What is Backsliding?


Is backsliding a matter of perspective?


This is not an article that defines backsliding with a simple answer. Rather, it is one that is asking questions, and interrupting our presumptions about spiritual things.

On the surface-Backsliding implies that something or someone is pushed/set back, off track, or somehow, something has gone wrong. It connotes that one must “make up ground” once backsliding has happened. One should avoid or prevent it. It is not the “best for us.” But, perhaps we can take this definition to task, and investigate further…

So, I ask: Is backsliding used as a term for other things? Is it a nicer way to say rebellion? Is it a more pleasant way to say, “my heart is not as loyal,” or “I’m doing my will, for now” ?

What if backsliding is actually not a backwards motion at all, for some. Could this be true?  Perhaps the term is a misnomer?

Could it be part of the journey that takes on the appearance of wrongheadedness, doubt, or bad judgment?

And is backsliding the same as “going astray,” or is it something different?

I was thinking about this a lot because I see a tendency for Christians to label things as all good or all bad. Tough times, like a period of dark night of the soul, does not feel pleasant. Many can mistakenly name something such as this, something it is not. At times, the Christian may not be going backward, but ever deeper into the love and understanding of God, and will come out on the other side, strengthened and changed.

I put the question out there: How do you see it? Does it matter? If not, what does?


21 responses to “What is Backsliding?

  1. Sharon Mullin

    I think that it isn’t only Christians that want to label things good or bad. I think all of society wants us to put names on everything which then limits what it is we are looking at or dealing with. If it’s backsliding, then it “must” be bad, right? But, really, how many times have to experience something uncomfortable and in hindsight saw God’s handiwork woven throughout the situation. Reading your post leads my mind into the Christian walk and coming to grips with the fact that we may “backslide” for any number of reasons. Perhaps, He would like us to revisit something so that we see a previously missed opportunity of spiritual growth.

    • lisacolondelay

      Yes, a label gives us meaning to attach to something; a category to simplify our surroundings. WOW-A missed opportunity…that’s a very optimistic perspective, and a worth while one, I do believe. thanks for that fascinating comment, Sharon.

  2. To me, “backsliding” in Christianity’s terms, refers to the present spiritual condition of someone who formerly demonstrated a desire to follow Christ and His Word; but is now following, to put it simply, “self”. It describes the current condition of a human heart or will. To me, it implies a gradual process of regression, a “sliding” if you will, and not a “leap” or jump. The term “back” refers to a return to a former place; to “go back”. So, to “backslide” is to gradually return to a less Christ-like state from a state of following Christ. This doesn’t mean that God can’t work in the person’s backslidden condition; as in the example of the Prodigal Son. It may, in fact, be the time that God can use to reach into someone’s heart and change him dramatically. In my opinion, the very act of backsliding implies that it is not rebellion, but a gradual loss of self-discipline. I can “backslide” with my exercise or diet program. Following Christ requires self-discipline; loss of that disclipline can result in backsliding.

  3. Right on. I’m not sure. There could be theological error or sinful practice.

    I’ve been thinking about sin lately. Does sin send us back to start as kind of bankrupt, or is it a set back in our progress that may get in the way of things with God but doesn’t necessarily undo all that God has been accomplishing in us? Lauren Winner’s book Girl Meets God has been a part of my thought process on this one.

    Good post. Nay, excellent.

    • lisacolondelay

      The “go back to start” idea seems to undermine the process of sanctification happening by grace. Nothing we do takes away or adds to God’s finished work or agency, but, of course, we can quench the Spirit. Thanks for the reply!

      • Oh, I certainly wasn’t advocating that point of view, though I can see after rereading my comment why it may have sounded that way. I should have been a bit more specific about Lauren Winner’s stuff about sanctification and the ways God keeps building even when we’ve messed up. Yep, we don’t want to write off God’s sanctifying work!

  4. Dan Masshardt

    backsliding is probably one of those ‘christian-eze’ terms that we use without ever really thinking about.

    Sometimes we use it for those who don’t look much like Christians. People who walked the aisle years ago but don’t show much fruit. Some of them stopped fellowship and spiritual disciplines. Others were never really believers on a deep level.

    I think that we cannot apply the term as it’s used critically to someone who is dealing with doubt, difficult life circumstances, intelectual wrestlings etc.

    People who are ‘backslidden’ are not these people. I’d reserve the term for people who might believe in Jesus, but don’t really care much for him. Have fallen in love with something or someone else.

    I’d rather not use the term at all probably, now that I think about it.

    • lisacolondelay

      Dan, I’ve heard the term used elsewhere, but it is a term used quite a bit in certain Christian circles. Yes, it can be a confusing term. Maybe it’s antiquated, or contains within it too many variant meanings. Like Deb says, it’s awfully hard to know what is happening to any one but our selves, and it is a heart issue. thank you for contributing!

  5. Having just finished Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian” (actually re-read it for a class) I think that the term itself doesn’t really fit in a postmodern paradigm. In some churches, I would be a backslider because I cut my hair and wear pants. In others, I would be one because we don’t have a “green” car. (Well I was going to buy a Prius, but now…) The problem is the perspective of the one who judges another to be “backslidden”. Sometimes there are things we do for new believers to help them get better spiritual habits and awareness of the Holy Spirit working in their lives. Are we then right to insist that they use these “baby steps” as mature Christians? Am I a backslider if I don’t come to Wednesday night prayer meeting?

