TO AVOID BACKSLIDING
Many people assume that backsliding means going right back into the world or into gross sin such as immorality, drunkenness, etc. As a result, they are not even aware that they are backsliding, till one day they suddenly find themselves in such deep situations. But the fact is that their backsliding began long ago, when they left their first love for Jesus (Rev.2:4) and began to move away from Him to other things. The church in Ephesus did not think that they were backslidden because they were very involved in church activities and had great zeal for doctrines. But their heart connection with Jesus had become weak or even non-existent. Isn't this something very common among us? Can any of us say that we have not had occasions of backsliding in our heart?
Think of how we began our Christian life in humility as we recognised our sinfulness and in gratefulness towards the Lord who had stooped to our level, washed us and lifted us up. Did we continue in that attitude all along? Where are we now?
King Solomon also began in a humble way, so much so that God was really impressed with him. When God asked him what he wanted from Him, Solomon acknowledged his own smallness and need, and just asked for wisdom to help his people rather than for wealth or fame (1Kgs.3:5-10). But as he became great and famous, he left his devotion to God for other gods (1Kgs.11:4-9). Doesn't this sound very familiar in our present times?
A Big Mistake
Backsliding becomes very common due to a big mistake that many preachers make, as also new believers. This is to assume that once a man is born again, everything else such as growing up into maturity, overcoming temptations, etc., will happen automatically in the course of time. The assumption is that God who has begun a good work in him will complete it on His own (Phil.1:6). The fact is that while God will work, we need to respond to Him too, if His work in us has to succeed. Christian growth is not automatic. If we are not careful, Satan can take away God's Word which has been sown into our heart, we may not have enough depth to sustain the seed and make it grow, the thorns of life can choke us, or weeds can grow up and stunt our growth. Therefore, the Bible is full of exhortations for us to take care of ourselves, to do certain things and to avoid certain other things. We can be sure that only if we listen to these and do according to them can we be sure of being able to stand in the day of testing (Matt.7:24).
The problem with backsliding is that it begins very slowly-so slowly that we are not aware it is happening. It begins in our thoughts. We begin to allow certain thoughts to dwell in our mind, without realising that these are also changing our value system. We may even be careful about what we do externally-what we say and do-because these can be noticed by others too. But by neglecting to be careful about our 'secret' thoughts we miss the source of our backsliding. Soon these thoughts begin to change our attitudes and then our actions too. We notice something is wrong only when we begin to fall into sin. But even then many times we do not acknowledge that something is seriously wrong until we are 'caught' by others.
When we are backslidden, the things of God are not as attractive to us as they were when we first came to Him. Reading the Bible, praying, going for church meetings, fellowship with other Christians, etc., lose their 'charm.' We have these as a part of our routine, but they are no longer thrilling or exciting. Further down the road, sins begin to rule over us even though we blame other people and situations for them. Our heart has become cold towards God.
The backslidden condition is really painful for a Christian who has once known the warmth of the love of God. We usually wonder what on earth has happened to us, and we rarely think that we have brought this on ourselves due to our carelessness. "Your evil ways will get you a sound thrashing, that's what you'll get. You'll pay dearly for your disloyal ways. Take a long, hard look at what you've done and its bitter results. Was it worth it to have walked out on your God?" (Jer.2:19 The Message Bible).
How Does It Begin?
Backsliding begins in our heart, when it leaves clinging to God. God is the source of all our strength, and we are so dependent on Him even for our very life. If we as the branches don't cling to Jesus, the Vine, we can do nothing (Jn.15:5)! We can look at a few examples of how this process starts.
We can manage! When we come to God as sinners, we are so much in need of Him. But as He blesses us in material and spiritual ways, we may begin to lose that sense of dependency. We all have the tendency to seek after God when things go wrong and forget Him or take Him for granted when things are going well! God also knows this and warns us specifically about this. He warned the people of Israel who were just about to enter the land of promise, after having gone through various difficulties in the wilderness. He told them not to forget Him who had led them out of slavery into freedom when they got things they did not deserve (Deut.6:4-6,10-12).
