But sometimes the professing Christian comes to regard the place of secret intercourse with God with very different feelings. He loses, perhaps by a process so gradual that he is scarcely conscious of it for a time, the tenderness of heart, and the elevation and fervor of devout affection that he had been used to feel in meeting God. There is less and less of spirit and more and more of form in his religious exercises. He retires at the accustomed time rather from force of habit than because inclination draws him. He is enclined to curtail his seasons of retirement or to neglect it altogether if a plausible pretext can be found. He reproaches himself, perhaps, but hopes that the evil will cure itself at length. And so he goes on from day to day, and week to week. Prayer -- if his heartless service deserves the name -- affords him no pleasure and adds nothing to his strength. Where such a state of things exists it is evident that the pulses of spiritual life are ebbing fast. If the case is yours, dear reader, it ought to fill you with alarm. Satan is gaining an advantage of you and seducing you from God.
A second sign of spiritual declension is indifference to the usual means of grace. The spiritual life, not less than the natural life, requires appropriate and continual nourishment. For this want God has made ample provision in his Word. To the faithful-disciple the Scriptures are rich in interest and profit. "O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day." To such a soul the preaching of the gospel is a joyful sound; and the place where kindred spirits mingle in social praise and worship is far more attractive than the scenes of worldly pleasure. But, alas! from time to time it happens that some who bear the Christian name and who have rejoiced in Christian hopes, insensibly lose their relish for the Scriptures. If they continue to read them daily, it is no longer with such appreciation of their power and beauty as makes them the bread of life, refreshing and invigorating the soul. Their minds are occupied no small portion of the time with thoughts of earthly things. They find it easy to excuse themselves from frequenting the place of social prayer, and even content themselves, perhaps, with an occasional half-day attendance on the more public service of the sanctuary. And when they are in the place of worship they feel listless, destitute of spiritual affection, disposed to notice others or to attend to only mere words and forms. They want, in a great measure, that preparation of the heart, without which the means of grace are powerless and lacking in pleasure or profit to the soul. Such indifference is conclusive proof that the soul has departed from God; has grieved the Holy Spirit and lost the vital power of godliness. If you, reader, are conscious of this indifference, see in it an infallible sign of your backsliding. It declares you have departed from the fountain of living waters and are a wanderer from your God.
A third indication of declension in the Christian life is a devotion to the world. "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world." Covetousness is idolatry. Christians are solemnly enjoined to set their affections on things above, and to lay up treasures in heaven. But look at yonder professed disciple. See how inordinately anxious he is about gain. He is giving all his thoughts and time to business. He enlarges his plans and extends his views. He suffers the hours of worldly business to encroach upon the time which should be spent in secret or in family worship or in the social prayer. He forgets that he has no right to do this, and that he can not, without sin, permit the claims of earth to crowd out the claims of God and his own immortal nature. Look, too, at his compliance with the tastes and maxims of worldly people. He appears to feel it is not best to be strict in his adhesion to his principles. He doubts if there is any harm in this or that or the other worldly indulgence. He does not see the need of being so strenuous about little things. He is anxious to please everybody and can not bear to thwart the wishes of the worldly-minded. If the world dislikes any of the doctrines or the duties of religion he would have little said about them. In a word, he is all things to all men, in a very different sense from what Paul meant. In his sentiments, his associations, his pleasures, his mode of doing business, his conversation, his whole character, there is far too little that evinces strength of holy principle and godliness. O reader, has your case been described? You are then a backslider from the God whom you covenanted to serve.
A fourth sign of a state of declension in spirituality is an unwillingness to receive Christian counsel or reproof. The Spirit of Christ is a tender, gentle, docile Spirit. When the heart of the disciple is full of holy affection he feels that he is frail and insufficient. He seeks wisdom and strength from above and is thankful for the kind suggestions of those whose experience and opportunities have been greater than his own. If he errs and is admonished by some faithful Christian brother, he receives it meekly and with a thankful spirit. "Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness," is the language of his heart. Even though reproof in itself be painful, he would not that it should be omitted when he has been in fault, for he dreads nothing so much as doing wrong -- as sinning against God and his own soul.
But the spirit that departs from God and duty is a self-willed spirit. It is impatient of restraint. It is irritable and captious instead of meek and willing to be taught. It can not brook any crossing of its views, but esteems advice impertinent and meets admonition with resentment. When he exhibits such a temper of mind; when he disregards the opinions and feelings of fellow Christians; when he affects independence and prides himself on doing as he pleases; when he keeps out of the reach of Christian counsel, and justifies himself when affectionately reproved; when he comes to regard the watchfulness of others over him as an unwelcome and irksome thing; [when he charges you with having a spirit of faultfinding, of having no charity, but that you only discourage and press him down when you try to show him his lack of spiritual life], -- it is clear that he exhibits no more the fruits of the Holy Spirit's influence on his soul. His piety has declined; he no longer lives in intimacy with God and in the atmosphere of heaven. His light is dim. His glory has departed.
The last indication of religious declension that we shall now speak of is a careless indifference to the danger arising from temptation. A Christian whose piety is warm and vigorous has great tenderness of conscience. He dreads the least approach of evil. Even the suggestions of sin to the mind are painful. He therefore prays earnestly and daily, "Lead me not into temptation," and carefully avoids placing himself in dangerous circumstances. Sometimes, however, you will see professing Christians who seem to want this instinctive sense of danger. They often place themselves in circumstances when they might easily have foreseen their strength of principle would be liable to be put to the severest test. They keep company in which it is nearly impossible that their moral feelings should not be defiled. They allow themselves to assort with the idle, the frivolous, with those who are given to foolish talking and jesting; they indulge idle thoughts, repeat amusing stories, read hooks and papers that do not gender to piety, etc. But he who is willing to go as far toward evil as he can with safety, has lost one of the greatest safe-guards of virtue. He who is ready to tamper with temptation is on dangerous ground and in a sad state of declension. O reader, turn ye about, shake loose from the world, draw nigh to God, let the deep breathings waft your soul upward and upward to greater heights in God's joy and love, and this world will only be a dim specter in the distance.