Beware Of A Backslidden Heart
By E. E. Shelhamer (1869-1947)
"The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways..." (Prov. 14:14).
In considering this subject we desire to notice three marks of a backslidden state: 1) Cessation of growth, 2) Checks of the Spirit disregarded, and 3) Censoriousness.
Cessation of Growth
When vegetation ceases to grow, the next stage is decay. When water ceases to flow the next thing is stagnation. When we cease to go up stream we start the other way. Backsliding begins in the heart. Long before a person acknowledges he is backslidden, he has broken step with God inwardly. It may be imperceptible to his nearest friends, but God sees that he has come to a standstill and has become satisfied with present attainments.
A growing soul is like a growing boy – continually outstripping his old clothes. He is getting new sermons, praying new prayers and seeing new visions of Christ. It is a pity for children or others to learn the prayers or testimonies of those with whom they dwell. Such prayers have evidently gone to seed and are indicative of a stagnant condition. A preacher may use the same text, but if he is living in the supernatural he will bring forth new things and say something he never said, read, or heard before. When he or anyone else falls into ruts and a sameness of expression, it is a sign of cessation of growth. Spiritual development ceased and perhaps years passed before he became aware of it. Too bad!
There is a sad passage recorded in Matthew 5:13. Christ had been saying, "Blessed," "blessed," "blessed," and when He reached the thirteenth verse, He pronounced His hearers "salt," saying, "Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt hath lost its savor...it is thenceforth good for nothing." Mark you! He does not say if the salt has ceased to be salt, has turned green, or become rank poison! He did not say this. It may still look the same, weigh the same and pass the same as before, but it has lost its penetrating, preserving and purifying power.
In like manner, there are many who are outwardly religious and zealous whose conduct and influence are not hurtful and who pass for exemplary people, yet the fact is they have lost that peculiar life and aggressiveness of soul, that eternal something that gets others under awful conviction, and begets hunger for that which they do not possess. These may not be able to point to the spot where it took place; it would be a great blessing if they could, for they would then know where to begin repenting. But they have backslidden in heart so gradually and respectably that like Samson they have not been aware of it. "And he awoke out of his sleep, and said, I will go out as at other times before, and shake myself. And he wist not that the Lord was departed from him" (Judg. 16:20). How sad that one can lose out little by little and not fully realize it until some crucial test comes along and down he goes.
The backslider may declare he is right and shout more loudly, pray longer and preach with greater emphasis than ever. He does so to quiet his own fears, keep others from becoming suspicious, or to ward off conviction by the Holy Ghost. Sometimes he will talk vigorously against the very thing that is sapping away his spirituality. He may do this with the hope of recovering himself. He is so busily engaged that he does not have time to investigate or take an invoice of his stock of grace. If he has misgivings that all is not well, he calls them temptations or something else, and hurries off without sitting in judgment on everything that is questionable. He hopes all will be satisfactory when certain conditions change for the better. He is almost afraid to listen to the inward warnings or suspicions of his soul, lest there should be a semblance of truth back of them. Oh, that he would stop long enough to look all these things out of countenance and insist that every voice be hushed except the one that assures him God is well pleased with everything.
Friend, do not easily and quickly pass over "insignificant things" that do not seem to amount to anything; things that no one sees or knows anything about, yet are large enough to cause your downfall in the end. Doubtless the devil finds as much delight in seeing a well saved soul take the first step, the first slight departure from God, as in after years seeing the same soul wind up in disgrace.
We remember a case years ago that will illustrate this: A backslidden man, formerly a class leader, was at the altar at a camp meeting. Everything was dark and he could get no special help. After several occasions of seeking I ventured to ask him privately how he came to get away from God, and he answered by saying, "I got drunk." I told him he was mistaken, that this was simply an outward evidence that he had backslidden in heart, perhaps months before. "Tell me now," said I, "what was the first little thing you did that grieved God, and from which you were not able to recover yourself?" Then in an undertone he said, "I hired a horse and buggy," and here he hesitated.
