How did offending someone suddenly become a cardinal sin? People today think they have a right to never be offended, and when they do get offended they also feel offended that you dared offend them.
Google defines offended as “resentful or annoyed, typically as a result of a perceived insult.” When you offend someone, you cause them “to feel upset, annoyed, or resentful.” Offense is “annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult or disregard for oneself or one’s standards or principles.”
Just a little bit of thought on this subject should make it obvious that offenses can happen any time people disagree, which actually happens quite a bit. Our standards, principles, and ideas are not identical and when that’s the case it’s easy to perceive an insult. Plus, even when we don’t disagree, miscommunication can cause resentment and annoyance. It’s impossible to live in a society of humans without being offended, which naturally leads to a question of why certain people’s “right” to not be offended should make it okay for them to offend others.
But what does this have to do with Christians? Surely this is more of a social-political debate for people like Jordan Peterson and Cathy Newman. Isn’t our job as Christians to just love people in an inoffensive way? I’m actually going to argue that it is not.
Is It Sinful To Cause Offense?
There’s a passage in the gospels that, when you read it in the King James version, seems to support the idea that causing offense is a sinful thing to do. In Matthew’s gospel it reads like this:
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! (Matt. 18:6-7, KJV)
This isn’t the best translation, though, at least for modern times. The Greek word has little to do with an annoyance or resentment caused by insult. Instead, it matches a definition for offense which is fast passing out of use in English — “a breach of a law or rule; an illegal act.”
When Jesus says woe to those who cause offense, He’s speaking of those who cause others to offend against God. He’s not condemning those who trigger a feeling of resentment in others. Rather, He’s condemning the practice of putting a stumbling block in someone’s way. Offending someone in this sense is to make them stumble and fall; to entice them to sin and to reject God’s authority. Here’s a more modern translation of the same passage:
But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him that a large millstone be hung on his neck and he be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of causes for stumbling, for it is a necessity that causes for stumbling come; nevertheless, woe to the person through whom the cause for stumbling comes. (Matt. 18:6-7, LEB)
Why The World Hates Truth
You can actually offend someone in the modern sense by following Jesus’ command to not offend them in the stumbling-block sense. We’ll be following Jesus’ command when we’re walking by faith, following Him openly and without shame, and talking with others about how to follow God’s law in spirit and in truth. But doing that also pretty much guarantees that some people will feel indignant, insulted, and offended by how you live and what you say.
If the world hates you, you know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. But because you are not of the world, since I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19, WEB)
The uncomfortable fact is that if everyone in the world finds you likable and inoffensive, then you’re probably not living the way that Jesus did.
Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his lord.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all these things will they do to you for my name’s sake, because they don’t know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have had sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. (John 15:20-22, WEB)
One reason people hate Jesus and His followers is because we let them know when they’re doing something offensive to God. When we speak truth, we’re taking away ignorance or pretenses about things that are and are not acceptable to God. Many will find it offensive when we stand up for Biblical morality, but in reality it is an act of love.
Offending People The Right Way
The Greek word used most frequently for love in the New Testament is agape — an active, benevolent interest in another person’s well-being. While it might seem unkind or offensive in modern society to talk about morality or the existence of sin, it really is a loving act. We know that sin leads ultimately to death and the only way to escape that is to choose life in God the Father and Christ Jesus (Deut. 30:15-20; Rom. 6:23). It is the exact opposite of love to sit by and let people head toward death if there’s anything we could do to point them toward life.
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; who desires all people to be saved and come to full knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:3-4, WEB)
If we’re truly taking on God’s character, then we will share His desire for everyone to be saved and to fully know the truth. We won’t be able to watch quietly while the people around us walk toward death just because we’re scared of offending them. We need to love with the truth, as the Casting Crowns song says.
Of course, we also need to pray for wisdom and discernment about how to “speak truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We don’t want our method of preaching to turn people against God and cause them to stumble. That has happened far too often. We need to stay in God’s word, continue learning the truth ourselves, and apply it in our own lives before we can share it with others in a way that truly reflects the love of God.