Return, O Backslider (Part 2)
By Richard Owen Roberts
Evidences of a Backslidden Condition
What exactly is backsliding? Nowhere in all Scripture is it better described than in Proverbs 14:14: "The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways." There you have it – a backslider is a person who was once emptied of his own ways and filled with the ways of God, but who gradually allows his own ways to creep back in until he is all but empty of God and full of himself again. ...While backsliders do not all manifest the same traits, evidences of their condition are not difficult to pinpoint. Backsliding is present when:
9. Aspirations for Christlike holiness cease to be dominant in your life and thinking. For the backslidden, holiness seems both unattainable and unnecessary. Not so for the earnest Christian who takes to heart the biblical injunction, "Be ye holy, for I am holy" (1 Pet. 1:16). Knowing the truth of the words, "holiness without which no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14), the active Christian makes biblical holiness the great goal of his life. Every time he falls short, even by a fraction, he is grieved and confesses his shortcomings to the Lord with pleas for help that he might do better.
Not so the backslider. Weary of the claims of God upon his life, he crowds out aspirations to holiness with self-centeredness until thoughts of holiness lose their grip and actually become somewhat repugnant to him. Whereas he once lived to be holy, he would now sooner die than be holy. Having choked out the love of holiness, the backslider finds contentment with his current condition. He neither hungers nor thirsts for righteousness nor feels grief for its lack.
10. The acquisition of money and goods becomes a major part of your thinking. When a professed Christian begins to focus on money, cars, houses, lands, stocks, bonds and adornments, he is clearly on the course of the backslider. The Bible does not condemn the possession of money or of goods. Neither does it prohibit their broad use, but in no uncertain language it forbids the love of money and a heart attachment to things. The believer is expected to live as a pilgrim who is passing through this world of goods. He must not attach his heart to that which is perishing but is ordered to set his affection on "things above" (Col. 3:2). He must lay his treasures up in heaven where moth and rust cannot corrupt and where thieves cannot break through and steal (Matt. 6:19-20).
The backslider will not live by these standards. He cannot bear to see so much wealth around him without laying up his own share. To live for eternity – so faraway indeed when the present is all around him – is a task in which the backslider will no longer engage. When you find yourself grasping after the here and now, take heed. Your backsliding is showing.
11. You can mouth religious songs and words without heart. Much public singing of hymns and Gospel music must be utterly distasteful to God. Consider the ease with which Christians sing, "My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine – For Thee all the follies of sin I resign" when no abandonment of sin is intended and no fresh love of Christ is present, or, "Sweeter as the years go by" when bitterness fills the heart more and more with each passing year.
Contemplate the often repeated prayer, "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10), lifted Sunday after Sunday by men and women who steadfastly refuse to do the will of God themselves and are in no position to assist its accomplishment in the lives of others. Consider testimony meetings in which only events of years ago are narrated because the speaker has no current experience with the Lord he can share. The ability to mouth religious phrases, songs, prayers, and testimonies without depth of feeling is a certain sign of backsliding. Every honest Christian can expect occasions when he bows to the will of God only with the greatest of difficulty, but on such occasions he has the grace of silence. But the backslider finds no difficulty speaking hypocritically. To mouth the words and phrases of affection and commitment actually foreign to his own heart poses no greater difficulty than continuing in his backslidden condition.
12. You can hear the Lord’s name taken in vain, spiritual concerns mocked, and eternal issues flippantly treated, and not be moved to indignation and action. The true Christian not only reverences God’s name, but also cannot bear the misuse of that name by others without deep hurt and sorrow. To remain silent among mockers is a restraint godly people cannot stomach. To hear sacred things treated with contempt and eternal matters made light of without indignation is beyond the ability of all who truly love God with all their hearts and minds. Those who walk in fellowship with Christ can be expected to take their stand against all the works of darkness, but the backslider has no trouble mingling with the profane. Their contemptuous and filthy language brings no grief to his soul. To offend the swearer by gently asking him to refrain from irreverent speech is unthinkable to the long-established backslider and to leave the room because the tone of the conversation is degrading would never occur to him.
