In the longest and in some ways the most wonderful of the psalms we read: “Great peace have they that love thy law, and nothing shall offend them.” These words express a profound truth whether we think of the ordinary, childish offences so common in human life or of those more serious causes of stumbling which have turned many from the narrow way. The primary meaning has to do with stumbling blocks, as suggested in the margin of our Bibles. But all kinds of offences are covered by the words. The Lord Jesus said: “It is impossible but that offences will come, but woe to that man by whom they come.” Clearly this means that human nature being what it is with men and women of different temperaments and varying capacity, it is certain that there will be some creation of stumbling blocks, some unkind deeds and harsh words; selfish unfairness and ill-tempered reactions. It is certain that when people of all classes are drawn together by the Christian call, there will be many failures of adjustment, leading to hasty criticism with much laceration of sensitive feelings. In some instances harsh criticism will provoke angry retaliation. There are many who have learned the lesson on the physical plane that blow must not be answered by blow, but there are not so many who perceive and remember that the same principle applies in moral issues.

The statement, “nothing shall offend them”, does not for a moment imply that nothing will hurt them. False accusation and vilification may give more pain to those who accept it with meekness and patience than to those who retaliate, and possibly contrive to make the enemy receive blows more severe than he has given. On natural lines there may be a certain animal satisfaction in the thought that an unfair attack has been answered in a manner to make the unkind critic smart; while on natural lines the sting of harsh criticism seems to be made more severe by the effort to suppress all instinct to retaliate. If, however, we can escape from natural lines, a healing balm may be found in the love of God’s law. The more thorough our acceptance of the gentle part assigned to us the more complete this healing will be; until there may come a time when we are safe from stumbling; nothing will give offence because in the full sense we love the divine law.

It should not be necessary to point out that there are obligations for us in the matter of giving as well as receiving. This indeed was the matter emphasized by the Lord Jesus in the passage cited above. In the very severe condemnation of those who cause offence, we cannot suppose that men are only guilty when their action leads to obvious evil. One who puts stumbling blocks in the way is not excused by the fact that travellers contrive to avoid them. It is desirable to stress this obvious truth because there are times when it really seems that it is forgotten. One who is harshly critical of his brethren may say, “Well, if they love God’s law they will not be offended.” Quite true, of course; but also true that if the critic desires to be approved by Christ he must be very careful of his words. The one who causes offence is more completely under condemnation than his victim. The little one who has been caused to stumble may recover his balance, but the man in deep water with a mill stone tied round his neck would not stand much chance of life. What can be said, therefore, for one whose position is even worse?

The unfortunate use of words is probably the most frequent cause of stumbling. Sometimes it is difficult for men to determine where the blame should be placed when the strife of tongues leads to a destructive bitterness. There are words which are right, just and necessary, which yet may be so much resented that offence is taken. This fact onlyemphasizes the importance of care in the avoidance of the idle word. A little more tact may sometimes make it possible to convey a necessary truth without any harmful provocation. We should try to express truth without any unnecessary harshness whether we are speaking to our brethren or to strangers. There are some people who rather pride themselves on their ability to be severe. They will write sarcastic letters without feeling any sense of guilt, and will even show copies of such letters to their friends with evident pride. They are not only naked and unashamed, they are even boasting of their condition. The severities of satire may possibly be legitimate sometimes in the attempt to overthrow some of the anomalies of life. Very rarely should such powers be used against individuals, and never against brethren. It would be a hateful revival of paganism for one to say in effect, “if he is a brother and loves God’s law, nothing will offend him, so I am at liberty to be as severe as I like.”

Closely connected with this matter is another danger which may pass unseen. In the world there is a law of libel which protects the reputation of men, sometimes even of those who do not deserve to be protected. Those who have to play their part in the world of commerce know that it behoves them to be careful what they say, and still more careful of what they write. In the Brotherhood there should be no danger of any injured member so completely flouting apostolic injunction as to seek redress by going to law before the unbeliever. Any true disciple would suffer grievous wrong rather than fall into such obvious error. Surely this provides additional reason for the use of care in our words to make sure that such wrong shall not be done. It would be outrageous if one were careful to avoid libellous language in dealing with those who would not hesitate to seek the protection of the law, but careless with those who would suffer wrong with unresisting patience.

It is to be feared that some brethren have been so zealous for ecclesial reputation that the rights of individuals have been obscured. A brief reference to the “unworthy conduct” of an erring member may seem to be a mild statement of fact, upholding the reputation of the ecclesia without being unduly severe on the offender, but if such a statement is published and read by worldly acquaintances of the member in question, a wrong impression may be formed and the report becomes libellous. There have been such misunderstandings in the past. Surely we should do our best to avoid them, not for fear of unpleasant consequences but for fear of being unkind or unjust to a fellow servant. There are times when faithful custodians of divine truth are under an obligation to withdraw from the fellowship of a disciple either from persistent failure to join the assembly of saints, or for some other conduct of unworthy character. It is no time for any of us to be “puffed up” with a sense of superiority, but rather a time to mourn that one must be taken from among us. Even those who have to play the leading part in the removal of the offender must be conscious of the fact that they are of the same weak nature, and they might re-echo the words of a great thinker who in contemplating the sad end of a criminal, said: “There go I, but for the grace of God.”

Quite apart from the use of harsh words, there are possibilities of causing offence or of presenting stumbling blocks by setting a bad example. The evil may be done in the pleasantest and most friendly manner, in an atmosphere which seems far removed from all such painful thoughts. The apostolic illustration of the meats offered in sacrifice to idols may be applied on many different planes. A personal indulgence of liberty quite legitimate in itself may point the way for one who lacks the knowledge and discrimination of the leader he copies. Thus those to whom others look for guidance bear a heavy responsibility. “Through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?” (1 Cor 8:11).

Perhaps the greatest danger of our age is in the old subject of wine. It has indeed been the danger in nearly every age, so easily passing from friendship to enmity, from blessing to curse; so insidious in its action and with such dangers arising from the fact that individuals differ so greatly in their reactions. For many the only safe course is complete abstention. Others who are not restrained either by the fear of immediate ill effects on themselves or from the fear that weaker brethren may follow their lead, may nevertheless find it better for health to avoid strong drink altogether. As with so many other matters the responsibility of making a decision is left with us. In this, as with all other problems, we need to be on guard lest we should put a stumbling block in another’s way.