"It Comes Gradually"   (October 2006)

Several weeks ago one of the men in our Sunday School class asked a question about why do we see Christians who have really been on fire for the Lord and seemed to have a very solid walk with God turn away from Him and go back to their old life?  He didn’t understand how that could happen (it is somewhat of a mystery to me also) or what causes it to happen.  His question opened up a big discussion.  There were many answers given.  One person said that it happens gradually-- it happens a little at a time.  Another one talked about disobedience and the lack of repentance.  From there we got into a discussion on repentance and how it’s not taught very much in the church any more.  And there were others comments also on the subject. 

This month I’d like to talk about the above question-- “Why do those who have been on fire for the Lord and walked close to Him turn away from Him-- stop being Christians?”.  I know I don't have all the answers; sometimes there are many reasons.  Sometimes a tragedy hits and instead of turning to God people turn away from Him- their emotions dictate instead of their spirit.  Sometimes the road gets so long and hard they get weary.  Sometimes the attacks are so intense they would rather quit instead of fight. 

I believe that one of the main reasons a Christian turns from the Lord can be summed up in two words-- self-denial.  (This is the area I’d like to address this month.)  Like repentance, this is a subject that we don’t hear much preached about in our churches any more.  Instead, we hear sermons that promote “self”.  We are taught that it is all about us.  We hear numerous sermons on how great we are, on how we are “it”, on how much God wants to give us, how much we should have, God wants us to have our every desire, etc.  But where is the teaching on self denial?  That was the heart of Jesus’ message to His followers.  “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)  It was (and still is) the criteria for following Jesus.  Let me give you a very brief definition of self denial-- doing what God wants you to do instead of what you want to do. 

Even though the responses that were given in Sunday School that day were individual responses expressing seemingly different reasons, they all fit together as ingredients to form this one main reason-- it doesn’t happen all at once, obedience is a big factor, repentance has to be a part of it too. 

Like one of the ladies said, “It doesn’t happen all at once”.  It comes over a period of time- gradually, little by little.  A person doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide that they aren’t going to serve the Lord any more.  Instead, they wake up one morning and discover that they aren’t serving Him and that they have gotten far away from Him.  How does this gradual falling away occur?  It occurs one step at a time, one decision at a time, one thought at a time, one act of disobedience at a time, one choice at a time and most of these steps, thoughts, choices are “small” ones.  Most people who turn back from following the Lord don’t do it as a result of some “major sin” or big event that has taken place in their lives.  It’s a culmination of little things.  It’s the “little things” they did or either neglected that caused them to wind up away from the Lord.  It’s like the story of a frog in boiling water.  If you throw him into a pot of boiling water, he’ll jump out because it’s hot.  But if you place a frog in a pot of cool water then gradually turn up the heat, the frog will be boiled alive because the change in temperature came so gradually that he didn’t even notice until it was too late.  Sadly, so many Christians are in the “boiling pot” and the heat is being turned up and they aren’t even aware of it because it’s happening to them a little at a time. 

This gradual falling away comes (like I’ve said already) in “small form”.  The scriptures tell us that it’s the “little” things that we have to watch out for.  “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines.” (Song of Solomon 2:15a)  “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” (Galatians 5:9)  No one ever tripped over a mountain, but many have stumped their toe on the mole hill.  The devil may not be able to get you to commit any of the things we consider “big sins”-- adultery, smoking, drinking, etc.--- but it’s those “little” things we have to be on guard for.  This is where we have to exercise “self denial” even over the little things in life.  If I don’t deny myself in the “small areas” of life, I will at some point down the road find myself away from the Lord. 

Self denial has to take place in the small areas of our life just like in the big ones.  We have to deny ourselves to get up and go to church on Sunday-- most of us don’t have a problem with that.  But we also have to deny ourselves when there is a special service announced on the same night that the biggest football game of the year is on- that may not be as easy to do.  Most of us don’t have a problem when it comes to getting up in the morning and praying, but when the Lord wakes us up two hours earlier and wants us to pray, that is a different story-- we don’t always want to deny ourselves.  Reading our Bible isn’t a problem, we have our set time during the day we pick it up and read it.  But what if the Lord tells us to turn off the television in the middle of a movie and go read our Bibles... are we going to deny ourselves and turn off the television or wait until the movie goes off then read the Bible?  Let’s look at some other areas that we have to exercise self-denial in.  What about when someone does you wrong and you have to go to them and ask for forgiveness?  What about the times when you know you are in the right but you have to turn the other cheek?  What about the times when you should speak up but you are afraid of being ridiculed so you sit there?  All of these times and situations call for us to practice self denial. 

Why is self denial so important if we are going to keep walking with the Lord?  When we don’t deny ourselves we are “walking in the flesh” instead of in the spirit.  As we walk in the flesh, the flesh man grows stronger and is given more power in our lives.  The more power it gets the greater it’s pull on us is.  “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41b)  The weakness of the flesh is it’s strength.  It desires to give in to anything and everything that it wants to do or have.  In that way it is weak, but it also has such a strong pull toward the things it desires that unless we deny it we will wind up doing exactly what it wants to do.  The flesh will follow what “it” wants, not what the Lord wants.  You can’t follow your flesh and Jesus at the same time.  You can’t serve two masters at once-- your flesh and the Lord.  “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24)  “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” (Romans 6:16)  As you continually yield to your flesh instead of denying it- even in the little areas-- it will gradually pull you into it’s service and it becomes your lord.

