Misery of Backsliders

I cannot think or your sad case, dear backslider, without recurring to the following mournful lines; cadences, which, if I am not mistaken, will find an echoing response in the wild workings of your own sorrow-stricken heart:

“When will pass away from this sad heart
The cloud of grief, the tempest of remorse?
When will the winged hopes, that glanced and sang
In joy’s melodious atmosphere, return
To welcome back the gladness of the soul?”

I tremble when I realize how dreadfully the infinite God has fulfilled his own declaration in your unhappy soul: “Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee; know, therefore, and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord God of Hosts.” Jer. 2:19. You now see, when it is too late, the joy and peace you have lost. What an amount of real and solid happiness have you cast away! Vilely cast away! And for what? Let your own heart answer. Is it a secret? Not at all! The thing is known. But you startlingly inquire, “What! does any human being know the matter, but yourself?” Yes; it is fearfully known and spread abroad in your own breast. Are you not aware that you carry within your own bosom many witnesses, witnesses which cannot let a secret sleep? They will ring it through the conscience, and the crowded halls of the mind will reecho with the whole affair. You have probably read the singular declaration of

“My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me us a villain.”

“There is no such thing,” says an elegant writer, “as perfect secrecy, to encourage a rational mind to the perpetration of any base action; for a man must first extinguish and put out the great light within him, his conscience; he must get away from himself, and shake off the thousand witnesses which he always carries about him, before he can be alone.”

But a greater than either has said, “Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself;” Titus 3:11; et peccat, existens, sponte condemnatus. The condemnation he feels is spontaneous; it requires no effort, no pointed rebukes nor exhortations, in order to produce a consciousness of guilt. It is there already. In the moment of sinning, the seed of remorse was sown, thickly sown over the heart. The gain of guilty pleasure was quickly followed by a perception of fearful loss. The fruits of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,” had no sooner been swept away from the heart, than they were succeeded by the bitter and abundant fruits of sin. A sense of condemnation sprang up and overspread the soul, as spontaneously as the brier and the thorn spring up in the uncultivated field, which ask not the laborious efforts of the husbandman to produce them. How applicable to you are the lines of the old poet,

“What bitter pills,
Composed of real ills,
Men swallow down to purchase one false good!”

An old writer once compared sinful pleasures to bees; which though they may have a drop of honey in their mouth, the tail of each is armed with a sting. The pleasures of sin are not unlike the locusts described in Revelation 9: “Crowns like gold on their heads,” they promised much, but, “they had tails like unto scorpions.” This you have found out by sad experience. I am not sure but that the above poet had an eye to the passage quoted, when he exclaimed,

“Alas! thy gains
Are only present pains,
To gather scorpions for a future wound;
‘Tis thus the world her votaries beguiles
With fair appearances and kills with smiles!”

Your heart, my friend, was once “an Eden of love,” full of holy hope and humble joy. With what bitterness have you realized how sudden and how successful a temptation may prove! Ah! how lamentable, that you should have lost, in one single hour, the fruit of all the toil and faithfulness of several years! You may well say,

“I leaped desperate from my guardian rock,
And headlong plunged in sin’s abyss!”

You have now formed a woeful acquaintance with that of which it was your duty, as well as your interest, to remain in blissful ignorance. You have used your liberty, and gratified your curiosity. Passion has been satiated. But conscience has awoke upon you, and how terrible are its rebukes! It was the saying of an individual, that “the agonies inflicted by the wolf which fed on the life-stream of the Spartan, the poison injected by the tooth of the viper, or the three-fanged sting of the scorpion, are as nothing when contrasted with the torments of an accusing conscience.” Who can endure the tremendous upbraidings of this faculty, when the Spirit of the living God sheds the fearful light of the divine holiness upon the guilty soul? Where is the man who has sufficient fortitude to sustain, unflinchingly, such a visitation? Inspiration declares, “The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity, but a wounded spirit who can bear?” What a comment on these remarks, as well as upon the above text, are those dying acknowledgments of a certain sinner, a few hours before he entered eternity! — “As for a Deity, nothing less than an Almighty could inflict what I feel. Didst thou,” said he to a friend by his bedside, “Didst thou feel half the mountain that is upon me, thou wouldst struggle with the martyr for his stake, and bless Heaven for the flames! That is not an everlasting flame; that is not an unquenchable fire. This body is all weakness and pain; but my soul, as if stung up by torment to greater strength and spirit, is full powerful to reason, full mighty to suffer; and that which now triumphs within the jaws of mortality is doubtless immortal!”

