For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: “It might have been.” — John Greenleaf Whittier
As we make our way through this pilgrimage we call life, each of us faces opportunities and challenges that require not only forethought and decision, but commitment and dedication as well. At times we think carefully, choose wisely, and act forcefully. At times we do not.
While it is true that there exist scenarios in which a personal failure may be due to circumstances beyond our control, often it is true that the responsibility for failure rests solely with the individual. It seems to be a part of human nature that we readily empathize with the person who works hard, gives his best, and yet still fails. But it is just as much a part of human nature that we disdain the person who—in the heat of battle—simply quits, gives up, and walks away. That person never will experience the sweet taste of victory, the joy of success, or the innate pride of having given his all. Truly, the saddest words are, “It might have been.”
Nowhere is the truth of this adage more evident than in our relationship with our God. And nowhere is failure more tragic, or the results more permanent. Within the pages of both the Old and New Testaments there are numerous accounts of people—or nations—that simply quit, gave up, and walked away from both their faith and their God. The results were nearly always disastrous to them personally. Sadder still was the effect their personal loss of faith had on family, friends, neighbors, and even future generations. It is a simple fact that many who leave the faith fail to count the high cost of doing so.
Every person familiar with the Old Testament is aware that one of its central themes is that of the evil results of spiritual apostasy. From the beginning of Genesis to the end of Malachi, heaven’s warning was this: faithfulness would bring spiritual life and God’s blessings, while unfaithfulness would bring spiritual death and God’s wrath. Ezekiel declared: “When the righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and comitteth iniquity, and dieth therein; in his iniquity that he hath done shall he die” (Ezekiel 18:26)
Moses often warned the Israelites of the horrible effects of apostasy (see Deuteronomy 8:11-14; 4:9; 28:62). God was willing to help them possess the land of Canaan (Exodus 23:30; Deuteronomy 10:22). But more than once their sins reversed God’s promised blessings. Eventually their apostasy caused God to allow them to be dispersed. In fact, no nation has ever been disseminated so completely. The Northern Kingdom was captured and taken from Canaan by the Assyrians c. 722 B.C.. These people never would return to Israel as a group, and eventually were scattered around the world. The Southern Kingdom, Judah, was taken into captivity by the Babylonians, and despite the vast number of people exiled, only a remnant would return 70 years later.
Truly, God’s people had failed to count the high cost of leaving the faith. That failure even affected generations yet unborn. Moses and the other prophets understood what so many of the general populace did not—obedience is important because it is the only possible demonstration of faith (James 2:18); without faith, no one can please God (Hebrews 11:6), and without obedience, there is no faith.
Turning to the New Testament, the story remains much the same. During His tenure on Earth, Jesus warned that some, in temptation, would fall away from the faith (Luke 8:13), and even went so far as to note that some branches [disciples] would be pruned from Him as the vine and burned (John 15:1-6). We know that, indeed, some of the early Christians did leave the faith. The apostle Paul observed that Demas forsook him and his own faith, “having loved this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10). Some abandoned Christianity, reverting to their beloved Judaism, and in so doing “fell away” (Hebrews 6:4-6; Galatians 5:4). In fact, it was prophesied that prior to the return of Christ at His second coming, a great apostasy would occur (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12; cf. 1 Timothy 4:1ff, 2 Timothy 4:1ff.).
Paul observed that the things written in the Old Covenant had been penned “for our learning” (Romans 15:4), and that the old law was to be our “schoolmaster” (Galatians 3:24). It should come as no surprise, then, to see Paul catalog in 1 Corinthians 10 a number of instances in which the Israelites apostatized—as a warning to those who would follow so they could avoid making the same mistakes. Through the years that followed, however, there have been those who have ignored the inspired warning, and who subsequently have abandoned the faith. Why is this the case? And what has been the cost?
WHY DO CHRISTIANS LEAVE THE FAITH?
Were it possible for us today to catalog the reasons why Christians leave the faith, no doubt the list would be quite lengthy. Likely, however, included among those reasons would be some, or all, of the following.
