What Is Apathy?
Q. How do I pray when I’m feeling apathetic toward my faith?
A. As if my very soul depended upon it!
Apathy is not a Scripture word. In none of the many translations I checked was “apathy” used as a direct translation from Hebrew or Greek, and in only one, the Amplified Bible, Classic Edition, did it appear at all, and as an expansion, or “amplification” of the original language. But, that amplification is quite relevant to our question.
In their spiritual apathy they have become callous and past feeling and reckless and have abandoned themselves [a prey] to unbridled sensuality, eager and greedy to indulge in every form of impurity [that their depraved desires may suggest and demand].1
While we may think of apathy as a state of low energy or as a lack of something, it’s worse than that.
This book presents 17th-century pastor Richard Baxter’s wise, gentle advice to comfort and strengthen all who struggle with depression or know someone who does.
Apathy is derived from the Greek word apathos, (Απαθώς) where the “a” negates the word which follows—pathos—to yield “without feeling.” We could also use insensibility or indifference. Apathy is closely connected to an attitude which says, in effect, It doesn’t matter, or, in the current and irritating vernacular of dismissal, whatever.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s second definition is instructive: “Indolence of mind, indifference to what is calculated to move the feelings, or to excite interest or action.” The associated thesaurus suggests lethargy, dryness, stupidity, stolidity, stupor, and senselessness, among others.2
Apathy is a vice, not a virtue. Apathy, while being an “affective” or emotional “state,” is more of a symptom than a proper diagnosis, per se. So, in looking for the cure for apathy, we can look at some of the examples of it in Scripture, and find that it has multiple causes, and therefore, potentially, more than one cure.
In the context important to our topic—Christian spirituality and the discipline of prayer—we can best understand apathy toward prayer in terms of the thoughts and attitudes, the feelings (affect and emotions) and the behavior through which apathy is expressed. Scripture provides numerous examples of apathy, some of which seem clearly recorded as instructional examples (1 Cor. 10:11). We can look at a few. Follow me through what may seem a bit of a ramble through Scripture, as this will provide a much broader context for understanding the nature and dangers of spiritual apathy, and guides to its cure and prevention.
Examples in the Old Testament
Examples of apathy abound, particularly during the post-Exodus wanderings. “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?” (Ex. 14:11). The Israelites repeatedly questioned God’s intentions. “They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt” (Neh. 9:17). God explicitly tells us that they despised the Promised Land (Ps. 106:24), and God was so put off by their stubborn refusal to believe that he destroyed them in the wilderness. They not only despised the Promised Land, but the manna (Num. 11:1–6), which we know to have been the very presence of Christ, who followed them in the wilderness also as a rock, giving forth streams of living water (1 Cor. 10:4). They quickly became indifferent to and unmoved by the recent miracles.
David, during his exile and flight from King Saul had been—as was fitting—not only restraining his men from foraging at the expense of Nabal, but actively protecting that wealthy man’s herds. He expected to be rewarded. Instead, he was coarsely insulted. David’s response? “Surely in vain have I guarded all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him, and he has returned me evil for good” (1 Sam. 25:21). David decided that enough was enough, but goes further and takes matters into his own hands. He invokes a curse upon himself if he does not destroy, to a man, the very men over whose welfare he had been so solicitous. How quickly a smug satisfaction turned into seething rage. This is not the only time David was tempted by murder.
A gracious, wise and understanding woman, Nabal’s wife, appeals to David. Her words, demeanor, and beauty carried the day. “Because the LORD has restrained you from bloodguilt and from saving with your own hand. . . . [you] shall have no cause of grief or pangs of conscience for having shed blood without cause or for my lord working salvation for himself” (1 Sam. 25:26, 31). David concurs: “You . . . have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand” (1 Sam. 25:33). David, in his sense of futility and antipathy (opposite in feeling) derived from his apathy, is seen to have moved quickly from a sense of self-interested benevolence to overt malice, and rashness of intent.
