Saturday, 15 September 2018

When someone "loses their faith"

On hearing it, many of Jesus’ disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”... From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. John 6:60-66

“Have you heard? - Jack has lost his faith!” “No! Really? I find that very hard to believe. How sad!”

Have you ever been involved in a conversation like that? If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time I would think you probably have. Sometimes, to be honest, you’re not that surprised - you rather saw it coming. But other times it comes as a real shock.

Losing your faith... In some ways it’s a strange expression. A friend about whom it had been said told me that he really didn’t like it. He meant, I think, that it made him sound either (a) careless - as in “Oh dear, I’ve lost my car keys”, or (b) unfortunate - as in “Oh dear, she’s lost her memory”.

Neither carelessness nor misfortune applied to him. No: he had simply... well, ceased to believe. Doubts about God and the Christian faith had slowly built up over many years until they reached the point where they seemed stronger than his convictions. So he had simply decided - not “I have lost my faith”, but - “I can no longer honestly call myself a Christian.”

However we describe it, the fact is that it happens: people who once claimed to be followers of Jesus cease to be.
It shouldn’t surprise us. It happened, after all, during the ministry of Jesus. In John 6:60 we read that many of his “disciples” (yes, that word is used: they weren’t just hangers-on) found his teaching too hard to take, and “from this time they turned back and no longer followed him.”

Jesus himself prepared his disciples (and us too) for it. In his story of the sower and the seed he describes three types of ground - the pathway, the rocky soil and the thorny ground - which receive the seed of God’s word and at first look good for fruit-bearing, but which turn out to be barren (Matthew 13:1-13).

Why does it happen? That is a question to which the only ultimate answer is “God knows.” For, indeed, what goes on in the secrecy of a person’s heart only God fully understands. In Jesus’ story he mentions “trouble or persecution” stifling a person’s faith, or perhaps “”the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of riches”, but no more detail is given.

Paul knew about it. He seems to have made up his mind pretty firmly about his former friend Demas, who “because he loved this world, has deserted me...” (2 Timothy 4:10). Materialism - “worldliness” - seems to have been Demas’ downfall. (True, he speaks of Demas deserting him, Paul, not Jesus, but that seems to be implied.)

And of course there is the supreme example of Judas, who not only betrayed Jesus, but actually took money in order to do so.

The writer to the Hebrews has stern words to say about the danger of “falling away” (see Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-31). Those warning words need to be taken seriously. But it is not our business to decide when any particular person has fallen under their strictures; leave that to God.

One thing that strikes me is that no mention is made of people “losing their faith” through genuine intellectual doubts. Perhaps this is because, in Bible times, some sort of belief in God - or in a god, or in many gods - could be pretty much taken for granted. It simply wasn’t an issue that arose.

But our world today is massively different. We swim in a sea of sheer unbelief and are confronted daily by a vast range of competing and contradictory convictions - just about every -ism you could think of. People expressing these often anti-Christian beliefs may well be highly intelligent and occupy prominent positions as “public intellectuals”; they can come across as extremely convincing.

So why would we be surprised if thoughtful Christians sometimes have doubts? And who can be surprised if sometimes those doubts threaten to become overwhelming?

If ever there was case for leaving God to do the judging, this surely is it. When my friend insisted that he hadn’t “lost his faith” but had simply stopped believing, I felt very sad, of course. But I also felt a respect for his honesty - and I suspect that God does also.

A sad subject. But there is good news too. There can be a way back from lost faith to renewed faith.

Here are two New Testament passages to encourage us...
First, Simon Peter denied Jesus with cursing and swearing (Matthew 26:69-75). But Jesus lovingly and gently restored him (John 21:15-19) - and made him the human head of his church!

Second, listen to James the brother of Jesus: “... if one of you should wander from the truth [yes, it can happen!] and someone should bring that person back [yes, that can happen too!], remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their ways [yes, that too!] will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

So... I encourage all of us who feel secure in Jesus and in our faith to lift up a prayer for those we know who have “lost their faith.”

Lord Jesus, who spoke those wonderful words of promise and hope, “Seek and you will find”, I pray for people I know who have turned away from you - whether through yielding to temptation, through honest doubts, through fear of consequences, through personal pain and sorrow, or through simply drifting. Use me, Lord, to win them back. Amen.

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