

 

Let’s move on to our gospel reading from Mark 1.

It tells the story of Jesus’ first miracle in the gospel of Mark, the first of many. Jesus drives out an unclean spirit from a man suffering under that unclean spirit’s weight.

The concept of an unclean spirit is foreign to our modern way of thinking. In Jesus’ day, an unclean spirit was responsible for all sorts of ailments, whether bodily or psychological. Today, we don’t think along these lines. Ailments are segmented. You have your bodily ailments – diseases, conditions, disorders. You also have your psychological illnesses – depression, anxiety, addictions. These ailments are explained away as having natural causes, not spiritual causes like an unclean spirit.

That said, I’ve been thinking about this idea of an unclean spirit. What would be a modern-day equivalent of an unclean spirit, a state of being that results in pain, suffering, and sickness?

What in Jesus’ time was called an unclean spirit, in our time might be called, “shame.” Shame if profound enough will affect our whole being, leading to physical and psychological illness.

Maybe you’ve heard of the researcher, teacher and writer, Brene Brown. A big subject of her research, teaching, and writing is in fact shame. She studies how shame functions in human beings and destroys our well-being.

She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” That to me is a good description of an unclean spirit. If we intensely know the pain of feeling worthless, of feeling completely unlovable, of feeling excluded from any kind of belonging, we feel what? We feel unclean. Our spirits somehow seem sullied. We experience shame.

This feeling of shame should not be underestimated. As Brene Brown notes, “Shame is deadly.” Shame eats away at our well-being. It easily leads to not only anxiety and mental distress, even depression. Shame, and the stress involved, can also lead to physical illnesses and conditions. Just as stress can kill, shame can as well.

That’s what we have going on with the man Jesus encounters. The unclean spirit of shame is killing him.

First of all, in the story, the unclean spirit does the talking, calling out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us?”

Shame easily can control our whole lives. It effects what we say to ourselves and to others. It influences our decisions, leading to bad ones usually. Shame takes hold and we are not the same. Indeed, shame can possess us and we become someone else.

Shame is a prison. We need liberation!

In Mark 1, to save the man means liberating him from his shame. And Jesus is all about liberating us from shame. Saving us from shame was his reason for being.

As we come to a close here, I ask a couple questions.

What about you? Do you carry shame around with you? Does it weigh you down, hold you back, keep you tethered to a sense of dis-ease with life? It doesn’t have to.

Christ is here to free you from the spirit of shame.

Let go of it, let go of deadly shame. Let Christ take it away and give you life, and life more spiritually abundant and free.

And that’s where the two readings connect – spiritual freedom, the kind that sees past the lies of false idols and a spiritually tainted world, comes from Christ helping us to release our shame and live a spiritually abundant, a spiritually full, a spiritually rich life.

So, I pray you will give your shame to God and know a spiritual freedom that allows you to see the world anew and share the love of God with your very steps and your very being.

Amen.

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