Now, a whole history could be written around that "horse and buggy." The beginning of it dated back a year or more before the buggy ride was taken. The man was a class leader and in going some distance to church, had to pass by a home where lived a good sister, a member of his class. Sometimes there would be quite a company, then again in bad weather only the "faithful two." His wife was a good, true woman, but not very spiritual, nor gifted in song. This led him to say to himself, "I wish my wife could sing and pray like this good sister who never misses a service; she has such good judgment in selecting the right song, and I would surely be a happy man if my wife was as great a help as Sister _____." Once in a great while "Sister Faithful" did not go to service, and then our brother would be at a loss and say to himself, "I am afraid we will not have much of a meeting tonight; I wonder if she is sick." This thing went on until at length they could tell each other’s thoughts and feelings, which was a great "help" in selecting songs and instructing seekers. They also felt free to speak to each other of the faults of their absent companions. It seemed providential that they should take the same bus or train to and from camp meetings and general gatherings.
Finally the way was sufficiently prepared for the wily old Serpent to suggest a buggy trip to a famous cave in the mountains. The man lay awake at nights wondering if he should, and as he glanced over at his true and hard working wife, the Spirit kept saying, "Do not do it! Do not do it!" After many a night’s struggle, with heart beating hard enough to jar the bed, he got the consent of his mind, and now the devil took possession of him. He still continued leading and exhorting the class to be true, and do their duty, but he was backslidden in heart while doing so.
Now he was ready, like David, to make plans how to carry out the hellish design. "How shall I keep my wife and others from knowing it? I will pretend that I am subpoenaed as a witness on a trial in the adjoining town. And where shall I meet the other party? Out at that old, abandoned mill." Thus the inner decision and plans were made that finally led to the downfall and disgrace of two valuable souls.
Here is where backsliding begins, in the mind, in the secret imaginations of the heart. O, my brother, crush, as you would a deadly viper, the first suggestive thought, the first tendency to look or lean in the wrong direction. Herein is your only hope. Others have fallen from higher pinnacles than you have reached, because they began to trifle.
Take the church at Ephesus as an example of heart backsliding. Where will one find a more exemplary church outwardly? It cannot be found. Read the record. Revelation 2:1-5, "...I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil." None were guilty of immoral conduct; they not only refrained from outward evil of every kind, but could not "bear" those who were guilty. Read on: "And thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars." They had such discernment and keenness of perception as to discover and expose a false prophet, though to most churches there was nothing perceptibly wrong in his teaching or conduct. He professed to stand for all their "issues," he wept and preached with much apparent unction and earnestness; yet they could not feel right about him. "There must be something wrong back of his life: he has dodged some rent, doctor’s or grocery bills; he collected money for some charitable purpose but did not place it all as was intended; he loves to look at beautiful women; he either has two living wives, or is unkind to the one he now calls his wife." These fears brought about a trial and resulted in proving him a "liar."
Oh, that our churches nowadays had such power to locate and run down scoundrels before they could do their dirty work. But read on: "And hast borne, and hast patience, and for My name’s sake [not some little, sectarian organization] hast labored, and hast not fainted." Here was an active, self-sacrificing, well organized church, which would hardly have an equal today as far as zeal and discernment are concerned. But listen: "Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee."
"Surely not us at Ephesus!"
"Yes, against thee, not for thy outward conduct, but because thou hast backslidden in heart and left thy first love." Friend, is it barely possible for you to be in the same condition?
Disregarding the Checks of the Spirit
Another mark of a backslidden state is disregarding the checks of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is true to every soul. He inspires us to move out. He checks us to hold back. He is very easily pleased or grieved. It does not require a long time for a lover to find out what pleases or grieves the one he loves. In like manner when one falls in love with his Lord, he will soon know what pleases Him and "do those things." He will also studiously avoid what grieves Him. It is hard to say how often one may grieve Him on the same point and not incur guilt and condemnation, but a loving soul will not want to try the experiment.
How do souls disregard these checks of the Spirit? In various ways:
1. In conversation. In talking too much. We are told that "In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin" (Prov. 10:19). Again, "Let your communication be Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil" (Matt. 5:37). And again, "Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment" (Matt. 12:36). I venture the assertion that every time you show me one who talks a great deal, I will invariably show you a person who falls into one of three harmful, yea sinful practices: a) that of evil speaking, which Wesley called the universal sin of the world; or b) that of foolish talking and jesting, which should not be "once named among you as becometh saints" (Eph. 5:3), or c) that of drawing attention to self, by great swelling words of vanity. As long as one is in public, he is so full of talk and business that God cannot get his attention, but if those sighs and heartaches in secret could speak they would say, "I have grieved the Holy Spirit today, in that I disregarded His tender checks and admonitions."
