We’ve heard about the decline of Christianity, church attendance and Christian influence. Aspects of this are matters of discussion and debate. Yet decline and increased pressure on the Church are certainly evident. Social and cultural pressures and a moral revolution that sets the agenda and seems to place the church continually on the back foot. Or the challenge of how to communicate the gospel in a world where people mistakenly think it no longer makes sense. There’s a danger that when we’re focussed on issues, pressures and commendable activity–the potential for inward decline. Has there been a decline of living Christianity in your heart and mine? It’s easy to fall into the temptation of becoming consumed by outward activity rather than motivated by inward love and grace. What if our souls have begun to wither and we’ve scarcely noticed. How would we know? More importantly, how can we recover a declining condition?
Christ tells His people who are withering in their souls to be watchful or awake (Revelation 3:2). This is the first step towards reviving a withered soul. As Obadiah Sedgewick puts it there can be “no reformation without diligent and serious consideration”. Those in Sardis were in a dying condition. The powers of truth and grace were extremely faint and seemed to be expiring. There were things “that were ready to die”. Spiritual life needs to be strengthened in such a dying condition. Outwardly things may have looked good to the eyes of others. But it was imperfect and incomplete before God. Their condition required remembering and repenting. Obadiah Sedgewick (a member of the Westminster Assembly) explains the implications of Christ’s exhortations in this updated extract.
1. How Do Our Souls Wither?
(a) In Our Profession. The leaves of our profession may wither when we do not have even the previous zeal and diligence for being at services. We may become so remiss in these things as to become something of a stranger to God.
(b) In Our Conversation. We may no longer delight to be with the people of God. When we are with them we avoid profitable conversation about heaven and holiness.
(c) In Our Affections. Christ tells the Ephesians that they had left their first love (Revelation 2:4). There was a cooling in the degree of love similar to the decline in the Galatians that Paul speaks of (Galatians 4:15).
(d) In Our Obedience. We obey God occasionally or in a distracted way or with a kind of cold, careless formalism. Before no time was too long and no excuse was sufficient to neglect serving God. Praying did not satisfy without lamenting groanings of spirit or more fervent wrestling with God. But now prayer and other spiritual activities are like a pulse hardly felt. Mere words and just doing the activity is enough.
(e) In Our Understanding. Previously our mind was taken up with delight in meditating on God and Christ, divine truths and ways. Now we are taken up with things that are empty and transitory. These so fill the soul that it becomes almost a stranger to holy meditations. It has almost lost its relish for deep thoughts of God, Christ, or salvation.
(f) In Our Gifts and Abilities. These become rusty and blunt because we want to be comfortable and do not use them aright or else focus them on worldly things.
(g) In Our Graces. It is worst of all when we are dying in our graces. Physical health may go up and down and so it may be with a Christian’s graces. Perhaps they are not being kept active or being strengthened by spiritual activity.
2. Why Do Our Souls Wither?
(a) Error. If poison gets into the body it weakens and endangers life. Unsound doctrine can do this as it did to the churches of Galatia. When the understanding is corrupted with any error, truth does not have the same power in the soul. Where truth loses its authority, grace will lose its strength.
(b) Sinning. Just as a wound in the body makes us lose blood and endangers our life, so there are things which fight against the soul and wound it (1 Peter 2:11). Sinning not only wounds the conscience but also our graces. Sinning is to graces as water is to fire, nothing is more opposite to grace than sin. When sin gets into the affections it is like a disease which will inevitably be a deadly wound to our graces.
(c) Neglect. Neglecting food makes the body decline. So the people of God may become careless through spiritual pride. They do not keep so close to the Word of life or to the Life itself by earnest and constant communion in prayer. It is no wonder that they become dying people. Just as plants live or die, flourish or decay in relation to how they benefit from the sun, so it is with us and God.
(d) Allowing Spiritual Disease. If ill health in the body is not treated it can become deadly. Unless sin is dealt with it will do the same to the soul. One sin may lead to another. Or the same sin may become stronger. This makes grace wither.
(e) Lack of Self-Examination. Previously we kept a careful watch over ourselves but then we began to think it was not so necessary. We therefore fail to see how either sin or grace is operating. The soul becomes weak. We cannot pray as before, we do not have the love to God and Christ we had before. We do not delight in the means of grace nor mourn over sin as before. We do not do the same good to others as before. Why is this? It is always true that the less searching of heart there is, the less strength of grace there is.
(d) Lack of Humbling Ourselves. Fasting and prayer have been ordained to help preserve our graces. When we neglect them or are careless in them we cannot have the same strength against spiritual corruptions. We therefore fall into spiritual decay.
(e) Laziness. A lazy Christian will quickly prove to be a dying Christian. Grace not exercised will quickly become weak and dying. It is put into the soul by God’s Spirit but there are means to sustain and strengthen it. Grace is like a fire that must be stirred up. He who will not use grace, will quickly lose it or decay in it. Many Christians do not stir their hearts to believe, lay hold on God, or call upon Him, or to walk before Him. They do not use their knowledge, zeal and love for the good of those around them, including those they live with. They meet together but don’t stir one another up to greater holiness.
(f) Excessive emotion. Excessive fear, grief, anger, joy, agony, desire or worry can all impair grace. Desire for the world, or delight in it, fear of man, or grief for things we have lost can all damage grace.
