All who are spiritually minded will have to make the sad confession that they are so often in need of spiritual reviving. The constant downward drag of their own sinful tendencies, the attacks of the devil, and the deadening influence of the world and the ‘cares of this life’, has its inevitable effect. Our souls grow weary, jaded, and less spiritually sensitive.
The process of spiritual decline is at first secret and unrecognised even by the most perceptive observer and, sadly, by the backsliding believer. The outward aspects of a Christian profession are still all in place. Daily Bible reading and prayer have not been totally forsaken. The meetings of the church on the Lord’s Day are still part of the regular routine. Conscience is satisfied even when the heart is so dull and unresponsive. There is no hint of heresy in regard to doctrine but there is a sad lack of the experience of the power of truth in the heart and its consequent influence on the life. The secret rebukes of a conscience enlivened by the Scriptures are almost silenced. Conversation with other believers continues but is not enjoyed. A gradual tendency to talk about religion, or ministers, or denominational disputes, takes the place of the kind of conversation that Bunyan’s Christian had with Hopeful as they walked carefully through the Enchanted Ground so as to prevent drowsiness.
Through the sinful perversity of our hearts there can so quickly be a smokescreen of feverish activity in the life of one who is on this downward track of spiritual decline. Faith and works go together, as the Apostle James so forcibly reminds us, but the faith must be a living and gracious power in the soul if the works are to be acceptable in the sight of the Lord. There were those of whom our Lord spoke who will say, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works?’ but they had not departed from iniquity; iniquity which was probably hidden from all but the Lord Himself.
A growing lack of charity in the heart towards other Christians may be hidden by a formal politeness but it is not hidden from the Searcher of hearts. A growing impatience with a Biblical and searching ministry may be covered by the customary greeting to the Pastor, ‘Thank you for the message’, or some other platitude which does not correspond to the true reaction of the heart. A growing lack of real pleasure in the Word of God, whether read or preached, can be disguised with an open Bible and a reasonable memory.
The alarming fact which is so often not realised is that this process is cumulative. Acceleration is the usual result of the downward gradient. What is hidden at present will eventually begin to show itself publicly.
‘We did not see you at the Prayer Meeting last week’.
‘O,I am so busy at work it was too late to get my meal and come in time’.
‘I missed you last Lord’s Day evening’.
‘Yes, I was hindered by unforeseen problems’.
‘You did not send an apology for your absence from the Church Meeting last week’.
‘O,I am very sorry: it slipped my mind’.
‘But why could you not be there?’
‘Well, I thought there was nothing important to be decided and we had a few friends in for the evening’.
What begins as an occasional event soon becomes a regular habit. Warm-hearted church members slowly become expert critics of everything from the singing to the sermon, and from the children’s misbehaviour to the conduct of church meetings.
Can this be a true believer? Can the work of grace really have been begun? Is there any evidence of the fruit which comes from abiding in the Vine? Serious questions need to be asked and answers need to be found. But the backsliding believer, though a real believer, is almost the last person to begin to ask the questions.
What a mercy it is that God does not cast away His children, even when they are wayward children. He has many ways of correcting, chastising, and reviving. What amazing grace to those who are so unworthy!
Has there been the beginning of a serious concern? Has conscience at last been stirred? Have the exhortations of loving Christians begun to have an effect instead of being resented? Is there any sign of humility, brokenness, or repentance? Is secret prayer once again the real, sincere, urgent cry of the heart? Is the Saviour who has been ignored once again the Lord who is loved? Is the far-from-sinless church again the object of affectionate concern? Is the not-very-eminent pastor the one who is earnestly prayed for? Are the meetings of the church anything like those the Psalmist so sadly mourned the loss of? ‘How amiable are thy tabernacles, O LORD of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the LORD: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.’
What is the way back? It is essential that the real state of the soul be recognised and confessed. The sin of the past must be repented of with a repentance not to be repented of, which means a thorough forsaking of all that has grieved the Spirit of God. Pleading, penitent, constant prayer is essential until the Lord returns in mercy. The secret place of secret prayer must be given all the time that it deserves by a heart that is grieved by its neglect, even if that means offending the family or refusing the extra opportunity for earning more money.
Our Lord and Master has so patiently but so forcefully said, ‘Follow me’. We are not our own, we are bought with a price. Again the Voice calls out, ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’. ‘He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him’. John 14.15,21.
And, lest we forget. He speaks again, ‘He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me’.