Monday, December 7, 2009

When Friends Fall Away or Walk Away From the Faith

Many seasoned Christians will tell you that if you live long enough, you are bound to have friends that fall away from the faith. Friends who, for no apparent reason, walk away from what they have professed to believe for years, or who fall into a certain line of teaching that is clearly unbiblical. Others fall prey to temptation and shipwreck their faith and witness. It is a sad sight to see, a grievous reality, but not uncommon.

What are we to make of this? How are we to respond?

First, we would do well to be reminded that this is not something new. The Apostle Paul often mourned the loss of friends and partners in ministry, as there were some who embraced false teaching, some who fell prey to the love of money, some who simply were caught up in worldliness, the list could go on. Among them are names like Demas (2 Tim. 4:9) and Phygelus and Hermogenes (2 Tim. 1:15). Especially painful for Paul was the desertion of many who were unwilling to support him when times got tough. Yet even then Paul was willing to forgive – his love for them held fast saying, “may it not be held against them.” (2 Tim. 4:16)

The Apostle John, one of the inner three disciples of Christ who perhaps lived the longest and saw the longest portion of the church’s early history, reported that some people who refused to remain in the faith actually proved that they had never truly been converted and incorporated into the church. He wrote:

“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” ~1 John 2:19

Others who have not been trained, lack discernment gifts, or grounding in sound theology can also be easily swayed by experiences or cultural trends that they are unable to sort out through a biblical lens or put in proper perspective. When this happens the impact of such dramatic experiences may cause them to question their underlying assumptions of what they’ve traditionally been taught or it may cause them to find a way to reinterpret the Scriptures to support their experience. In either case they may leave the church.

Surely everything that we’ve taught should be tested – but if it’s truth it should pass the test. The true danger lies in having “an experience” with God and rather than using the Word of God as a filter to interpret it, the person finds a way to discover a proof text and twist the Scripture out of its proper context in order to legitimize what they “already believe and are convinced of.”

It has been my experience that cultural, societal, and political trends have had a huge impact on the church’s reading of Scripture and the implementation of church practice. Surely this is true of every age to some degree, but I think it has been much worse on the evangelical church in America today.

But to our main point, this is why some friends have wandered off into bad teaching or poor church practice or have left the church altogether due to experiences that they have been ill-equipped to handle, sort out, or interpret.

Further, though the church should always be prayerfully seeking reform, it is true that there are some discontented Christians who are so fed up with the church for one reason or another that their cynical spirits and bitter attitudes have driven them into areas of belief and church practice that are clearly out of bounds in a biblical sense. Unfortunately, they may lack the grace and maturity to patiently reason with one another, and as a result they would rather distance themselves and go their own way. A sad but common reality, and relationships can be severed.

And then finally, some have not rejected the faith so much as they have rejected the church because of a horrible experience or a lack of grace that they may have encountered from immature believers who did not know how to handle someone else’s sin, failures, or differences in perspective. Some of these people take years to recover from something like this – and it is not always their fault. But it still results in a rejection of the “community of faith.”

So the three reasons we’ve covered are this (and they are not meant to be exhaustive): Some fall away relationships or the church because they never really believed in the first place. Some fall away because they are ill prepared or equipped to handle winds of bad teaching or experiences that they do not know how to interpret biblically. And then finally, some have walked away simply because they’re angry and impatient or have legitimately been hurt. They don’t have the energy to persevere or desire to forgive.

So what is our response? Love. Sympathy. Grace. Humility. Patience. While at the same time, we should be committed to prayer for them, always willing to engage and embrace, and prepared to defend the faith. Perhaps in some cases we should even be apologetic if the friend was genuinely hurt for unjustifiable reasons. Live long enough, and this will undoubtedly happen to you. But we must remember, that the kind of Christ-like love we are called to is the kind of radical love that imitates our Savior, the One who loved us even while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8). If our loving God was willing to leave the comforts and privileges of heaven to come here and sacrificially give his life towards those who were hostile to him, how much more should we seek to love those who have turned, walked away from, or rejected us, the church, or the faith for one reason or another?

Don’t give up on them. No matter what. Keep preaching, speaking, and living the Gospel. Pray, and love unconditionally. Be prepared to give an answer for the hope you have, and season everything with grace. You may “win your brother or sister over.”

1 comment:

Christina Patterson said...

Thanks for the timely encouragement! It is a struggle to continue to pursue some people when it would be much easier to give up.