“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. See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” –Matthew 18:6-10
Do I deserve a millstone?
This passage may be ominous and confusing for those of us who experience pedophilia. Is it a conversation-ending condemnation of us? Many people certainly interpret it that way. There’s no shortage of hot takes in sermons, opinion pieces, and social media posts applying this directly to pedophilia and acts of child sexual abuse. Well, it is a very serious statement from Jesus. Causing a child to participate in a sexual act, whether by manipulation or coercion, is a terrible act of evil.
The fact is, what Jesus says here absolutely should scare us! If I were to abuse a child, I would deserve severe punishment! I know this can be hard to hear for those of us who already feel crushed by pedophilia and shame, but it is nevertheless true. We can never minimize the harm and evil of abuse! Even so, the redemptive picture within the broader context of Scripture is much more hopeful than some people initially see in this one passage.
One crucial thing to recognize about what Jesus is saying here is that it’s both literal and hyperbolic. Hyperbole is an exaggeration used to emphasize a point; in this case, the seriousness of sin. In terms of life here on Earth, Jesus is not saying that anyone who causes someone else to sin – even a young child – must be executed. Rather, he is using this pointed word picture to emphasize how utterly harmful and evil it is to lead someone else into sin.
But Jesus is not being flippant when he mentions being thrown into eternal fire. In terms of eternal spiritual life or death, Jesus is being completely objective and literal in Matthew 18. He talked about Hell quite often during his ministry, and the Bible describes it as God’s final act of judgment against those who do not repent of evil. Furthermore, he was also prophetically alluding to what the Apostle John would later write:
“And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” -Revelation 20:10-15
Satan, the Devil, was the first to sin, and he chose to tempt Adam and Eve. He is the source of all rebellion against God, and at the Final Judgment, he will be “drowned” in the lake of fire that God created to punish him. Likewise, everything you and I have ever done, both good and evil, is known and recorded by God. And sexually abusing a child is a grievous sin; it is a violation of them in many ways. It is one of the most profoundly painful and destructive things a person can endure without being directly killed.
What would be better?
Sin is a deadly problem, and one we can’t escape on our own. That is God’s Holy Justice at work. But at the same time, we can’t leave out his Mercy, demonstrated in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. So when Jesus says “It would be better…” in his discourse about millstones and judgment, we need to read it in the context of the rest of Scripture. We can ask the question, “What does God actually want for us? What is his Ideal?”
Sadly, sometimes people do take Jesus’ statement about millstones out of context; portraying Jesus as casting all people who have commited acts of sexual abuse – or even been tempted to do so – into hell with sadistic pleasure. But that is completely antithetical to the actual message of the Gospel! In regard to sin, justice, and mercy, one of the most profound statements from God is found in Ezequiel 18:
“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?… Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” -Ezequiel 18:23, 31-32
One example of this in the Bible is the life and conversion of the Apostle Paul. The book of Acts records him saying the following, while sharing his testimony with Herod Agrippa II:
“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many times I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.” -Acts 26:9-11
Paul was trying to force vulnerable believers to renounce their faith in Jesus all together – one of the worst sins anyone can do against another. And if bodily death were the only other option, then yes, in a certain limited sense, it would have been a better fate for Paul to die before he began persecuting the Church. But that was not the only other option! That’s because Jesus took the penalty of death for Paul, albeit by means of a Roman crucifixion, rather than a millstone. And in Paul’s letter to his friend Timothy, Paul describes himself like this:
“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” -1 Timothy 1:13-16
Another example is that of pro-life author and ministry leader Abby Johnson. For eight years, she worked for Planned Parenthood, and was a clinic director for part of that time. She personally convinced and enabled hundreds of women to get abortions; to pay a doctor to kill their own unborn children. She led those women into selfishness and murder. And yet, her heart was changed in one day, when she witnessed and aided an ultrasound-guided abortion. Today, she is a living, miraculous example of God’s mercy and forgiveness, and she is saving lives. I would love to meet her someday. As she says in her book, Fierce Mercy:
Yes, God – in his great mercy – loves the victim and the victimizer. The unborn, the young mother in a crisis pregnancy, the mother’s parent who insisted she abort her baby or be kicked out of her home, the abortion facility volunteer escort who assures the expectant mother she’s making the right decision, the abortionist who kills the baby, the abortion worker who pieces together the aborted baby in the POC (products of conception) room, and the prolife prayer warrior praying outside the facility.
While visiting with tax collectors and sinners at the home of Matthew (a tax collector when Jesus called him), Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees for doing so. They asked, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt. 9:11).
In response, Jesus said this: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12–13).
I’ve taken his words, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” to heart. That’s what this book is all about – my journey to understand and internalize mercy, and my sense of calling to share that mercy. The truth is, it’s a challenge to understand God’s mercy when it’s given to those who anger, frustrate, or even dramatically differ from us. Mercy is not our nature – it is God’s nature. I believe Jesus chose his words deliberately when he said to “go and learn.” Mercy is a trait we must learn. And we must learn it by intentionally practicing it.Fierce Mercy, by Abby Johnson with Cindy Lambert, p.76
© 2022 by Abby Johnson
We can be God’s children, too.
So what are we supposed to do with all this? Well, we accept the reality that God is Sovereign, and he doesn’t fit in our little box of “Good people go to Heaven; bad people go to Hell.” But rather, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). To put it simply, we live out our gratitude in abject repentance and love to God, and generous love and mercy to others. I could go on and on, giving more examples in scripture and Church history of how God is actively merciful, and desires his people to do likewise. Much like the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews, we would do well to meditate on the plethora of mercies God has shown us.
God’s offer of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus is available to everyone, regardless of who they are, what sexual desires they experience, or what they have done. We experience pedophillic temptations, and some of us have even committed acts of sexual abuse. But because we love Jesus and have put our faith in him to save us from our sins, we are forgiven and adopted as sons and daughters of God. (Yes, we also support civil justice for those victimized, and punishment for an offender’s crimes as necessary and right, although those topics are outside the scope of this blog post).
Here it’s crucial to hold a balance between God’s abundant grace and forgiveness, and our grave responsibility to turn away from sexual sin every day. As Paul said, “Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2). May we never take lightly the lifeblood Jesus shed for us. May we never spit in Jesus’ face, for he was crushed by the divine wrath we deserved.
Jesus is referring to literal children in his statement about causing people to stumble, but he is not only referring to children. God refers to all those who follow him as both his children and his friends. That can be you and me.