Episode #58: Signs of Spiritual Sickness, Part 2

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In the second part of this three-part series, pastors Derek and Cliff discuss several signs of spiritual sickness and a few potential causes.  


Derek: Welcome to With All Wisdom, where we are applying biblical truth to everyday life. My name is Derek Brown and I’m here today with Cliff McManis. We are pastors and elders at Creekside Bible Church in Cupertino, California and professors of theology at the Cornerstone Bible College and Seminary in Vallejo, California. And here we are in part two of our series on the signs of spiritual sickness, and we’re going to pick that up in just a moment. Before we do, I want to remind you to check out withallwisdom.org, where you will find a large and growing collection of resources all rooted in God’s Word and aimed to help you grow in your walk with Christ.

Now, back to our topic. We would encourage you to pick up or listen to episode number 57. That was our first part of this episode, or this series, rather, on spiritual sickness. A lot of important things said there. We started by talking about things that are not necessarily signs of spiritual sickness. And then we began to talk about the signs of spiritual sickness. Just a reminder, we said that a lack of thankfulness to God is a sign of spiritual sickness. Bitterness toward God is a sign of spiritual sickness. Love for God and others growing cold—that’s a sign of spiritual sickness. And a growing love of the world is a sign of spiritual sickness. And there we mean the ideas and the pleasures and all the things that the world has to offer that John calls the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the boastful pride of life. And when your love for God is dissipating, that’s going to be filled up with a love for the things of the world. And so we see that as a sign of spiritual sickness. And John says in First John that if you love the world and love the things of the world, the love of the Father’s not in you. And so it’s not a good sign to be growing in love with the world. Well, here is number five that I want to offer as a sign of spiritual sickness: religious hypocrisy. And this one is convicting because I trust that some, if not many, of us have experienced this at some level or another. In Matthew 15, Jesus is confronting the Pharisees as he was often doing, and he says this about them: “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you when he said this. People honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” And there are probably times when you’ve been worshiping the Lord and your mind’s wandering and your heart’s just not feeling it, and you’re singing the words and that’s all you’re doing. They’re just words coming out of your mouth and you need to repent. And I’ve needed to repent of that before, but that’s what Jesus is talking about. He’s talking about a kind of going through the religious emotions without your heart being engaged. And again, this is going to happen to Christians now and again because we’re sinful and because we will sometimes be caught up and get distracted with things and be honoring God with our lips and our hearts not fully engaged. So I’m not talking about this happening occasionally with the things that we need to fight against. I’m talking about this becoming a pattern in a person’s life, where their heart is far from God and yet they’re continuing to go through the religious motions and to make it appear as though everything is okay. That is a sign of spiritual sickness—a spiritual illness. And Jesus strongly denounces religious hypocrisy in Matthew 23. And he talked about how the Pharisees looked really good on the outside, but they were like whitewashed tombs on the inside. They were like a dead man’s bones in all uncleanness. So what you had is are these religious people walking around doing all kinds of religious activity, appearing Godly on the outside to others, and yet on the inside they were totally corrupt. And Christians are not hypocrites by nature. To be a Christian is to not be a hypocrite. And that’s an important point. A Christian can be guilty of hypocrisy, but they’re not hypocrites by nature. They’ve been transformed. They know the Lord, they’ve been transformed on the inside. But a sign of spiritual sickness is when this begins to increase in a professing Christian’s life, where they are willing and even allow this to go on—where their inward life does not match their outward life. And they are, they’re just faking it. And they know they’re faking it, and they’re just trying to keep up appearances for whatever reason. And this is not good. This is a sign of real illness.

Cliff: It is. You made an important distinction there by saying Christians are not hypocrites by nature, which is true. And at the same time, Christians are vulnerable to any conceivable sin, and we are vulnerable to hypocrisy even though we are true believers. And these exhortations by Jesus, when he is exposing religious hypocrisy in the gospels, it’s usually at the Pharisees who probably weren’t saved. But Christians can succumb to this. So Peter did in the book of Galatians. He’s one of the head apostles. And Paul confronted him to the face, publicly, in front of all the other believers, for religious hypocrisy. So that just shows you that even Christians can succumb to this, and we have got to guard against it.