13. You can watch degrading movies and television and read morally debilitating literature. That movies, television, and literature are getting more degenerate with each passing year is obvious. How can Christians allow themselves to be contaminated by this filth of the world? Would Jesus go with you to the theatre to watch the movie of your choice? Would He join your family television circle and watch with you each hour? Could He sanction all that you read? If not, you have clear evidence of backsliding. Whenever a Christian does anything Jesus will not sanction, he is in deep trouble. If you cannot control what you watch and read, you would be better off without eyes. Did not Jesus say it would be better for a man to pluck out his own eyes rather than be led to hell by what he gazed upon? The growing Christian takes Jesus’ words seriously and avoids temptation, but the backslider thinks those who refuse to be corrupted by what they watch are narrow-minded. The backslider will defend his right to read anything published and will read whatever pleases him, advertising his broad-mindedness and in the process proving his backslidden condition.
14. Breaches of peace in the brotherhood are of no concern to you. The unity of His Body is a matter of great concern to Jesus Christ. The entire prayer of John seventeen focuses on this. Many of the Apostolic letters plead for unity. Clear biblical guidelines have been laid down for its preservation and its restoration when broken. Every individual with a heart in tune with God is deeply concerned about the unity of the Church. This unity cannot be broken without grief to the believer. The godly person will do nothing to break the unity, nor will he remain silent while others are destroying it.
Not so the backslider. What does the unity of the Church mean to him? He finds no problem in splitting a church over insignificant issues. If no doctrinal difference is available over which to divide the "One Body," the backslider is content to divide it over personalities. He feels no great grief when the fellowship of believers is broken any more than he feels joy when the fellowship is preserved in unity. Personal concerns are always of greater importance to him than overwhelming biblical truth. Like the apostates Jude renounced, backsliders separate themselves for sensual reasons (verse 19). While Jesus pronounced His blessing upon the peacemaker, the backslider is content to find his blessing elsewhere.
15. The slightest excuse seems sufficient to keep you from spiritual duty and opportunity. While the soul prospers, duty and opportunity are seized with joy. Faithful Christians delight in the very prospects of usefulness. But let spiritual backsliding begin and opportunities of service once regarded with enthusiasm become burdens too heavy to bear. The backslider becomes a master excuse-maker. Whereas earlier he would have laughed with astonishment at the feeble excuses of other backsliders, he is now able to offer the most unlikely reasons for his failure to take his spiritual responsibilities seriously. He even expects those who hear his excuses to believe his unworthy lies. He cannot attend prayer meeting in the evening "because ________" and certainly not in the morning "because ________." He cannot usher on Sunday "because ________." You name it and he will have an excuse to explain why he cannot do it. It is not simply that the excuses are usually flimsy, often inconsistent with the real facts, seldom more than slightly accurate, and never appropriate for a professing Christian, but that the excuse-maker is hardly aware of the fallen condition his excuses represent. The backslider is often the last to know his real condition. By then it may be humanly impossible to reclaim him.
16. You become content with your lack of spiritual power and no longer seek repeated enduements of power from on high. The growing Christian, characterized by spiritual yearnings and restlessness, wants more and more of God’s grace and fullness. Every experience in the Christian’s pilgrimage is but a stimulus to new heights. Yesterday’s growth is a reminder of tomorrow’s needs and opportunities. A fresh outpouring of God’s power and grace whets the appetite for yet another. A precious time in prayer and the Word is an encouragement to further times of prayer and Bible study. However, this is not true for the backslider who is content to sit back and enjoy what he has already experienced. Let others go on seeking power with God; he has found all he wants. Let others press on toward new goals; he is comfortable where he is. No intimations of Spirit outpourings, no descriptions of lofty spiritual heights, and no appeals to fresh consecration disturb his slumbers.
17. You pardon your own sin and sloth by saying the Lord understands. Of course, God understands! Certainly He remembers that we are dust, but what has God’s understanding to do with our sin and sloth? Christians are not called to take their ease. They were not born of the Spirit in order that they might remain in sin. To continue in sin and to tolerate sloth on the pretext of appreciating the grace of God are presumptions of the worst sort. This evil approach is certainly not new. When the Apostle Paul asked, "Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?" he vehemently answered his own question by declaring, "God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?" (Rom. 6:1-2). Willingness to condone or pardon one’s own sin and spiritual sloth is a certain sign of backsliding.
