Look around you this morning. There are folks whose seats are empty. They were here, they seemed strong, now they’re gone. And it wasn’t because they moved, though there has certainly been a lot of that – it’s a tough economy to make a living here. It’s not even that they’ve left and gone to other churches, though that happens everywhere – church hopping is an American pastime. But there are those who were here and now they’re not because they’ve dropped out of the journey. They hung up their traveling shoes and laid aside their walking stick.
What happened? Why walk away from the church and why walk away from God? And I’m not equating the two, but they very often go hand in hand. In 37 years of ministry I’ve talked with a lot of folks, in fact, my doctoral dissertation was a research study on dropouts from the church, and I’ve heard a lot of people say, “it’s not that I quit believing in God, I just don’t come to church.” But what I’ve observed in their lives, is that with one inevitably goes the other.
And what I’ve learned in my study and research and dozens and dozens of interviews is that it’s never one thing. Most of us have enough connection with God that one thing isn’t going to knock us off the path. It’s always two or three or four things that happen together, a series of events that take place, and the cumulative effect is to knock us down and out.
Of course, everyone is different, and no two people are alike, but there are some common themes in their stories. In fact, scripture isn’t silent on the subject either. So in our year-long discussion of walking closer to God, we need to talk about some of those things that have the potential to shipwreck our faith and cut our feet out from under us.
And when I say “us” I mean all of us, me included. Even the apostle Paul wrote a personal warning to himself, “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Cor 10:26-27) If you think you are too strong, too faithful, too committed to ever walk away from God, you especially need to pay attention.
I preach this sermon for two reasons:
1) To make us aware of the dangers inherent in the journey. It’s not a straight line from point A to point B, and there are potholes and detours and dangers on the road. And if we aren’t paying attention, they can derail us. So my first objective is to get you to be aware of the dangers to your own faith.
2) To get us to tune into what’s going on in the lives of others around us. We are each other’s strength on the journey, and though our walk is with God, we are not walking alone. We need each other. The Hebrews writer said, “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” (Heb 3:12-14)
There are vulnerable times in our lives when we are most susceptible to Satan’s work. These are times when our defenses are weak or down, when we lose sight of God and we listen to the wrong voices. It’s during those times that we need to step back and realize where we are and what is happening, and it’s especially crucial at those times that we surround ourselves with people of faith and love who will walk with us through them.
David refers to those vulnerable times in Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Think about David’s life. There were many times that he literally faced death, but many more times that he walked through the valley and the shadow of death hung over his soul. Those were the times he was discouraged and despairing and distance had come between him and God. And it’s during those times that David could still reach through the storm clouds and feel God’s nearness.
I know that everyone of us who is here this morning has walked through some of those valleys and felt the shadows obscuring our vision of God. Even Jesus on the cross felt the acute absence of the Father when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The problem is we tend to isolate ourselves during those times and walk through the valleys alone. We ignore the signs and our gaze turns inward and we shut out the very help that would see us through.
Let’s talk about some of those valleys:
And let’s begin with the valley of discouragement and despair. It’s a dark valley and once entered sometimes threatens to swallow us and never let us out. Have you been there? I have. Sometimes through circumstances beyond my control, and sometimes through circumstances of my own making.
Now understand, I’m not talking about clinical depression from chemical imbalances. That is a very real and very difficult event to work through, and I believe there is a time when medical help is essential in helping a person deal with that.
But I’m talking about circumstantial, situational discouragement where we face storms in our lives and they threaten to overwhelm us. Things like the loss of a job or the death of a loved one or a divorce or a financial setback. And sometimes, the source of our discouragement is not so obvious, but we feel just a general dis-ease and the cloud of despair settles in.
If you’ve been there then you know what it does to your ability to function on your job and in your relationships, but it also has the ability to throw your spiritual life into a tailspin.
I think of a second valley – it’s the valley of disappointment and cynicism. There are times when I get disappointed with people in the church. They don’t live how they ought to live, they don’t act like I think they ought to act. I had expectations and they didn’t live up to them. It’s especially disappointing when it’s church leaders who disappoint me. You would think they ought to be men who are spiritually mature and always make good decisions and treat everyone with godliness and kindness. But they don’t always, and it’s disappointing. And you add enough of those disappointments up and it leads you to cynicism – instead of expecting the best, you begin to expect the worst. Instead of giving people the benefit of the doubt, you start looking for their flaws and setting them up to disappoint you.
What’s even more devastating to faith is when you are disappointed with God. You expected he would do this and he didn’t, that he would protect you from that and he didn’t, that if you lived a certain way you would be rewarded and you weren’t. Now the problem with all that is bad theology. When we start expecting God to act like we think he should act, we will always be disappointed.
But it’s amazing how many people’s faith is destroyed when they think God should save their loved one, or their marriage, or their job and he doesn’t. They say, “If God won’t even do that for me, then I can’t believe in that kind of God.”
That’s the thing about valleys – our character is not made in the valley, it is merely displayed. It’s easier to hide bad theology and a shallow faith when things are going well in our lives, but when the journey gets difficult and the clouds roll in, we find out what our faith is made of.