Perhaps the most famous example of apathy is that which Asaph records autobiographically. With refreshing transparency, he opens his heart and mind to us. “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence,” he complains (Ps. 73:13). Why does Asaph find the practice of righteousness to be meaningless? He tells us explicitly: “For [we could say, because] all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning” (Ps. 73:14). In other words, “it’s not fair.” He is saying, “I did my part and those arrogant, wicked, self-indulgent, violent, scoffing, threatening and foolish haters of God and his commandments are better of than I am! It’s not right!” Asaph’s narrow perspective brought him into the apathy of near despair, but he resists giving public voice to his apathy.
God is not pleased with or tolerant of apathy. Neither should we be.
Hezekiah, unlike Asaph, is in great shape, having been healed from his fatal illness and delivered from an overwhelming enemy force. Apathy, for Hezekiah, came during that respite of fifteen years, in the form of complacency. Things are good enough, he seemed to think. It is not adversity which leads Hezekiah into apathy, but prosperity.
We subsequently learn that Hezekiah’s response to God’s healing was not gratitude but pride (2 Chron. 32:25). We are told that “God left him to himself, in order to test him and know what was in his heart” (2 Chron. 32:31). What He found in this righteous king was pride in his great wealth and possessions. Here was apathy manifested, not that things were going so badly that he would die or that the enemy would prevail (185,000 had just been destroyed [2 Kings 19:35]), but that things were going so very well that he could relax. Hezekiah found repentance in humility. The result is that God deferred his judgment on Judah until after Hezekiah’s death.
So, Hezekiah, being cured of his prosperity-induced indifference, is able to accept the terms of God’s pronounced judgment with equanimity. At least he won’t have to see it himself. We are explicitly told that it was because (and therefore after) Hezekiah humbled himself that “the wrath of the LORD did not come . . . in the days of Hezekiah” (2 Chron. 32:26). Accordingly, we must see this godly man’s resignation to the coming horrors as an acceptance of it, gratitude for the respite he was granted, but not as a recurrence of apathy.
Examples in the New Testament
Examples in the New Testament abound. John the Baptist, having become discouraged in prison, asks, “Are you [really] the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Luke 7:20). He has begun to suspect that his mission has been futile, and in his apathy, contemplates a repudiation of the very one he had not long before proclaimed to be “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Thomas, the resident cynic, upon learning of Jesus’s plan to return to the dangerous situation in Jerusalem, expressed not faith but a “whatever” sentiment. “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). We are too familiar with his post-resurrection statements for them to require repetition, but they are initially expressive of determined unbelief. Peter’s three-fold denial would also appear to represent a sense of futility and apathy. He found it much easier, in the face of danger, to preserve his life—working, as it were, his own deliverance—than to keep his recent vow to Jesus.
Following the resurrection, two disciples are leaving the others and leaving Jerusalem. They express not faith but a sense of mistaken loyalty. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Peter, Thomas, James and John along with two unnamed disciples (those who earlier traveled to Emmaus?), having already and very recently encountered the risen Christ, decide, effectively, that “there is nothing you can do”3 and return to their prior occupation as commercial fisherman, to catch fish, not men.
God Is Not Apathetic
God is not pleased with or tolerant of apathy. Neither should we be. We could say that God is anything but apathetic toward apathy in his people. “Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:16). Apathy toward God or His promises and commandments is not an option. It represents a state of sin and of further temptation to more. What must we do to be saved from it? Let’s see what God himself says.
We can learn from God’s critique of Israel’s failures, and from the Letters to the Seven Churches, both what we should avoid and what we should do to resist and seek to avoid the onset of apathy. It is the forgetting of what God has so conspicuously done or has promised, even sworn to do, or the dismissal of it as “so yesterday,” that is the root of much apathy. Perhaps that is why the Scriptures are so replete with admonishments not to forget, but to remember, recall, and to give thanks for “for his wondrous works to the children of man” (Ps. 107).
The words remember and forget would be suitable word studies in themselves. Their conspicuous and even distribution from Genesis through Revelation should grab our attention. Sometimes it is God who admonishes us to remember, and at other times, it is we who ask God to remember. We sometimes need convincing, and God has condescended to assist us in our weakness.