Derek: And that’s an important point to make. Oh, as we go on in a later episode, I’m going to bring up an important passage that was directed primarily to the Pharisees, and yet I think it’s a principle that Christians need to apply. And same thing here. Christians need to not look down their nose at the Pharisees. We need to recognize what Jesus was exposing in them and make sure that we are not guilty of those things because, like you said, we can be guilty of any conceivable sin, hypocrisy included. And there are times when it’s easy to just go through the motions and our heart is not engaged, and we want to make sure that that is not becoming a pattern. There are times, I think, when Christians might think they’re guilty of hypocrisy when they’re not. They’re just, like we said earlier in the previous episode, we talked about things that are not necessarily signs of spiritual sickness—strong wrestling with temptation, sadness, weariness. And you have a sad, weary Christian and they’re like, “I’m going to church and I’m singing, but my heart is just sad. And I’m weary, but I’m trying to worship the Lord.” And I would say, well, that’s not necessarily hypocrisy. That’s you being honest with what’s going on in your heart, and you’re trying to worship the Lord. What I’m talking about is a pattern where you are clearly trying to keep up appearances, and what you’re portraying on the outside is not at all what’s happening on the inside. That’s what I’m referring to. But not a kind of weariness that you find. I mean, I’ve experienced that. Where you would love to worship the Lord with more exuberance and more passion, and yet your heart sometimes feels like a lead weight in your chest. And I don’t think that’s hypocrisy, and that’s not religious hypocrisy. But we want to be aware of it. It is a sign of spiritual sickness.

Another one—and this is an important one. You can see it pretty easily, I think, in your own life: a lack of desire for God’s Word. And the reason why I say that, or my rationale for that, is you could just look at Psalm one, for example. What are the characteristics? What are the characteristics of the godly man? In Psalm one, he delights in the law of the Lord and he meditates on it day and night. And he does that in contrast to taking the counsel of the ungodly or sitting in the way of the scoffer or standing in the way of the sinner. He’s delighting in the law of the Lord, and he is meditating on it day and night, in contrast to those people who don’t know the Lord. And as a result, he is spiritually healthy. And you see in Psalm 119, where this psalmist is delighting in the law of the Lord—he loves it. Jesus says that we are to desire the Word of God even more than natural food, and that it’s more important than even our physical food. And so, with that being the case, if that’s how we are fed spiritually and how our souls are fed—through the Word of God—when we are not desiring the Word of God, that’s an indication that we are not healthy. When someone has, out of the blue, lost their appetite physically, you don’t usually ignore that, right? You have got to check that out. And oftentimes it’s an indication of something serious going on with him. Same with us spiritually. If we don’t have an appetite for the Word of God, then it’s an indication that something else is going on.

Cliff: It is. This is probably one of the most fundamental signs of spiritual sickness or that there’s something wrong. Because, you’re right, in terms of the analogy of the physical human body. What do you mean you haven’t eaten or even had water in three days? Yeah, you’re going to die and it’ll happen quickly. You can’t survive without food. This is a daily requirement for nutrition. And that’s exactly what the Bible says. Throughout the whole Bible, we see the need for the believer to have an ongoing intake of God’s Word. This is all over the place. In the oldest book in the Bible, Job, Job said, speaking to God, “I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.” So Job was a believer. He was a righteous man. He loved God, he knew God, and here he is testifying that he lived on God’s truth as his spiritual food. “I have treasured the words of God’s mouth more than my necessary food.” This is absolutely essential. Psalm 42: “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul pants for, or longs for, you, oh God.” And that’s longing for the truth of his Word, of Scripture. So anytime I’m doing any counseling, it doesn’t even matter what the topic is. If anybody ever wants to come for counseling, I will quickly get to the question of, what is their routine of reading the Bible? Do you have a desire? How often are you in Scripture? And then, do you have a desire to be? This should just be basic to being a Christian. It’s like, it’s just second nature. I need air to breathe. I need water to drink. I need food to eat. And that should be the Christian’s attitude about the Word of God. I look forward to reading the Bible, memorizing the Bible, meditating on Scripture, studying the Bible. And if anybody calls himself a Christian and gets to a mindset of, oh, I don’t have a desire to study the Bible, that’s a huge problem. I don’t even relate to that myself, but it does happen. And you can go a week or two or three weeks or whatever where I just don’t have a desire. And you can be a Christian and that can be your case, but there’s a problem. So it’s a clear indicator. It’s like the engine light on the dashboard of your car flashing red. There is something wrong and you need to find out what it is.