There is a third valley, and it is the valley of distance. And distance can come from different sources. We can get so involved in other pursuits that we lose sight of, not only the goal, but the path itself. We let something of lesser priority take over God’s place of supremacy and suddenly we look up and we are far from God. It’s not that God has abandoned us, but we have wandered from him. If God seems distant, it is because you’ve moved.
When God says, “You shall have no other gods before me,” he means it. And those gods aren’t little carved idols that you set on your fireplace mantel or bow down to when you walk in a pagan temple. Another god is anything that you allow to take God’s place of priority in your life – your job, a hobby, a relationship – whatever occupies the place of highest priority and dominates your time and energy and resources.
Distance can come from a second source – sin. Sin will always create distance between us and God, because when we choose sin instead of obedience, we are rebelling against God.
And it’s not like we set out to let sin drive us away from God, it happens in small incremental steps. You see it often in scripture. When Eve chose to listen to the serpent instead of God in the garden, it says, “she saw, she took, she ate.” When David committed adultery with Bathsheba, it says, “he saw, he sent, he slept.” James describes this spiral of sin: When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:13-15)
Paul warns us, “… do not give the devil a foothold.” (Eph 4:27) When we allow Satan to have a voice in our lives, it will always create distance between us and God. His sole purpose for existence is to wrestle you away from God. And he will often do it without us ever considering the long range consequences. He’ll tell us, “It’s just a little sin” and then “That didn’t really hurt anything, God probably didn’t even notice” and then “Well, if you’ve come this far, what’s a little further going to matter?”
God will never stop loving you, but sin will always send you down a path that he cannot and will not walk with you. His holiness will not tolerate intentional disobedience and willful rebellion. Don’t misunderstand and think I’m saying you must be sinless to walk with God, but you cannot choose to live a lifestyle in conflict with God’s will and maintain a relationship with him. The apostle John writes, If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 Jn 1:6-10)
Distance is one of the most difficult valleys to navigate out of. The Hebrews writer talks about the person who has been walking closely with God – who has experienced the intimacy and fellowship of a relationship with him – and then let sin take them away from God: It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Heb 6:4-6)
Understand, the impossibility of being brought back to repentance is not with God’s inability to forgive, but with our inability to see the sin that has brought us there – he likens it to crucifying Jesus all over again and saying, “His blood means nothing to me.” We become calloused to sin and hardened to God’s grace. It is not that God cannot forgive, but that we will not return. And the scriptures are filled with comments on those who have left God’s side:
Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. (1 Tim 1:19)
Some have already turned away to follow Satan. (1 Tim 5:15)
Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith. (1 Tim 6:20-21)
Let me quickly offer five guide posts for navigating through these valleys of shadow and death:
1) Don’t walk alone. Surround yourself with people whose faith is strong and who love you too much to leave you wandering away from God. When you are struggling, let them draw even closer and hold you up when your feet falter and your vision is cloudy.
2) Learn to trust, and until you do, take the word of someone who has learned. And I don’t say this lightly. But so many of us are unable to trust that God is at work and that he is working for our good. We take every event at face value and refuse to look beyond the difficulty of the moment.
Let me tell you what I mean by that. Our oldest son was born with a cleft lip and palate – he had his first of five major surgeries at 10 weeks old, the next at one year. We were young and poor and it could have emotionally and financially and spiritually devastated us. Now, we had learned to rely on ourselves and our own resources but this was going to be beyond our ability to cope. But God started orchestrating some encounters where we were introduced to people who took us into their lives and their hearts and they surrounded us with love. The church reached out to us emotionally in ways we would never have experienced if Tim had been born without problems. We learned to trust people and we learned to accept help from brothers and sisters who were God’s hands and feet when we needed them most. It was a life changing experience for the good. But if we had tried to go it alone, it would have turned out much differently.
3) Accept that people are people and God is God. And what I mean by that is that people aren’t always going to live and act the way they should, even leaders in God’s church. They need forgiveness and grace, but your faith cannot be in them. Even when they disappoint you, remember that God’s kingdom is bigger and stronger than them. Second, God is God, and his plan is bigger than whatever you are going through. And sometimes all you can see is the ragged backside of a beautiful tapestry, and all the ragged threads seem dark and confusing, but what you are going through is not the final reveal – he is still at work.
4) There may come a time in your life when you are wandering from God, and a brother or sister may come to you with genuine concern and love and tell you, not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. You will be tempted to get defensive and respond with anger. Don’t do it. Listen to them. James writes, My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20) Your eternal destiny may hang on your response. Decide now that you will make the right one.
And a corollary of that: you may see a brother or sister who is making some bad choices and living in a spiritually destructive way. Paul writes, Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2) Their eternal destiny may hang on your action. Be courageous enough to risk your friendship in order to save their soul.
5) The final admonition – work on strengthening your faith now, while the road is smooth, and your vision is clear. Prepare your faith for a time when it may walk through the valley of the shadow of death.