First, some fall away because they neglect their own spiritual welfare. The Scriptures are clear regarding the fact that Christians have been provided a “great salvation” that should not be neglected (Hebrews 2:3). When a person does what the Bible commands him to do to be saved, he enters the kingdom (i.e., the church) as a newborn enters an earthly family—in need of milk for sustenance and tender care for survival. The apostle Peter spoke of such people as “newborn babes” who were to “long for the spiritual milk which is without guile, that ye may grow thereby unto salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Paul discussed those whom he had fed spiritually “with milk, not with meat” because they were not yet ready for such (1 Corinthians 3:2). But just as the neonatal child eventually grows into adolescence and adulthood, so Christians are to mature in their faith. Peter observed that one of the responsibilities of being a faithful child of God is to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). There are those who never would dream of neglecting their physical needs such as food and rest, yet who nevertheless carelessly neglect their spiritual needs. They do not attend worship services regularly (Hebrews 10:24-25). They make no effort to cultivate personal habits of diligent study and meditation (2 Timothy 2:15). And, they ignore biblical commands to assist in the salvation of others and thus bear fruit as a Christian (John 15:1-10; Romans 7:4). As a result, they grow disinterested in spiritual matters, and eventually drift away completely.
Second, some leave the faith as a result of persecution. In His parable of the sower (Matthew 13), the Lord revealed that on occasion a person “endures for a while; and when tribulation and persecution arise because of the word, straightway he stumbles” (13:21). In Luke 14:27-32, Christ gave several examples intended to emphasize the importance of counting the cost of discipleship. No doubt some are drawn to Christianity because of the “abundant life” it ensures in the here and now (John 10:10), and because of the promise of an eternal life with God in the hereafter (John 3:16). They fail to realize, however, that “all that would live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). When persecution arises—from family, friends, or the world—their faith becomes like the seed that fell on the shallow soil with a layer of bedrock underneath. It sprang up quickly, but soon was destroyed by the heat of the midday Sun.
Third, some abandon the faith because they fall prey to false teaching. Faithful Christians will take heed how they hear (Luke 8:18), and be careful to compare all that they hear to the Word of God (Acts 17:11). In Matthew 22:23-33, Christ rebuked the Sadducees because of their ignorance of the Word of God, and attributed their manifold errors to such ignorance. In both 1 Timothy 4:1ff. and 2 Timothy 4:1ff., Paul foretold of a time when some would fall away from the faith because they succumbed to the doctrines of false teachers (cf. also 1 John 4:1). In this day and age, when there is a different religious group represented on practically every street corner, and a different televangelist on practically every television station, it is all the more easy to fall victim to human doctrines that are at variance with the Word of God. Such doctrines have snared many, and caused them to lose their souls.
Fourth, it cannot be denied that many have left the faith because of suffering in their lives, or in the lives of those they know and love. Sadly, we today do not inhabit a world reminiscent of the Garden of Eden; rather, we live in a world ravaged by the effects of man’s sin (Genesis 3:16ff.; Romans 5:12; 8:20ff.). Planet Earth is ravaged by natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes that often take an awful toll on both property and human life. Our bodies and minds are ravaged by an increasingly long list of maladies such as cancer, heart attacks, and Alzheimer’s disease. Christians are not somehow immune to such occurrences. Christ observed in the Sermon on the Mount that God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). It is a scriptural teaching that while we are the recipients of many blessings, we also are affected by calamities from time to time. One of the messages of the book of Job is that Jehovah does not necessarily shield His people from tragedies.
As He ended His Sermon on the Mount, Christ told a parable of two men, one of whom He labeled as wise for building his house upon a foundation of rock, and one of whom He labeled as foolish for building his house upon a foundation of sand (Matthew 7:24-27). The Lord’s point was two-fold: (1) trials and tribulations will come; and (2) in order for faith to stand firm, it must be rooted in God’s Word. Sometimes the trials and tribulations are literal disasters such as those Christ discussed in His parable—floods, winds, and rains. Sometimes, however, the trials and tribulations are mental or spiritual assaults upon our faith that arrive in the form of persecution, the effects of disease upon a loved one, or the death of a family member. Unfortunately, on occasion such assaults raise questions in the mind of a Christian concerning the benevolence and omnipotence of God. Deep-seated emotions are stirred and the seeds of doubt begin to sprout, eventually coming into full bloom to replace what was once a vibrant, living faith. Faithfulness turns into faithlessness, and a soul is lost.
