A stumbler’s prayer

(An earlier version of this post was inadvertently deleted.  Sorry for the confusion!)

Yesterday’s post examined the story of Judas’ treachery, raising the question of how any friend of Jesus could sin against him in that way, and for so mundane a thing as greed.  It would make for a poor screenplay; surely such a spectacular sin deserves a grander motive!

But no–and I’m left wondering why I would want somehow to ennoble the deed.  I suspect that it’s because I don’t want to admit that had I been in Judas’ place, I might have done the same as he.  Or if that still sounds too grandiose, maybe I should simply say that his sin was not of a different species than mine: we are both quite capable of the same small-minded, self-centered stupidity.

In the Bible, “stumbling” is a recurring metaphor for sin.  In Matthew 18, for example, the disciples wrongheadedly ask Jesus who’s the greatest in the kingdom.  In response, he draws a child into their midst, and declares that they must become like her.  Then he says this:

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!  If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.  (Matt 18:6-9, NIV)

Six times in that passage, Matthew uses some form of the Greek word from which we get the English word “scandal.”  Here, the NIV translates it as “stumble”–we trip and fall over things that are in our path.  But the root image is that of a baited trap or snare.  Imagine a tempting morsel of bait tied to a stick, with the stick holding up a heavy box.  A hapless animal takes the bait, and the trap snaps shut.

We humans, of course, are not quite so hapless.  A mouse, simple creature that it is, takes the cheese and is trapped.  But we’re more sophisticated.  We can do it all.  We can set the bait and take it.  We can ensnare ourselves as well as each other.

“Such things must come,” Jesus says.  Sin is a fact of life.  But that doesn’t mean we can shrug our shoulders.  Jesus warns us sternly about the consequences of our sin for ourselves and the others around us; we must be both diligent and wise in the pursuit of holiness.

And part of that wisdom is recognizing that not every sin is of the betray-your-Master-for-blood-money variety.  Even for Judas, the spectacular begins with the simple.  Greed.  Dishonesty.  Arrogance.  Impatience.  Betrayal begins here.

Yesterday, my wife showed me a prayer from the Puritan devotional known as The Valley of Vision.  The words heart-rendingly capture the snare of sin:

O Lord, my every sense, member, faculty, affection, is a snare to me; I can scarce open my eyes but I envy those above me, or despise those below.  I covet honour and riches of the mighty, and am proud and unmerciful to the rags of others; if I behold beauty it is a bait to lust, or see deformity, it stirs up loathing and disdain; how soon do slanders, vain jests, and wanton speeches creep into my heart!  Am I comely? what fuel for pride!  Am I deformed? what an occasion for repining!  Am I gifted? how I lust after applause!  Am I unlearned? how I despise what I have not!  Am I in authority? how prone to abuse my trust, make will my law, exclude others’ enjoyments, serve my own interests and policy!  Am I inferior? how much I grudge others’ pre-eminence!  Am I rich? how exalted I become!  Thou knowest that all these are snares by my corruptions, and that my greatest snare is myself.  I bewail that my apprehensions are dull, my thoughts mean, my affections stupid, my expressions low, my life unbeseeming; yet what canst thou expect of dust but levity, of corruption but defilement?  Keep me ever mindful of my natural state, but let me not forget my heavenly title, or the grace that can deal with every sin.

I know: many of us aren’t used to that kind of self-deprecating language.  But what would a deep and honest look in the spiritual mirror reveal?  Isn’t there at least one line in that prayer that cuts you to the heart?

There are a thousand and one ways to name our stumbling, all pointing to the truth that “my greatest snare is myself.”  But there is a greater truth: there is a “grace that can deal with every sin.”  If we cannot know and confess the depth and breadth of our sin, we cannot know and rejoice in the depth and breadth of that grace.

Perhaps we must stumble into grace as well, until little by little, we learn to rest in it.