Are You Falling Away?
Three Warning Signs
© 1999 by Paul Thigpen
A foolish old farmer, so the story goes, concluded one day that the oats he had fed his mule for years were simply costing him too much. So he hatched a plan: He mixed a little sawdust in with the feed, and then a little more the next day, and even more the next, each time reducing the amount of oats in the mix.
The mule didn't seem to notice the gradual change, so the farmer thought things were fine and kept decreasing the proportion of oats. But weeks later, on the day he finally fed the poor beast nothing but sawdust, the mule finished the meal … and fell over dead.
A silly tale, perhaps, but it serves as a parable of the backslider — the Christian who slips farther and farther away from God through unrepented sin. We may not start out with the conviction that a soul can survive on spiritual sawdust, but we may well convince ourselves that a little of it won't hurt too much, and a little less of the real spiritual food won't be missed. Then, over time, the sawdust gradually multiplies while the oats gradually disappear. Before long, the change is complete, and our starved, sawdust-stuffed spiritual life has collapsed.
The process can be so subtle, progressing in such small increments, that we fail to recognize the problem. Yet the "mule" does display a few symptoms warning us that all is not well. No matter how secure we think we may be, we should learn to recognize these warning signs, because the Scripture tells us that no one is totally safe from the danger: "If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Common experience, common sense and the lessons of Scripture suggest a number of backsliding indicators. We might summarize them under three headings, each describing a critical loss in our spiritual life: the loss of love for God; the loss of fear of God; and the loss of faith in God.
The Loss of Love for God
The first Christians in the city of Ephesus received a fine grounding in the Word of God from the Apostle Paul, whose letter to them burned with a passionate love for God that was no doubt contagious. St. Paul prayed that they, "being established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge" (Ephesians 3:17-19). He fervently hoped that in response to His love they would be among those "who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love" (Eph 6:24).
Sadly enough, not many years later, Jesus gave St. John a disturbing message for these Ephesian Christians:
I know your deeds, your hard work, and your perseverance. … Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first (Rev 2:2, 4-5).
The passionate "first love" was gone. The people were apparently still going through at least some of the motions of devotion to God, but their hearts had grown cold, and as a result they had fallen.
What specific "red flags" might go up to indicate that our first love for the Lord has been lost? Think of the telltale signs of a love grown cold in human relationships; the parallels to our love for Christ may be useful:
· Loss of joy. We take joy in what we love. When we lose our joy in our relationship with someone, it's a sign that our love for that person has somehow diminished. A loss of joy in our relationship with God is thus one indicator that our first love has dimmed.
King David experienced such a loss in joy when he backslid through his lust for Bathsheba. In Psalm 51 he described his anguish when he recognized how far he had fallen from God. In that prayer for mercy, he cried out to the Lord, "Restore to me the joy of your salvation" (v. 12).
· Aversion to the Sacraments, prayer and Scripture study. We want to spend time with those we love. We want to pour out our hearts to them and listen as their own hearts are opened to us. So when we develop an aversion to spending time in talking and listening to someone, that's a second sure sign of love lost.
We encounter the Lord in the Sacraments; we talk to Him in prayer and listen to Him in Scripture study. As a devout rural friend of mine once put it, "I have a relish for God. If you love squash, you eat it for breakfast, you eat it for dinner, you eat it for supper. You just can't get enough of it. And if you love God, you just can't get enough of Him." If, on the other hand, we've grown reluctant to receive Him and spend time with Him in these ways, our relationship is in trouble.
When Adam and Eve backslid in the garden, what was the first token of their fall? They tried to hide from the God whose fellowship they had once so naturally enjoyed (see Genesis 3:8).
· Aversion to Christian fellowship. I once saw a pet-lover's bumper sticker that said: "Love me, love my cats." When you love someone, you love the ones that he or she loves. You enjoy spending time with the friends of your friend. But when a friendship turns sour, you tend to lose interest in that person's friends as well, and you want to avoid people who are likely to talk about the person you want to forget.
For that reason, backslidden Christians tend to avoid fellowship with committed believers — not just at Mass, but in other settings as well. They don't want to be around people who remind them of the One they're trying not to think about. It's an age-old problem: The writer to the Hebrews noted that some folks had lost their zeal for God and become "lazy" (6:12); some had gone so far as to "fall away" altogether (v. 6). And what was one of the symptoms of this dangerous trend? "Let us not give up meeting together," he chided, "as some are in the habit of doing" (Hebrews 10:25).
