Volume 24, Number 3
Yes, Turning Back!
There is nothing wrong with turning back. Personally, I’m quite fond of it. And you should be too. Yes, yes, by all means, turn back!
“Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 3:7).
Think for a moment about the word return. It is composed of two parts. The first is the prefix re- which is a direct inheritance from the Latin re meaning, you guessed it, “again.” The second part, -turn, derives from the Greek tornos, which means “circular movement.” Think of the word tornado. So a turn takes place when an object moves in a different direction relative to its surroundings or its former position. The meaning, then, of our word—return—is quite clear indeed, is it not? It means to change your position again.
So turning back can be quite a good thing indeed. Provided that you are turning from sin and to God. This is something that I need to do. Not only needed to do (past tense), but need to do (present tense). Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you are human. Perhaps you are, like me and the old hymn writer, “prone to wander … prone to leave the God [you] love.”
An authentic conversion experience is not a turning, but a continual turning. Course corrections need to be made, not once in a lifetime, but continually. And at times something more than a mere turn is needed.
A return is needed.
“Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11, ESV).
Turn and live! Turn back! Turn back! The urgency is palpable.
Israel was very good at backsliding. Again, perhaps you can relate. Backsliding is easy precisely because it requires no special effort. Things which require no special effort tend to happen a lot. Things like breathing. Or dying. Or blinking. Significant effort is expended not when you do these things, but when you try to not do them. They’re easy to do and hard not to do.
Like the presence of dust on your furniture, backsliding occurs when you simply do nothing. Its prevention, however, requires vigilant intentionality. Of course you can purposefully backslide. We sometimes call this apostasy. But apostasy and backsliding are actually different things. We get them confused because unchecked they lead to the same place; that place being condemnation and death. But though they lead to the same place, it does not follow that they are the same thing. For example, once you get to my neighborhood there are two ways to get to my house. You can take either Valparaiso Drive or Gold Springs Road. Either will get you to my door, but they’re not the same roads.
Apostasy carries with it the notion of volitional abandonment and defection. Apostasy takes some effort. Backsliding doesn’t. This being the case, laissez-faire Christianity is doomed to failure. If you are indifferent, neglectful, or apathetic about your personal walk with Jesus, you will backslide. More precisely, you are backsliding. See how easy it is? Like blinking, you can do it even when you’re not trying. An unattended garden will not lack for weeds. But a weedless garden takes energy, effort and, again, preventative intentionality.
Recall the hymn writer’s lines again. “Prone to wander … prone to leave the God I love.”
Prone, he says.
Hmmm. What does that mean?
From the Latin pronus meaning “leaning forward,” it is something you are “likely or liable to do.” It indicates a direction, a bent, an inclination.
The hymn writer could feel something fundamental to his nature. Something inside of him that was at odds with His commitment to God. I feel it too. And I’m guessing you do as well. Paul certainly felt it. “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:22, 23). This contrarian core is so fundamental to human experience that Paul called it a law—like the law of gravity, constantly pulling.
Gravity being what it is, it takes effort to stand upright.
Your nature being what it is, it takes effort to live upright.
Is it easier to pray for an hour or not to? Is it easier to witness to the person sitting next to you or not to? Is it easier to love your neighbor as yourself or not to? Examples could be multiplied.
Quite often, the easy path and wrong path are the same path. The very quotable GK Chesterton observed pithily that, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” We will resist the temptation here to seek a reconciliation between Chesterton’s observation and Jesus’ invitation to receive His “easy” yoke and His “light” burden (Matthew 11:28, 29). That’s another article. For our purposes here, Chesterton’s insight stands, for most, if not all of us, as consistently experientially confirmed.
So Christianity is hard. Because of our “proneness.”
Backsliding is easy. Also, because of our “proneness.”
This is a recipe for failure, right?
Because God’s solution is bigger and better than your problem. His solution is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the gospel is the cure for backsliding. Yes, the cure. As in, even though it’s easy, it’s not necessary. Many Christians often get these confused. They think that because something (sinning, backsliding, etc.) is easy that it’s necessary. Such is not the case. While backsliding may happen readily, easily and naturally, it does not follow that it has to happen. Ellen White is unequivocal on this point. She writes, “Christians who are constantly growing in earnestness, in zeal, in fervor, in love,—such Christians never backslide” (Review and Herald, June 7, 1887).
