In Revelation 2:4, Jesus brought a strong word of rebuke to the believers in Ephesus. What was their sin? They had been hard-working, faithful, and doctrinally pure, but the Lord had this against them: “You have forsaken your first love.” This is something that can happen to any of us, so here are some questions to ask yourself to see if this same word applies to us.
1) Is there a decrease in your personal devotion to Jesus? This will be reflected by a decreased desire for intimate and private times with the Lord (especially in prayer and worship) and decreased hunger and passion for the Word.
Remember: When you were hot, Jesus was everything! You couldn’t wait to spend time with Him. Praising Him – even with the simplest little choruses – was pure joy. If there was a prayer meeting, you were there. You devoured the Word. You could relate to the words of Paul: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ . . .” (Phil 3:8). But something happened. Something changed.
You spend time with the one you love. You share your heart with the one you love. You are jealous for the one you love. You think about the one you love. Do you love Jesus today as you once loved Him before?
You may enjoy the forms of worship – good music, singing, dancing, being part of the exciting corporate experience – but what about the object of worship? What about the Lord? You may have a vision. You may be caught up in a movement. You may have a message or a burden. Theology may intrigue you. Spiritual issues may interest you. The ministry may consume you. But all these things are mere idols and distractions in comparison with coming into the light of God’s presence and fellowshipping with Him. You only grow and bear fruit to the extent that you abide in the vine (John 15:1-9).
2) Is there a decrease in your personal satisfaction in God? This will be reflected by the need for other things to gain fulfillment, an increased social orientation in place of private devotions, and an increased desire for recognition and acceptance by flesh and blood. The Word says that, “The desires for other things come in and choke the Word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:19), and, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). What do you desire? What brings you satisfaction? Do you love God, or do you love the world? “Remember those earlier days . . . .” (Heb. 10:32-39).
At one time promotion on your job was not your primary source of satisfaction, nor was a big paycheck, a nice home, a new car, a special boyfriend or girlfriend, an exciting sports event, or even a happy family. (Yes! Even spouses and children can take away from your delighting in the Lord above all.) Walking with God used to satisfy you. Does it still satisfy you? Fully and completely? If not, you have left your first love.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne put it like this: “If ever you are so much engrossed with any enjoyment here that it takes away your love for prayer, or for your Bible, or that it would frighten you to hear the cry, Behold the bridegroom cometh – then your heart is “overcharged.” [Luke 21:34] You are abusing this world.”
3) Is there a decrease in your passion for spiritual work? This will be reflected by a decreased burden for the lost (both home and foreign “missions”, both domesticated heathen and undomesticated heathen), a decreased burden for revival and visitation (often replaced by good works, and more subtly, by good spiritual programs), and a penchant for respectability in place of radicality. “Unrefined” preaching of the gospel now embarrasses you. Holy zeal makes you uncomfortable and you are, slowly but surely, becoming ashamed of Jesus and His reproach.
How often do you share your testimony? You used to be a house on fire! You used to seek out opportunities to talk about Jesus. Witnessing used to come naturally. But now, you almost avoid the subject. You simply don’t care about the ones Jesus died for. You don’t fully believe that they are lost. Unbelief is always a result of backsliding somewhere, somehow. Do you find yourself spiritually numb?
And what about revival and visitation? How would you feel if the Spirit fell in power? (In other words, not necessarily in some “cultured” – and totally “containable” – way, but with intensity and suddenness and upheaval.) Are you willing to let Him be in control – of the service, of the leadership, of you? Are you hungry anymore for a real moving of God? Or have you become satisfied with a comfortable seat in the theater while the show itself never goes on?
Beware of a powerless spiritual sophistication. The world admires it, but it has no teeth.
4) Are your standards of holiness becoming lower? This will be reflected by your permitting things in your life, family, or congregation that would have been unthinkable when you were on fire and your ability to engage in certain activities, watch certain movies, enjoy certain sports and forms of entertainment, attend certain functions, etc., which the Lord at one time convicted you of – but now there is no conviction!
Beware! This type of backsliding is often done in the name of spiritual maturity. I warn you as one who once fell into this very error: It is a trap and a lie! Absence of divine conviction does not mean absence of divine displeasure. It may actually point to a withdrawing of His presence. In fact, if the Holy Spirit is dealing with you even now, cry out to Him for restoring grace right where you are. Do not harden your heart against your Lord, your King, and your Friend. It is spiritual suicide. The fact that something doesn’t “bother you” may be the loudest warning you will ever hear.
Can you sin freely without feeling grief? Then fall on your face and cry for mercy before it’s too late. Otherwise you might disqualify yourself from receiving the prize. Do not be deceived: You are not experiencing the freedom that comes as a result of trust; you are experiencing the insensitivity that comes from hardness.
Have you actually deceived yourself by giving yourself a license for sin in the name of “liberty”? Have you despised the precious closeness you once enjoyed with Jesus by calling it “legalism”? Run back into His presence — with all the discipline and devotion that demands — while His arms are still open wide. Where godly sorrow is found, abundant grace is also found.
5) Are you backsliding in your spiritual authority and personal victory? This will be reflected by lack of victory over the flesh, falling back into old habits and lusts and inability to resist and drive out the devil from strongholds in your life or the lives of those to whom you minister.
Remember: You can fool others, but you can’t fool the flesh – and you can’t fool the devil. As Leonard Ravenhill often asked, “Are you known in hell?”
Are you moving from victory to victory, or do you find yourself more and more entangled every day (or, month, or year)? Peter taught that “a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him” (2 Pet. 2:19b). You must ask yourself if Jesus is your Master, or if you are mastered by sin. Are you an overcomer or are you overcome? Is Jesus your Lord, or are you ruled by your belly, or your sexual lust, or your temper, or your greed, or your bitterness? Who, or what, governs you?
You once chased the devil; now you tremble at his shadow. You once cast off fear like a dog shakes off water; now you are paralyzed by anxiety and dread. You once forgave from the heart instantly; now you remember and hold a grudge. My friend, you are backsliding!
You once made effective inroads into the devil’s kingdom. Now he’s making inroads into you. What has become of your victory? You are backsliding from the place of spiritual authority! How tragic that Satan has paralyzed you, be it with theological questions, or with fear of failure, or with massive self-doubt. Press back in to Jesus! He is as victorious today as He ever has been! He will restore your faith.
I will never forget the words spoken one night by the pastor of the church in which I was saved. He said, “It may take a man twenty years to backslide” (referring to a complete apostasy from the Lord). This is a sobering thought. You grow old gradually. Your hair turns gray gradually. You can backslide just as gradually. Before you know it, you have wasted your whole life.
In which direction are you heading? Where is the present course and pattern of your life taking you? If you continued for ever on the same path you have been on — be it of progress or regress — if you continued eternally down this same course, would you wind up in heaven or in hell? Are you moving towards the Lord or away from Him?
Again I ask you: Are you backsliding in your spiritual authority and personal victory? What makes you think that things will be better tomorrow? It will be only downhill from here, unless you humble yourself and turn back.*
Next week, we will answer the question: “If I have forsaken my first love, how can I get it back?”
* Excerpted from Michael L. Brown, Go and Sin No More: A Call to Holiness