A few years ago, I was deeply impressed with the sentiment of an American author upon this subject: “There is no manliness or fortitude can bear up under the horrors of guilt. The thing is done; yet it rises in al its vivid coloring to the soul that has incurred it, overwhelming it with remorse and despair. The reproaches of conscience, once thoroughly aroused, can never be silenced nor borne. They come, bringing with them the frown of God. They bring with them recollections of the past, which pierce the soul with anguish; and terrific forebodings of the future, which overwhelm it with horror. No human spirit can sustain its energies under such a burden, when it really comes.”

I recollect meeting with the following sentiments when perusing a French writer: “The pains of the mind are as lively and as sensible as those of the body. It has smitten the knees of a Belshazzar. It has rendered the voluptuous insensible of pleasure; and has put many a wretch upon the rack. It has forced some, who, upon scaffolds and wheels, have denied their crimes, after a release to confess them. It has compelled them to find out a judge, to give evidence against themselves, and to implore the mercy of a violent death, more tolerable than the agonies of their guilty souls.”

But, should you not be thankful to God, that such feelings have not overtaken you upon your deathbed? — that, when you fell from God, you were not abandoned to hopeless remorse and despair, or to total insensibility? This has been the case with not a few. You will probably reply, “In my case, such stupefaction would have been impossible. I have enjoyed too much communion with God, too much real and substantial happiness in the relation I sustained to him, ever to have that relation changed or destroyed, without being alarmed into horror by such an occurrence.”

I must conclude by a word of encouragement. You must not rush into sin to avoid conviction, nor endeavor to shake it off. This is a common temptation. It has ruined thousands. You cannot get away from yourself. You will be your own tormentor till you turn to the Gospel hope. Dare to look up. “Father I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” It is enough. Thy Father sees thy heart. He knows all thy feelings. He waits to be gracious. He is ready to pardon. Consider the case of the prodigal son: “And he arose and came to his father; but when he was yet a great way off,” just as you feel yourself now, “his father saw him,” a father’s eye can see a great distance, especially when an erring, broken-hearted, penitent child is returning, one for whom he has long felt the yearnings of parental affection; “and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” Here is a touching scene, one of unutterable tenderness, And he does not give the prodigal time to make any confession; he is embraced. Ah, his slowly returning steps, his starved countenance, ragged limbs, and downcast looks, proclaimed the secret workings of the soul to the eye of the advancing father. All the father was in his eyes, as he neared the returning wanderer. And he exclaimed, “This is my son, and, in a moment, the penitent is overwhelmed with tokens of the tenderest affection. The confession at last is begun: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” Here he is stopped by the command of the father to the servants, to “bring forth the best robe and put it on him.” See Luke 15: 22-24.

Ah! you say, “If I thought God, my greatly offended God, but once affectionate Father, would thus receive my guilty soul, I would not remain at a distance from him; but he never can have mercy upon such a wretch as I am.” You are mistaken, my dear friend. He is able to save you unto the uttermost; and if you come unto him in the name of Jesus, trusting in his atoning blood, you shall find him willing also to heal your backslidings, and to restore unto you the joy of his salvation.

I do not wonder that a recollection of the inward heaven you once enjoyed greatly heightens the bitterness of your distress; nor am I surprised that you should painfully feel

“One single moment of deliberate thought,
And cloudless reason, would have spared me
All this guilt — this agony.”

