Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. 2 Timothy 4:9-10
So what went wrong with Demas?
We know next to nothing about him, but in just two other places (Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24) Paul mentions him as a “fellow-worker” and, presumably, a friend. But here, in 2 Timothy 4, we get this sad little note that he has “deserted” Paul.
We can’t say for sure that Demas abandoned his Christian faith; perhaps he simply didn’t see eye to eye with Paul (he wouldn’t have been the only one, if Acts 15:36-41 is to be believed!). But Paul’s remark that he “loved this world” strongly suggests that, in his view at least, Demas has “fallen away”.
Last time we looked at Hebrews 6:4-6, a sombre passage suggesting that anyone who does what Demas did can never be restored to salvation. I suggested that it is wise not to be too dogmatic about exactly how to understand this passage – but also that we should certainly take on board the fact that “falling away” is a very serious matter. God is not to be trifled with.
But the question arises: Why do people fall away anyway?
No doubt there can be various reasons. Demas, for example, seems to have developed a greater love for “the world” than he did for Christ. And in his parable of the sower Jesus speaks of people who, though they received “the word”, are unable to cope with “trouble or persecution” or with “the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth” (Matthew 13:1-23). That suggests three main reasons for falling away: caving in to fear of persecution, getting snowed under with worries, or – Demas’ problem – succumbing to materialism.
In my time as a full-time minister I found pastoring those who seemed to be falling away by far the most difficult job I had to perform. Calling on someone and taking them to task – “Er, we don’t seem to have seen you much recently” – was usually horribly embarrassing: give me a visit to the dentist any time.
But it had to be done, and whether it involved the wagging finger or the arm around the shoulder (so to speak) it never got easier. And if things didn’t work out, I always felt guilty, that I had failed somehow. (We ministers can be plagued by insecurity, you know; delicate little petals we are; kindly keep that in mind for future reference…)
No doubt I had failed. But I tried to remind myself also that every person has a responsibility for their own soul, whatever my inadequacies.
In most cases people’s faith just dribbled away. Early enthusiasm waned and eventually died. Very rarely was it the hard pressures of life that did the damage – ill-health, family worries, job difficulties. On the contrary, these often seemed to have the effect of strengthening faith. No. As life went on it seemed that Jesus simply wasn’t in fact that important after all.
But recently I read an article in a Christian paper which suggested another problem, where perhaps the church does have to shoulder a fair amount of responsibility: situations where a person’s faith collapses under the weight of slowly built-up inner doubts and questionings.
There are churches (I hope yours isn’t like this!) where doubt is treated almost as a sin, and where questioning is not encouraged. There is a strong doctrinal “party-line” which you are expected to toe. Members accordingly become very docile and passive, and when they are struggling, for whatever reason, they are afraid to be honest about what’s going on in their hearts.
And so one day, possibly after many years, they find themselves suddenly thinking “I just don’t believe this any more!” And in no time at all word is going round: “Had you heard that Geoff has lost his faith!”
I find this kind of situation far, far sadder than the one where somebody just lets their faith peter out. The Geoffs of this world may simply be being honest, and a point comes when they can no longer endure wearing what has come to seem a mask. If only they had found a wise, mature Christian friend to talk to…!
It’s a healthy church that takes doubt seriously, that not only allows but even encourages questioning. A tree that can’t bend in the wind is likely to snap; and a faith which has no “give” in it is in danger of collapsing.
Please don’t get me wrong. A robust faith in Jesus crucified, risen, ascended and one day returning in glory is absolutely vital. This is the gospel.
But for the rest, let’s be open to doubts and sympathetic to honest questionings. When the man I’ve called Geoff comes back to God, as I trust he will, his faith will very likely be ten times stronger than that of those who (let’s be blunt about it) have never really thought at all.
Lord Jesus, thank you for being so patient with me in times of fear, doubt and questioning. Help me always to be honest about what’s going on in my heart, and to be sympathetic and sensitive to others who are feeling the rough winds of uncertainty. Amen.