· Misplaced treasure. We are made to love, and love we will. If we lose our love for God, other loves will grow to fill the place in our hearts He should be taking. The time once spent with God will be devoted to other pursuits that yield little or no spiritual fruit.
Thus the backslider often becomes immersed in an array of worldly concerns as substitutes for the old spiritual life. Entertainment replaces prayer and Scripture study as a form of "diversion" — that is, something that diverts attention from troubling thoughts that might lead to serious self-examination. "Safe," secular acquaintances with no spiritual interests take the place of Christian friends. Energies once spent in evangelism, charitable work or other forms of ministry are now focused inward on financial or career goals. Money once designated for church and charity is redirected to more selfish or frivolous ends.
"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). Once we stop searching for the one Pearl of great price (see Matthew 13:45-46), we go searching for other treasures, devoting our time, energy and money to the pursuit. Having lost our first love for God, we go — in the words of an old seventies song — "looking for love in all the wrong places."
The Loss of Fear of God
Though we often think of love and fear as opposites, the Scripture reminds us repeatedly that a mature relationship with God is characterized by both attitudes: "The Lord delights in those who fear Him, who put their hope in His unfailing love" (Psalm 147:11). When we fall away from God, then, we lose not only our love for Him, but also our healthy fear of Him. And if "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10), then the loss of that fear is the beginning of dangerous folly.
What are the signs that we no longer fear God? Since "to fear the Lord is to hate evil" (Proverbs 8:13), to answer that question we need only examine our attitude toward sin. A growing attachment to sin — a sure sign that we are losing our fear of God — typically manifests itself in several stages:
· Cover-up of sin. In the first stage, we recognize our wrongdoing, and in our shame we try to hide it. Adam and Eve provide the classic example: After the fall in the garden, they tried to cover themselves with fig leaves (see Genesis 3:7). King David, too, knew the trouble that comes from refusing to confess sins to God and trying to "cover up … iniquity" (Psalm 32:5).
Of course, it's useless to try hiding our sin from God: "Does He who formed the eye not see? Does He who disciplines nations not punish? … The Lord knows the thoughts of man; He knows that they are futile" (Psalm 94:9-11). But in this early stage of backsliding, we fool ourselves into thinking that somehow He won't know what we've done as long as we don't admit it to anyone.
Ananias and Sapphira, a dishonest couple in the early church at Jerusalem, made that mistake when they tried to cover up their wrongdoing. But they learned too late that to treat sin so lightly can be fatal (see Acts 5). Their sudden punishment quickly rekindled a fear of God in the rest of the congregation.
· Denial of responsibility. When we realize we can't hide our sin from God, the typical next stage in backsliding is to insist that what we're doing wrong isn't really our fault. Once again, note the pattern in Eden: Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent (see Genesis 3:12-13).
The excuses are legion: "Yes, it's an ugly little habit, but I was raised this way." "Of course I'm not supposed to hold grudges, but how could anyone be expected to forgive what they did to me?" "People with artistic personalities just have this weakness." Whatever the excuse, the sin continues, and the sinner moves farther and farther from God.
· Procrastination in repentance. Once we fail in trying to shift the blame — for at some deep level we know that we truly are responsible for our wrongdoing — our next strategy as backsliders is to put off the day of repentance. St. Augustine of Hippo, the celebrated fifth-century bishop whose autobiography, The Confessions, recounts his backslidden years as a youth, remembered praying this prayer: "Lord, give me self-control, but not yet!"
Backsliders reject God's invitation: "Now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2). And they forget God's warning: "Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts" (Psalm 95:7-8). They wait until tomorrow to repent, but tomorrow never comes. Their hearts harden like lumps of clay left out in the hot sun, becoming useless because they can no longer be shaped according to God's will.
· Justification of sin. If we put off repentance long enough, our consciences become seared (see 1 Timothy 4:2). We stop trying to hide sin, make excuses, or delay our reckoning with it; instead we begin to convince ourselves that it isn't really sin after all. In time we may even grow brazen in our wrongdoing, openly defying God or others to condemn our behavior.
