There have been recent reports of a few high-profile people leaving the Christian faith. In thinking about this I am reminded of Aslan’s constant statement in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books of the danger of focusing on ‘someone else’s story’ at the expense of our own. The real issue is how can I avoid this happening to me? Let me make some recommendations of priorities and practices and a perspective to keep us on the right track. There is little novel in them. After all, drifting from the faith is something that Christians of every generation have had to resist.
1. Prioritise God and his word. Please don’t neglect those old-fashioned disciplines of prayer and Bible reading. It’s probably no accident that some of those who have fallen away have been Christian leaders: in the busyness of doing the work of the Lord it’s all too easy to fail to find time to be with the Lord. We must always remember that because God is the vine, we who are branches can only be fruitful if we stay attached to him (John 15:4). My wife Killy and I follow Robert Murray McCheyne’s Bible Reading plan and read two chapters every morning and two chapters every evening – this has been a good discipline.
2. Prioritise godly thinking. When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment, he replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matthew 22:36–37). I take this to mean that we are to love God with our emotions, wills and our intellects. The intellect is easily neglected. In the past it used to be that part of being a believer in Jesus was to immerse yourself in Christian truth; to read books, to discuss theology and to critically evaluate what you thought and did in the light of the Bible. Such an attitude is rare today and needs to be recovered. All the problems and difficulties raised by the noisy objectors to the Christian faith have been discussed and dealt with before. However much God has blessed you in the area of emotions and experience, stay a thinking Christian. Plants with shallow roots are easily pulled out.
3. Prioritise godly living. Those who leave the Christian faith often say that they did so on the basis of reasoned arguments. But it nevertheless seems noteworthy that those who proclaim their departure from Christianity’s beliefs have often parted company with its morality and quite frequently beforehand. It’s all too frequent that broken vows to one’s spouse are followed by broken vows to God. Be careful how you live!
4. Prioritise spiritual participation. The devil loves to target Christians who have lost connection with God’s people. Many individuals who pride themselves on being spiritual lone wolves are no more than lost sheep: a fact fatally brought home to them when the jaws of a genuine wolf close around them. Stay deeply and regularly involved with God’s people. Remain in the flock!
5. Prioritise the positives. It is said that a piece of grit in an oyster can produce a pearl, but my advice is don’t bank on it. Many of these sad stories from those leaving the faith are full of difficulties, anger and negative attitudes. One well-trodden pathway into the wilderness involves becoming someone who is always complaining and always against something. One of the easiest ways to justify your departure from any organisation, including the church, is to convince yourself that it is somehow unworthy of your commitment. Stay positive!
6. Practise self-examination. Paul, writing to Timothy, says, ‘Watch your life and doctrine closely’ (1 Timothy 4:16). It’s a wise, if often overlooked, practice to keep checking on how you are doing. Losing your faith is like finding you have a flat tyre. It may be because of some sudden dramatic puncture but, more likely than not, it’s due to a slow, steady and unnoticed leak. Don’t store up your doubts or problems: find someone who can wisely guide you out of them.
7. Practise caution. Within little more than a decade we will have had two thousand years of Christianity, a fact that should encourage every believer to stay firm in the faith: what we believe has been tried and tested over a very long time. This means that almost every new idea will, almost certainly, have been tested and tried in the past. As a first principle, the maxim ‘if it’s new, it’s not true; if it’s true, it’s not new’ has much to commend it. ‘Historic’ or ‘mainstream’ Christianity has survived precisely because, over centuries, it has been proven to provide safe and wholesome pastures for God’s flock.
8. Practise humility. Pride is one of the subtlest and most powerful evils and is often a major factor with those who leave the faith. Be very wary of any sense of superiority; of seeing yourself as better than other people, more educated, more at home in the culture. In 1 Corinthians 10:12 we read, ‘So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’ Use every opportunity to serve, and where it is at all reasonable, count others as better than you.
9. Practise honesty. In reading what some of the more outspoken ex-believers have said, I have come across reasons but, more commonly, excuses disguised as reasons. So, for instance, although many of them talk about being ‘disillusioned by the church’, often what they are referring to is a specific branch of Christianity, a specific local church or even particular individuals. It’s dishonest and unwise to turn away from all that Christianity is on specific events and individuals!
10. Practise solidarity. One of the most successful innovations of the Roman army was the way that its soldiers had shields which could interlock in order to create an almost impenetrable barrier. There is a great wisdom in this standing together. Speaking personally, I have found the prayers of my friends and supporters to be of extraordinary help. Pray for others and be prayed for by them.
Finally, ultimately, practise perspective. This life is short and eternity is very long. Jesus asks that his followers stand firm in their faith not for ever, but only until he comes to us, or we go to him. And that may be sooner than any of us think. Stand firm!