Isn't this something that can happen to us? Now that we are blessed of God, don't we tend to make our own plans and carry out our own projects without even bothering to consult Him? Without acknowledging Him in all our ways (Pro.3:6), we go ahead till we fall down and see our need for Him.
We get occupied with other things. Just after our conversion, we are generally very careful about what is pleasing to the Lord. But later on, we change over to just avoiding what is obviously sinful. As a result, we start getting involved with several 'legitimate' (non-sinful) things, not realising that these are taking away our time and hence our ability to have fellowship with the Lord. 'Harmless' things such as games, hobbies, social activities, etc., occupy our time so much that we get into a rush when we have to manage the rest of our time to do many needful things. Haven't we noticed how we just can't miss that game or event on TV which takes away a few hours and then we don't even have ten minutes to read the Bible. If one of these things clashes with the church timing, just too bad!
If Satan cannot get us to sin directly, the next thing he tries is to distract us from God. After a lot of distractions like that, we suddenly find that we have lost touch with Him, and we can't even recognise His voice when we get into trouble. We have backslidden, even though we have not yet fallen deeply into sin.
Oh, the good old days! When the children of Israel left Egypt, many of them did that because they were happy to get out of slavery. But they were not really excited about the Promised Land. Now and then, especially when they faced testing times, they started daydreaming about how good the days in Egypt were concerning food. They forgot how sorely they had cried out to God about their slavery!
Aren't we tempted sometimes to reminisce about the 'fun' and 'friends' we left behind from our old life and think it would have been nice to continue to have them, instead of remembering that we have been given much better things now? If we start along this line, our heart will begin to get drawn away from God towards worldly pleasures, and it won't be long before we begin to flirt with temptations also.
Tolerating known sins. Sins give us transient pleasures and eternal losses afterwards. Certain types of sins such as lying or cheating can also give us temporary advantages in life. Can't we make more money by falsifying records or cheating on tax? When we know something is sinful and we continue to tolerate them, we are virtually cutting off our connection with God. God says that if we harbour sin in our hearts, He will not even listen to our prayers (Psa.66:18). David says that his strength failed him and his body wasted away because of his sins (Psa.31:10).
If we are going ahead with known sins, we are backslidden indeed. We have already come down the road too much.
Getting weary with troubles. Jesus hasn't promised us a trouble-free life on this earth, even though He has promised us sufficient grace to deal with all of them (Jn.16:33;2Cor.12:9). But many times, instead of seeking grace from God, we look at the troubles and become discouraged. We look at our old friends who seem to be enjoying life along with their sinful ways and wonder what we gained by coming to the Lord! We slowly begin to forget our thankfulness to the Lord for everything He has done and provided for us and concentrate only on our problems. This makes us bitter towards Him too. Can we think of a faster way to backslide?
We have lost our perspective and the relative values of what God has given to us and the troubles we have on earth (Rom.8:18). This is another way to turn away from the Lord in order to seek ease and pleasure for ourselves. Perhaps this is what happened to Demas who was once a co-worker with Paul and backslid. Perhaps he found the troubles he faced along with Paul to be too much and preferred the comfort of the world (2Tim.4:10).
How To Avoid Backsliding?
The solution many people suggest is more activity, such as reading the Bible, praying, witnessing, etc. These are very good, and certainly to be encouraged. But the problem still persists that one can backslide even while doing all these activities, as we see in the case of the church in Ephesus (Rev.2:1-4). Our hearts can still get distracted from God. Keeping ourselves accountable with someone else is helpful, provided that person is mature and discerning. But this also can become mechanical and lose the heart.
The secret is in keeping our heart (Pro.4:23). It is from our heart that everything else in our life flows out. It is our heart that we have to watch, and not just our words and actions. We need to see if heart is in love with the Lord, if we are excited about Him, if we long to hear Him speaking to us, if we are pursuing after a greater knowledge of Him and a closer walk with Him, if we are seeking to know and carry out His will better in everything, etc.
Imagine going up a hill on a bicycle. We go up as long as we keep pedalling. But when we stop pedalling, we can't go on staying where we have reached-we start sliding down, backsliding. So, the secret to avoiding backsliding is to always press forward with God. And we can know it when we stop pressing on, and start backsliding, long before anyone else notices it.