Long-time Christians like to latch on to scriptures like this. We picture Satan attacking in dramatic ways, provoking equally grand gestures of faith—turning down a job for the Sabbath, telling the truth though it will damage us, staying faithful despite being ostracized at school for being different. Many of us like to imagine that, if put in a “deny God or die” scenario, we would maintain our faith and face the consequences. And perhaps we’re right.
But the reality is that many of us won’t face such a drastic situation, and even if we do, it will be once or twice in our lifetimes. So we think we’ve got it made since we built our house on the rock, a solid foundation that will stand the test of time. And it’s true, the foundation we build upon is critical to our success.
But what if it’s the rock itself that becomes the problem?
Erosion: The process by which something is diminished or destroyed by degrees. To eat into, or to eat away by slow destruction of substance, to deteriorate
I once read an article about a famous historical lighthouse at Cape Henlopen, Delaware. The lighthouse was critical to the Philadelphia shipping industry, and they took excellent care of it for many years. It weathered storms and hurricanes, providing light and safe passage to the ships coming through. But it took them decades to realize that the cliff it had been built on—its very foundation—was eroding. One day, before they could work out a solution for saving it, a storm rolled through and the giant lighthouse fell into the sea.
We are told to build our spiritual house on a rock, and most of us take that admonition very seriously. There is no doubt that the Rock in question is God the Father and His Son. There are dozens of verses in the Psalms alone that reference Him this way (e.g. Psalms 31:2, 92:15). It’s obviously critical that what we build upward and visibly is made of quality materials, and that we build on the solid foundation, the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20; I Cor. 3:11).
But we often forget that the foundation itself has to be maintained over time. And so what happens is that the daily grinding effects of life—of temptations, worries, pressures, envies, discouragements—these are what wear us down little by little, day by day. Until one day we, too, crumble and fall.
It’s important to understand that when this happens, it’s not God or His power that has eroded. That simply isn’t possible. Rather, it’s Him as our foundation—because we allow it and we don’t maintain it. We may appear to be weathering the storm, but underneath our foundation is being eaten away, and one day we’ll slide off into the ocean or crumble beneath the weight of what we’ve built.
What is spiritual erosion?
Spiritual erosion is slow, silent, and subtle. Like physical erosion, it starts imperceptibly, and the daily familiarity of routine keeps us from seeing it in ourselves or even those close to us. A person will usually keep doing the same things they’ve always done, like keeping the Sabbath, asking people how their week was at church, deleavening the house, and attending the Feast. Many Christians still attend church long after their faith is gone, because we’re creatures of habit.
We’re still going through the motions and physically doing the right things, but our hearts are not involved. Through neglect over time, we stop having enthusiasm for God and His way. I’m very fond of C.S. Lewis’s satirical “The Screwtape Letters”, and this quote has always resonated with me: “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Satan knows that this is potentially much more dangerous to us than a full-on frontal attack. It’s like spiritual guerilla warfare, full of seemingly-insignificant little battles that bleed us dry over time.
The early symptoms of spiritual erosion can take different forms for different people, including:
- Compromise, becoming more enmeshed with the world
- Diminished zeal (there will always be ebbs and flows, but an overall state of ebb)
- A lack of interest in studying or reading the Bible
- Rationalizing sin
- An unhealthy attachment to material things, substituting the authentic with the synthetic
- Not consulting God on major decisions
- Accepting the influence of others who couldn’t care less about God
- Perfectionism according to OUR standards, not God’s—a.k.a. self-righteousness
- Our actions and intent may be good, but our attitude toward God and others is wrong when this happens, because this often takes the form of judging others by our standards, or resentment when they fall short.
- Our prayer life and meditation falls off—we’re not staying in close contact with God
Jesus told His core group of disciples something shortly before His death that should really scare us. He said, “Because lawlessness [iniquity] will abound, the love of many shall grow cold” (Matt. 24:12). We have to remember that He was specifically talking about people “in the church”. This is meant to be a major warning to us, as should the way that Jesus finishes the parable about building on the rock or the sand. He tells His disciples, that it fell, and “great was its fall” (Matt. 7:27).
How can we combat spiritual erosion?
But all hope is not lost.
First, we can always go back to what Paul gives us in his first letter to the Corinthians. He tells them, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (I Cor. 10:12). There are three big things here that we should take to heart:
- A warning – stay vigilant, because if you think you’ve got it made, you’re in danger
- A reminder – this is something everyone goes through, you’re not alone
- A promise – God will never give you more than you can bear, and He’ll provide a way out
I liked this quote from an article I read:
“It doesn’t take a bombshell to destroy faith if faith is left unattended and unguarded. Faith is not an absolute in our life that once attained will never change or diminish. It must constantly be attended, nourished, strengthened and added to.”
Peter tells us something very similar, saying, “But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge…[etc.]” (II Pet. 1:5). Note that in both the quote and the verse, those are all action words—attended, strengthened, add to. Reversing the effects of spiritual erosion takes actual work on our part.
