The Danger Zone



A foolish old farmer, so the story goes, concluded one day that the oats he had fed his mule for years were simply costing him too much. So he hatched a plan: He mixed a little sawdust in with the feed, and then a little more the next day, and even more the next, each time reducing the amount of oats in the mix.

The mule didn’t seem to notice the gradual change, so the farmer thought things were fine and kept decreasing the proportion of oats. But weeks later, on the day he finally fed the poor beast nothing
but sawdust, the mule finished the meal . . . and fell over dead.

A silly tale, perhaps, but it serves as a parable of the backslider–the Christian who slips further and further away from God through unrepented sin or neglect. Though we know our souls cannot survive on spiritual sawdust, we may well convince ourselves that a little won’t hurt too much, and a little less real spiritual food won’t be missed. Then, over time, the proportion of sawdust increases while the oats gradually disappear. Before long, the change is complete, and our starved, sawdust-stuffed spiritual life has collapsed. The intimacy we once enjoyed with the Father has evaporated.

This process can be so subtle, progressing in such small increments, that we fail to recognize the problem. Yet the “mule” does display a few symptoms warning us that all is not well. We might summarize them under three headings, each describing a critical loss in our spiritual life: the loss of love for God, the loss of fear of God, and the loss of faith in God.


The first Christians in the city of Ephesus received a fine grounding in the Word of God from the Apostle Paul. His letter to them burned with a passionate love for God that was no doubt contagious. Paul prayed that they, “being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:17-19). He fervently hoped that they would be among those “who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love” (Eph. 6:24).

Sadly, not many years later, Jesus gave John a disturbing message for these Ephesian Christians:

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance…. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at

–Rev 2:2, 4-5

The Ephesians’ passionate “first love” was gone. They were apparently still going through at least some of the motions of devotion to God, but their hearts had grown cold.

What specific “red flags” might go up to indicate that our first love for the Lord is waning? Think of the telltale signs of a love grown cold in human relationships; the parallels to our love for Christ may be useful.

Loss of joy. We take joy in what we love. When we lose the joy in our relationship with someone, it’s a sign that our love for that person has somehow diminished. A loss of joy in our relationship with God is thus one indicator that our first love has dimmed.

King David experienced such a loss following his adultery with Bathsheba. In Psalm 51 he described his anguish when he recognized how far he had fallen from God. In that prayer for mercy, he cried out to
the Lord, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (v. 12).

Aversion to prayer and God’s Word. We want to spend time with those we love. We want to pour out our hearts to them and listen as they open up their own hearts to us. So when we develop an aversion to
spending time talking and listening to someone, that’s a second sure sign of love lost.

We talk to God in prayer and listen to Him as we study and meditate upon the Scriptures. As a devout rural pastor once put it, “I have a relish for God. If you love squash, you eat it for breakfast, you eat it for dinner, you eat it for supper. You just can’t get enough of it. And if you love God, you just can’t get enough of Him. You want to pray and read the Word.” If, on the other hand, we’ve grown reluctant to spend time with Him in these ways, this is a sign that our love for God has cooled.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden, what was the first token of their fall? They tried to hide from the God whose fellowship they had once so naturally enjoyed (Gen. 3:8).

Aversion to Christian fellowship. I once saw a pet-lover’s bumper sticker that said: “Love me, love my cats.” When you love someone, you love the ones he or she loves. You enjoy spending time with the friends
of your friend. But when a friendship turns sour, you tend to lose interest in that person’s friends as well, and you want to avoid people who are likely to talk about the person you want to forget.

For that reason, Christians whose love for God has grown cold because of sin tend to avoid fellowship with committed believers. They don’t want to be around people who remind them of the one they’re trying not to think about. In Hebrews 10, the author closely associates fellowship with God and fellowship with other believers. “Let us draw near to God,” he says in verse 22, and, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (v. 25). Clearly, we cannot draw near to God without a corresponding desire to relate to others who love Him as well.

Misplaced treasure. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21). We are made to love, and love we will. If we lose our love for God, other loves will fill His place in our hearts. Time once spent with God will be devoted to other pursuits that yield little or no spiritual fruit.

Thus the backslidden believer often becomes immersed in an array of worldly concerns as substitutes for the old spiritual life. Entertainment replaces prayer and time in the Word as a form of “diversion”–that is, something that diverts attention from troubling thoughts that might lead to serious self-examination. “Safe” secular acquaintances with no spiritual interests take the place of Christian friends. Energies once spent in evangelism, outreach, or other forms of ministry are now focused inward on financial or career goals. Money once designated for church and charity is redirected to more selfish or frivolous ends.

Once we stop searching for the one pearl of great price (Mt. 13:45-46), we will devote our time, energy, and money to the pursuit of other treasures. Having lost our first love for God, we will go–in the words of an old ’70s song–“looking for love in all the wrong places.”


Though we often think of love and fear as opposites, the Scriptures remind us repeatedly that a mature relationship with God is characterized by both attitudes: “The LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love” (Ps. 147: 11). When we drift away from God, we lose not only our love for Him, but also our healthy fear of Him. And if “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10), then the loss of that fear is the beginning of dangerous folly.

