How can you avoid the tendency to drift away from God?

Siskiyou Pass Mountain Summit Elevation SignIt was sometime near midnight when the Oregon state police found Pop Greenman. He was sitting quietly in the cab of a pickup truck near the summit of Siskiyou Pass, sixty miles north of Weed, California.

Pop wasn’t hurt, or even particularly upset. Just a little cold and bewildered. His truck had run out of gas, so he had coasted to the shoulder of the freeway and parked. He really wasn’t sure how he got there – or where he was going.

So he just sat. Waiting for something, someone.

Once the pickup was identified, it didn’t take long to get Pop home. The elderly man lives with his son’s family in Weed. Apparently, he had borrowed his son’s truck to pick up some items at a hardware store a couple of miles away.

Once he had backed out of the driveway, however, Pop had become disoriented. He was driving, but where? He was passing through town, but why? Where Main Street merged onto Interstate 5 northbound, Pop had slipped the truck into high gear and kept going.

When I heard the story from some friends, I felt sad for Pop, a long-time friend of their family. He suffers from Alzheimer’s, that strange disease of the brain afflicting more than a million Americans each year. Although commonly associated with old age, a particularly malevolent strain strikes men and women in their prime – as young as thirty-five or forty.

Sometime later the thought hit me with a chill: Pop and I have a lot in common.

I, too, have sat alongside the freeway, passively watching the traffic as the skies grow dark. There have been times – appalling moments – when I’ve realized with a start that I have no idea where I am, where in the world I’m going, or why. I’ve never told anyone this before, but there have been long stretches when I can’t even remember who I am.

Pop’s problem is physiological – a reduction of blood flow to a memory center deep inside the brain. My problem is deeper still. Sometimes it scares me to death when I think about it. At other times, I frankly couldn’t care less.

Call it what you like. Indifference. Preoccupation. Backsliding. Apathy. In my book it’s spiritual Alzheimer’s disease. I know, because I have sensed its shadow – a numbing mist, a murky vapor gradually coating the window of my soul.

I wouldn’t push the issue, but maybe, just maybe, you’ve sensed it, too.

A DISEASE OF THE SOUL

What does it feel like? A friend of mine described it well at breakfast a few weeks ago.

“My younger brother is really at a turning point in his life,” he told me, frowning into his coffee. “As a matter of fact, the decisions he makes in the next couple of weeks will determine whether his marriage blows apart or starts on the way to healing. It’s like his whole life is hanging in the balance. My sister called and pleaded with me to pray for him. This oughta really get me motivated. But you know what? It hasn’t changed a thing. I still can’t work up the energy to pray. I ought to care, but it seems like I can’t. Or won’t. What’s wrong with me?”

I knew the answer but didn’t tell him. How well I know those symptoms!

A couple of years ago, when my son Matthew was five, he noticed me carrying around a Navigator verse pack.

“Hey, Dad,” he said, “can I have one of those, too? Can I have a verse pack like yours?”

It was a tender moment. It awed me to think of what a choice opportunity it was to help my son begin the habit of Scripture memory. Deuteronomy 6 in action!

“Sure, Son,” I replied. “I’ll get one for you. We’ll work on those verses together. It’ll be great!”

I didn’t do it right away. Let’s be honest – I didn’t do it at all. Matt didn’t let go of the idea for a long while. For weeks he kept asking and asking. Finally he stopped. The idea that had seemed so inviting began to fade. He didn’t care anymore.

Obviously, I didn’t either.

Sometimes – sometimes I want to grab myself by the scruff of the neck and shout in my own face: What’s wrong with you, anyway? What really counts in life? What’s gonna last? Reading Louis L’Amour novels and listening to Portland Trailblazer games, or your little boy’s spiritual destiny?

Call it apathy if you want. I know it’s Alzheimer’s.

WHEN THE FIRE GOES OUT

You’ve never read about spiritual Alz­heimer’s in Scripture? Maybe you just didn’t recognize it.

