Stagnation is Degeneration
It is striking how strongly the Bible warns against stagnation and backsliding in our spiritual lives. Life in the grace of God needs daily sustenance. It does not automatically remain strong. Phrased positively: we read texts throughout the New Testament that speak about the necessity of spiritual growth. A believer must grow to spiritual maturity and confession. He or she must display the traits and the content of his or her new identity founded in Jesus Christ.
Here follow some remarks about degeneration in our lives with God.
The Bible states that born-again, true believers can lose ground in their faith and can fall back. This is one of the main themes of the letter to the Hebrews. Sliding backwards begins with stagnation. There is no longer growth in the spiritual life. This does not mean spiritual life is totally absent, but it no longer flourishes. There is still belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, but that belief is no longer regulative and formative. Habits, daily routines, and traditions regulate our lives more than the living interaction with God and His Word. The great gift of grace of the renewal of our lives no longer, or hardly, permeates our lives. Those who do not directly live out of the Word and thereby experience freedom in Christ fall back on specific teachings and traditions. This is not a condemnation of traditions and teachings, since we all live within specific traditions. The issue is: Do we hold the living Word above all traditions, and can we stand steadfast in the freedom with which Christ made all His chosen ones free?
The process of backsliding
There is a process in backsliding. If this process is not stopped and turned around, it will lead to apostasy. We must not respond with: true believers cannot fall completely and definitely from justifying faith. That is, thanks be to God, true; there is, thanks be to God’s grace and faithfulness, perseverance of saints. However, the comfort of that knowledge is based on the comfort and knowledge of true faith. In the actual situations of our own time and lives, we are called to perseverance and are warned against apostasy. The Bible thus acknowledges a backsliding in faith. Past sins, although confessed and “put to death”, continue to tempt us. One may suddenly feel cloyed with “enough” of that “spiritual” stuff. Real life presses on us. This world exists – not that that is such a stupendous discovery, since it has never been any other way. What is meant is that our earthly life and its concerns draw us away and gain the ascendancy, so that in the practical aspects of everyday life they become more important than our hidden relationship with God. We are no longer receptive, or less so, to hear the Word of the Lord in the quiet moments of our lives. The apostle Paul witnessed this painful experience in one of his fellow workers, Demas, who left him because he loved the world more. Demas did not persevere in following the Lord Jesus.
The process through which we no longer grow and begin to regress starts when we no longer truly experience the Word speaking to our inner being. While that does still occur, we begin to resist it because we had that relationship in the past. We persist in that resistance despite the protest of the new life. Prayer is no longer the life-breath of our soul. The leadership of the Holy Spirit becomes a concept without meaning. We are sucked into the exciting events of this world: football games, the world of modern technology, the pursuit of riches, etc. All these things engross us to a truly dangerous degree. Moreover, one discovers that many things in the world proceed in a fairly decent and reasonable manner. “The world isn’t all that bad!” First, we’ll focus on that career for a couple of years; sure, we want to continue in our faith, but that can sit on the side burner for a while, on “standby”. I’ll try to make it to church, but don’t expect too much from me in the communion of saints in the near future. I simply have other priorities, and the church can function quite well without me for a while. Jesus can manage quite well without my input.
The process of regression in faith can already begin in the younger years of life. It certainly threatens those in the forties and fifties! They have already experienced most of the ordinary things of life. They feel the need of new stimulation. In the business world, this is understandable and not really wrong. A person does appreciate a change. One continues to need certain challenges. We may begin to think that the Gospel does not supply us with sufficient challenge to satisfy us. That is a sinful misunderstanding of the highest order, addressed by dire warnings in the Bible. Read through the letter to the Hebrews in one sitting, preferably out loud. After that, you would rewrite this article in a much sharper tone than I am using.
Can we zero in further on the process of spiritual regression?
It begins when the spiritual interest in the treasures of the Word of God decreases. One no longer sees the treasures. The sparkle is gone. The great deeds of God are covered by a misty haze. The treasures, hidden in Christ, no longer attract a person. One no longer commits energy to study. The desire and urge to understand the riches of Christ disappears. For the Hebrews, the exceedingly great riches of the high priesthood of Christ was a concept beyond understanding. This ignorance weakened their insight into the power and riches of the offering of Christ for sin. Why should they have to delve so deeply? Can’t we keep it all a bit simpler? In Hebrews 5:13 this idea is confronted with the words, “for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.” We don’t want to be weaned; we want to be “bottle” Christians, on the teat. We no longer feel the need for solid food. The completeness and totality of Christ is too hard for us. We have become hard of hearing. We no longer recognize right preaching. Slowly but surely, the accent and focus of preaching has shifted in the direction of “good feelings”. A slippery slope has been built, in which the relationship of faith and feeling has been reversed into feeling and faith. My experience and my feelings become criteria for critique of and evaluation of the preaching. Ultimately, we could say much more about this, and what I outline here is widely known, but pointing this out can move us to personal reflection. The process of degeneration can reach a stage where we detect a certain indifference in ourselves. The pleasurable life has gained ascendency over the life of following Christ – bluntly spoken, but using words out of the letter to the Hebrews. We can compare this to Esau’s greedy consumption of a bowl of lentil stew at the cost of his birthright as firstborn. Indifference increases when we do not struggle against it at all cost. Slowly a membrane forms around our hearts and that membrane thickens and toughens. Once it hardens, we fall away, and after this falling away comes death!
Spiritual sluggishness must be resolved. We must struggle against sluggishness in hearing the Word of Christ. In practice, that means spending more time with the Word of God. Prayer life must be renewed. Jesus also speaks of slowness of heart in Luke 24:25. The use of intellect alone is an evil barrier to spiritual understanding. We need to move towards spiritual growth. That can mean, as it were, having to start over with intense listening to the Word of God. Supplementing and nurturing this new listening is the knowledge which we gained in previous years.
It is not my intent here to delve deeply into spiritual growth in the New Testament. Noteworthy is that such growth originates with Christ, is towards Christ and is in Christ. Interaction with the Word bears the fruit that we grow in the awareness of the richness and fullness of the treasures of salvation from God through Christ. This stimulates perseverance. Hope receives content. Love translates into action. (Spiritually) mature people “have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). We have used and trained our eyes, ears, and feelings. Does not everyone? Certainly, when we speak about these things in a superficial and worldly manner. But here we refer to the use and training of our senses in knowing Christ. Through Christ we discern what is good and what is evil. That discernment leads us to say ‘yes’ to that which is good and ‘no’ to that which is evil or nefarious. Every day again we must say ‘no’ to sin and to the temptations that rise up around us and strive to work against us. To be enabled to come to this discernment of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, we need continuous and living interaction with the Word and with the God of that Word. We need to pray for the enlightenment and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Then we can use the gift of discernment which we have received in practice. The use and training of our senses belong to our spiritual growth!
Am I, when I achieve the age of physical maturity, mature in Christ? How do I experience that? What in my life bears witness to that? These questions help keep our faith real. Standing still is going backwards, with all the dangers adhering to that!
This article was translated by Elizabeth DeWit.