And in Lovely Mire I've Lain
The Expert's Guide to Backsliding
(Aberdeen Christian High School Chapel—May 13, 2003)

A few months ago, I was asked to speak at an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship meeting.  Now I like speaking for IVCF.  There’s always a good worship time beforehand, and the students are a really good audience, laughing at my jokes even when they are not funny.  The trouble is that the IV students are always asking me to speak about things I don’t really know anything about, and so I almost always end up changing the topic to something I do know something about.  And, most of the time, I end up talking about hypocrisy.  The IV students ask me to talk about walking with Christ.  I talk about hypocrisy.  They ask me to talk about prayer.  I talk about hypocrisy.  They ask me to talk on leadership.  I talk about hypocrisy.

 And then they did this “Forty Days of Purpose” thing last winter, and they asked me to lead a session on discipleship, on being like Christ.  They made it real easy for me.  I got a disk filled the Rick Warren sermons that go with the Forty Days of Purpose. It would have been really easy for me to just summarize Warren’s sermon on discipleship.  I could have told the students about the three unexpected tools God uses to make us like Christ.  I could have told them how troubles teach us to trust, how temptation teaches us to obey, and how trespasses against us teach us to forgive.  I could have advised them to keep a spiritual journal and be sure they had a spiritual friend to keep them on track.  The trouble is that, in my own life, I don’t trust, I don’t obey, I don’t forgive, I don’t keep a spiritual journal, and I usually walk alone, not with a spiritual friend.  So if I told them any of those things, I’d not only have been talking about hypocrisy, but giving them a living example.  But I was tired of hypocrisy--or at least tired of talking about hypocrisy, and so I decided to talk about something else I know quite a bit about.  I talked about backsliding.  Now here’s something I really am an expert on. Good as I am at hypocrisy, I’m even better at backsliding.

Now I figure that you’re a lot like my IVCF students.  You’ve heard many messages on prayer, worship, and discipleship.  But has anyone ever told you how to backslide?  Probably not.

Now this is the last chapel service of the year.  Some of you are probably planning some serious backsliding this summer.  And some of you may find yourself backsliding even if you don’t plan on it.  Now if you’re going to backslide, it’s important that you do it right. So today I’m going to share with you three tested and proven ways to backslide—one of which will surely work for you.

Here’s number one.  Get really busy, and fill your life with the cares of this world.

This kind of life is described well in the Parable of the Sower.  “He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.”

That’s my life much of the time.  I’ve got papers and newspaper articles to write.  Classes to teach.  Meetings to go to.  And if that’s not enough, I’ve got computer games that have to be played, videos that have to be watched.  I’ve got so much to do, I can keep God completely out of my life.  Hey, God—no time for you.  I’ve got a lecture to prepare.  Hey, God—no time for you.  I’ve got an article to write.  Hey, God—no time for you.  I’ve got a computer game that I have to play 1000 times before summer is done.  I fill my life with activities—and soon I’m backslid just as far as I want to be.  And you can do it too!  Just find a job that will take 40, 50, 60 hours a week this summer.  Find all sorts of other activities to take up all the rest of your time, and soon you’ll be as backslid as me.

Pretty impressive, huh?  But there are even better ways to backslide.

Here’s number two.  Live like you did before you were a Christian. And here’s the key passage if you want to head in that direction: II Peter 2:20-22, “ For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning.  For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.  But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.”

Now many Christians have what they call “life verses,” a scripture passage that they hold on to as the main theme of their walk with God.  They choose verses like, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet.” Or “Be thou faithful unto death and I’ll give you a crown of life.”  My life verse, the theme of my Christian life, is II Peter 2:22.  Right back to the mire. Right back to the vomit.

Now, for me, the mire and vomit consists of the seven deadly sins including lust, sloth, envy and (particularly) pride. Before I was a Christian, I was addicted to the praise of men. I loved earning awards for this and that, winning races, starring on stage.  And  whenever anyone applauds me for anything, it’s really easy for me to start backsliding. The scripture comments on the failure of those who “love the praises of men more than the praises of God,” and, unfortunately, that’s an easy temptation for me to succumb to.  And, ironically, I have a terrible time in particular with praise for the messages I give to Christian groups.  You would do me a big favor today if you’d just say after the service something like, “That was the worst message I ever heard.”

Well.  Backsliding into the vomit.  Backsliding into the mire.  Backsliding into pride.  And if that’s not enough for you, I’ve got an even better way to backslide.  And what’s so impressive about this is that it doesn’t even look like backsliding.  The best way to backslide?  Just backslide into religion. Become as religious as you possibly can, and you’ll be as far from God as you possibly can be.