Take Amaziah, king of Judah. He was a man, Scripture says, who “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, but not wholeheartedly” (2 Chron. 25:2). (Why do those words pierce me so?)

Amaziah began well. Never on fire, you understand, but appropriately devout. Not exactly gung ho, but heading in the right direction.

He launched his reign at the age of twenty-five with a flush of godly enthusiasm. Scripture says he followed the example of his father, Joash, who had repaired the Lord’s Temple and turned the people back to the worship of Yahweh.

Somewhere in his middle years, however, Amaziah began to drift. A turning point came in the wake of a successful battle against the Edomites. Somehow, Amaziah became fascinated by the gods of Seir. So fascinated he hauled a lot of them back to Jerusalem where “he set them up as his own gods, bowed down to them and burned sacrifices to them” (2 Chron. 25:14).

What?  With the aid and blessing of Jehovah God you strike down twenty thousand enemy troops, then turn around and embrace the gods of the enemy you just wasted? Does that sound like a man paddling with both oars? What happened to him?

I think I know.

And look over in the New Testament. Demas stood strong and tall for the gospel. When Paul wrote from a Roman dungeon to the believers at Colosse, he sent greetings from two stalwart companions, two guys who’d stayed staunch and steadfast. One was a doctor named Luke, the other a disciple named Demas (Col. 4:14).

When the apostle penned an important letter to his friend Philemon, he took pains to catalog those who stood with him in his hour of distress. His “fellow workers,” he affectionately called them. The Faithful Five: Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Luke – and Demas (Phlm. 1:23-24).

What these men must have endured together! The frown of Rome. The anxiety of imprisonment. The sting of rejection. The smell of blood and the bite of the whip. Yet through it all they clung together and clung to their Lord.

So how do you figure – how in the world do you account for 2 Tim. 4:9-10? “Do your best to come to me quickly,” Paul urged Timothy, “for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.”

In the good apostle’s last earthly moments, even as the ax descended on his weathered neck, he had to bear the pain of a friend’s betrayal. Demas threw it all overboard. Everything they had fought for, everything they had endured together. And for what? For a few perfumed, sultry nights in Thessalonica? Or was it that job offer with the multinational corporation? Or his buddy’s offer of a condo on the Aegean?

How could it be? Demas had labored and suffered and triumphed at the side of the Great Apostle – the man who brought the gospel to the Western world, the champion of the faith who wrote a third of our New Testament. Yet he trashed it all for some pallid preoccupation.

You label it what you will. I know what it is. Anyone suffering from it knows exactly what I’m talking about.

THE TELLTALE SIGNS

Any recent medical textbook will tell you that Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by at least three things: (1) disorientation; (2) loss of memory; and (3) apathy. The spiritual disease has the same troubling symptoms.

First comes disorientation. Incredible confusion. Paul says the spiritually fit “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). “We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).

Spiritual Alzheimer’s muddles all that. The victim begins to focus on what he sees around him. He gets caught up in the temporary. He begins walking and thinking and choosing by sight alone.

This disorientation is followed by lapses of memory. Yesterday’s miracles and mercies mysteriously fade.

The Israelites experienced that symptom again and again during their trek through the Sinai. They had just watched the Lord put an interstate highway through the middle of the Red Sea, but felt sure He wasn’t up to bringing home their supper. They watched Him rain bread over their whole camp, then swore up and down He was going to let them die of thirst.

Maybe that’s why Moses hit them with the word “remember” seventeen times in the book of Deuteronomy as they prepared to enter the land:

  • Remember well what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt” (Deut. 7:18).
  • Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands” (Deut. 8:2).
  • Remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant” (Deut. 8:18).
  • Remember this and never forget how you provoked the LORD your God to anger in the desert” (Deut. 9:7).
  • Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you” (Deut. 15:15).

But the victim of spiritual Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t remember. And after the confusion and lapses of memory take their toll, he experiences debilitating apathy.