    See where I’m going with this? I think that a better question would be where your heart is – what is your “passion level” for God? How deeply do you yearn to reflect Jesus to the people in your every day life? If you shrug your shoulders and wonder if it matters… that’s another issue entirely!


    • lisacolondelay

      the perspective of seeing backsliding as a judgment that comes from the outside is also an interesting perspective, and I suppose that the idea is that our cultural context fluctuates greatly in determining what it means. You point out -like Jesus did- that it comes down to a matter of the interior. The heart. I concur.

  6. The sliding back does usually refer to one’s level of commitment or moral choices relative to an earlier point in life. And it does, as is also suggested above, happen in virtually imperceptible steps.

    But if I’m hearing Lisa, and perhaps Sharon as well, the concept might also be applied to one’s embracing of received Christian ideas and ways of thinking, in which case it is more of a stepping back to re-evaluate what one truly believes, rather than what one is expected to believe. If so, I’ve guilty of it many times. And without repenting, no less! And it might be brought on by a variety of things, including the doing of a “no-no.” If rethinking follows backsliding, it may prove valuable, though there is also the real danger of not just sliding but truly and irretrievably falling (I never did claim to be a Calvinist).

    Swindol put it simply as three steps forward, two steps back. Progress overall, but not without ever giving up ground.

  7. In my experience backsliding refers to two related situations – living a Christian life and recovery from addiction. In both cases I consider backsliding to be getting off the track, or path, that God has led me to. It may mean going back to some of my old ways of thinking and reacting to things that happen, or it may be just a matter of putting worldly concerns before spiritual ones and, therefore, relying more on my own limited abilities rather than on God. In addiction recovery I see it much the same way, although it can also refer to (or lead to) relapse. In both cases I see it as a spiritual issue where I become distracted from my focus on God and Jesus’ transforming grace.

  8. lisacolondelay

    Ken, and Brian; your unique perspectives add a lot to this conversation, thank you.

  9. Lots of good stuff to think about in all the responses thus far. When I read your post I was reminded of something I believe C.S. Lewis wrote about climbing a mountain. He describes the scene where you are standing at the base of a mountain and you can see a cabin way up on the mountain with lights on and a fire burning in the fireplace. The problem is that though you can see the cabin there is no short way to get there, the incline is too steep to go straight up the mountain. Instead you must take a trail that will wind up and around the mountain and in the process you may actually lose sight of the cabin for a while. In fact in the process of the journey to the cabin you will in one way be further from the cabin than when you were standing at the bottom looking up but at the same time even though farther away each step on the trail takes you ever closer to the destination. That could be a confusing and frightening journey that at some point may cause doubt and make one feel lost when the cabin is out of sight. I think we must be very careful about the conclusions we draw about the journey when we are on the journey. At the same time I think there are those who choose to walk away or drift away from the faith and have less or no interest in continuing on the journey. Just what you call that I am not sure.

    • lisacolondelay

      C.S. Lewis – ahh. It’s always nice to hear his analogies. that may be how it goes, great food for thought. Your take shows the complexity of the situation. Thank you for your insights and contribution, Tim.

  10. Backsliding to me means having known the Truth and the Way, and having lived in it…but then “sliding back” into former patterns not consistent with Christ’s life and God’s desire. Surely a slippery slope…but for the grace of God…finding the Truth, grasping hold, and beginning the journey toward Christ-likeness once again.

  11. Krista Keisling

    I think backsliding is part of this journey called life. We all do it at times, to different degrees and in different ways. This is because we are human and not perfect (perhaps the word “sin” is appropriate here). While the backsliding itself and the actions that caused it may not be good, the result of it may be. Take a look at King David; he was a big backslider, but good came of it. First, I would suggest that his relationship with God was made deeper because he came to rely on God more, especially for forgiveness. Second, even in the midst of David’s backsliding, God’s purposes were carried out. God saw to that happening.

    It can be like that for us, too, when we backslide. Because we might be reminded of our great need for God as a result of our sliding back, our relationship with Him will (hopefully) be deepened and we will learn more about ourselves and God in the process. Additionally, God will use our backsliding for his good purposes.

  12. Pat- it seems like your perspective sounds more like a detour. Krista- yours seems like a normal or expected part of life, yet a bad choice God can use for good.

    Really thankful you two commented. Very grateful!

  13. Gene Stevenson

    I definitely identify with the idea of backsliding being connected to the issue of self-discipline. I freely admit that self-control is the Spirit’s Fruit I struggle most to produce; needless to say, then, I’ve done my fair share of backsliding.

    I’ve come to take a different view on backsliding recently, though, especially as I contemplate the new man/old man distinction that Paul talks about. It seems to me that in a very real way backsliding is a resurrection of the old man – a spiritual necromancy, if you will. This is the same old man Christ provided victory over by His death and resurrection, and yet, all too often we feel comfortable with the old man – feel comfortable in his skin and clothes. So, in our weak moments we revive him and put him on again. In this way, it seems backsliding is much like the relapse that Brian talked about; it’s a spiritual relapse into the old way of thinking/doing things. Much like the slave, who having been freed from his chains and vicious taskmaster, chooses (to everyone’s bewilderment) to voluntarily identify himself with that slavery – to go back to that life of suffering.

    • lisacolondelay

      Captivating viewpoint, Gene! The willing prisoner–Yikes. God forbid. Your comment is very appreciated.