The following comment of an old divine on Ezekiel 18:24, though written some centuries ago, is as applicable to you as if penned yesterday, and with direct reference to yourself:

“Would it not vex a scrivener [scrivener n. hist. 1 a copyist or drafter of documents. 2 a notary. 3 a broker. 4 a moneylender. — Oxford Dict.], after he had spent many days and much pains upon a large patent or lease, to make such a blot at the last word that he should be forced to write it all again? Yet so it is, that as one foul blot or dash with a pen defaceth a whole writing, so one foul sin dasheth and obliterateth the fairest copy of a virtuous life; it razeth out all the golden characters of divine graces imprinted on our souls. All our fastings and prayers, all our sighing and mourning for our sins, all our exercises of piety, all our deeds of charity, all our sufferings for righteousness, all the good thoughts we have ever conceived, all the good words we have ever uttered, all the good works we have ever performed, — in a word, all our righteousness is lost at the very instant when we resolve to turn from it. As one drop of ink coloreth a whole glass of clear, water, so one sinful and shameful action staineth all our former life; yet this is not the worst, for it followeth, ‘In his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.'”

I have seen the remark somewhere in the course of my reading, that it has been supposed, that between the time of Satan’s triumph over our first parents, and the coming of God to walk in the garden, one night intervened. This is but a conjecture; yet it is not unlikely that God did let them feel themselves a little. It appears they had time to contrive aprons of fig-leaves for themselves: “And they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” If the above supposition be correct, oh! what a dreadful night they must have spent! What horror of soul! What fearful forebodings! Nor is it likely they had the heavenly visitants, as in the happy nights of their innocence, so beautifully expressed by Milton:

“How often, from the steep
Of echoing hill or thicket, have we heard
Celestial voices to the midnight air,
Sole, or responsive each to other’s note,
Singing their great Creator! oft in bands
While they keep watch, or nightly rounding walk,
With heavenly touch of instrumental sounds
In full harmonic number joined, their songs
Divide the night, and lift our thoughts to heaven.”

All these had, perhaps, fled to heaven as messengers to the celestial hosts of the dread intelligence of Adam’s fall.

And the elements, — were they immediately changed? Milton thought so, when he tells us that no sooner had Eve plucked and eaten the forbidden fruit than

“Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe,

That all was lost.”

If the heavens, on that dreadful night, were muffled with clouds, — if the forked lightning and the rattling thunder blazed and volleyed along the threatening skies, — if the winds were raging, and the dark tempest was let loose upon the once peaceful Eden, — what horror must have seized the guilty pair! The expositor within their own breasts would, no doubt, give a faithful exposition of the meaning of that angry storm. Perhaps the presence of such warring elements was little needed. The fearful conviction of guilt was present. Conscience, doubtless, had raised a storm within. And the powerful voice of that vicegerent of the Almighty was far more dreadful to the soul than the loudest discharges of heaven’s artillery. If there were such a space of time between their fall and the merciful visitation of their Creator, may it not have been necessary, in order that they should taste the unmixed bitterness of sin, and to prepare them, with adoring gratitude, to hear the gladdening news of the promised atonement?

Whether we are right in all our conjectures respecting our first parents, is not, I apprehend, material. But it gives me an opportunity of saying, that it seems to me you have passed through scenes of mental anguish similar, in many respects; and that now, through the blessed Spirit, you are prepared to receive the boon of salvation. You have no disposition to fly from the presence of God. You seem rather to say, with poor sob, who was sorely afflicted both in body and mind, -” O that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat! I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. Behold, I go forward but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him: on the left hand, where he doth work: but I cannot behold him; he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him.” Neither do you attempt to palliate or excuse your sin, nor blame anyone but yourself; the justice of your condemnation you readily confess and can never forgive your apostasy from God. These are signs of real repentance. They cannot be mistaken. And I am as certain as that I have an existence, if you persevere, God will be found of you, to the joy of your heart. He will “heal your backslidings, and love you freely.” Has he not commanded you to return, saying, “Return, O backsliding Israel, saith the Lord!” And what is his positive promise, in the same chapter? Hear it for your comfort: “And I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you, for I am merciful, saith the Lord, and I will not keep mine anger forever.” Hear also the following declaration from the Lord thy God. O infinite condescension! boundless love! “Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord, for I am married unto you.” Read the chapter upon your knees from which I have made these extracts, — Jeremiah 3.