So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. (Heb. 6:17–18)
Apathy Is Unbelief
Apathy begets more apathy. Repentance from it and toward righteousness is the demand of God and Scripture. In fact, both vices and virtues are contagious (Deut. 20:8; Luke 22:32). Alarm—not acquiescence or indulgence—in the face of apathy is the proper posture. For the sufferers from apathy cited above who were delivered, there are useful contrasts in cause and cure, taking David, Asaph, and Hezekiah as examples.
Asaph’s bitterness appears to have been a private matter and a private sin. He confesses that he considered making it a public one, but did not do so, as he realized in time what discouragement that might bring upon the larger congregation. Asaph was a chief musician for public worship (1 Chron. 16:5), no mean office! But, what he did in his distress (instead of spreading it abroad) was to go to church. It was in the midst of the congregation that the purposes of God were revealed to him clearly, and there was his comfort found. In effect, Asaph remembered the Sabbath day (Ex. 20:8), and did not neglect public worship. Accordingly, he both received and provided encouragement rather than discouragement (Heb. 10:25), and in the lasting form of a psalm dear to many.
Hezekiah’s apathy arose not from bitterness (he had dealt with that appropriately) but from pride, which stemmed in part from his tremendous affluence, the very “personal peace and affluence” against which Francis Schaeffer so tirelessly warned and which has become synonymous with his name. Hezekiah did not—most of us may be relieved to learn—sell all that he had and distribute to the poor (Luke 18:22), but he did humble himself, without which the disposal of his wealth would have been to no avail (1 Cor. 13). In effect, Hezekiah reopened his proud heart to the love of God, and God was pleased by that (Mic. 6:7–8).
Apathy must be recognized for what it is: a grave manifestation of dangerous unbelief. Further, we should seek to identify the cause(s) of our apathy. Is it envy? Pride? Disappointment? Humiliation? Rage? Discouragement? Seeking to change our circumstances in ways which violate God’s commandments? These are but some of the potential contributors to apathy, and not intended as a definitive, much less an exhaustive, list. You may find others which are more relevant to your situation. But, examine your own thoughts and attitudes, as clues are to be found in such reflection.
Remember what God has already done and what he has promised to do. Remembering is logically followed by belief and gratitude. While we cannot directly control our emotions and feelings, we can exert direct influence upon our thoughts, spoken words (which flow from them), and attitudes. Thus can we induce appropriate sentiments to be expressed in our prayers, even when our feelings are out-of-sync. Richard Baxter would tell us to “Set your thoughts on the things you know to be right and good,”4 echoing Paul’s advice (Phil. 4:8). In other words, exercise the control you do have over the content of your thoughts.
Deliverance from apathy and the sins associated with it came to David, Asaph, and Hezekiah through different means. We should be open to criticism, which serves to redirect us (as Abigail provided to David), and we should always be seeking to gain humility, as Hezekiah did. But, I find that Asaph’s situation represents the more general approach to apathy. Asaph went to church, where God opened his eyes to matters, and gave Asaph the broader perspective he needed to stop envying the wicked, as their fate is nothing to be desired. Unlike David, he restrained his speech, and was loathe to join the wicked in order to affect his own “salvation.” We cannot always depend upon the timely counsel of a loved one or friend, and while we should be open to it and even seek it, in the absence of it we should follow general principles that are advocated, even commanded in Scripture.
When we are tired, discouraged, irritated by circumstances or other believers, depressed, angry, envious, frustrated or otherwise distracted from God’s goodness and provision, going to church may seem burdensome. I’ve encountered too many who find easy reasons to skip church, and that strikes me as quite the wrong way to escape from the doldrums which apathy tends to represent. Rather, we should “Remember the Sabbath day” and strive to “keep it holy” (Deut. 5:15), which will entail, at minimum, “not neglecting to meet together,” as this is closely associated with “encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:25).
