I’m planning a series of writings on issues that Christians often bring to counseling; where they bring unique and significant questions that are difficult to answer. One of those issues is the topic of backsliding. We all know that the word backsliding carries the meaning of slipping away from a habit, identity, belief, etc. In Christian circles it means that one who was once active in their faith has stopped living it out or altogether moved away from said faith. One of my favorite quotes on this topic is from Tolstoy,

Quite often a man  goes on for years imagining that the religious teaching that had been imparted to him since childhood is still intact, while all the time there is not a trace of it left in him. (Confession, 1983 reprint, p. 15)

When someone is in this position, they often ask questions about how it happened or what the future will hold. I’ve just run across a sermon by G. Campbell Morgan on the topic (The Westminster Pulpit, v. 1, 1954). The full text can be found here.

There are several things I found helpful:

1. His take on Deuteronomy as the law of love and containing the treatment of the disease of backsliding.

2. His take on how backsliding happens.

What is this process [of backsliding]? Mark three things…. The first is purely personal, perhaps hidden from men, the corruption of the self. The second is the sequel to self-corruption, the making of a graven image. Finally, the overt act of evil.

What is self-corruption? It is the devotion of the life to something lower than the highest. The first movement of backsliding may be accomplished without committing any sin which the [present] age names vulgar. In the moment in which a man takes his eye from the highest and sets it upon something lower, be the distance apparently never so small, he has set himself upon the decline which ends in the desert and in the agony of rejection. (p. 100)

3. His conception of idolatry.

You say….”I have set up no graven image.” Remember, the graven image is always the figure of that which lies behind it. When a man has corrupted himself, the issue is always that he thinks falsely of God. Man is so linked to deity in the very essential of his being that he will form his conception of God upon what he is in himself….He is forever projecting his own personality into immensity, and calling that God. (p. 101)

4. His closing on the promise: If you seek him, you shall surely find him…

If you seek him with all your heart and soul you will find him….Will he come with flaming and flashing glory? In all probability, no. Will he come with some new sense of his coming, making you thrill in every fiber of your being? In all probability, no. It is far more likely that he will come with a still small voice…. Trample your pride beneath your feet, Crucify your prejudice….

One of the struggles I hear in “backsliding” or relapsing sinners is that they (and me too!) look for Christianity to provide the same stimulus as an addiction. We look for God to give us the high, the excitement, the freedom from pain. He may, but never in the way that an addiction or a sin pattern might provide (in the short run). The struggle I hear is that when God does not supply an equally exciting substitute for the addiction then the person wonders if God is real or if the fight for freedom from addiction is really worth the effort in the end.

If you know someone with this struggle, send them the link to the chapter. It may provide a bit of relief.


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7 responses to “Backsliding?

  1. D. Stevenson

    Hope to have time later to read the article and think more about this.

    Shooting a quick reply off the hip, to ask if “backsliding” is anything more than a cultural construct.

    Apologies to G. Campbell Morgan and other great theologians who include “backsliding” in their doctrine. I think the idea is probably a cultural doctrine.

    I wonder if analyzing cultural doctrines, assuming “of course,” keeps us from seeing other things. (NO charges or criticisms thought or implied)

  2. Dale

    GREAT insight that we often look for Christianity to provide the same stimulus as an addiction. Dead on. I’ve seen so many people accept Christ not knowing that they have unconsciously set up those terms.

    • D Stevenson

      To be fair to those baby believers…, even without a health and wealth message, we use words that imply they are getting into a good deal. “healing, peace, joy, etc.” I don’t think we do a good job of defining what those words mean, both for baby believers and older.

      For example, I sometimes find myself scratching my head. It seems to me that sometimes the speakers must be either using the words as sound bytes, talking from ignorance, or don’t have the same meanings for the words.

      I’ve been immersed in the fundigelical world my entire 50 years (and consider myself a committed, mature believer.) I’ve become anti-Christianese. It can be meaningless fluff and can be misleading to those who listen with literal ears.

      Hmm…, I should probably read that sermon before I continue to spout out my possibly totally irrelevant thoughts. 🙂

  3. John Puleo

    God was kind to bless me with a very powerful, “felt” conversion in 1970. I was was addicted to heroin and barbiturates. The craving and withdrawal symptoms were literally overridden by an incredibly powerful sense of God’s presence. Having been high from sun up until sundown every day for over five years, I believe the Lord in His wisdom and kindness providentially blessed me with something my senses could relate to. After a couple of weeks, the new spiritual “high” began to subside and I was immediately tempted to grumble, complain and doubt my salvation. To comfort myself, I went to my locker to get a cigarette (I smoked three packs a day for years). To my amazement I saw the entire carton virtually untouched. I had literally forgot about smoking for two weeks! I was so embarrassed before God about getting cranky in the light of an obvious miracle, that I repented right on the spot for doubting my faith. So, did I “live happily ever after” from then on? Hardly. Although I had gotten “a pass” during those infantile stages of faith, I had to squarely face strong feelings of temptation ever since. I battled for sexual purity when unmarried. I had to fight off temptations to self-comfort when feeling rejection, emotional pain and loss. Ironically, in my older years (I’m 59 now), the remembrance of the instantly comforting, intravenous heroin rush comes to me more vividly than ever, when I feel temptation, sadness, etc. Faith is hardly magical for me. I have to resist the enemy, trust Jesus and ride out the strong feelings. I’m helped by praying or singing to Jesus what I call my “Calm Psalm” (song I Need You Every Hour). It’s a re-worked version of an old hymn. So I don’t get a pass, but I have a method and I fight the good fight. God’s grace has kept me drug free for 40 years. Praise be! I guess I could liken my early days with the miracle of manna coming down from heaven and sustenance being very easy. But now God expects me to be a grownup, and cooperating with Him, enter the Promised Land and learn how to cultivate and harvest the food He’s provided.

  4. D. Stevenson


    What a blessing, comfort and encouragement your post is to me.

    Perhaps “backsliding” is when we try to live a different ‘reality’, rather than admitting the truth; Christianity is lived in the trenches. (Hmm…not sure if that is a good analogy.)

    • John Puleo

      I think I’d put it this way: there are times when God does mighty stuff for us (Red Sea, manna, miracle conversion or healing, etc., but most of the time God wants to do stuff with us – as we engage Him relationally – and we do the fighting (instead of Sea falling on our enemy), and we do the seeding and the reaping, and eat of the blessing. God is just as much in all of that too. Does that make sense?

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