This is Part 4 of 4 parts answering the question, “What happens to those who dwell on the suffering that God allows?” in the larger question, “Why does a loving God allow suffering?”
The Downward Spiral of the Believer
Paul described in Ephesians four that a believer can enter the Downward Spiral. How do we know Ephesians four is descriptive of a believer and not an unbeliever? Some people think that churches in the New Testament time period were like they are today. They were not. Church buildings were not constructed until Constantine’s time around 300 A.D. In the first century, Christians were ostracized and not accepted. The ruling government often required people to say, “Caesar is Lord!” in the same way citizens were forced to say, “Heil Hitler!” in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. The Roman Emperor Nero used Christians as lighting for his garden parties as he poured pitch on them and lit the pitch. As the Christians burned to death, they provided light to the darkness of Nero. There were no yellow pages with hundreds of church names in every city. There were a few house churches where Christians gathered to grow and worship the Lord.
Paul explained in Ephesians 4:17-19 that a believer can be just as sinful as an unbeliever. We can use the same acrostic, NEBISCOS, for the believer as we did for the unbeliever. Ephesians 4:17-19 is the passage used to explain the Downward Spiral for the believer,
17 This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of theGentiles walk, in the futility of their mind,18 having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; 19 who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. (Eph. 4:17-19)
The Seven Steps of the Downward Spiral for the Believer
Let’s break that passage down into the seven steps. The first step following the acrostic NEBISCOS is Negative Volition. Paul wrote to believers in the church of Ephesus. We know he was writing to believers because he stated,
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, (Eph. 1:1-4)
There is no question Paul only had believers in mind when he wrote this epistle AND this passage. Hence the Negative Volition is found when Paul says, “…you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk…” (Eph. 4:17). When Paul said, “…the rest of the Gentiles…” he was referring to the unbelievers. There were primarily Gentiles in Ephesus and the “rest” refers to the unbelieving types. We have to keep in mind that there was no Jew or Gentile in Christ at that time (Gal. 3:28). Paul said, don’t walk like an unbeliever. Why did Paul admonish them to not walk like an unbeliever? Paul knew, whether they were suffering or not, the potential existed for them to sin just like unbelievers sinned. That is why Paul exclaimed, “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” (Rom. 7:15) Paul understood his own sin. Negative Volition is the first step for the believer.
The second step following the acrostic NEBISCOS is Emptiness of the Soul. Paul writes, “…in the futility of their mind…” (Eph. 4:17). The word “futility” (mataiote–s) means “vacuum.” Inside every person, believer or unbeliever, is a “God-shaped vacuum,” as Paschal said, that only God can fill. However, if the person does not let God fill it with truth, it will suck in the world-view around him. Hence, even the believer, if he does not expose himself to God’s Word, he will, by default, suck in the world-view of darkness around him. Because he is a believer, he may think he is filling his soul with good things, but if they are human viewpoint, like psychobabble, his soul will become darkened according to the third step rather than being enlightened.
The third step following the acrostic NEBISCOS is Blackout of the Soul. Paul uses the phrase, “…having their understanding darkened,…” (Eph. 4:18). Just like the inside of a vacuum cleaner gets dirty and dark, so the soul of the believer will become immoral and darkened. If he does not hide God’s truth and rely upon the enlightening ministry of God’s Spirit (Eph. 1:18), he will have Blackout of the Soul. Do you ever wonder why some Christians can be Christians for decades and while they attend church and listen, they keep saying they don’t know enough to teach others? It is because they are indifferent, complacent and disobedient to God’s Word and are in the Downward Spiral with the Blackout of the Soul.
The fourth step following the acrostic NEBISCOS is Ignorance Induced. This is fantastic how Paul maintains the same order of the believer with the unbeliever. It is a little more difficult to see, unless you have a short English grammar lesson. When the English uses the conjunction “because,” it is stating that something precedes what was stated or is the cause of what was stated. In this case Paul says, “…being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them,…” (Eph. 4:18). The alienation (or Separation from God) is “because of” the “ignorance that is in them.” In other words, there is an ignorance that precedes the alienation. In other words, the ignorance results from Blackout of the Soul. As the believer consumes human viewpoint. he becomes ignorant of divine viewpoint. That is Ignorance Induced. That leads to the fifth step.
The fifth step following the acrostic NEBISCOS is Separation from God. Paul uses the phrase, “…being alienated from the life of God…” (Eph. 4:18) In other words, the believer is separated from the “life” or power or fellowship enjoyment of God’s presence. As a believer is darkened in his soul and therefore becomes more and more ignorant of who and what God is, he becomes spiritually more and more separated from fellowship with God. He is still a child of God and has eternal life, however, he loses out on all the blessings God had recorded for him in eternity past (Eph. 1:3) and the rewards in time and eternity (2 John 8).
The sixth step following the acrostic NEBISCOS is Callousness of the Soul. Yes, the believer can become callused in his soul. Paul writes, “…who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness…” (Eph. 4:19) The believer is past feeling, because he has so much callousness on his soul. Every time the believer sins, just like King David sinned with Bathsheba, it adds a callous cell on his soul that can only be removed by repentance, confession and restoration of fellowship to God. When the believer builds up calluses on his soul, the Holy Spirit’s convicting work is hindered and the believer can easily fall further into the Downward Spiral.
The seventh step following the acrostic NEBISCOS is Occupation with Evil. Yes, even the believer can become occupied with evil. Paul writes, “…have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. (Eph. 4:19) The believer occupied with evil works “all uncleanness with greediness.” He is not content and does not want to learn contentment. He pursues satisfying his flesh and can even turn into pursuing murder as King Saul did when he pursued killing David. The Occupation with Evil may not be murder, but it may be rejecting divine principles. It may be a person who trusts in the psychobabble principles of man instead of divine viewpoint. It may be a believer who trusts in human viewpoint of success to overcome worry and doubt, instead of trusting the Lord. It may be using drugs for stability rather than trusting God’s Word. That is why Christians have little credibility today with the unbelieving world. We are faithless and deny the Lord by our actions. We do not live in a way that says the Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient, regardless of the suffering condition we might be in.
What’s interesting is that Paul did not describe the final stage of the Downward Spiral as he does in Romans one. He does not describe the Sin unto Death stage. Does that mean it does not exist for the believer? No, it does exist for the believer, even in suffering. Paul wrote about it in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. James wrote about it in James 5:19-20. And the Apostle John wrote about it in 1 John 5:16. The Sin unto Death occurs for even the believer and that is a miserable state of rejection of God presence and holiness.
What happens to those who dwell on the suffering that God allows? They depend on circumstances rather than God and compound their problems. Instead of living by faith, they slip further and further down the downward spiral of depression, futility, despair and misery. Jesus Christ is the one solution to everything in life. In Jesus Christ, you can be restored to contentment, meaning and purpose, even in the midst of suffering. We’ll look at this more in Parts Three and Four.
- Does it seem fair to you that dwelling on suffering creates greater suffering? Why or why not?
- Israel struggled and suffered while they wandered in the wilderness. What does Hebrews 3 say was the cause of their greater suffering? What was God’s attitude toward them as they suffered in the wilderness?
- How would you describe the downward spiral for the believer and unbeliever?
- Does it seem fair that someone who is going through suffering could also go through the downward spiral? Why or why not?
- Can anyone stop their slippage in the downward spiral? What do you suppose are the steps to overcome that continual slippage and suffering?1There is an excellent chart that explains how the sins are compounded and passages provided in Broger, John, Self-Confrontation: An In-depth Discipleship Manual (Palm Desert: Biblical Counseling Foundation, 1991), p. 114
This concludes this question.