King Saul was probably the master rationalizer in this regard. When the prophet Samuel rebuked him for disobeying God's command to destroy everything in the enemy city of Amalek, Saul tried to justify his behavior by claiming that he had saved the best of the booty to sacrifice to the Lord. Samuel pointed out that the king had nevertheless disobeyed God's clear instructions, yet Saul adamantly insisted that he had done no wrong (see 1 Samuel 15:1-23).
The pattern is repeated in the lives of other biblical backsliders. Having slain Abel, Cain defied God with the impudent challenge: "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9). Jonah justified his refusal to obey God's summons to prophesy Ninevah's destruction on the grounds that God's mercy would lead Him to spare the Ninevites, making Jonah look foolish (Jonah 4:1-3). The high priest Caiaphas even had a rationale for murder: If Jesus weren't killed, he reasoned, the Nazarene's followers would cause trouble, the Romans would react violently, and the Jewish nation would be harmed (see John 11:45-50). Having Jesus killed, he insisted, was obviously the right thing to do.
The hardened backslider thus embraces sin and refuses correction. All fear of God is gone. "This is the way of an adulteress," says a scriptural proverb. "She eats and wipes her mouth and says, 'I've done nothing wrong'" (Proverbs 30:20).
The Loss of Faith in God
Unrepented sin leads finally to unbelief, and at last a disastrous rejection of God. Consider, for example, the children of Israel who hardened their hearts in the desert. Having lost their initial loving gratitude for all that God had done to save them, they persisted in sin, until they finally lost faith altogether: They concluded that there was no God on the mountain after all, and that something else must have delivered them from bondage. So they worshipped instead a golden calf of their own creation (see Exodus 32).
Sadly, I can recall several Christians I've known who followed a similar path to leaving the Lord altogether. Despite every indication of genuine faith in the beginning, they gradually took the way of the backslider, slipping deeper and deeper into sin. Losing their love for God and their fear of God, in the end they no longer believed even the essentials of the faith and declared themselves Christians no more.
Why does loss of faith follow loss of love and fear? First, we must recognize that prayer, Scripture study and Christian fellowship feed faith, so to avoid these spiritual disciplines is to starve faith. The old "mule" needs her oats; sawdust in the feed bag is deadly.
Perhaps another reason for loss of faith is that those who justify their wrongdoing must deny the truth of Scripture and Tradition. Once they have undermined in their own hearts the claims of God's revelation with regard to morality, they have opened the door to doubts about its other claims. Ever since the serpent first tempted Eve, the devil has seduced backsliders with the unsettling question: "Did God really say …?" (Genesis 3:1).
At the same time, we must keep in mind that affirming God's existence and His claim to our obedience while habitually disobeying Him creates an ultimately unbearable tension in our souls. We can never quite convince ourselves fully that our behavior is justified if God has plainly said it isn't. If we refuse to repent, the only way out of the dilemma is to conclude that He hasn't truly spoken or that He doesn't truly exist after all. The result: "a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God" (Hebrews 3:12).
How many students from Christian families I've met in the university classroom who went looking for another faith because they wanted to hold on to some particular sin! Typically, they end up in some form of New Age religion because it makes so few moral demands. They relieve themselves of the inner tension by denying that there is a God who commands: "Be holy, because I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16).
Nevertheless, though the path they have chosen feels more comfortable for now, it finally leads to misery:
If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred commandment that was passed on to them (1 Peter 2:20-21).
Thus the St. Peter concludes his letter with a solemn warning: "Be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position" (3:17).
What a frightening prospect is the destiny of the backslider! Yet even for the worst of us sinners, God offers hope. "Examine yourselves," the Apostle Paul instructs us, "to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves" (2 Corinthians 13:5). Do we find evidence that we're falling away? Are there signs that we have lost our first love, our fear of the Lord — that we are even in danger of losing our faith?
If so, our God still stands ready to help us find the way back to Him. The Sacraments and the spiritual disciplines we've forsaken can, if taken up again with a humble heart, serve to rekindle our love and a healthy fear, driving us to repentance and a new beginning. Then the prayer of Jude (vv. 24-25) can become our firm hope: "To Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy — to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen."