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by George Douglas Watson
I mention, as the first remedy for the wandering of the heart from God, great humbling of oneself before God; that the evil which the soul has fallen into is to be honestly faced and acknowledged without excuse or self-defence; that self must be utterly dethroned; that God must be honoured; that His truth must be magnified at the expense of self. It is a great gift from God that any backslider can have the grace to repent, confess and return to Jesus. Unless God puts this divine gift in the heart of the wanderer the soul would never return to Him. The gift of repentance is as truly divine and a token of God's favour as the gift of the Holy Spirit. It takes grace to admit our faults, to turn against ourselves and to show ourselves no pity.
Another remedy is a fixed determination to get right with God and with our fellows at any cost. We are going to the judgment day, and we need to have a judgment-day righteousness in our souls here. This determination to get right may involve only an apology to a little child or a friend, or the confession of a mistake; it may involve great restitution; it may involve a loss of wealth, and what the world calls honour and reputation; it may involve the loss of friends; it may involve poverty, going to prison; it may involve sufferings which may tear the heart into a thousand pieces and melt the eye with grief. But even if it involves everything that imagination can conceive, the loss and pain themselves are infinitely better than to have the frown of God and the flames of hell.
This world, and even the church, is often a poor judge of human character. Many who are esteemed to be great and good may spend eternity in hell; and many who have died in prison and been cursed as the vilest of wretches will be found in eternity to have got right with God so much that they will stand with the angels in bliss. God alone knows who really love Him; He alone can judge His creatures.
When the soul seeks nothing in the universe but the smile of God, and fears nothing in the universe but offending Him, it will gladly consent to pay any price to get perfectly right with Him.
Next to this fixed determination to get right is the steady, constant looking to Jesus alone for all deliverance and comfort. The soul never knows in how many ways it has been leaning on creatures for comfort, until it is situated in such a place as to be utterly denied consolation from created things. Then it sees that in Jesus there is a sufficiency for all its needs. It takes an almost inexpressible degree of breaking to get the soul to where it seeks its happiness only from God. The infinite love and compassion of Jesus stretches out before the soul into an ever-widening ocean, in proportion to the need the soul feels. In times of trouble and distress and loneliness, we only damage ourselves and delay God's work by seeking sympathy and comfort from one another.
God is our best Friend; and although we have sinned against Him immeasurably, and grieved His Spirit with many a blemish and sin, and wounded His tender love infinitely beyond our understanding, yet He is always the first to forgive. We may think of the most extravagant compassion from any earthly relation, of father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife, or friend; and yet millions of miles out and beyond the farthest limits of all these loves and compassions, there stretches away the boundless compassion of Jesus which is beyond understanding toward the soul that has grievously sinned against Him.
Most marvellous promises are offered in the Bible to souls who have wandered from God, if they will return. The Lord says He is "married to the backslider"; He represents Himself as bending with a mourning heart over souls that have wandered into sin, by saying: "How shall I give you up, Ephraim" (Ho.11:8) "Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts" (Mal.3:7). "I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely ... I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily ... his branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive tree, and his smell as Lebanon" (Ho.14:4-6). The soul must fix its gaze for deliverance and restoration and comfort on Jesus alone. It may receive much consolation, encouragement and help from the church and loved ones and the saints; but it should not expect anything, except from God. This is the surest and shortest road to solid comfort.
Another remedy is a fixed determination never to yield to discouragement. However huge the trial, however cloudy the sky, the soul must settle it that all discouragement is from the Devil, and is always injurious. It is said that discouragement necessarily brings with it a greediness for consolation. The more we are discouraged, the more we fly to something that will comfort and soothe us; and this hurry to get comfort will bring back self-life again into everything and unnerve us for the struggle toward thorough death to self. The guilt of our faults must be wiped out by a cheerful, hopeful sorrow, which rests the case entirely in the will of God; and we are to regard all our failures with a quiet sinking into God. The psalmist says: "Why are you cast down, O my soul? and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God: for I shall yet praise Him."
Discouragement is the very opposite of presumption. If Satan has tempted the soul into presumption, he then opens the attack with discouragement; and thus he attacks the soul, not only to make it sin, but also afterwards to keep it in sin. In every emergency in the Christian conflict, hopefulness is the open door to victory. Millions of saints in heaven can very well remember when they were passing through identical trials of temptations and repentances which are now taking place in human souls, and if they could speak to us, they could give us such a description of their lives as would, in many cases, exactly fit us.
Another remedy is to cultivate a feeling of constant sorrow for sin. There are two kinds of sorrow for sin; one works death, the other life. After the elements of guilt and depravity and remorse have been entirely purged away, there should be a deep tenderness that comes from a thoughtful sorrow for sin. Paul had this constant sorrow for having persecuted the saints. It did not in the least weigh him down, but put wings to his devotion. And although Jesus knew no sin in Himself, yet, in taking upon Himself the sin of the world, He spent His life in a continual sorrow for sin. It was in Him as a lifelong, quiet, supernatural fountain of love, and this same sorrow in us is our safeguard from backsliding. Sorrow for sin as a fixed fact in the soul is the only parallel in our lives for the constant sorrow that Jesus had for the world. It consists in a growing hatred of sin, and a growing sensitiveness of the conscience as to what sin is.
As we gaze upon the glory of God, it strengthens our vision to more clearly detect what is imperfect and unworthy. Abiding sorrow for sin will give no resting-place for the self-life to put its root. We grow in a divine sadness, but with such humility and faith that it does not allow unrest. True sorrow for sin is a quiet fountain of tenderness, which inclines to prayer; and though it is a sorrow, it is at the same time a supernatural sweetness. This very grief for offending God draws the soul closer to God. This is the principle Jesus referred to when He said that those who had been forgiven much would love much. This affectionate sorrow for sin delivers the soul from many spiritual dangers; it throws a tenderness into the whole character; it makes us deep and flexible to the least touch of God; it takes out all our harshness; it makes us charitable toward all others. Constant sorrow for sin keeps the heart melted, so that there is not an ache or a calamity in one of Christ's members which does not awaken our sympathy and make us more keenly alive to the dangers of this world and the advantages of being in heaven.
Another remedial step is a fixed determination to make all our failures the occasions for a higher step in grace. It may sound like a paradox - but the spiritual life is full of paradoxes - that we are to make our falls stepping-stones for going up to greater heights of grace. It has happened that those who have suffered the greatest decline of grace, being thoroughly aroused, girded themselves with such a spirit of hatred for sin and faith that, as Paul intimates, they "avenge themselves" by a self-denial and a closer cleaving to God; which they would never have done but for their failures. This is the best way to be avenged on the Devil for all his malice and damage to us. It is in this way that God can make absolutely all things in heaven, earth or hell, in success or failure - all things - work together for our good.
It is only when the heart turns in perfect loyalty of love to God that the Holy Spirit makes everything work for its own good. Let us determine to make every fault, every blemish, every mistake in our lives a spur to more humility and closer walk with God. This is the most divine use we can make of them.
Another remedy against backsliding is self-denial. This is the very essence of all spiritual victory. Just as self-indulgence grows on us in a thousand unnoticeable ways, so self-denial should encircle our entire lives. Tens of thousands of Christians are constantly eating too much, talking too much, gratifying their whims and their pleasures in such measure as to grieve the Holy Spirit and lay foundations for much secret sin, if not terrible outward falls. Luxurious ease and self-indulgence are the poison in the lives of thousands of Christians. In ages gone by, asceticism went to extremes; but in this age, it is sadly rare to find true self-denial. Peter tells us that we are to "arm ourselves with the principle of self-denial." This principle of self-denial is to extend to the use of our senses, guarding our eyes, our words, our manners, our social behaviour and our plain and modest attire.
If we look upon self-denial as a hard, irritating thing, over which our nature whimpers and whines, it shows we have not yet entered the real crucifixion of self. When we pass certain points in grace, self-denial will have a secret joy and heavenly sweetness attending it which far exceeds in peace and joy all the overindulgence of nature. When we break down on self-denial, we drift in our spiritual life. Another safeguard is an active spiritual life. Perhaps there is no greater fault in religious lives more difficult to correct than spiritual laziness. It is a sort of omnipresent evil that pervades every atom of life and pulls everything toward a centre of idleness. Religious laziness is the moth of Christian life. It eats up the garments of spiritual experience; and when we attempt to clothe ourselves for real conflict, we find our garments crumbling to pieces, having been eaten through by the moth of idleness. How much time have we lost in our lives by late sleeping, loafing around, useless visits and long and worthless conversation! Let us heartily repent, and set ourselves like a flint against this demon of idleness; let us rise earlier and spend more time in prayer, in reading spiritual books, doing good works of every kind; let us have a righteous hatred of everything sloppy and slouchy and silly. Let us deeply resolve to be always active.
