How Does Backsliding Happen? Not so long ago, I found out that a good friend of mine fell into serious sin. He and those closest to him are hurting badly as a result. You, also, probably know a friend who has fallen badly, someone you did not expect to fall, but the evidence is there and can’t be explained away. These situations shake us up and waken us to the fact that we are all in a spiritual war, and no one is exempt from temptation or the possibility of falling. But how does backsliding happen? How can we be sure we won’t be the next to fall? A Lesson From The River Shrimp In Colombia there is a popular saying: “Camarón que se duerme, se lo lleva la corriente.” It means “The shrimp that falls asleep is swept away by the current.” As Christians, we are swimming against the current of the world. If we stop swimming, we are swept away by this current. Our walk with the Lord is not a fixed path up to a mountain top where we can sit still. The moment we stop walking with the Lord, we begin to slip away from Him. Our relationship with Him is not static, but dynamic.
When believers backslide, it’s not because they have deliberately decided to deny the Lord, or suddenly commit great sins; it’s because they have gradually “fallen asleep” and stopped walking with the Lord and “swimming” against the world’s current. At first, no change was noticeable; they kept going to church, perhaps less frequently than before; they stopped reading their Bibles and praying every day; they began to allow small unconfessed sins into their lives; their motivations became slightly different as they pursued material wealth, or popularity, or sports, or self-centered enjoyment of life. After some weeks and months, perhaps even years, slowly but surely, imperceptibly at first, they began to slip away from the Lord, and eventually found themselves backsliding into sins they would never have thought possible – another shrimp slowly dragged away by the river and washed over the roaring waterfall!
How To Prevent Backsliding
It might seem obvious that God’s desire for us could be stated this way: “Don’t backslide!” But that is similar to “Don’t sin.” Or in the physical realm to “Don’t get ill!” This is obviously the ideal, but how can we do this? Perhaps the analogy of physical health may help us: To avoid sickness, we must pursue health. We must eat healthy food in healthy amounts, rest adequately, exercise regularly, keep away from sources of infection, clean wounds soon and allow them to heal. Our focus should be a positive one, not just to avoid illness, but to pursue healthy well-being. One of my daughters, who is studying to be a nurse, informs me that the present emphasis of the medical profession has shifted away from “eliminating illness” and towards “promoting health.” This positive approach is wise.
The same is true spiritually. The best way to avoid backsliding is to pursue a healthy Christian lifestyle – to develop these spiritual disciplines:
1. Make Christ the center of life. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20 NIV).
2. Read God’s Word daily. “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Josh. 1:8).
3. Pray every day. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
4. Fellowship regularly with believers in a local church. “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25).
5. Grow in being a witness for Christ in word and deed. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
6. Learn to obey Christ through God’s Word and the prompting of the Holy Spirit. “Whoever has My commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves Me. He who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I too will love him and show Myself to him” (Jn. 14:21).
What If I’m Already Backslidden?
Perhaps you feel it’s too late; you’ve already made a mess of things. If so, remember it often requires a shock to wake us up to our backsliding. If you are a backslider, and are depressed over how far you’ve fallen, take heart. God has allowed you to hit bottom with a bang because He wants you to recognize where you really are, and admit how far you’ve fallen from Him. He wants you to repent, not just from the catastrophic evil you’ve fallen into, but from your long backslide. “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Prov. 28:13).
The Lord is calling you to repent, confess, and return to Him, forsaking your sin. 1 John 1:9 promises, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” However, notice again that it is not just the “big” sin you need to confess and turn away from; it is also the many “little” sins that need confessing and turning from, so you may begin to walk daily with the Lord once again.
Don’t fall into the trap of trying to cover up or patch up the consequences of your backsliding. Don’t worry about the loss of reputation, nor seek to keep up public appearances. This is the opportunity of your life, to allow God to set the foundations right, to become “real” so that you may build a solid life. If you do this, then the present crisis will actually result in a transformed life. But if you give way to despondency and give up, you will really be defeated. 2 Corinthians 7:10 says, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” Don’t harden your heart against God’s call to you in this critical time. The book of Hebrews warns us three times: “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 3:7,15; 4:7). Listen to His voice and allow Him to turn your life around.
Parable Of The Prodigal
One of Jesus’ best known parables is the story of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32). It’s worth noting that the one who left his father is always referred to as a “son of the father” – even by the older brother who didn’t want him back. The story represents well God’s attitude towards the backslider. It’s true he squandered his father’s blessings and turned away from him, but God still wants to welcome the repentant prodigal son back; and He rejoices greatly when he does finally return after hitting rock bottom. God wants to forgive and restore you. He forgives and forgets. He wants you to be able to say with Paul, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).
For Pastors And Elders
I’d like to add a few thoughts for those whom God has placed in every church to guide, teach and encourage the body of Christ. The Bible calls you “elders,” “pastors,” “overseers” or “leaders.” Each title has a special meaning and represents an aspect of your work. The Father wants you to avoid the selfish attitude shown by the older brother in Jesus’ story of the prodigal, who didn’t want to welcome his younger brother back. You must develop a heart of compassion and forgiveness for the repentant backslider. “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Gal. 6:1).
But you need to be doubly vigilant. The verse above goes on to say, “But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” Elsewhere Paul also wrote, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Paul encouraged Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). When an elder backslides, the damage done is much greater than when a new believer backslides, because many others are influenced by your example. That’s why you need to watch both your life and your doctrine. No one is immune to the enemy’s subtle temptations. One of the best ways you can help the rest of the church to be strengthened is by being a transparent life-example yourself.
I also believe that one of the components of a healthy Christian church is an active visitation program. God’s Word encourages hospitality: “Practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13). “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Pet. 4:9). An alternative to inviting folks to our home is visiting them in their homes, or inviting them to a coffee shop for a chat. These visits should not just be of the “restorative” nature, helping the repentant backslider. Rather, we should major in “preventive maintenance” – helping believers maintain a healthy spiritual life, so they will avoid “spiritual drowsiness” which will make them eventually fall away from the Lord.
Finally, our local churches need systematic teaching of spiritual basics and disciplines of the Christian life. It is true that we should progress beyond spiritual “milk,” and learn to digest “solid food” (Heb. 5:11-14); but notice that even adults need milk as part of their balanced diet. The problem is not with the milk, but with the refusal to eat meat. However, if the preaching diet consists of only “meat,” we’ll starve the new believers, while allowing the older believers to get an unbalanced spiritual diet. We need to be reminded of the basics, again and again. After explaining the fundamentals of Christian growth, Peter wrote, “I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have” (2 Pet. 1:12).
Fix Our Eyes On Jesus
This is the best recipe against backsliding: “Run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:1-2). If we run each day looking to Jesus and enjoying our relationship with Him, we won’t stray far! May He help us.
By Andrew Nunn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org