18. There is no music in your soul and no song in your heart. The healthy Christian is characterized by a spirit of praise. Even those without musical talents will make "a joyful noise unto the Lord" when their souls are in health. The spirit of praise and thankfulness is always the spirit of the growing believer. Past mercies are strong in the memories of prosperous souls. Psalms of thanksgiving fill the hearts of those who walk with God. But let a little backsliding begin and praise turns to murmuring. Thousands of special mercies from the hand of God can be forgotten in the face of one small affliction. Mark the changing attitude of the Israelites who could not remember with thanks the mercies of their God. They fell from the place of sweet praise to backsliding, murmuring and complaining against God and their divinely appointed leaders. The song was snatched from their hearts. The joy was gone from their experience. Backsliding was their lot and portion. It is the same with backsliders of every generation.
Has the music gone from your soul? Are your songs of praise without the ring of joy? Have the past mercies of God grown dim? Do you even now chafe under the lightest hand of affliction? Are you in the grip of a complaining spirit? What further evidence of backsliding do you require?
19. You can adjust happily to the lifestyle of the world. The world sees no great problem with unpaid debts. Bankruptcy is perfectly acceptable among today’s godless businessmen. Dishonesty as a way of life is as acceptable in most business circles as profit. Lying is hardly noticed and certainly considered excusable as the means to a good end.
Can the Christian accept such behavior? No! He is required to denounce the hidden things of dishonesty, to resist walking in craftiness and to cease handling the truth deceitfully (2 Cor. 4:2). With hearty earnestness, the growing Christian conforms to biblical standards of righteousness; but not so the backslider. Bills are carelessly or deliberately paid late or left unpaid. ...Lying is also common for the backslider. Backslidden Christians tell people what they want to hear just as the ungodly do. Appointments are not kept. Promises, even to pray for a need, are not remembered. Many commitments are never honored. When you find yourself able to fit into the world’s way of debt, when your word is not binding and truth is not to be found in your inner self, the brand backslider is rightly yours.
20. Injustice and human misery exist around you and you do little or nothing to relieve the suffering. The Lord Jesus Christ was marked by compassion; so are all His followers. By disposition, some are more attentive to the needs of those around them than others, but every genuine Christian must be sensitive to the hurts of others and minister with the grace and mercy of Jesus as he is able. Unlike Christ, the backslider is content to inquire, "Who is my neighbor?" and pass to the other side of the road (Luke 10:29-37). Whenever you are willing to turn a need into an intellectual discussion, you have been marked by the backslider’s pen. Giving a cup of cold water in the Savior’s name is still an elementary requirement for faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus. If your eyes are blind to the sufferings of humanity on every hand and your heart is sealed by indifference, the testimony of your backslidden condition is so loud and eloquent that the whole world can mark your condition.
21. Your own church has fallen into spiritual declension and the Word of God is no longer preached there with power and yet you are still content. It was never God’s plan for any church to exist without divine power. More than a few churches are dead, however, and the spiritual power has been gone for so long that this condition has become the accepted norm. How can it be? Jesus Himself is never in decline or lacking in power. The believer has no reason to accept declension and powerlessness in his church, and if he does, he needs to face his own backslidden condition. It is not fair to blame the pastor. He may be partially responsible, but take the condition of your church to heart. If you were always fervent in spirit, instant in season and out of season, ready in prayer, and quick to lift and encourage in all that is right and holy, would your church be where it is now? Perhaps you cannot change the situation in your church, but you can certainly shape the condition of your own soul. If declension and powerlessness mark your church, they need not mark you. If you are content with those conditions in your church, it is proof of your own backsliding.
22. The spiritual condition of the world declines all around you and you cannot perceive it. Growing Christians are perceptive. Just as Jesus could discern signs of spiritual health and vitality, so can His true followers. Most of us can look at someone we know and love and discern when they are feeling physically ill. Such an ability is not considered remarkable in any way. Is it any more remarkable when Christians are sensitive to and concerned about the spiritual welfare of those around them? If you find it difficult, if not impossible, to discern Christians from non-Christians, you may wisely ask why. If you cannot tell when your brother or sister is in spiritual health, it may well be a mark of your own declension. Spiritual blindness marks many that claim the name of Jesus. Knowing virtually nothing of spiritual health themselves, they find it impossible to perceive the spiritual sickness of their own immediate world. Such weakness is unknown to Jesus, the Great Physician. When you cannot see signs of declension around you and you cannot hear the cries of the perishing multitudes, you need to look to your own spiritual welfare.
23. You are willing to cheat your employer. Every employee owes his employer full measure. If the hours of employment are 8:00 to 4:30, these are designated to be the hours of labor. Mere presence on the premises during these hours is hardly sufficient. If one is hired to work forty hours per week, that means forty hours of actual productive employment, not merely forty hours, more or less, on the job site. Obviously, office supplies, tools, equipment, and materials provided at work are not for home and personal use. Christians know these things and earnest believers take such matters seriously. It is inconceivable that a true follower of Jesus Christ would cheat his employer. Can you imagine Jesus robbing His Father in heaven while He was here on earth with a job to do?
The backslider doesn’t seem to see it this way. He finds little difficulty coming to work late and leaving early. He considers lunch and coffee breaks flexible, and if two or three hours a day are thus consumed, he has no inward struggles with dishonesty. Nor does visiting with other employees and disrupting their work stir the backslider to anguish. A little theft of time, a little theft of goods, "What’s so unusual about that?" the backslider inquires. Being filled with his own ways, can he really be expected to concern himself with his employer’s welfare?
24. You find yourself rich in grace and mercy and marvel at your own godlikeness. Every true Christian is marked by spiritual humility. There is no way a growing Christian can conceive of himself as having arrived. Jesus spoke eloquently on this theme in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). Who are the poor in spirit but those who know how far they still have to go, those who, having seen God in His infinite majesty and holiness, realize how truly unlike God they are. While appreciative of every mercy received and every grace practiced, the poor in spirit are ever aware that the graces they lack are far more numerous than the graces they enjoy, and the mercy they show is nothing in comparison with the mercy they themselves experience. To His own word on the poor in spirit must be tied Jesus’ word to those that mourn. They too are blessed or happy "for they shall be comforted" (Matt. 5:4). Those who mourn are those who, having seen God as He is, then see themselves as they are. What can the man who compares himself with God do but mourn? Somehow the backslider fails to perceive things this way, and that failure is overwhelming evidence of his tragic condition.
25. Your tears are dried up and the hard, cold spiritual facts of your own existence cannot unleash them. If your prayerlessness does not cause the tears to flow, are you not being confronted with the evidence of your backsliding? If your own personal sin does not provoke you to tears, are you not faced with the hardness of your heart? If the decline of spiritual interest all around you is unnoticed, unalarming and totally incapable of forcing tears from your eyes, is it not because of your backslidden condition? If the lostness of your own children, your parents, your sisters, your husband, your wife, your brothers, your neighbors, your friends, your schoolmates and your companions on the job cannot unleash the tears, is it not because you no longer really care for the very things that stir most deeply the heart of God? When the things that grieve the Savior have no power to grieve you, do you not have clear evidence that you are in a backslidden condition? Jesus saw Jerusalem and He wept. Do you weep over your Jerusalem? When Jesus beheld the hardness of men’s hearts, His own heart was broken. Is yours? Surely no more certain sign of backsliding could possibly exist than an inability to weep with the Son of God and an unwillingness to share His heartbreak.
If any of these aspects of backsliding apply to you, ask these questions: How did I get into such a backslidden condition? Did it happen suddenly? Is it the result of one single moment of carelessness? Was it caused by a solitary sin? No, this would be highly unlikely. Usually backsliding happens a little bit at a time. Let me illustrate: it is rush hour in the New York City subway. The train is crowded and no seats remain. There is, however, a three or four inch space between you and the person on your right. An aggressive passenger, unwilling to stand, spies the narrow gap and sits down – mostly on you and your neighbor. With a few bold wiggles the newcomer manages to force himself into a place a more timid soul would have never considered possible. So it is with the sins that lead to backsliding. Your life as a Christian is seemingly full of Christ and there is no room for self, but an aggressive sin comes and wiggles its way in, crowding Christ out just a little bit. You give place to this sin and soon another does the same thing. Sin by sin, error by error, selfishness by selfishness, the backsliding continues until you are virtually empty of Christ and full of sin and self.
God’s word to the backslider is plain: "Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings" (Jer. 3:22). "Return unto the Lord thy God, for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity" (Hos. 14:1). After lamenting the tragic backsliding of the Ephesian Christians in losing their first love, Jesus commanded, "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent" (Rev. 2:5).
God is weary of your backsliding. Turn from it while there is still time and opportunity to live for His pleasure and glory.
– Used by permission. From Revival by Richard Owen Roberts, Copyright 1982.