We can always find something to do in reading, or writing, or praying, or conversing to a definite spiritual end, or attending all our ordinary work in a spirit of meditation. Many think that a life of great spiritual activeness would prove tiresome; but the opposite is the case. When the mind is always occupied with something divine or useful, it brings a restful and sweet quietness in the life which nothing else can do, and also takes the hurry and rushing out of the soul. Lazy people are the ones who have to run to catch a train. Idle people, who work by fits and spurts, are always tired; and for every half-hour's work they want two hours' rest. Preachers who preach one sermon a week complain of sore throats and want long summer vacations; while those who are filled with holy love preach every night with a clear voice, and make a recreation out of conventions and camp meetings. We must not only be active, but be so in spiritual things, or we decline in grace.
The old fashioned virtue of perseverance is a good medicine to keep all hearts from wandering. Perseverance is the backbone of spiritual life, out of which grow the ribs of all other virtues. Perseverance is the cure for those souls whose experience consists in spasmodic blessings. There is a good deal of superstition in the lives of most Christians. They rely upon some instantaneous blessing which they receive in a crisis of prayer, and then expect that blessing to continue through life, like a sort of wound-up machine. For them life consists of great dryness, with occasional floods. The dryness kills all their crops, and the great, instantaneous floods wash away their fences and cut great trenches in their land. Could these souls once get the true idea of constant, unvarying perseverance, it would serve like a divine irrigation, which gently waters the ground without washing the seed out. Perseverance is the remedy in seasons of great discouragement and temptation and loneliness.
Whatever your failure has been - though all things in heaven and earth seem against you; though your difficulties seem beyond remedy; though your falls have been so numerous as to wear out the patience of your best friends and exhaust the charity of great saints; though every virtue seems to have left your soul - yet if you have perseverance, the omnipotent God will lay hold upon that single disposition of your will and pull you through to everlasting victory. God will always pull us through, - if we have enough fibre in our being to endure the pull. God takes delight in doing things for us that other people despaired of ever seeing done. You will find thousands of saints in heaven who have said, with Micah, "I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me. Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against Him, until He plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: He will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold His righteousness" (Micah 7:7-9). Perseverance is the axle on which the sphere of a Christian life revolves.
Independent obedience to God is another remedy for heart wanderings, because it causes toughness to the moral fibre. Thousands have declined in their spiritual life because they limited their obedience to the mere standard of other Christians, or to the conservative opinions of other saints. God never duplicates the spiritual life in any two persons, and everyone who walks with Him will be called upon to say and do and experience things somewhat unlike the others. To save His children from imitating one another, He will resort to terrific methods of separating and individualizing them; for He is determined that they shall obey Him, and not one another. There is a realm of Christian counsel and uniformity of faith and practice; yet, within this range, the Holy Spirit ordains that all who are made perfect shall follow in an individual orbit. No saint perfectly obeyed God in the world who did not have to say things and do things that nobody else on earth exactly agreed with. If you perfectly obey God, you will have to do some things outside of the judgment or tastes or fancies of your best friends. Nobody on earth could have been found to sanction the offering up of Isaac. Joseph's family did not agree with the imprudence of his dreams. If Paul had consulted the eleven apostles, he never would have done the things he did. Daniel went against the advice of all the old, sober heads in refusing the king's meat and wine. Perfect obedience must be independent, calm, settled and fearless.
I knew a man who felt a gentle impression from the Spirit to anoint the sick and pray for them and to teach divine healing. He allowed a conservative attitude, and the influence of some holy men who had some prejudice against divine healing, to hold him back. In later years he discovered that this failure of independent obedience on that point had weakened his faith and obedience on other lines; and, after much chastisement from God, he vowed everlasting and independent and fearless obedience on all lines where the will of God was intimated to him. How many thousands of souls have weakened in faith by not obeying God on some point, great or small, just because it did not meet the sanction of the circle of friends in which they moved! I do not wonder that the old writers in the church called prudence a "diabolical virtue," when they saw how many souls it hindered. On the other hand there is a divine prudence which has lightning in its eye and heroism in its step and courage in its features and is always vindicated by the outcome of God's dealings.
He who makes a path in the air for all the birds and a channel in the earth for all the streams of water has ordained the line of obedience for each and every child of His; and if we yield ourselves up in boundless humility and persevering prayer and utter abandonment to the Holy Spirit, He will lead us along His line; and He will never lead another soul to take just the track He gives us.