There are, to be sure, numerous other reasons why Christians leave the faith. Some place their confidence in men, only to see that those they trust also have feet of clay. Some fall away because they do not have a steady diet of association with other Christians, and exposure to the world on a daily basis causes their commitment to God to wane. Some lose their faith as a result of fellow Christians whose actions may be well-intentioned, but who are harsh and inappropriate. More than one soul has had his fledgling faith bludgeoned and destroyed by an insensitive, tactless saint under the banner of defending the faith or righting a wrong. Regardless of the reason(s), the fact remains that as they are on their way to heaven, some Christians lose sight of the goal, become distracted or disinterested, take a detour, and end up leaving the faith altogether. But at what cost?
THE HIGH COST OF LEAVING THE FAITH
In Romans 12:2, Paul warned: “And be not fashioned according to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” Sad though it may be, the truth is that some Christians ultimately leave the faith, and again are “fashioned according to this world.” They once were lost, but were offered salvation as the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Yet they spurned the Lord’s gift, choosing instead to relinquish the treasures of a home in heaven for a meager measure of earthly pottage. What an unseemly trade—and at what a terrible price! Surely they who do such have failed to count the high cost of leaving the faith.
The Cost to the Individual Himself
In addressing the apostasy of certain Christians, Peter lamented:
For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse than the first. For it were better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered unto them. It has happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog turning to his own vomit again, and the sow that had washed to wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:21-22).
The apostle paints an ugly picture with his vivid description of the end state of those who leave the faith. Peter’s observation that in the case of these apostates, their “last state is become worse than the first,” is fitting indeed. Think of the burden of guilt that will follow them all the days of their lives. These are people who once knew the serenity of salvation. These are people who once understood the promise of an eternal life in heaven. These are people who once enjoyed the friendship and fellowship of other saints. But now, all of that is gone, having been freely relinquished and subsequently replaced with the knowledge of eventually spending an eternity in the absence of God in an eternal hell (2 Peter 2:4; Revelation 21:8).
As the days pass by in their own fleeting fashion, what will run through the mind of the apostate? In more private moments, as he sits quietly on the park bench on a beautiful spring day, or looks pensively out the bay window of his house at the gentle rain as it falls from heaven, will his knowledge of what he knows he should do, but refuses to do, not eat away at his inner peace? Will he not remember passages such as James 4:17: “To him that knoweth to do right, and doeth it not, to him it is sin”? Will he not remember Paul’s statement Philippians 2:10-11 that “in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, or things in heaven and things on the earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father”? While his outward appearance may exhibit a confident attitude of indifference toward his present spiritual state, his true inner self may languish in the knowledge that he once was saved, but now is lost.
The Cost to Families
In Romans 14:7, Paul commented on the human condition when he noted that “none of us liveth to himself, and none dieth to himself.” How true an observation that is. Hermits are few and far between. Man rarely does well when isolated from others of his kind. As God looked down from His heavenly estate on the first man, Adam, whom He had created, He remarked, “It is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Nothing has changed since that initial divine diagnosis.
From the beginning to the end of our pilgrimage of life, we interact socially with those around us. We move beyond childhood and adolescence to adulthood. And as is often the case, we fall in love, marry, form a home, bear and rear children, and possibly even become grandparents or great-grandparents. Although at times we wish they did not, the truth of the matter is that more often than not the decisions we make, and the actions that stem from those decisions, inevitably affect those we love the most. Certainly this is true in a spiritual context.
For example, Peter noted that the effects of a godly wife upon her husband might be responsible for bringing his soul to the Lord. “In like manner, ye wives be in subjection to your own husbands; that, even if any obey not the word, they may without a word be gained by the behavior of their wives, beholding your chaste behavior coupled with fear” (1 Peter 3:1-2). What a sobering thought—that one person, through behavior tempered by a reverent fear of God, ultimately might influence a sinner to come to salvation.