2. The backslider in heart disregards the checks of the Spirit in the matter of "redeeming the time" (Eph. 5:16). He can waste precious moments downtown, or in unprofitable reading and conversation, or in lounging around pampering the flesh. Jeremy Taylor said, "There never was an idle man, if he be a healthy man, who was in every respect a virtuous man." This is why David and many others since his day have fallen into sin and disgrace – they were idle and self-indulgent. Oh, Beware!
Another mark of a backslidden state is censoriousness. Webster says that censoriousness is "a disposition to blame and condemn; severity in making remarks on others or on their writings or manners, often implying ill-nature, illiberality or uncharitableness."
Finney says, "A censorious spirit is conclusive evidence of a backslidden heart. This is a spirit of faultfinding, of questioning the motives of others, when their conduct admits of a charitable construction. It is a disposition to fasten blame upon others, and judge them harshly. It is a spirit of distrust of Christian character and professions. It is a state of mind that reveals itself in harsh judgments, harsh sayings, and the manifestation of uncomfortable feelings toward individuals. This state of mind is entirely incompatible with a loving heart, and wherever a censorious spirit is manifested by a professor of religion, you may know there is a backslidden heart."
It is the same thing which causes some people to appear so well when away from home or when company is present, but at other times act touchy and contrary, so as to be hard to please.
Note that this text says that the backslider in heart shall be "filled with his own ways" (Prov. 14:14). This is true. One of the greatest hindrances to a revival is a dear, old, charred "charter" church member. He once had the fire, but it has gone out. This zealous backslider is filled with his own devices, his own plans, his own visionary schemes. As a result he manifests touchiness when he is not recognized or appreciated.
He is filled with his own way of praying long, dry prayers but cannot see that it hurts the meeting. He is filled with his own way of testifying and generally says the same thing. He is filled with his own prejudices, hence is loath to read or hear anything that might change his views or bring him under conviction.
He is filled with his own enmities, hence it is easy to imagine that some one has mistreated him. He can call to mind unpleasant things that transpired years ago, but still they are fresh and cherished with a feeling of bitterness.
He is filled with his own deceptions and now he can embrace strange doctrines which he formerly denounced. The light he once had is become darkness. This is why so many backsliders take up with cults and other forms of doctrines of devils.
He is filled with his own way of doing things around home, such as making fires, feeding cattle, conducting family prayers (if he has them) and no one can change him one iota, for he is in a rut and cannot get out. When a woman is backslidden she is so exacting and particular about cooking, drying dishes, dusting furniture and other duties, that no one can assist her with ease.
These are some evidences of a heart void of grace. Many more could be given, but it would do not good to one who is set in his ways. Too bad! I have tried time and again to restore such a one to the simplicity of his first love, with but little success. I have actually been pained in spirit to hear one of these beat the air, hammer the bench and bellow around the altar. The hollowness of the sound and the vacancy of the look had a tendency to disgust and drive people away rather than to convict them and bring inspiration to the meeting. But we could not help it, for the poor, deluded soul was "filled with his own ways," and had to run his course. Sometimes such souls have to fall into open sin and disgrace themselves before they can see their true condition.
A gentleman stood on his porch watching the storm sweep across his beautiful lawn. Though there was not a hard wind, his favorite tree fell with an unexpected crash. After the rain ceased he walked over to see why it had fallen. Lo, it was decayed in the center. Then he remembered how he, when a boy, had carelessly given the tree a stroke with an axe. It had healed over, but not until one drop of water had seeped in and started a streak of decay which had reached the center, and this was the cause of its downfall.
Likewise, dear friend, you may appear all right; you may have withstood many storms, but if in the past you gashed your conscience and did something that has never been properly confessed and healed over, remember, your time is coming to go down and bring disappointment and disgrace to yourself and the work of God. Make all haste then to get cured at the core!
"Be not deceived!" "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen and repent" (Rev. 2:5). Remember! Stop and think! It is all important that you look squarely at everything until it ceases to exist. It will never do to put on a bold front and make believe all is well. This will simply open the way for greater deceivings and delusions. Go back in spirit where you first broke step with God and begin where you left off. Take up your cross where you laid it down. Renew your covenant and once more swear allegiance to God.
Return, O Holy Dove, return,
Sweet messenger of rest,
I hate the sins that made Thee mourn,
And drove Thee from my breast.
The dearest idol I have known,
What’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.
– William Cowper (poem author)
– Taken from Heart Searching Sermons And Sayings.