3. Are Our Souls Withering?
(a) Examine Your Understanding. Previously there were strong endeavours to know the truths of God and search out the mysteries of salvation. There was an admiration of holiness and God’s favour. There were sweet meditations on the will of God; the mind was pre-eminently taken up with God and Christ, grace, obedience and heaven. Is it so now? Or do worldly things seem great in your eyes? Are we more concerned for our temporal than for our spiritual good? Are our thoughts of God fleeting and short? Do you desire to know God or see His favour in Christ to you? Where is that high regard for the truths of God? Where is that diligence to know the condition of your soul? Where is that sweet delight you once had to know Jesus Christ as your own?
(b) Examine Your Will and Affections. Time was that your will was flexible and found obedience easy. It was submissive to the divine will and cheerful in the duties of godliness. Your affections were delighted with God’s promises and ravished with love to Christ. You were concerned to please and to avoid offending. You desired nothing more than God’s lovingkindness and hated all evil. But now your will grows weary and is reluctant to be persuaded. It often conflicts with God’s will. You are slow to pay heed to God’s counsels. Neither God’s mercies nor His warnings have the same effect on you. You delight less in heavenly things and sin is not hated as it was.
(c) Examine Your Heart and Conscience. In the past conscience was quick to direct and restrain. It sought exact obedience. It was sensitive against doing wrong. It could not rest till peace was found. Is it so now? Can you sin and conscience does not strike you? Has your conscience become sleepy and almost dead? Can you omit duties or do them carelessly or can you sin and either conscience says nothing or you do nothing?
(d) Examine Your Worship. How precious and delightful the means of grace once were to you. You would rather have spent a day in them than a hundred in other things. They brought powerful impressions on your heart; grief, joy and hope. They helped you conquer sin and temptation and have a more serious diligence in your walk with God. Is it so now? Does the Word warn and you do not tremble? Does it promise good and you do not love it? If your heart seems to be dead it indicates that you are a dying soul.
(e) Examine Your Conversation. Has our religion become just talk, criticism and debate?
(f) Examine Your Graces. When graces are scarcely active or are generally inconstant there is spiritual decline. Your faith does not commit things to God as before, your love is not so settled on Christ as before. Your patience cannot endure, your sorrow is dry and your zeal has become cool. If our physical capacities have become weaker it is an indication of declining strength in the body. The same may be said for our spiritual condition, if our graces are not as vigorous as they were.
4. How to Recover Our Withering Souls
God puts grace within the soul and also increases and perfects it. Strengthening grace means recovering the health of the soul. Christ also does this work, it is He who must make our withered branches to flourish again. He does this by awakening us through the Word and not leaving us to continue as we are. Ministers are also appointed to watch for the flock and exhort those who are going astray. Christ supplies strength and grace that enables us to repent and pray. There is renewed grace to go on in holiness and regain our former strength of holy understanding, faith, will, love, desire, fear, and obedience. But there are also means for Christians themselves to use to strengthen grace within.
(a) Serious Consideration. Seriously consider and take to heart your condition. Think about what it was formerly and what it is now; what strength there was then, what weakness there is now (Psalm 119:59). Consider how much glory God had then, what dishonour God has now. Consider what peace of conscience you had then, what wounds in conscience now.
(b) Confession. Go before the Lord and fall down before His footstool with shame, bitter weeping and lamentations. Confess your condition.
(c) Resolve. Resolve that you will not continue in your decayed condition but rather shake off all the causes of having decayed. Put away sin. Turn away from carelessness and slothfulness. If the world has caused your decay, resolve to turn from its allurements.
(d) Reform. Remember where you have fallen from and do the first works again (Revelation 2:4). Go to prayer, reading, holy meditation, spiritual conversation and hearing again. Stir up those coals and embers of grace. There is life in you yet, exercise faith and repentance.
(e) Fervent Prayer. The Lord can give the strength you need (Psalm 86:16). Implore Him to pity and help you, to be your strength and salvation. Seek that He would weaken the sins which have so much weakened you. Ask that He would crucify your heart to the world, which has so much crucified your heart to your God. He can increase strength to those who are faint (Isaiah 40:29). He is able to revive and strengthen the holiness that He himself planted in your heart.
(f) Submit to the Word. Strive for a pliable heart submissive to whatever the Lord will direct you to by His word. Desire to do God’s will. Co-operate with the Word received when it has got into your soul and stirred you in any way. Take note of what impressions the Lord makes on your spirit by His Word. Stir up your heart to embrace them and apply them again and again to your conscience. This is the way to make your weak spark grow into a flame.
(g) Find Strong Christians. Seek out strong and lively Christians who walk in the ways of grace. If they are good and know how to do good they will have hearts to pity you, heads to direct you and arms to bear you up. Listen to their heavenly wisdom in counselling you and their exhortations to you. Follow their examples in careful communion with God. You will be helped by their prayers for you.
It is a serious matter when our souls are in a withering condition. We cannot just accept it, we need to address it. It is a matter that Christ takes extremely seriously in the letters to the Seven Churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3). This is one of the various themes of our new forthcoming study course called Outside In. It helps to identify the problem of declining in love and grace and what we can do by God’s grace to return from that condition.