If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my first five years of knowing the Lord Jesus Christ, it’s that everything within the natural, fleshly part of myself violently resists his good rule over my life. The sin that dwells in me, while being stripped of its domineering power, is still very present, active and hostile to God. I am a new creation in Christ Jesus, yes. The old has been washed away and the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). But while the new has indeed come, it has not yet fully arrived. I am totally forgiven and have been irreversibly justified through the guilt-obliterating work of God’s Son, but the fullness of what he’s purchased for me has not yet been applied. I’ve been called and justified, but I will not be glorified and free from sin until the death of this mortal body is victoriously swallowed up by immortality (1 Cor. 15:54).
Every Christian reading this blog finds themselves in the same “already, but not yet” stage of redemptive history that I find myself in. Jesus has come into the world and offered himself up as a fragrant offering to God on our behalf. When we trusted in him for the forgiveness of our sins, the Spirit of God sealed us and his transformative work in us has caused our affections to shift profoundly away from the sins we once loved and toward the God we once opposed. Yet . . . we still find something in ourselves that desires to oppose the God we now love and enjoy the sins we now hate. It’s a very schizophrenic-ish experience, this whole Holy Spirit indwelling our fallen flesh thing.
If we’re all honest, sometimes this pull toward the profane can seem overwhelming. I say it seems that way because in actuality, it’s not – for God promises that he will not let a believer be tempted beyond their ability (1 Cor. 10:13). But at times, even our faith in the promises of God isn’t what it should be.
In early 2013, my faith in the promises of God definitely wasn’t what it should be. For a period of about three months, I raised a cowardice white flag of surrender in the battle against the sin in me. I relapsed into my former way of life. Since day one of my Christian life I’ve struggled with sin, but I wouldn’t classify that daily struggle as relapse. Resisting sin and repenting of failure to resist sin is a normal aspect of the Christian life. But this season in 2013 – it was different. My heart became so calloused that I was barely convicted of the sins that I was participating in and was definitely not repentant. There was no struggle. I gave myself over to the vile indulgences of my fallen flesh and was very seriously considering letting go of my faith in Christ.
As most of you know – if you’ve been reading my blog for a few years – after allowing me to stubbornly resist his kindness and mercy for weeks, the Lord graciously overwhelmed me with his love and drew me to repentance. In his usual redemptive manner, he used that rebellious season of my life to humble me, draw me nearer to himself, and teach me innumerable things.
But I so wish things would’ve gone differently. I wish I wouldn’t have let myself be so consumed by my sin and dominated by my fallen nature. While relapses are all too common in the lives of Christians, they are avoidable. The reason that I’m writing this blog today is because I know for certain there are many, many readers who are tip-toeing toward the type of rebellion that marked this dark season of my life. I know there are people reading this blog who feel powerless over their sin and overwhelmed by the war waging within them.
If the person I’m describing is you, please don’t presumptuously regard this blog as just another unrealistic and unhelpful self-help post. Hear me out. I know you feel beaten down and overwhelmed, but you are not powerless or hopeless. The Lord has provided divine power within and around you through which you can fight the fight of faith. You can fight. And you must.
What I want to do is share with you guys a few massive mistakes I made that led up to my season of backsliding. I don’t believe that people just fall into a sinful relapse. It’s a slow progression. There are patterns of thinking, acting and living that lead us there. My hope is that somebody reading this who is walking a similar path to the one I was on can learn from my mistakes rather than making them for themselves.
Mistake #1: I didn’t pray. From the moment of my conversion in 2010 to the point of my relapse in 2013, I didn’t intentionally set aside time every day to seek the Lord in prayer. I did pray casually, here and there throughout the day. I’d ask the Lord to bless my food. I’d turn down the radio in my car every once in a while and thank him for all his goodness toward me. I’d pray in church. But never did I get on my bedroom floor and plead with him to reveal more of himself to me. I would say this has been the most drastic change in my life since 2013. Everyday when I get out of bed, I now hit the floor. For twenty to thirty minutes I will seek him there, requesting his empowering grace to be abundant in my life. I ask him to soften my heart, enlighten my mind and help my unbelief so that I can see him and meditate on him and savor him. Most days, I don’t have some mystical or powerful prayer experience. A lot of times I’m half asleep or distracted and struggle to focus. But I’ve realized that even these seemingly ineffective prayer times aren’t wasted. Romans chapter 8 says that the Holy Spirit intercedes with us and prays for us when we don’t know what to pray. I would say he also prays with and for us when we struggle to pray as effectively as we ought to. No time spent seeking the Lord in prayer is a waste. And my life over the past 2.5 years, as opposed to before 2013, is proof of that. Throughout my struggles with sin, losing a job, being unemployed for three months, relational disappointments, singleness, celibacy and many other things that used to easily get me off track, I have been spiritually stable. And I know – oh, how I know – this is owing to prayer.