What are the signs that we no longer fear God? Since “to fear the LORD is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13), we need only examine our attitude toward sin. A growing attachment to sin–a sure sign that we are losing
our fear of God–typically manifests itself in several stages:

Covering up sin. In the first stage, we recognize our wrongdoing, and in our shame we try to hide it. Adam and Eve provide the classic example: After their fall in the garden, they tried to cover themselves with fig leaves (Gen. 3:7). King David, too, knew the trouble that comes from refusing to confess sins to God and from trying to “cover up. . . iniquity” (Ps. 32:5). Of course, trying to hide our sin from God is useless: Does he who formed the eye not see? Does he who disciplines nations not punish? . . . The LORD knows the thoughts of man; he knows that they are futile. –Ps. 94 9-11

But in this early stage of disobedience, we fool ourselves into thinking that somehow He won’t know what we’ve done as long as we don’t admit it to anyone.

Denying responsibility. When we realize we can’t hide our sin from God, the next step is to insist that what we’re doing wrong isn’t really our fault. Once again, note the pattern in Eden: Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent (Gen. 3:12-13).

Our excuses are legion: “Yes, it’s an ugly little habit, but I was raised this way.” “Of course I’m not supposed to hold grudges, but how could anyone be expected to forgive what they did to me?” “People with artistic personalities just have this weakness.” Whatever the excuse, the sin continues, and the sinner moves further and further from God.

Procrastinating over repentance. Once we realize we cannot shift the blame–for at some deep level we know that we truly are responsible for our wrongdoing–our next strategy is to put off the day of
repentance. Augustine of Hippo, the celebrated fifth century bishop whose autobiography, The Confessions, recounts his promiscuous youth, remembered praying this prayer: “Lord, give me self-control, but not yet!”

Believers who are actively disobeying God forget His warning: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95:7-8). They wait until tomorrow to repent, but tomorrow never comes. Their hearts harden like lumps of clay left in the hot sun, becoming useless because they can no longer be shaped according to God’s will.

Justifying sin. If we put off repentance long enough, our consciences become seared (1 Tim. 4:2). We stop trying to hide sin, make excuses, or delay our reckoning with it; instead we begin to convince ourselves that it isn’t really sin after all. In time we may even grow brazen in our wrongdoing, openly defying God or others who condemn our behavior.

King Saul was a master rationalizer. When the prophet Samuel rebuked him for disobeying God’s command to destroy everything in the enemy city of Amalek, Saul tried to justify his behavior by claiming
that he had saved the best of the booty to sacrifice to the Lord. Samuel pointed out that the king had nevertheless disobeyed God’s clear instructions. Yet Saul adamantly insisted that he had done no wrong (1
Sam. 15:1-21).

Other biblical backsliders repeat this pattern. Having slain Abel, Cain defied God with the impudent challenge: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). The high priest Caiaphas had an elaborate
rationale for murdering Jesus: If He wasn’t put to death, he reasoned, the Nazarene’s followers would cause trouble, the Romans would react violently, and the Jewish nation would be harmed (Jn. 11:45-S0). Having Jesus executed, he insisted, was obviously the right thing to do.

The hardened believer thus embraces sin and refuses correction. All fear of God is gone. “This is the way of an adulteress,” says a biblical proverb. “She eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong”‘ (Prov. 30:20).


Unrepented sin can eventually lead to unbelief and a disastrous rejection of God. Consider, for example, the children of Israel who hardened their hearts in the desert. Having lost their initial loving gratitude for all that God had done to save them, they persisted in sin, until they finally lost faith altogether. They concluded that there was no God on the mountain after all and that something else must have delivered them from bondage. So they worshipped instead a golden calf of their own creation (Exodus 32).

Sadly, I can recall several Christians I’ve known who followed a similar path, rejecting the Lord altogether. Despite every indication of genuine faith, they gradually slipped deeper and deeper into sin. They lost their love for God and their fear of God and in the end no longer believed even the essentials of the faith. Finally, they declared themselves Christians no more.

Why does loss of faith follow loss of love and fear? First, we must recall that prayer, meditating on God’s Word, and fellowship with other believers feed our faith. Thus, when we avoid these spiritual
disciplines, we starve our faith. The old “mule” needs its oats; sawdust in the feed bag is deadly.

Perhaps another reason for loss of faith is that those who justify their wrongdoing must deny the truth of Scripture. Once they have undermined in their own hearts the claims of God’s Word with regard to morality, they have opened the door to doubts about its other claims. Ever since the serpent first tempted Eve, the devil has sought to seduce believers with the unsettling question: “Did God really say . . . ?” (Gen. 3:1).

Affirming God’s existence and His claim to our obedience while habitually disobeying Him creates a tension in our souls that is ultimately unbearable. We can never fully convince ourselves that our
behavior is justified when God has plainly said it isn’t. But if we refuse to repent, the only way out of the dilemma is to conclude that either He hasn’t truly spoken or that He doesn’t exist after all. The result: “a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12).

I have taught many students from Christian families who went looking for another faith because they wanted to hold on to some particular sin. Typically, they end up in some form of New Age religion
because * makes few moral demands. They relieve themselves of the inner tension by denying that there is a God who commands: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16).


“Examine yourselves,” the Apostle Paul instructs us, “to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5). Do we find evidence that we’ve failed to address sinful patterns and hard heartedness toward God? Are there signs that we have lost our first love, our fear of the Lord?

If so, God still stands ready to help us find the way back to The spiritual disciplines we’ve forsaken–prayer, Scripture study, Christian fellowship-can serve to rekindle our love and a healthy fear, driving us to repentance and a new beginning. Then the prayer of Jude (vv. 24-25) can become our firm hope:

To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy–to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.