One of the sad parts of having worked with youth for many years in the church is having seen some who were enthusiastic and truly on fire for the Lord while in the youth group, then, after growing up and leaving home, also leave the church and the faith. As long as they had the support and encouragement of other Christians while in the youth group, they truly lived for the Lord. But after leaving home and being on their own, they wanted exactly that, to be on their own, apart from the church and God. Praise the Lord that they were the exception, but still, each time this occurred was a personal sorrow and tragedy for me. I became quite close to a number of them over the years and to lose them was like losing a member of the family, for that is truly what they were, a part of my family in the Lord–now gone. That hurts.
The rest of this piece is a sharing with you something the Lord showed me about this. I pray that this sharing will help any of you who have also experienced this–perhaps not in a youth group but in your church family or physical blood family.
Three passages from Scripture came to me regarding this sorrow:
In the Matthew passage, Jesus had just finished speaking to a large crowd that had gathered around him by a lake shore. He spoke to them in parables. When he was finished and alone with his disciples, they asked him why he had spoken to them in this manner. He replied that it was because they would not otherwise understand the deep truths of God. For such truths are understood only by those who have the Spirit of God in them to enable them to understand such deep things.
“We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. . . . The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:12,14 NIV).
The disciples also did not always understand, which is plain because they had to ask Jesus to explain one parable to them (v. 36). They had not yet received the Holy Spirit, but they were fortunate to have one so close at hand who did. Jesus then spoke more on the parables to them, and they understood.
It was not so for the crowd. Jesus told the disciples, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. . . . In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving'” (Mt. 13:11,14 NIV).
That is as good a description as any of the youth I have seen go astray from the Lord’s teachings. They were exposed to his teaching just as that crowd by the lake was. I witnessed them participating in prayers and studies and wholly accepting it all. But some were like those in one of the parables where the soil did not produce for a variety of reasons. One possible reason for this was explained by Jesus:
“For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.'” (Mt. 13:15 NIV).
Otherwise. . . . That is the key word. Its use implies that something has happened to them to cause them to be unable to latch onto and then cling to the teaching of God. What is this hidden cause? It is revealed in the opening words of the verse, “For this people’s heart has become calloused.
How do you get a callous? Does it just magically pop up on the hands in an instant? No, of course not; a blister may, but not a callous. First, something must cause friction on those hands, and secondly, it takes time for this friction to make its changes to the skin. The irritating behavior must be repeated over and over before a callous actually forms.
A callous is hardened skin. Farm hands often have calluses because their work involves constant rough handling of material. I have calluses on the fingertips of my left hand because that is the hand that presses down constantly on the strings of my guitar and bass guitar which I play for my church music groups. In both cases, whether a farmer or a musician, such calluses on a child of God are the result of honest labors of love for the Lord. That is a good thing. It helps the hands withstand what would otherwise be a painful thing.
But when the word callous is used to describe one’s heart, it means that that heart has become hardened and insensitive to all that is good, especially the Lord. That is bad.
“They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more” (Eph. 4:18,19 NIV).
As was mentioned previously, anything that is calloused does not become that way in an instant. A callous is a sign of constant and repeated actions. That is why the use of the word indulge is appropriate in the passage above. Indulgence means repeated and unrestrained behavior; in other words, lust. The behavior has become a lifestyle, a way of living, that dominates the person.
Put all this together and a certain number of things can be concluded. First of all, if some fall away, it does not mean that they never were truly part of Christ and the kingdom of God in the first place. This is the easy way out for some who believe in the theology of extreme eternal security to justify that theology. But it is not fair to these precious young believers or fair to God’s work in them to toss that work and that faith off so handily.
Jesus mentions the possibility of falling away in the parables. To fall away from something means that you were there in the first place or else there would be no meaning to the phrase “to fall away”. There had to have been something to fall away from.
Secondly, there is more than one reason possible for this falling away. It varies for the individual; we all have our own unique weaknesses that can entrap us. This truth is communicated in the parables by the different ways the different kinds of soil respond to the sowing of the seed, with each soil that failed to produce fruit doing so for a different reason.
And thirdly, this falling away is usually a process, an ongoing series of choices made and “little” things and events that slowly steal one away from the Lord, not normally the result of a single, big, traumatic event. These little things are “the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom” (SS. 2:15 NIV).