Derek: And what we will learn as we go on in terms of talking about the medicine or the causes of spiritual sickness, we will sometimes find that some of the symptoms are related to the cause, and that they’re remedied by what needs to be, in this case, the Word of God. We’ll talk about that. But like you said, I like how you said that, Cliff. This is a foundational, fundamental illness and sign that something is wrong—this lack of desire for God’s Word. Number seven: I have a lot of words for this one. I’ll try to explain what I mean here. Spiritual apathy or dullness or regression that leads to a loss of discernment. Let me explain what I mean. This is coming from Hebrews 5:11-14, where the author, as we mentioned in our last episode, is rebuking the congregation because he’s about ready to launch into some deeper truths about Jesus’ high priesthood. And he says, I can’t, because you can’t handle the truth. And the reason they couldn’t handle the truth or the deeper truth is because they’re having trouble with the basic truths. And that’s not a good sign, because if you’re a Christian, you need to be moving forward in your understanding. You need to be growing in maturity. And if you were starting to regress—you were started on milk, and you’re starting to move towards solid foods—but now you need to be back on milk.

Again, back to the physical analogy, if that’s happening in someone’s life, that’s a red flag. And same with us spiritually. The people that were hearing these words from the author of Hebrews had made some progress, but they had now regressed. They needed to go back to milk and no longer solid food. And part of what was happening there is they were losing the ability to discern between truth and right and wrong, because the author goes on to talk about how a mature person is growing in their ability to discern. And you guys have regressed in this way, which is probably why this author is having to press so hard on the nature of the New Covenant in contrast to the old, because it seems like this congregation is being tempted to go back to the Old Covenant. But that temptation can only hold sway if you are having trouble seeing the difference between the Old and New Covenant. If that difference is starting to become hazy and blurry—”Oh, is Jesus really better than the Old Covenant? Maybe it is okay to go back to the Old Covenant.” That’s a sign of spiritual regression. Because when you’ve come to Christ and you begin to see the beauty and wonder in Christ and the fullness of the New Covenant, when you see that clearly, you never want to have anything to do with going back to the Old Covenant. And so they had regressed and lost discernment. And I see this happening on a large scale with the church at large, but then also with individual Christians, where they used to have sharp convictions about what was true, and then they start to become hazy and not sure. And maybe it’s different and maybe it’s a different something we haven’t seen, or whatever it might be. And this often happens with regard to cultural issues that are being pressed upon us. And people will start to say what the Bible says about sexuality is not as clear as I once thought it was. And that’s not a sign of spiritual maturity. That’s a sign of spiritual regression. And the author of Hebrew says, this is really, really dangerous because it can lead to apostasy. Because you can no longer distinguish between the value of Jesus and the value of everything else. And so it’s a dangerous sign of spiritual illness.

Cliff: Yeah. Does this intersect at all with backsliding—that popular phrase?

Derek: Yeah, you could use that word, too.

Cliff: Regression. And so practically this can look like somebody who made a profession, got baptized or was fired up for Jesus. They’re going to evangelism outings and everything else, and then before long they’re back to regressing, back to hanging out with their friends they used to party with or they’ve regressed back to the godless and worldly music they used to listen to that they put away for a while. Just going back to those godless patterns again, right?

Derek: Yep.

Cliff: That is a clear sign.

Derek: And the last one I have on my list, and then I’ll see if you have any anymore, Cliff. And this is a big one. I’m sure you’ll have plenty to say about this one—a lack of desire to be with other believers. And I’m pulling this from texts like Proverbs 18:1, where it says, “The one who isolates himself seeks his own desire and breaks out against all sound wisdom.” And then passages in Hebrews, the book we were just talking about. Hebrews 3 and Hebrews 10, where the author is exhorting the believers to make time with their church family an absolute priority because it’s the church family, and your brothers and sisters in Christ are going to help you make it all the way to the finish line of your Christian race. And so they are a vital part of your perseverance in the faith. And so if you’re growing in your indifference and your lack of desire to be with other believers, it’s a bad sign. You no longer want to hear their exhortation and encouragement. You’re no longer delighting in their fellowship. Oh, well, that can’t be a good sign because those are things that a healthy Christian wants and desires and things that are good for their spiritual life. So this is a huge one, and one we’ve seen a lot as pastors. Cliff, what do you have to say about this one?

Cliff: Yeah, this one is just like the lack of desire for the individual to read the Bible. It is a fundamental sign of spiritual sickness on a personal level. This one here, the lack of desire to be with God’s people where you are isolating yourself, is a fundamental one on the corporate level. That’s one that we can see as pastors. Part of our job as pastors is to be an overseer, meaning we see the big picture.We see all 250 of our people, and we literally act as watchmen, tracking who’s here at church today, and who’s at worship. And we notice, oh, this person is not here for the third week in a row. They’re not here for the fourth week in a row. They’re not here for the fifth week in a row. And that’s one of our sheep. So we as shepherds, want to go track them down and find them. How are they doing? Are they okay? Can we help you? And sometimes when they’re missing an action, it’s because they’re isolating themselves and they’re doing it purposefully because they’re not doing well spiritually, for whatever reason. Who knows whatever the reason is. But that’s just an outward sign, obviously, that things aren’t going well spiritually—when you’re isolating yourself from God’s people. Proverbs 18:1, that you referred to: “The one who separates himself, or isolates himself, from others seeks his own desire.” So this is an act of selfishness. You’ve got your agenda, you’ve got a motive, you’ve got something that’s not good. You want to hide it from other people. That’s why you’re isolating yourself.

The Bible also says much sin is done in secret—in the dark, when you’re in a corner by yourself. So the one who separates or isolates himself from others seeks his own desire, and he quarrels against all sound wisdom. This is foolish of you to isolate yourself from God’s people. And that passage you mentioned in Hebrews 10 is such a good one: “Do not neglect the fellowship and the gathering with other believers.” Because it is in the context of being with God’s corporate body, with his people, especially at worship, where they stimulate you and motivate you to love and good deeds. As a Christian, you’re filled up, you’re encouraged, and you’re depriving yourself of that when you don’t gather with God’s people. This goes back to how God made us. God made us in his image. What is God? He’s a social being, inherently and eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s just his very nature. He made humans as social beings in his image. Adam and Eve together. It is not good for man to be alone. And so that’s why it’s so foolish and dangerous to isolate yourself. So for us as pastors, we’ve seen it and we talk about it as elders. When we see one of our members missing in action, we know we probably have a problem.

Derek: That’s right.

Cliff: And usually we’re right.

Derek: Yeah. I mean, I would say almost a hundred percent of the time that when you notice that someone is gone for an extended amount of time and they weren’t gone on vacation or a work trip or whatever, it’s a sign that there’s something deeper going on. This is one of those sure signs. And like you said when you brought up Hebrews 10 and how the body stirs up other believers to love and good works, you’re basically saying that the body helps us to be spiritually healthy and to not be spiritually sick. Well, that’s awesome. So do you have any others?

Cliff: I had a couple others I missed, Derek. Signs of spiritual sickness. One also that we see as pastors is when saints just stop serving when they used to be serving. Another one is they stop giving. And that’s usually one of our elders who oversees the finances. And maybe he’ll give a quarterly report at an elder’s meeting. And he doesn’t tell us how much people give, but he just reports the pattern of giving. And he might say, well, here’s a red flag with this member. They used to give regularly, and now they’re not giving anymore. They haven’t given with the same regularity. And for us, usually, there is a problem here, and it might just be that they lost their job and we need to help them. But a lot of times, it’s that they’re mad at the church and they’re not giving to the church anymore, and they’re about to leave. They’re at the exit door. That’s usually what that means. So that’s another sign that we use in our shepherding—these patterns of basically forsaking basic, fundamental Christian disciplines. Another one that I think is a sign of spiritual sickness is having a critical spirit or being a divisive person in the church.

