This article is part of the Help! series.
The apostle Paul talks about the people of Israel as having “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). This statement sometimes feels like the exact opposite of my experience. I think Paul’s take on me would be that I have “a knowledge of God, but not according to zeal.” I have Bible apps, free online theology courses, access to the best sermons, the best music, the best books, and yet don’t find myself all that jazzed about the Lord at times.
I imagine all Christians sometimes feel like we don’t love God enough, don’t read our Bibles enough, don’t pray enough, don’t evangelize enough, and so forth. And there’s a sense in which we are largely correct in our assessment, given that God and his kingdom agenda are worthy of all our hearts and energies and we often do fall short of that. Yet, there’s a way of not caring enough that’s far more troubling and also afflicts sincere Christians. I’m talking about apathy, spiritual apathy.
If I were to define apathy, it would be something like this: Apathy is a psychological and spiritual sickness in which we experience a prolonged lack of motivation for and passive resistance to the things of God, those things that would bring flourishing in ourselves and others.
Notice that the apathy I’m speaking about is not the fleeting indifference we might feel in a moment. It’s not the passing boredom you feel during a sermon, or your less-than-passionate singing of worship songs on one particular Sunday. I’m more concerned about the pattern, the persistent blahness to the things of God that we sometimes find ourselves stuck in. Spiritual apathy is a sickness. It’s not the way things are supposed to be.
The funny thing about apathy is that it’s highly selective. We’re rarely ever apathetic toward everything. Our souls pick and choose. The paradox of apathy is that we are captivated by the things we don’t really care about and are lukewarm to the things we do, in our heart of hearts, most deeply care about. We don’t act on what we should act on, and are alive to the things we should probably ignore.
This should be especially troubling for Christians who have access to the triune God, have been given a meaningful mission to the world, and are promised an eternal kingdom—and yet find ourselves struggling to move toward and embrace these awesome truths. Sometimes it seems as if there’s an inverse relationship between the grandeur of a truth and our emotional and practical response to it. The greater the truth, the less we care about it. Perhaps this is a result of the fact that sermons and Bible studies never stop talking about the biggest things like God and salvation, heaven and hell. Maybe grand things have become too common, too familiar. Yet, whatever the reason, we sometimes find ourselves bored by big things: the bigger, the more boring.
Discern the Sources
It’s one thing to be aware of a problem, quite another thing to understand why the problem exists. We may diagnose that we’re sick, but healing typically comes only after we’ve figured out the sources of our illness. It’s no different with apathy. There are likely a number of causes conspiring to produce our “meh,” but being able to identify one or two can prove helpful in getting us out of our mire.1 Let me offer one potential cause: doubt.
The Debilitating Effects of Doubt
I’ve wrestled with doubt at various points in my Christian life. The more I interact with mature saints, the more I realize that doubt is a fairly common experience for Christians. C. S. Lewis once acknowledged, “Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable . . . This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway.”2 Yet, while the relative normalcy of doubt is somewhat comforting, the experience and effects of doubt don’t feel all that positive. For me, doubt often results in disengagement.
One writer describes doubt as the mind’s suspension between faith and unbelief. “To believe is to be in one mind about accepting something as true; to disbelieve is to be in one mind about rejecting it; and to doubt is to waver somewhere in between the two, and thus to be in two minds.”3 The term “double-mindedness” is an excellent biblical category for doubt. It captures the idea of wavering between two opinions. James describes the doubting person as “a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:7), he is “unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). Now, whether our doubts arise from intellectual questions or from slightly irrational “what if I’m wrong” kinds of questions, they must be addressed because the effect is often the same: paralysis, inaction, apathy. For instance, why would I pray if I seriously doubt if there is a God on the other end that cares? Or, why share my faith with others if I am wrestling with its truthfulness or uniqueness? Some studies even connect religious doubt to negative emotional health. Persistent and unattended doubt about God can slowly strip our world of a sense of meaning. And a world lacking in meaning is not one I’m going to get excited about.
Remember the Gospel of God’s Grace
The first step in dealing with doubt and apathy is to receive the good news that through Christ, those who are apathetic are in fact set free, healed, and forgiven of their apathy. While we may still struggle with apathy, as with other disordered tendencies, we are told that Christ really has decisively conquered the enemies of our soul, healed our sin-sick hearts, and forgiven us of all our transgressions. We are a free, reborn, and forgiven people, even as we battle with apathy toward our merciful and kind God.
And as we deal with doubt specifically, we must be reminded that we have a God who is patient with doubters. One of the gospel stories I always come back to is the account of Jesus’s healing of the boy oppressed by a mute spirit. His disciples try to heal the boy but are unable. The boy’s father then comes to Jesus saying, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus responds: “All things are possible for one who believes.” Then, the father says something characteristic of many doubters: “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:22–24). To the man suspended between belief and unbelief, Jesus responds with patience and mercy. He gives him what he wants. He heals the man’s son.
We are a free, reborn, and forgiven people, even as we battle with apathy toward our merciful and kind God.
This is not to say that Jesus wholeheartedly applauds doubt. Even after he mercifully resolves Thomas’s doubt by displaying his wounds, he goes on to especially commend those who believe without the extra doubt-banishing proofs (John 20:29). But the point is that the gospel is the good news of a patient God who bears with us and desires to lead us out of doubt.
Fight by Feeding
Beyond rehearsing the gospel (which is no small thing!), is there anything we are responsible to do? The apostle Paul exhorts his readers, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). It’s safe to assume that since Paul commands zeal, he believes we can actually cultivate it. Though it might seem daunting, it’s not impossible. It may just take time and effort.
Let me briefly suggest three ways to address the doubt that sometimes feeds our apathy:
Confess your doubts to God. Own them and ask him to help you past your growing unbelief. God is merciful and patient with you.
Voice your doubts to a trusted friend or counselor. With their help, try to pinpoint the kind of doubt you’re experiencing—whether it is intellectual, emotional, or even a willful rejection of God.
Feed faith and hope. Feed your soul by (1) staying connected to the truths of Scripture that remind us of what is real, even when your emotions ebb and flow; (2) surrounding yourself with people who are living by faith and living passionately; (3) plugging in to what God is doing through his people around the world, as this can sometimes jolt us out of the subtle belief that God is dead and silent.
None of these practices will immediately defeat apathy in our lives. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can gradually become zealous people, less prone to the curse of apathy.
- For several other possible causes, see chapter 3 of my book Overcoming Apathy (Crossway, 2022).
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Collins, 1977), 121–22.
- Os Guinness, “I Believe in Doubt,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed July 16, 2020. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/i-believe-in-doubt/.
Uche Anizor is the author of Overcoming Apathy: Gospel Hope for Those Who Struggle to Care.
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