It is failure to meet together that is likely to increase our own discouragement, but also that of others. When we participate in public worship, on the other hand, we find support from the structure of the service. We are invited, for example, to “Lift up your hearts,” and can respond with, “We lift them up to the LORD,” or with our your own tradition’s equivalent. Often, there is a public, communal confession of sin and request for pardon and restoration. For me, the most moving part of my Sunday morning are the words, “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn to him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”5
Now, going to church does not relieve one of the duty and privilege of private devotions. If you find yourself in a state of apathy during the long week between Sunday services, use the “liturgy” provided by God to “lift up your heart” to him. Psalm 106, for me, represents a particularly rich example of how to pray when I don’t feel like doing so, or when it seems that “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”6 Psalm 106 provides us with thoughts approved by God for use in the situation. We can, to paraphrase the astronomer Johannes Kepler, “Pray God’s thoughts after him.”7 Here’s a brief synopsis of that psalm:
- Praise God.
- Give thanks.
- Affirm the not-always self-evident truth of the blessedness of those who “do righteousness.”
- Ask for God to “remember” me when he is demonstrating his favor to his people.
- Confess sins, personal and corporate.
- Affirm God’s mercy in spite of sins.
- Recall his past and wondrous dealings with his people.
- Admit that past mercies are all too often forgotten.
- Let the lessons of unbelief and stubbornness serve as cautions to me in my situation.
- Remember that God’s mercy toward me is in spite of my disobedience.
- Remember that God’s purpose in answering my prayer is to bring praise to my lips.
- Praise God, and do so out loud!
While it may feel a bit forced and even mechanical (or sometimes hypocritical) to say and pray what we do not presently feel, it need not remain so. In other words, do not wait until you feel like praying to do so. When you are disinclined to pray, do so anyway. When you don’t know what to pray, accept the instruction given the disciples when they asked to be taught to pray but were in fact told what to say in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, but how to persist in praying (Luke 11:1–12).
Pray that prayer out loud, and persist in so doing. You will find this prayer is always answered if you persist in it, and that one of the answers to it will be the emergence of feelings of praise and gratitude. Those follow our obedience and vocal expression of such thoughts. “The will is the person in God’s account and what one would truly be and have, so one is and shall have.”8
As Baxter states further, “Prayer itself, when you are all but incapable of it, must be performed only to the degree that you are able.” He further states, “Do not misunderstand me: in matters of absolute necessity—let me emphasize—you must endeavor to do them no matter what. If you are slow to believe, to repent, to love God and your neighbor, to be sober, righteous, and godly, or even to pray at all [emphasis added], then here you must strive and not excuse yourself because of reluctance.” Baxter elsewhere assures us that “thoughts of love and mercy would breed love and sweetness in the soul.”9 We cannot remain apathetic when such sentiments enter our hearts.
Stay alert. Don’t let grief or discouragement allow you to excuse entering into temptation (Mark 14:32–42). Lest we imagine that this advice is only for those with Jesus at Gethsemane, he elsewhere tells us all, “And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake” (Mark 13:37).
Count as nothing “the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb. 11:25) and embrace a contempt for those things as well as for the inevitable ridicule of the world. The world will indeed be “surprised when you do not join them . . . and they malign you” (1 Pet. 4:4), but so what?
If we take apathy seriously, as does God, we will be better equipped to recognize it when it threatens, and avoid it, or at least escape from it earlier. Having done so ourselves, we will be better equipped to offer encouragement and comfort to others who are in the same predicament (2 Cor. 1:4).
Thanks be to God!
1. Ephesians 4:19, The Amplified Bible, Classic Edition (AMPC), https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=eph+4.19&version=AMPC
2. Oxford English Dictionary Online, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/190724#eid20375946
3. From the Japanese 仕方がない, transliterated as “shikata-ga-nai.” see Makoto Fujimura, "Silence and Beauty," InterVarsity Press P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426, 2016
4. Lundy, Michael S and Packer, J. I., Depression, Anxiety. and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter, p155. Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2018.
5. Book of Common Prayer, Protestant Episcopal Church, 1928
6. Hamlet, III, iii, 100-103
8. Packer, J. I., Praying the Lord's Prayer, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2007.
9. Lundy, Michael S. and Packer, J. I., Depression, Anxiety and the Christian Life: Practical Wisdom from Richard Baxter, p155. Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2018.
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