Derek: Yep. Yes. That’s a huge one. And not one that people recognize. They’ll be like, no, I’m being discerning. Or they’ll chalk it up to some other spiritual virtue. And in fact, no, you’re just a critical person who likes to tear down.

Cliff: Yep. Another one I wrote down was someone who is always talking about themselves. They’re not other-oriented. And they have absolutely no awareness of it.That is a sign that there’s something wrong there. There’s something off-kilter. And again, a lot of people aren’t able to see that in themselves, because we all have blind spots. One thing I was going to ask you, Derek, about this topic of signs of spiritual sickness: I mean, we’re just looking at symptoms basically. Right? And so you can have signs of spiritual sickness, and I guess in the end these can be indications that you’ve got an apostate on your hands. Somebody who’s not truly born again, but thought they were. They were a professor of faith, and they even had a lifestyle that looked like, for a while, they were obviously Christian. And it turns out they’re really not. So then these symptoms or signs of spiritual sickness in the end can be indicators and expose them—that they’re not truly saved. They never were saved in the first place. But at the same time, a true born again Christian can fall prey to these problems we’re talking about. I think every Christian can be vulnerable to these spiritual signs of sickness.

Derek: Which is exactly why we want to talk about them, because we want to bring Christians who are genuinely Christian out of this sickness and back to health. So that’s a good distinction to make. These could be signs that someone’s not even a believer, but Christians can struggle with these very things. So we want to be helpful in that way and help people recognize them in themselves and others, and then be a means to getting back to spiritual health, which is the goal. Well, that’s probably a really good segue then—what causes spiritual sickness? Let’s talk about this, and then we will probably have to come back in a third episode to finish this up. But what causes spiritual sickness? We talked about the symptoms, and now we need to make a diagnosis and we’re going to give some possible causes. First thing I have here, Cliff. What causes spiritual sickness? Well, wrong thinking. Wrong thinking about God, thinking wrong things about the gospel, thinking wrong things about sin. These can all cause spiritual sickness. And I want to go back to that thinking wrong things about the gospel. This actually happened in the New Testament, where you had some real spiritual sickness settle into the churches in Galatia because they had started to believe something wrong about the gospel. Paul came and preached the wonderful gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone to the Galatian churches. And they were on fire. They were, and they demonstrated their passion for the Lord even by the way they cared for Paul. They’re willing to sacrifice for Paul. They were growing. It was a good situation. But then something happened. Namely, some teachers had come in and started to infect their understanding of the gospel by saying, “Yeah, yeah, Christ, of course. But you also have to obey the Old Covenant law system and believe in Christ, then you will be justified.” And this caused real confusion among the Galatians, and they started to think that they needed to perfect themselves through the flesh, and they were starting now to even depart from true faith in Christ because they thought they needed to obey the Old Covenant law—namely, circumcision. And this was not healthy.

In fact, Paul begins to talk about the works of the flesh in chapter five. And I take that as an indication that this was something that was starting to actually grow and that the works of the flesh were starting to become a problem. Why? Well, because when you have a wrong understanding of the gospel, then you have a lack of clarity about who Jesus is. Then you have lack of ability to believe robustly in him, and you’re not going to have any spiritual power to put sin to death. And it’s just going to grow. And these works of the flesh were likely growing. And so Paul had to talk about that, and he had to remedy this situation, as we’ll talk about later. He had to remedy this situation by preaching the gospel again to this church and then showing them all the biblical foundations of the Old Testament and why they can know for certain that justification has always been by faith alone. But this was a cause of spiritual sickness. And I’ve seen this in myself, and I’ve seen this in other brothers and sisters, where a lack of clarity about the gospel—namely, the doctrine of justification and how we are right with God apart from anything that we’ve done. Our right standing with God is based totally in Christ, in the righteousness he’s acquired in his perfect life, and in sinless death. When there’s a lack of clarity there, it can begin to cause a lack of assurance. And Christians become insecure about their walk with the Lord, and they have a hard time believing that the Spirit is dwelling in them and helping them put sin to death. And therefore, sin grows all the more. And then they think that’s even more of a sign that I’m not a Christian, and it just causes them to spiral out of control, sadly, and causes great spiritual sickness. And it can cause the things that we just got done talking about with all these different signs. This misunderstanding of the gospel can cause some of these other signs of spiritual sickness to show up. Any thoughts about wrong thinking, Cliff?