Another reason why it’s so important to deny ourselves is because when we don’t deny ourselves it causes us to start trying to “justify” why we didn’t--- and we will always justify our actions in our favor.  If we get in the habit of justifying our actions we will soon “sear our conscience”.  When your conscience is seared, the voice of the Spirit becomes harder and harder to hear- you become less sensitive to it.  You have shut Him out and your heart becomes hardened.  “For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart.” (Psalms 95:7,8a)  It is so important to our walk with the Lord that we keep our hearts soft and in a position to hear what He is saying to us.  It’s His words speaking to our hearts, when we hear and heed them, that keep us from falling away. 

The lack of self denial will take you away from your first love. “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” (Revelations 2:4)  The less we deny ourselves, the more we love ourselves.  You can’t love God and self at the same time.  The lack of self denial places “you” above God.  God has to be number one; He has to occupy that first place; He has to set upon the throne of your heart-- self can’t.  Jesus said of John the Baptist that there wasn’t anyone who was born that was greater than he was (Matthew 11:11), yet John said that he must decrease so that Christ could increase (John 3:30).  John knew that his time in the “spot light” was over; it was time for Jesus to be the One who got all the attention.  John understood that it was “all about Jesus- not about him.”  When John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease”, he was saying that he must deny himself and step out of the picture.  That’s what self-denial is... us stepping out of the forefront of the picture and letting Jesus take center stage of our lives.

The lack of self denial got Adam in trouble and brought sin upon all mankind.  “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” (Genesis 3:6)  He did what his flesh wanted instead of obeying the command of God not to eat.  Obedience is key to staying in right relationship with God.  Disobedience broke the relationship that Adam had with God.  It will break our relationship with Him also.  Each time we disobey, even in the smallest area, we are putting a wedge between us and the Lord.  Again, the more we disobey, doing what the flesh wants, we are on our way to a gradual falling away from the Lord.  Our obedience must be consistent.  When we disobey and are convicted by the Holy Spirit we must be quick to repent.  One of the things that made David a man after God’s own heart was the fact that when his sin was exposed he was quick to repent. “And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13a)  Most Christians don’t realize that repentance is another form of self denial.  It takes denial of the flesh to humble yourself before the Almighty God and admit that you have sinned against Him.  Your flesh wants to hide the sin and not admit it-- like Adam and Eve did.  “And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?  And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Genesis 3:9,10)  Your flesh doesn’t want to be exposed; it doesn’t want to admit it was wrong; it doesn’t want to have to give an account or answer to anyone.  Repentance will cause your flesh to decrease.  If you are reading this and you know that there is an area in your life that you have sinned against God in yet you have not repented of it-- repent.  Deny yourself.  Come clean before God.  Humble yourself before Him and confess your sin.  If you continue to hold on to it and not repent of it, it will pull you further away from the Lord.  You will always feel an “empty” spot in your life.  You will never be able to fully enjoy abundant life.  Repentance brings cleansing.  The lack of it brings hardness, and hardness will gradually lead you away from God.  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)  We said earlier that a lack of self denial will take you away from your first love.  But on the other hand repentance will bring us back to that first love.  It will bring us back into right relationship with God.  “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” (Revelation 2:5)

Let’s talk about Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived.  He was a man who walked with God.  He was a man that was granted great wisdom by God.  He was promoted to great position by God.  He was one of the wealthiest men to ever live.  But he did not exercise self denial.  Even with the wisdom that the Lord had imparted to him, he didn’t walk in it when it came to the matter of allowing his flesh to have it’s way.  After walking after the desires of his own flesh he realized something.  I want to share it with you now.  “All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor.  Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.“ (Ecclesiastes 2:10,11- New American Standard)  He discovered that the flesh does not profit anything.  He also came to another conclusion-- “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)  If we are going to stay close to God throughout our entire life we have to deny ourselves through fearing God and keeping His commandments-- daily.  Self denial is not a one time thing.  It’s a daily walk!  It is something you must do everyday and in every situation.  You can’t pick and choose when to deny your flesh and when to obey God.  You have to do it continually in every little thing as well as in every big thing.

Let me leave you with this thought.  When you have an illness, the doctor will prescribe medicine for you to take.  It may come in a pill form.  Along with it he will give you some instructions-- take one pill a day for fourteen days and the illness will be gone.  The healing will come gradually as you take your medicine everyday.  On the other hand, if you take a drug that is additive once a day for a number of days, before you know it you will be addicted-- the addiction comes gradually over a period of time.  It’s the same principal.  The falling away from the Lord comes the same way.  As you repeatedly disobey, yield to your flesh, shut your hears to the Spirit, gradually you will fall away.  But if you will consistently obey, listen and give heed to the Spirit, you will gradually get stronger and closer to the Lord in your relationship with Him.