A spiritual decline – and eventually a spiritual downfall – rarely happens overnight. It starts with small, unwise actions and decisions that don’t seem to affect us at first. But, when accumulated over time, they will result in dire consequences.
We can read from the scriptures the accounts of great men who appeared as too formidable for their physical and spiritual enemies but who eventually met their downfall due to carelessness. A prolific example was the story of Lehonti, a mighty military leader of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon.
Poisoned by Degrees
Lehonti and his army escaped to Mount Antipas because they don’t want to obey their king and go to war against the Nephites. The king got angry with them and sent Amalickiah and his men to subdue them. Amalickiah, instead of giving a battle to Lehonti, proposed a secret alliance with him.
Amalickiah flattered Lehonti into believing he can become the hero of the Lamanite army. So, Lehonti relaxed his guard around his supposed ally. Amalickiah took advantage of the situation and “caused that one of his servants should administer poison by degrees to Lehonti, that he died (Alma 47:18).” Such was the end of the mighty leader Lehonti who was fooled and replaced by the cunning Amalickiah.
The Tell-Tale Signs of Spiritual Decline
Scientifically, the human body reacts against foreign objects, such as poison, that enter its parameters. So, in Lehonti’s case, I think he might have felt that something was wrong with his body long before he was poisoned to death. He must have experienced the following tell-tale signs – vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, and dehydration. These bodily discomforts though didn’t help Lehonti to save his life because he chose to ignore them or he recognized them too late.
In the like manner, we will experience certain warnings regarding our declining spirituality before it leads to something serious. It is up to us whether we will heed or ignore them.
I have listed here five of these tell-tale signs we need to be aware of if we are to maintain a high level of spirituality.
Focusing on the Cares and Opinions of the World
Jesus Christ counseled us to “be in the world but be not of the world (John 15:19).” What He meant by this was although we live in this imperfect and fallen world, we should not act like fallen people. We should not give in to “the lust of the flesh [and] eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16).”
To be not of the world also means not letting the cares and opinions of the world affect us. Sometimes, we try to please the people around us at the expense of our relationship with God. Elder Massimo De Feo said that so many of us “hesitate to make the right choices because we try to please the Lord without offending Satan.” However, the desire to please everybody, of staying in the middle ground, and being too careful about taking sides often leads us astray.
Without having a firm ground to stand on, we cannot plant our seed of faith. Our spirituality will not flourish. We must learn to stand firm and tall so we won’t be swayed by the shifting opinions of the world.
An example of a procrastinator in the Bible is the prophet Jonah. He was commanded by the Lord to preach in Nineveh. However, instead of immediately responding to the Lord’s call, he ran away in the opposite direction. The Lord taught Jonah a lesson, and he ended up inside the belly of a big fish (which most people refer to as a whale) for three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17).”
Unlike Jonah, we will not be swallowed by a big fish when we fail to immediately follow the Lord’s commandments. However, the effects of our procrastination even in seemingly small and repetitive actions will have a big impact in our future.
Each prayer, scripture study session, sacrament meeting, and ministering effort is a building block of our faith. If we miss them, we will also miss our opportunity to grow more in confidence with God.
Don’t procrastinate an inch only to discover it has become a mile.
Another not-so-obvious tell-tale sign of spiritual weakness is rationalizing or justifying our unwise actions and decisions. Oh, how easy it is to justify missing church in lieu of meeting with a friend whom we haven’t seen in a long time! Or rationalizing that God will understand even if we don’t say our prayers tonight because we are too tired from work.
The truth about rationalization is that it happens because the person who performed the action or made the decision already knew that what he or she did was wrong. However, the person is just trying to lessen his or her feelings of guilt by saying that the action happened because he or she does not have any other choice. But, in reality, everyone has a choice and no amount of rationalization can justify a wrong action.
We all need to understand that what’s wrong can never be right even with seemingly “acceptable reasons”.
The rival nations of Lamanites and Nephites in the Book of Mormon were descendants of real-blood brothers – Laman and Lemuel for the Lamanites and Nephi and Sam for the Nephites. These four brothers used to have a good relationship with each other. What divided them apart was Laman and Lemuel’s choice to murmur against their father Lehi, a prophet who was commanded by the Lord to leave Jerusalem during the reign of King Zedekiah.
At first, Laman and Lemuel’s murmurings proved to be harmless. No matter how reluctantly, these eldest sons of Lehi were still obeying the Lord’s command – to return to Jerusalem together with their younger brothers Sam and Nephi and get the brass plates. However, as the task became difficult, their murmurings got the best of them to the extent that they physically harmed their younger brothers.
Are we sometimes like Laman and Lemuel who constantly murmur but still obey the commandments of God and our church leaders? Like them, have we thought that there’s no harm in murmuring because they are just words? And, like them, are we also sometimes surprised to find out how our murmurings quickly escalated into unwise actions?
Murmuring is not as light as you think it is. It usually leads to negative thoughts, to doubt and weakening of faith, and to separation from God. May we learn a lesson from the life of Laman and Lemuel of how the small act of murmuring resulted in the tragic divide of a nation!
The last tell-tale sign of spiritual weakness is being complacent regarding our spirituality. This word is sometimes confused with the word content. Being content means being grateful to God for all that He has given us. It means being a proactive and worthy steward of the temporal and spiritual blessings as well as the talents that He has endowed us with. On the other hand, being complacent means being self-satisfied with how things are but making no effort to improve them (Merriam Webster, 2019).
To give you a clear example of the contrast between being content and complacent, I will use the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The five wise virgins were content. They were happy and excited to be part of the wedding of an important bridegroom. They dressed nicely for the occasion and brought the necessary materials – lamps and oil. Knowing that they will wait for a long time, they were wise enough to buy extra oil. They knew the importance of their part in the wedding, and they were proactive in showing that they were prepared to be there.
In contrast, there were five foolish virgins. They wore the same beautiful attires and had the same lamps and amount of oil as the five wise virgins. But, unlike, the other five, they weren’t wise stewards of the things given to them. They were too complacent.
While the other five wise virgins thought of buying extra oil, they remained behind and probably idled their time away while waiting for the church doors to open. They soon ran out of oil and were not permitted to attend the wedding.
Sometimes, we mistakenly thought we are content with our lives when we are just being complacent. We light our lamps until we ran out of oil, without thinking of buying or bringing some extra.
There’s nothing wrong with being grateful to God for our blessings. But, if we are not using these blessings to achieve righteous purposes then we are in danger of being complacent. We can show God that we are grateful and contented by using the blessings He showered upon us to improve our own lives, have spiritual growth, and enrich others.
Let us avoid a gradual spiritual decline by staying away from these five tell-tale signs. Let us, instead, fortify our spirituality by being proactive disciples of Jesus Christ.