The fear of fanaticism has prevented thousands from independent obedience. Some may ask, "How shall I know that I am not going into fanaticism under the delusion of obedience?" If, on any line of obedience, however strange it may be to others, you have a lowly spirit, a sweet and tender flow of love, an eye single to pleasing God and not yourself, and a boundless charity for others who do not follow your example, you may know that you are led of God. But if, on any individual leading, you feel an impetuous, hasty, harsh and uncharitable disposition - if you feel something within you that seems to push you in a hurry, or makes you denounce others, or makes you want to force others to do as you do - then you may know it is the Devil. It is impossible to be too independent and all-fearless as long as the soul is kept in an ocean of lowly, tender and disinterested love.
Another remedy for weak and half hearted obedience is to keep the mind stayed on God and the things of His kingdom. There can be no greater safety in the spirit-life, to keep out the inflow of evil things, than for the mind to be always in a state of divine recollection and meditation. The intellect cannot do this of its own power; but if the spirit-nature is possessed by the Holy Spirit, then the inner spirit, uniting itself to the intellect, can keep it almost constantly on God or His attributes, or the operations of His grace, or the mysteries of His providence, or the revelations of His Word. Nothing can be more dangerous than sinful wanderings of thought. As all outward sin must necessarily be committed first in the mind, so, on the other hand, all experience of grace, all the heights of devotion or progress in experience must first take place in spiritual thinking in the mind.
Our thoughts are architects, which fashion all the bright, glittering castles of grace in which we find our true habitation in the kingdom of God. We should be careful not to think too much of the past. About the only good thinking of the past can do for us is to serve for the deepening of our humility over its sinfulness, and the widening of our thankfulness because of the overwhelming mercies from the Lord. But in the fullness of the Spirit, we are not to think of the past in such a way as to be disheartened, or to sorrow over its loss, or to be entangled with it; we are to be detached from all things in the past, as a bird may be supposed to be detached from last year's nest, which it flies by, unheeding its empty and dilapidated state, because its whole nature is filled with the glory of the present summer.
We are not to expect some magic wand to pass over our heads, which will compel us to high and divine thoughts; but we must form a fixed habit of keeping the mind on the things of God. We are to keep Christ in the mind, and let our imaginations fly away to Him in Paradise. We are to think of the traits of His character; of His relation to the Father and Holy Spirit; think of what God is now doing for us; think of the saints and angels in heaven; think of the divine presence as an all-pervading atmosphere; think of the coming of Jesus and the things of His millennial kingdom; think of thousands of things pertaining to our future in the heavenly world, until the whole of life becomes an unbroken, calm, sweet vision of the supernatural world and supernatural beings.
This habit of deep, divine thoughtfulness will work wonderful effects in our lives. It will put a slow, measured gentleness in our words and manners; it will shut off everything loud and boisterous, and rash and impatient; it will keep our inner senses opened to the whispers of the Holy Spirit; it will make prayer easy at any time of the day; it will wean us from the visible and sensuous things of the world; it will make God and heaven bright realities to us; it will put a calmness in our features, a sweetness in our expressions and a delicate polish in the actions of the soul. Our thoughts make up the overwhelming part of our lives. What we think, we are, or else will soon become. So let us determine to keep our mind open to all the realms of heavenly things.
Let us go to sleep every night thinking of God or Jesus, and wake up every morning with the thought of God in our mind. This can be done, and is the safeguard against the entrance of evil things; for even to the most diligent in this direction there will still be enough mental lapses and evil suggestions injected by demons to form a daily trial and to drive us to prayer. The apostle speaks of "casting down imaginations ... and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ."
The climax of all remedies is to cultivate an intimate communion with the Holy Spirit - recognize the Holy Spirit as having charge of you, and of your life, and of all your temporal and social and spiritual affairs. Behave toward the Holy Spirit as you would toward Jesus if He was visibly with you. Talk to Him; make Him your constant companion in everything in life - in the small as well as in the great things. Ask Him to reveal the Father and the Son to you; ask Him to show you every duty, to reveal to you things to come. Make Him your real, intimate Friend; listen to His voice; expect Him to impress you with the daily will of God. Form a habit of prompt and unquestioning obedience to His tender impressions upon your heart.
Let the Holy Spirit be an invisible ocean of spotless light in which you bathe. Leave all your infirmities and sorrows or tears, and all the variations of daily life, into His personal power. Be always craving a deeper, stronger union with Him. Remember that perpetual progress alone will prevent backsliding. Appreciate one smile or reproof from the Holy Spirit more than all the applause of angels or men. Accept every correction and reproof that He speaks into your mind; love His rebukes infinitely more than the praises of others. Remember, it is the great work of the Holy Spirit to impart the Christ-life, to unfold the divine personalties in our spirit, and expect Him to do great things in this direction; He will work marvels if we firmly expect them.
- Adapted from "Beauty for ashes" written in 1896
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