If you feel overwhelmed by temptation, tossed to and fro by your emotions or circumstances, and spiritually unstable, please pray. Intentionally seek the Lord. He is always faithful to help those who are willing to turn away from self-sufficiency and seek him and his presence and power.
Mistake #2: I didn’t read the Bible devotionally. Prior to my relapse, I read the Bible – studiously. I wanted to get a solid grip on certain doctrines and be able to articulate them efficiently on my blog and in my personal relationships. While this definitely isn’t a bad thing at all (more people should study the Bible!), it shouldn’t be the main thing when it comes to our time in the Scriptures. And so another massive difference in my daily life post-relapse is that I now read the Bible devotionally. Every morning after I pray, I get my coffee, head to my desk and open up what I think to be the portal to Heaven. This time I spend with the Word of God isn’t propelled by a desire to sharpen my doctrinal or philosophical skills, but simply to see and experience God. I place myself in front of The Lord’s revealed truth to draw near to him. The Bible isn’t a spiritual instruction manual that we master in the first years of our Christian life and then need not open unless we need to freshen up on something. The Bible is a bottomless reservoir of hope and strength and life that we should be feasting on continuously.
If you feel disconnected from God and like your spiritual life is constantly running on fumes, place yourself in front of the great, life-giving truths about God in the Bible.
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” – Romans 15:4
Mistake #3: I didn’t embrace community. My fall took place about 3 months after I moved to New Orleans to help plant a church. I was one of the first on the team to move from Shreveport to NOLA and therefore didn’t know a soul when I arrived. I was in a new city that passionately celebrated addiction and sexual deviancy (the two things that marked my life before I knew Christ) and I was without a church community. In times past, I placed a lot of blame for my spiritual deterioration on the lack of accessible community. But when I’m honest with myself, the blame for my lack of community should be placed on no one or nothing else but me. Because the truth is, even prior to moving to NOLA, I didn’t practice biblical community well. By nature I’m a loner and don’t really enjoy the awkwardness that accompanies getting to know new people. Atop that, most of my relationships/friendships prior to my conversion caused me a lot of pain and heartache, which I think contributed to my tendency to retract socially. I attended church services because I enjoyed the preaching, but would jet out at the end of the service before I was forced to talk to anyone. I would even strategically sit close to one of the exits to ensure a quick escape!
When I moved to New Orleans, although I didn’t have the rest of the church planting team there with me yet, I did have opportunity for good community. The Lord had providentially orchestrated things so that I moved in with two solid, young Christian guys. These guys constantly reached out to me and tried to get me to hang out with them. But I resisted. I willfully resisted fellowship and chose to seclude myself. And in this seclusion I walked right back into the things that the Lord had drawn me out of three years prior.
If there’s anything I tend to harp on in my blog posts, it’s the believer’s need to be in community with other believers. The reason I am so passionate about this is because I’ve learned, through painful error, how valuable Christian community is. The third massive change in my life post-relapse is that I no longer walk this walk independently and flee from the family-lifestyle God has called me to. I now view myself not as an individual but as part of a body and I passionately embrace the believers around me with my whole heart.
The individualistic Christian life doesn’t work. Because God has purposed our pursuit of him to be a family affair. We – Christians – are agents of God’s grace to other Christians. We each are the means by which God most often encourages, provides for, loves on and comforts his people. And when we seclude ourselves from fellowship with other believers, we stubbornly deprive ourselves of many of God’s great graces. There is ample strength, hope and encouragement to be found in the fellowship of believers. If I wouldn’t have retracted from the blessings (Christian people) around me, I seriously doubt that I ever would have descended into such a horrible spiritual state in 2013. If you, reader, are running this race alone – for whatever reason – STOP. Turn away from whatever insecurity, bitterness or ungodly personality characteristic is hindering you from enjoying the blessing of Christian community. Flee from your lonesome journey and find a body of believers to sojourn in this world with.
Prayer, the Bible and Christian community are the major means God has provided by which I’ve been able to follow him with more stability, joy and peace since 2013. I believe with all my heart and soul that the constant practice of these three things is vital for every Christian. Yes, it’s ultimately God’s power that saves us and sustains to glory. But these things – prayer, the Bible, Christian community – are conduits of God’s sustaining power. If you aren’t utilizing them today, I pray that you will – for the sake of your own spiritual health. Struggles with sin are unavoidable, but seasons of unrestrained indulgence are avoidable. He who is in us is greater than the brokenness of our natural flesh. I believe God longs to empower us to fight valiantly through the tough and nasty battles with our indwelling sin. Let us seek him through the means he’s given us and take hold of all the power he offers us!