This is what the Galatian Christians did, backsliding into religion so quickly that it amazed the apostle Paul.  “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel.”  See, the Galatians got really religious.  Step by step, the followed exactly (or sort of exactly) the law of Moses.  They followed the dietary laws.  Wore the right kind of clothes.  Followed the Sabbath laws.  Got themselves circumcised.  Went to Experiencing God workshops.  Followed exactly what they were expected to do in a Forty Days of Purpose program.  Enrolled at a Christian High School.

The Galatians found for themselves the best way of all ways to backslide.  Why?  Because the whole point of backsliding is to hide from God.  Getting tangled up in worldly cares works because it shuts out Word of God and its convicting power.  Getting tangled up in gross sins works because it drives away the Holy Spirit and his convicting power.  But the cleverest place to hide from God is right in the church itself. And the reason this works is because going to church can so easily be used to shut out the convicting power of both God’s Word and of the Holy Spirit.  It makes it very easy for us to say to the Spirit, “Shut up and leave me alone.  I’m in church. I must be right with God.”    And, if going to one service a week won’t do it, go to two or three or four.  And then you really feel like you have the right to tell the Holy Spirit to leave you alone.  I do this all the time.  You want the clue to when I’m not walking with God?  Just look at the times when I’m in four or five services a week.

But isn’t it hard to hide from God in church?  Nah. It’s easy as it can be.  Much of what’s in the church comes from people like me, who, since we’re hiding from God ourselves, are more than willing to help you hide too.

Now you’ve got to be careful here.  There are some churches where everything from the songs, to the scripture readings, to the message are powerful vehicles for the convicting power of the Spirit.

So if you’re really intent on backsliding, you’ll make it easier on yourself if you pick the right kind of church.   What does the serious backslider look for in a church?  What do you avoid?

Number one.  Stay away from those churches which go chapter by chapter, verse by verse through the scripture.  You can usually backslide most easily in churches where the sermons have become self-help messages.

Number two.  Choose a church with the right kind of music.  Now this isn’t as easy as choosing between a church that emphasizes contemporary Christian music and a church that emphasizes the traditional hymns.  Both kinds of music can be a problem for the serious backslider.  Some of the theologically rich and beautifully worded traditional hymns are as dangerous as any sermon in bringing one face to face with the convicting power of the Holy Spirit.  And much of contemporary Christian music is sung scripture.  Let me tell you, you don’t want that sort of stuff running through your head if you’re intent on backsliding.  What you want is a church that sings empty and repetitive ditties that focus on us and our feelings rather than God.

Number three.  If you’re serious about backsliding, stay away from churches that use literal translations of the scripture.  Hebrews says that the word of God is quick (alive) and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword.  Let me tell you, you want that sword blunted as much as possible.  You don’t want a church that uses the KJV or the New American Standard Bible.  Find a church that uses mostly paraphrases--something like Eugene Peterson’s The Message will do very nicely.

But maybe some of you wonder: why bother?  Why hide from God at all?

Because being in God’s presence means giving up things people like me don’t want to give up.  The Apostle Paul says, “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.”  Me and my flesh—well, we’re going to hide if we possibly can.

And you and your flesh are going to hide too…unless—well unless you decide you really do want to be a disciple.  And the truth of the matter is that I really do know how to be a disciple of Christ—and so do you.

There are two spirits in this world.  One is the spirit of adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envying, murders, drunken, and revellings.

The other is the spirit of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance.

And I’d like to get in on the love, joy, and peace that there is in Christ.  But as soon as I start drawing close to Christ, all of a sudden, I’m in the light.  And that’s a horrible place to be.  Men love darkness because their deeds are evil.  And, when I approach Christ and his light, what do I see? I see my sin, and I see myself, and I draw back.  But I want to get close, and I approach again: but I see my sin, and I see myself, and I’ve got to get away.  And I approach again, but I see sin, and I see myself, and I run.  And this happens over and over in my life—and it’s why I’m so good at backsliding.

But there have been times in my life when I haven’t been backslid. Those are the times when, as I’ve approached Christ, I’ve quit looking at myself.  I’ve looked instead at the Lord.  And as I got closer and closer, there was God’s light all around.  And I was tempted to look at myself and my sin, but, instead, I looked at Jesus Christ, my savior, who was crucified for me.  I kept my eyes on the cross.  And then—all of a sudden—I was across the gap! In the love and joy and peace of Christ.  And my sin?  The filthiness?  The mire?  The vomit?  Gone!

But where did it go?  It went to the cross.

Turn your thoughts upon Jesus
Think deep on his wonderful love
And the thoughts of sin and of self and strife
Will be lost in that rapture above