Yet what is the corollary to this concept? If faithfulness produces such wonderful results, what results might unfaithfulness produce? Does not practical experience answer that question in a thousand different ways? Consider, for example, the following scenario. A young man grows up, becomes a Christian, falls in love, and marries a lovely Christian woman with whom he has two children. But during the children’s impressionable years of youth, the man and his wife grow indifferent about their own spiritual conduct and welfare, and eventually leave the faith. Church attendance stops. Fellowship with Christians is severed. Years pass. Then, at the persistent urging of a friend, this couple attends a lecture on the Bible and man’s responsibility according to it. The message moves both the husband and wife to repent of their years of spiritual apathy. They ask for, and are granted by God and their fellow Christians, forgiveness. They then begin their Christian life anew.
But what of their two children? These are the children who for years witnessed the callous indifference of their parents toward spiritual matters. These are the children who rarely, if ever, were taken to worship God, or attended Bible class. These are the children whose Bible knowledge would fit into a sewing thimble, because during the years when they should have been receiving spiritual instruction at home, their parents were not even capable of sustaining their own faith, much less imparting that faith to their offspring.
Their parents have returned to God. But experience tells us it is highly unlikely that these children ever will. Because of the parents’ unfaithfulness at a critical time in their children’s lives, the opportunity to impart a living, active faith to those children during their most impressionable years has been lost forever. And what, then, will become of this couple’s grandchildren and great grandchildren? Is it not true to say that likely they, too, will be reared in an atmosphere of indifference, apathy, or outright unbelief? Thus, the spiritual condition of not one, but several generations, has been affected adversely as a result of unfaithfulness on the part of parents who failed to count the high cost of leaving the faith.
The Cost to the Church
On occasion, however, it is not just physical families that suffer due to a member’s unfaithfulness. Sometimes the spiritual family of the church suffers just as well. The sin of a single individual can have severe repercussions for those around him. Paul applied this principle when he urged the Christians at Corinth to discipline one of their own members who was living in adultery. He warned: “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:6).
Suppose, just to choose one example, that the local evangelist commits adultery and leaves his wife and family. First, there is little doubt that the church’s reputation will be damaged. As he works in a local community, a preacher’s influence is exhibited in a variety of ways, and his actions, rightly or wrongly, often are interpreted by non-Christians as representative of what Christians in general should be like. The fact that he has been unfaithful not only to his wife, but to his Lord, may well have a negative impact on how the church is viewed by those who are not members of it, and yet who under other circumstances would have been kindly disposed to it. This is true of any Christian, not just one who is continually in the public eye.
Second, such circumstances will provide “grist for the mill" of those who are always searching for reasons to revile the church and its individual members. When he wrote his first epistle to the young evangelist Timothy, Paul urged that his instructions be carried out so that there would be “no occasion to the adversary for reviling” (1 Timothy 5:14). When Christians leave the faith, it supplies ammunition for those who have set themselves against God’s work through His church.
Third, there are weak and new Christians to consider. As they see a man who was once a faithful Christian fall into sin and abandon his faith, it can have a devastating effect upon theirs. The Proverbs writer suggested: “Confidence in an unfaithful man in time of trouble is like a broken tooth, and a foot out of joint” (25:19). The new Christian, or the one who is struggling already, may reason as follows: If a man who is a seasoned child of God has lost his way and left the faith, then what hope is there for me? The initial unfaithfulness of a single individual may, on occasion, set off a chain reaction that decimates the body of Christ in a way no one could have imagined.
Christians may freely choose to walk away from their faith in God, but no power in existence can take that faith from them without their consent. Paul assured the Christians of his day, and for all ages, that this was true when he wrote:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-37).
While it is true that some Christians fall away, it does not have to be so. Peter provided instructions from the Lord for the Christians of his day, and then reminded them: “Wherefore, brethren, give the more diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never stumble” (2 Peter 1:10).