Not rarely. Not occasionally. Not episodically.
Ellen White, apparently, and probably surprisingly to some, did not appear to count herself in this category. For example, she wrote, “We shall often have to bow down and weep at the feet of Jesus because of our shortcomings and mistakes, but we are not to be discouraged” (Steps to Christ, p. 64, emphasis mine).
Even more to the point, she also wrote, Men whom God favored, and to whom He entrusted great responsibilities, were sometimes overcome by temptation and committed sin, even as we at the present day strive, waver, and frequently fall into error. Their lives, with all their faults and follies, are open before us, both for our encouragement and warning. If they had been represented as without fault, we, with our sinful nature, might despair at our own mistakes and failures. But seeing where others struggled through discouragements like our own, where they fell under temptations as we have done, and yet took heart again and conquered through the grace of God, we are encouraged in our striving after righteousness. As they, though sometimes beaten back, recovered their ground, and were blessed of God, so we too may be overcomers in the strength of Jesus. (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 238, emphasis mine)
The inclusive plural pronouns are absolutely telling here. Too, notice the phrases “even as we,” “as we have done,” and “so we too.” They are unmistakable. Ellen White included herself among those who “frequently fall into error” and who “often [wept] at the feet of Jesus because of their shortcomings and mistakes.” What are “shortcomings” if not backslidings? A shortcoming would, like backsliding, put you away from where you could and should be. The language is different, but the imagery and meaning are very nearly the same.
Consider one more phrase here. There can be no misunderstanding it. She writes, “though sometimes beaten back, [they] recovered their ground.” The only ground one could “recover” would be ground that was formerly occupied. Well, then, why don’t they now occupy it? Simple: they backslid. That is, they lost ground, which is, of course, exactly what backsliding means.
So, like the rest of humanity, Ellen White found backsliding easy and readily accessible. And, like most of humanity, she did it. Ellen White, though, is not our example (I know this may come as a surprise to some). Jesus is!
And Jesus never backslid. Never. Not once. Not twice. Not ever.
And Ellen White, who was a special messenger of the Lord, said that others can have the same experience. Read it again: “Christians who are constantly growing in earnestness, in zeal, in fervor, in love,—such Christians never backslide.”
But how is this possible? The answer is found right there in the phrase “constantly growing.” The only way to not backslide—to never backslide—is to keep growing. Let’s say this very simply: the only way to not go backward is to keep going forward.
Backward is backward.
Neutral is backward.
Forward is not backward.
Are you moving forward? Unlike backsliding, which requires only neglect, moving forward requires Spirit-filled intentionality. A final quotation is in order here.
Many students have made their studies the first great object, and have neglected prayer, and absented themselves from the Sabbathschool and the prayer-meeting; and from neglect of religious duties they have returned to their homes backslidden from God. (Christian Education, p. 28)
Several things require comment here. First, notice the word “many.” This is not an uncommon experience. Terrible, yes, but also terribly common. Now notice the word “students.” The audience here is young people. What have they done? They’ve “backslidden from God.” But how? And right here is our key word: neglected.
Neglect is what happens when you do nothing. Neglect is not a thing as much as it is the absence of a thing. And what is that thing that neglect is the absence of?
More precisely, Spirit-filled intentionality.
It’s the Holy Spirit that wages war against the natural inclinations—the proneness—of the human condition. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other” (Galatians 5:17, ESV). We often quote John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” but what about the next two verses? They read, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (vs. 16, 17). Verse 15 is the what; verses 16 and 17 are the how and the Who!
And don’t forget Ezekiel 36:26, 27: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”
Without the in-filling of the Holy Spirit, we will backslide. With Him, however, it is possible to “never backslide” (Review and Herald, June 7, 1887).
Are you moving forward? Are you growing? Are you advancing? If not, you’re sliding back, sliding away. But sliding away from what? Actually, this is the wrong question. The right question is, from Who?
The Who is God.
And nothing, absolutely nothing, could be worse than moving away from Him who loved you more than life itself! Backsliding is less about ceasing to believe a set of propositional truths than it is about ceasing to live daily with your Creator, Redeemer, King and Friend.
What to do then? By all means, turn back! Yes, yes, turn back! Turn back to God, and turn your back on backsliding for good. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).