It is an inevitable conclusion to a series of things that are often so hidden and so subtle that the person is often not even aware of the danger he or she is in. Every time we give in just a little to something we know is not right or is harmful to us, we lose a little bit more of our closeness to God and come a little closer to crossing over to the enemy’s side. Over time, as the process continues, we wake up one morning and suddenly realize that we are no longer with the Lord but in the enemy’s camp. It is not that we suddenly are on the dark side, but that we suddenly realized it. Some never realize it at all but simply and slowly walk into darkness, each footstep in the dirt recording the journey into darkness.
“When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12 NIV).
“Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going” (Jn. 12:35 NIV).
For many, this tragic process is described painfully accurately in Scripture. They have become “. . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God–having a form of godliness but denying its power. . . loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Tim. 3:4,5,7 NIV).
That is what I saw with some over the years. They knew the Lord, but not deeply enough to sustain them when temptations came or other testings. They were too far on the edge of things, not in the center where Jesus is, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.
Others were more deeply with the Lord and were able to withstand the enemy’s assaults, but only for a while. As mentioned earlier, once gone from the support of the group, they fell away.
In both cases, these young people did know the Lord. To say otherwise and toss off their faith and relationship as never having been real is to belittle the mighty work that God did in them. Some did know the Lord, but were enticed away into other paths, often loving the world. Paul also had to deal with this issue.
“Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone” (2 Tim. 4:10 NIV).
Those who have gone from the faith are not necessarily lost forever, however. As long as they are alive, there is the possibility that the stray sheep will come back to the fold. I continue to pray for some whom I have witnessed walk away.
“If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that” (Jn. 5:16 NIV).
There are some, of course, who will not return, who continue their self-willed walk to the darkness. What will become of them? Jesus declared this sobering and frightening pronouncement: “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” (Mt. 13:12 NIV).
Those who know Jesus and believe in him and live their lives for him and with him and love him have much from God, and will be given yet more. There is no end to the blessings that come to those who are in Christ and remain in him.
“They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion” (Ps. 84:7 NIV).
But those who do not have this continued walking in the presence of the Lord, but only gather around him from time to time, when he stops beside a pleasant lake shore to speak–these have a small token of relationship with the Lord, yes, but it is the distant relationship of a crowd enjoying listening to a good speaker only. They do receive a small taste of what God desires to give them, but even that small portion will be taken away from them because they did not guard it as the most precious possession it is. Instead, they treat it lightly, and slowly walk away from the Lord when the emotion and joy of the moment is gone. With every step, they go farther away from the light–until that final moment when they are surprised to find themselves in the darkness. Then a familiar voice rings out in the darkness. Where have they heard that voice before? Ah, yes. It was on the shore of a lake. . . . It all sounded so wonderful and refreshing then. But now that same voice is so powerful and dreadful in its tone. What is he saying? . . .
“Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 25:28-30 NIV).
Will not those who once knew the Lord weep and wonder how it ever came to this? It was all so subtle, oftentimes, that they did not even realize it. There were just a lot of little things over time that added up to one big thing: being apart from the Lord.
They may not have seen this deterioration in their lives, and even those faithfully trying to shepherd them cannot see what is going on in their heart. I have watched some such as these with joy and satisfaction, as they soaked up hungrily the new life in Christ they had found. I later watched in sorrow as they abandoned that treasure for the world’s trinkets.
“For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them” (Is. 58:2 NIV).
“As if. . . .” They had indeed seemed eager to know God’s ways, but somehow that love for God never developed or lasted. No wonder Jesus thinks this reduction in love for him is so important that he admonishes an entire church for this slip:
“I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:4,5 NIV).
If an entire church can have its lampstand removed by Jesus, then an individual can also suffer this fate, for a church is composed of its individual members. It is too late, then, to start paying attention to all the little steps in a lifetime that take one just a little farther away from the Master. The time for paying attention to all those little things is now. “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2 NIV).
Now is the time to examine our own hearts and see if we ourselves are in danger of slipping away from our Lord. For I cannot control, nor want to, the lives of others, no matter how much I love them, even if I see them walking away from the light and into the darkness, one step at a time. I can love them and teach them and mentor them and give of myself to them and pray for them, but they are free to follow their own path. The only part of this earth that I can directly control is that part of the earth that makes up my own body. That is why I pray with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps.139:23,24 NIV).
If you too have felt the sorrow of loved ones walking into darkness, I pray that you will find encouragement in this piece as you continue not to lose hope but to continue praying that the light of God will shine in their hearts.
“Dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear–hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.
“To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy–to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen” (Jude 20-25 NIV).