Fear not, “The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple.” In the cool of the day, the voice of the Lord thy God will be heard in the garden of his promises, proclaiming mercy to your troubled soul. He is near who justifieth, who forgiveth iniquity, transgression and sin. Lo! he comes not to condemn, but to give life everlasting. “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

“O believe the record true,
God to you his Son hath given.”

Be patient, restless, resigned, yet vehement in your supplications for mercy. “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” Repeat the following verses upon your knees, — perhaps you can sing them, — and expect the great salvation every moment by faith; that is, trust in the merits of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ:-

“My suffering, slain, and risen Lord,
In sore distress I turn to thee;
I claim acceptance in thy word,
Jesus, my Saviour, ransom me.

“Prostrate before thy mercy seat,
I dare not, if I would, despair;
None ever perished at thy feet,
And I will lie forever there.”

Your experience brings to my remembrance a sentiment uttered by a minister of Jesus, now with God. “When a soul is convinced of sin, Jesus throws into it a portion of that fire, if I may so speak, which was kindled in his own breast when he died on Calvary.”

You ask, — and there is no doubt the inquiry agonizes you, — “Why is it that I do not obtain the blessing for which I am crying to God day and night? ‘I water my couch with my tears; they are my meat day and night.’ I believe Christ died for me. I endeavor to trust in the merits of the atonement with all my heart; but the billows cease not to roll over me. The tempest agitates my soul, and there is no deliverance, no salvation; I am lost, lost forever!” Not so, not so; hope thou in God, for thou shalt yet praise him. Though deep calleth unto deep at the noise of his water-spouts, — though all his waves and his billows go over thee, — the Lord will yet command his loving-kindness in the day-time, and in the night his song shall be with thee, and thy prayer to the God of thy life.

But, “Why is it that I do not obtain the blessing for which I am crying to God day and night?” The reasons may he various. To impute the delay of the blessing to any arbitrary determination or secret purpose of God is dangerous, and contrary to the general tenor of Scripture. Whenever an individual humbly repents, and unfeignedly believes the Gospel, he is made that moment, the partaker of God’s converting grace. Pardon is then and there imparted; and the love of God is shed abroad in the heart, by the Holy Ghost given unto him.

I could imagine circumstances which might seem to render necessary a procrastination of salvation on the part of God; but I always feel afraid to utter a single sentiment that would seem to contradict the universal applicability of that beautiful and conclusive declaration of God himself, “Behold, NOW is the accepted time: behold, NOW is the day of salvation.” But, with reverential awe, I would suggest it as a possible thing that he may see something in your case to justify the keeping of you for a season in your present state. The cup of penitential grief has been put into your hands, filled with the wormwood and the gall; be willing to drink it to the dregs; it must have a tendency, when you are restored, to secure your future faithfulness.

Reflect upon the past; may you not learn an important lesson from the retrospect? Can you make any discovery of what led you into this trouble? Have you failed to detect a proneness in you to that very sin which has led to your apostasy? Have there not been many instances in which you have felt the strongest impulses toward it, when nothing but the want of opportunity, or the controlling grace of God, could have restrained you from it? This was the sin of your nature, and from which the greatest danger is still to be apprehended. The apostle calls it “the sin which doth so easily beset us;” — that to which we are most inclined, and which has the greatest influence over us. Now, it would seem, that God intends to make you feel the plague of this prevailing evil of your sinful nature, and taste the bitter consequences of its indulgence, that you may carefully avoid, in future, the occasion of your present wretchedness. Temptations may yet assail you, after your adoption into the family of God; from falling into which, perhaps, nothing would contribute so effectually to save you as a terrifying remembrance of what you are now suffering. God may be teaching you the evil nature of sin, by a lesson awfully severe. I am fully persuaded salvation will come, — it is very near.

“Haste, my Lord, no more delay,
Come, my Saviour, come away “

See the arms of your compassionate Saviour are outstretched to receive you. Fly, oh, fly into those arms of everlasting love! He will not, he cannot, spurn you away. Can you doubt the sincerity of his invitation, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden”? Dare you suspect the veracity of his sacred promise, — “And I will give you rest:” “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out”? It is enough, my Lord! He does believe! He cannot doubt! He comes to thee as a helpless, guilty sinner! O, let him see thy face and live!