Cliff: Yeah. I think that the cause of spiritual sickness is thinking, just as you put it. Wrong thinking. And that’s true. Scripture speaks to that, because everything we say is a result of how we think. Everything we do is a result of how we think. What we believe is a result of how we think. Our attitude is a result of how we think. That’s why Paul says in Romans 12 to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. It’s all about what we think. Taking in God’s truth. So I think this is just absolutely core and foundational, and everything almost flows from this. Thinking wrong, human thinking, thinking our own thoughts, thinking sinful thoughts, and not thinking on God’s truth. And that’s why we need to have the ongoing intake of God’s Word. His truth. That’s what he thinks. When we listen to the Bible, we are listening to what God thinks. So when we go to church on Sunday, one of the things our mindset should be is, I’m looking forward to going to church this Sunday to hear the message of God’s Word so that I can have my thinking corrected. My thinking needs to be fixed and challenged and humbled and straightened out and refreshed. That should be one of our main attitudes as we go and welcome the Word of God when it’s being preached and taught.

Derek: Yeah. Because, like you said, you could trace everything back to this. I was even looking back through the list of signs of spiritual sickness, and your lack of thankfulness to God and your bitterness towards God and others. Well, that stems from you not remembering and recognizing who God is, who you are in your sin, what God has done for you, what he has planned for you, all that he’s working together for your good—I mean, on and on and on. This all has to do with our thinking. So you’re right. It flows from here. Another one is unbelief. And I pulled this from Hebrews 3 and 4, where the issue is unbelief, and the author is exhorting his listeners to not harden their hearts. And you harden your heart against God and his Word when you’re not believing in God and his Word. And so we need to keep our faith fresh. We need to make sure that we’re believing the Word of God when we’re hearing it and taking it in and absorbing it and meditating on it. I find that meditation is one of the primary ways of feeding faith. Re-reading the Word of God, but also meditating on it, thinking on it, letting it mull over and saturate our minds. But unbelief will cause spiritual sickness, kind of like wrong thinking. This one is very foundational, and these other ones will flow from unbelief. When we’re not believing the Word of God, we’re going to be sick spiritually. And this will show itself readily in these other signs. But unbelief is certainly a cause of spiritual sickness. Would you agree with that, Cliff?

Cliff: Yeah. We have to believe, and again, it’s just directly related to the truth of God’s Word when we hear it. I just got an email like a week or two ago, and be praying for this Christian—they’re having a hard time. They’re maybe a newer Christian and they’re having a hard time believing something in the Bible that God did. And I’m thinking, “Oh boy, that’s a problem.” Because as a Christian, you don’t have an option to not believe something God clearly has said. This wasn’t a secondary or questionable matter. This was just basic truth that’s taught in the Bible, and that needs to be embraced. Right? Or someone who says, “Oh, I don’t believe in hell, but I’m a Christian.” Well, hell is clearly taught in the Bible. God said it. Jesus said it. You really don’t have an option. You are believing it by faith. You have to embrace it. And it’s a sign of a heart issue, like you said.

Derek: And it’s only going to cause greater and greater spiritual difficulty and problems in a person’s life. Well, we do need to come back, Cliff. We are going to talk about more causes of spiritual sickness and then talk about what medicine can heal our spiritual sickness. So we’re going to come back again. We encourage you to check out withallwisdom.org. Check out episode number 57 if you haven’t already. And until next time, keep seeking the Lord in his Word.

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