Nick Fryberger is a member of Church on Mill who serves by teaching Connection Classes. In this article, he addresses spiritual derailment.

Last week, we and a watching world witnessed a painfully concrete example of what it looks like to derail. Train derailments have long been a source of significant loss of life and property, and this recent example is no exception. The massive train derailed near downtown Tempe, burst into flames, dumped hundreds of gallons of toxic chemicals, and collapsed a century old train bridge.

Have you ever felt derailed like this? One minute you’re sailing down the tracks without a worry in the world… and the next minute you’re off course, something is on fire, something is leaking toxicity, and the very foundations you were traveling along are crumbling.

For every devastating, life-altering train wreck we see flashed on the news, there are many more less dramatic derailments that we never see. A car or two come off the rails and, despite the lack of fanfare, news coverage, and drama, the entire train comes to a halt, its progress hopelessly stalled.

Even if you haven’t experienced a personal derailment that was newsworthy, it is certain that you have experienced a season when it felt like your spiritual life came off the rails.

In these peculiar times it is likely that many of us are feeling spiritually derailed. What do we need to know to get back on track?

Know the Train Route

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if we are on track. One way we can check is by knowing what the journey is supposed to look like as we go.

There are lots of places in the New Testament where we are told what it looks like to be on track. In one example, Paul tells the church in Colossae, “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light,” (Colossians 1:9–12 ESV emphasis added).

So, according to Paul in this example, being on track looks like:

  • Bearing fruit
  • Increasing in knowledge of God
  • Increasing in strength and power
  • Growing in endurance and patience
  • Giving thanks

If we’re feeling derailed, it is often because one or more of these things are broken: It doesn’t seem like God is doing much in me (I no longer see the fruit of my salvation). I feel far from God (I don’t feel my intimacy and knowledge of God growing). I feel weak and ineffective (I don’t feel God’s awesome power at work in me). I am restless, irritable, and impatient (I can’t recognize and be thankful for the blessings I have).

Know Where You’re Headed

To see if we’re on track, we also need to know where we are going and whether we are getting any closer to our destination.

Later in the same letter to Colossae, Paul states the destination, the goal, of his labor among them, “[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me,” (Colossians 1:28–29 ESV).

The distant station to which we are bound is maturity, Christ-likeness, and a community of increasingly sanctified saints “knit together in love” as a witness of God’s wisdom to a watching world for all to see!

Know How the Wheels Go Round

There seems to be a pattern to the process of sanctification, the central process of the Christian life. As we pursue Christ, we are met with the same tasks over and over in differing circumstances. This cycle is helpful to consider when we see that we seem to have lost hold of the train tracks.

First, we must recognize who God is. Scripture calls this “fearing God.”

Then, we must receive wisdom. Wisdom is God’s instructions for us.

Then, we must respond with action. We move forward according to the instructions we received.

Then, we must recognize that God gets all the glory for our understanding and righteous action.

And so on, and so on, and so on, recognize, receive, respond, recognize, receive, respond… Each time we go around the cycle, we grow in our Christ-likeness. The wheels turn in the right direction.

This cycle is all over the pages of Scripture. As an example, see again our first passage from Colossians 1, “that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding (receive), so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord (respond), fully pleasing to him (recognize).” It’s a cycle, so different passages start in different places on the cycle, but proceed around it with crystalizing repetition.

What caused me to derail?

What does this cycle have to do with how we got off track? I’m glad you asked! One of the reasons I like this cycle so much is because when I am feeling derailed it helps me to figure out where I got off and where I can get back on.

When I find myself spiritually derailed there are a few questions that might help diagnose what went wrong:

  • Have I been working for God’s glory or my own?
  • Do I see the work before me as an obstacle or an opportunity to serve God?
  • Have I been plugged into the sources of God’s revelation or avoiding them?
  • Am I attending the preaching of the Word? Praying? Reading the Word?
  • Have I received some instruction from God that I have yet to heed?
  • Am I harboring a sin of which I will not repent?

There’s no doubt that our hearts are deceitful, and our inclinations are always to reject God’s authority, distrust his Word, and act out of selfishness. We need no external help jumping the tracks and out of the cycle. Even so, there are all sorts of things that might also contribute to our derailment. In this season of change and challenge, there are no lack of priorities competing for our time and mental attention. It’s easy to take our eyes off of God and his kingdom when it feels like all we can do to just keep an eye on the road ahead. Given our nature and circumstances, we’ll all get derailed. But we don’t have to stay that way once we’ve identified it and its cause.

How do I get back on track?

The good news is whether you’re derailed because of a simple distraction or an ongoing struggle with a significant sin issue, the solution is fundamentally the same: Identify where you came off the rails, clear the wreckage, and get back on track wherever you left off.

  • If I have been living for my own glory rather than celebrating and serving a great and deserving God, I’ll need to be reminded who he is.
    • The Psalms are a great place to look for a reminder of how great a God we serve.
  • If I have been living without a steady diet of God’s revealed wisdom, I’ll need to set aside time to be refreshed and renewed in it.
    • Fasting is a reminder that we do not live on bread alone, but that the very Word of God is essential to our life.
  • If I have been failing to live out the instructions I have received, I’ll need to renew my commitment to walking in repentance and obedience.
    • Confession to a brother or sister in Christ and inviting accountability in areas of struggle are powerful ways to be reminded of that commitment.

Some derailments are serious. They will require weeks, months, years, or even decades of clean-up and rebuilding. Others can be resolved quickly. The good news above was that the solution is substantially the same in all cases: do something; get back on the rails and get moving. In most cases, the process of getting back on the rails begins with the means of grace available to us every day: read, pray, attend teaching, fast, confess, and participate in community.

The truly great news is that we are not left to accomplish any of this on our own. We have a good God who is eager to help (2 Corinthians 9:11-15). We have an indwelling Spirit that prays on our behalf even when we are unable (Romans 8:26). We have a brother in Christ who made it possible for us to stand, unafraid, before a holy God and receive help in these times of need (Hebrews 4:14–16).

Nick Fryberger