HAVE YOU LOST YOUR FIRST LOVE?

When it comes right down to it, apathy isn’t a state of mind, it’s a state of heart. Just look at the word. It’s formed from the prefix a-, “without,” and the root pathos, “passion.” No love.

Jesus had a warning along that line for the church at Ephesus. While acknowledging their accomplishments, hard work, and doctrinal purity, He looked them right in the eyes and said (in effect), “You’re doing all this stuff in My name, but I don’t think you even love Me anymore” (see Rev. 2:1-6).

His prescription? Stop dead in your tracks. Set aside your preoccupations. Turn around. Remember your first commitment to your Lord. Do the things you used to do in that first flush of wholehearted surrender and joy. And watch yourself! You’re in grave danger of losing what relationship with God you have left. Permanently.

IS THERE HOPE?

Scriptures like that still frighten me, but I’m almost relieved by that fear. Maybe it means there’s still hope for my condition. Physical Alzheimer’s is incurable.

Blood-starved brain tissue dies and cannot be restored. But what about the spiritual ailment? Can my advanced case be reversed? I cling to God’s Word for hope.

Paul calls on believers to come back to the altar where they first yielded their lives to Christ and offer themselves again (whether they feel like it or not) as “living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom. 12:1). “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind(Rom. 12:2, emphasis added), he goes on to say. Why bother? So that we can walk once again in the sunlit world of spiritual reality, understanding and doing God’s “good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2).

How does this work on a practical level? Maybe something like this.

A REALITY CHECK

Recognizing that the world around us and our own fleshly nature conspire to confuse and disorient us, many of us need a daily reality check. Yes, that includes the Word of God and prayer (you already knew that). But it could also include asking ourselves some basic questions.

1. Who am I? Answer that right now. Can you? Can you put it into words? Are the words reality to you? Say them out loud. Write them down. Say them to a friend when you feel yourself losing your grip:

“I am an eternal child of the living God. I am a new creation, God’s masterpiece. I am a steward, managing the King’s resources until His return. I was redeemed at a terrible price, the cost of my Lord’s own blood. I do not belong to myself. My body, mind, time, and energies belong to Jesus Christ. I was, in fact, crucified with Him on the Cross, and my old identity no longer lives. My body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the very dwelling place of God. I live not for myself but for Him who died and rose again for me.”

2. Why am I here? Do it again. You know all the words. Believe them. Cling to them. Mold your mind around them:

“I am salt, a preservative for a decaying culture, and light, illumination for those who are cut off from God and have lost their way. I am in a race, surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses in the grandstands, punishing my body and straining every nerve to win the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. I am in a war, an agent of the King behind hostile lines, stealing away brainwashed hostages from beneath the Enemy’s watchful gaze. I am a mirror, reflecting the bright image of God’s Son to a bored and cynical world.”

3. Where am I going?

“I’m on my way home, but I’m not there yet. This world, this life, is incredibly brief. The merest flicker. A puff of smoke. A heartbeat. A sigh. But I am destined to outlive the sun, the moon, the vast galaxies of space, to serve the great King and Creator through endless ages. Those daily hurts and wounds and worries that cry for my attention will be forgotten in the blink of an eye. Those sinful, sensual longings that scream for my indulgence are no reality at all compared with that reality.”

“But I know all of that,” you say. “It’s nothing new.”

Nevertheless, it is truth.  And unless you and I occasionally lift our eyes from the murk of emotions and the fog of circumstance to focus on changeless spiritual landmarks, we are in serious danger of losing our way.

Pop Greenman thought he knew his way. It was all so familiar. He’d have laughed if you’d suggested he needed a map to the hardware store only two miles away. Yet somewhere between here and there, reality slipped away and left him stranded in a frightening mental wasteland.

Demas knew it all, too, yet deliberately drove his spiritual life through the guard rail and over a cliff.

That still scares me. I pray it always will.

by Larry Libby

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