Your distressing case reminds me of an affecting incident connected with the explosion of the American steamer Pulaski, a few years ago. The vessel was on her voyage from Savannah to the city of New York. In a dangerous sea, and in the dead hour of the night, the boiler burst, and about one hundred souls were launched into eternity.

The vessel was torn to pieces; and, upon a few fragments of the wreck, with the mast lying across it, a number of human beings floated out to sea. They continued to drift further and further from land, till nothing but sky and water met their view. During four days the scorching sun poured his rays upon their almost naked bodies, till they were blistered. They had no food to satisfy the cravings of hunger; their tongues were parched with thirst; and to drink the salt water they knew would only increase the dreadful feeling.

A hint was given by one of the sufferers, that, in order to save themselves from death, they should cast lots who should die for the sustenance of the rest; but the idea of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a fellow-being was so dreadfully repulsive, it was rejected with horror. As they were gazing intensely into the far-off horizon, they were cheered with what at first appeared a dark spot, but which soon brightened into a sail. They raised their little flag of distress, but it was unnoticed, and the vessel disappeared. After some time, another hove in view, but the signal was not seen, and she vanished away. In like manner two others appeared, but, to their anguish, they also passed out of sight. “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick,” says the inspired writer; — so they felt.

After several hours had elapsed, another sail appeared; it seemed as if it was pasted on the sky. Soon its shape altered. The outlines of a vessel could now be traced; and, to their trembling joy, seemed to be nearing them. Ah! the captain of that ship little thought how many eyes were fixed with a gaze of agony upon the white sails of his stately vessel. They hoisted their signal of distress once more, and uttered their feeble cries. But, alas! she also appeared to be shaping her course in another direction. One poor fellow, who had been dreadfully scalded, looked himself into despair, cried out, “She is gone!” and laid him down to die.

The time of extremity was God’s opportunity: one eye from that vessel caught the signal; the word was passed to the deck, and resounded through the ship, “A wreck! — a wreck!” In a few moments she began to bear down towards them. One of the sufferers, perceiving the change in her course, uttered the cry, “She sees us! she is coming towards us!” Nearing them rapidly, a short time only elapsed, which they employed in thanksgiving to God, when the vessel loomed up a short distance from them, and the clangor of the captain’s trumpet rang over the waves, “Be of good cheer; I will save you!” I need scarcely tell you they were soon on board, filled with adoring gratitude to God, and thanksgivings to their deliverer.

I remarked, in the commencement of this letter, that your state of soul reminded me of the perilous condition of these shipwrecked passengers. You were sailing onward to heaven with a happy soul, and the breezes of grace were propitious. But an explosion took place, to the astonishment of heaven; and you made “shipwreck of faith, and of a good conscience.” Thank God, you have not gone down to hell, like many other backsliders. You have floated out upon the mere fragments of your hopes, into the ocean of despair. Of you it may be well said,

“His passage lies across the brink
Of many a threatening wave!
And hell expects to see him sink,
But Jesus lives to save!”

Yes, “Jesus lives to save;” and it is written, “He is able to save unto the uttermost.”

The promises have been obscured from the eye of your faith by strong temptation. Again and again you have found yourself unable to reach them; and, like the vessels which hovered for a little before the vision of those distressed persons, and then vanished, so have the promises to your apprehension. But the God of the promises is at hand. Fear not, — your signals of distress are seen from heaven. There is an end, and your expectation shall not be cut off. The captain of your salvation has left the skies for your help. He is this hour drawing nearer to your soul. You may say, for your own encouragement, “He sees me! He sees me! He is coming towards me!” He is; see!

“Lo! on the wings of love he flies, And brings salvation nigh!”

“Only believe, and thou shalt see the salvation of God.” “All things are possible to him that believeth.” Do you not already hear the voice of your great deliverer, “Be of good cheer, — I will save you!” Soon, very soon, you shall be rescued from your distressed situation; and, with adoring gratitude, fall at the feet of your gracious Saviour, and confess him “mighty to save.”