The exact steps we can take to combat spiritual erosion are different depending on which symptoms we’re prone to, but the general principles are the same—take stock of your life and identify your vulnerable areas, then figure out individual actions and changes that will address them. If you read back through that list of symptoms above, most of them come down to losing our connection with God, and that’s the first thing that needs repaired.
A personal example
In case that’s too vague for you, I’ll give you a very specific, personal example. This topic is near and dear to me because I’ve been struggling with it for several months now. I’ve been working 13-14 hours a day (and sometimes on Sunday mornings) for a couple years now, plus managing three blogs (which are passion projects and I love), traveling as much as I can, and still trying to find time for regular adulting life requirements like working out, cooking, and running errands. My life has been out of control.
Notice what’s not in there? My prayer and bible study life, aside from the Sabbath, has been basically non-existent. I’m just barreling through life and not taking time to maintain my relationship with God. So to start with, I’m trying to re-build time with God back into my schedule. Literally, in my calendar and in daily reminders on my phone, because that’s the only way it has a chance of happening.
- I’ve been trying to do a short prayer right before I go to sleep (just a few minutes), and when I wake up as well.
- I’ve started a year-long chronological bible reading plan on the YouVersion app on my phone, to make sure I’m getting some daily contact with the bible. I’m like 40 days behind right now, but I’m still doing better than I was.
- I’m reading a big in-depth booklet on Genesis in bits at night and on the Sabbath, to dig into commentary and deeper context, which helps with meditation.
These are just a few things, and I’m failing as often as I’m succeeding on any given day, but it’s giving me a concrete action plan to try and stick to. It’s important to be brutally honest with yourself, and it can help to even ask those closest to you for their perspective (yes, ouch, but it helps). Now, one thing I want to make clear—I’m not saying that this is all about us and we can fix things on our own. Not a chance. God is very much involved, He’s just not going to do it for us. We’re told we have to submit to His will and draw near to Him (make the first move) and He will draw near to us (James 4:7-8). He desperately wants to have a strong relationship with us, but it requires us to take the initiative and reach out.
So the takeaway here is one of self-examination and action. Again and again this is made clear in the bible, whether it’s that we must work out our own salvation (Phil. 2:12) or that we must examine ourselves to see whether we’re in the faith (II Cor. 13:5). Jude tells us it’s neither easy nor a short-term effort, saying, “Beloved…I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly [struggle] for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
Other types of erosion
When we think of erosion, we think of the kind that damages structure and stability, causing sudden rockslides and avalanches. In particular we tend to think of the effects of water erosion. We see it as a sudden falling away, but in reality the erosion has been happening a long time—more like water dripping slowly, rather than the obvious slamming of waves into the rocks.
However, there are other types of erosion that can be just as damaging, and there are some spiritual parallels here as well.
- In flatter areas, erosion strips away the topsoil, which contains the nutrients needed to grow plants and sustain other life. The soil looks totally normal, but the nutrient value of what’s growing is empty. There’s a reason that the bible contains many analogies of both growing and bearing fruit, and of spiritual food and nourishment.
- Another type, wind erosion, picks up small bits of sediment that hit objects in their paths, degrading and wearing them down. We’ve unfortunately seen this happen throughout the years in the church, with people bumping against each other time and again and tearing each other down. This can happen with truth and beliefs over time as well—tiny bits stripped away over time as they get knocked loose.
Willingness to recognize the signs in ourselves
With only a few exceptions, the letters to the churches in Revelation largely tell the story of spiritual erosion:
- After some praise, He tells Ephesus, “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4-5).
- He tells Pergamos, “But I have a few things against you…repent, or else I will come to you quickly” (Rev. 2:14-16)
- Thyatira is cautioned, “Nevertheless I have a few things against you…But hold fast what you have til I come…” (Rev. 2:19-25)
- The church at Sardis is told, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die” (Rev. 3:1-3)
But the last and potentially most sobering is of Laodicea, the last congregation mentioned. Jesus calls them lukewarm, but specifically says that they believe they are rich and in need of nothing, but are instead miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev. 3:18). This is a textbook example of spiritual erosion’s consequences—it’s not that they’ve turned away from God entirely, but rather they’re just going through the motions and their perception is that everything is great. But they’ve lost their intimate connection with God.
Paul cautions that, “knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11). Spiritual erosion can lull us into the complacency of believing that we have plenty of time before we’ll be called to account for our actions and the way we live our lives, but the scriptures constantly warn against that attitude.
If we closely examine ourselves and can see the symptoms of spiritual erosion in our lives, we have to take immediate action. Jesus tells the Laodiceans to “be zealous and repent”. He says they must “buy from Me gold refined in the fire…and white garments, that you may be clothed…and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (Rev. 3:18).
He’s telling the Laodiceans that their worldly riches and status were meaningless. The only way they could be saved was with repentance and being purified and sanctified by Jesus’s sacrifice, seeking after understanding and righteousness, and a willingness to put God’s way above all else in this life.