A High Calling
As a young man, Jonathan Edwards, the 18th Century preacher and theologian, wrote seventy personal resolutions to help keep his spiritual life focused, energetic, and God-centered. His third resolution reads, “Resolved, if ever I shall fall and grow dull, so as to neglect to keep any part of these Resolutions, to repent of all I can remember, when I come to myself again.” A later resolution echoes that sentiment: “Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.”1 As a pastor who regularly taught the word of God, scaling the heights of doctrines like God’s sovereignty, heaven and hell, justification by faith, and more, he was well aware that the heart—even more than the intellect—is always the issue. He knew that those exposed to the deepest and richest Christian truths will often find themselves unresponsive to those very truths. So, he resolved that whenever he fell prey to such dullness and indifference, that he would do whatever he could to break free.
All Christians, not just Edwards, are called to live zealous lives. Paul writes, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). He instructs Christians to maintain a spiritual intensity in their lives. We are to be energetically engaged in the things of God. This is a high calling, even if it is a really difficult one.
The Paradox of Apathy
Most, if not all, Christians go through periods when their passion for God wanes. But there are some of us who experience extended stretches of time when we just don’t care to engage with our faith. Nothing motivates us to pray; nothing excites us about Christ. We just feel blah and stuck. We feel apathetic.
Yet, what’s interesting about our apathy is that it only seems to take aim at meaningful things, spiritual things, things that are meant to give us life. Apathy is highly selective. In fact, one clinical expert on apathy defines typical forms of apathy as “selective apathy.”2 This term describes how relatively healthy people can dramatically lose interest in some things but not all things. And herein lies the disturbing paradox of apathy for Christians. Those of us struggling with apathy can often find ourselves able to get excited about trivial or less meaningful things. Sports or news or the latest must-see Netflix series are still able to get us moving.
The paradox of apathy is that, for the spiritually apathetic, there is an inverse relationship between the greatness of a truth and our emotional and practical response to it. The grander the truth, the less we care about it. I imagine there are a number of reasons for this, including the basic law that familiarity breeds contempt. And it’s true, many Christians are (rightly) very, very familiar with astronomically important truths. Yet, whatever the reason may be, we are bored by big things: the bigger, the more boring. We are, ironically, numbed by grandeur.
Numbed by Triviality
Cultural critic Neil Postman once wrote, “The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.”3 What he puts his finger on is that our apathy can sometimes derive not just from meaningful things becoming too familiar, but from being inundated by trivial things. All day long, news media or social media is vying for our attention. They foist upon us trivial thing after trivial thing—reality star break ups, a former president saying this or that, awards show snubs, and athletes tweeting whatever—and call us to treat them like they’re monumental events. And while we know these things are not all that important, a steady diet of them wears us down. We slowly become numb and it becomes increasingly difficult to feel the bigness of something that is truly a big deal. If everything is important, nothing is truly important.
The Paradox of Grace
What does God have to say to those numbed by the magnificent and the meaningless? His first word to us is not one of condemnation. As with other sicknesses of the soul, God enters into our apathy to free, heal, and forgive us. In fact, we first really need to arm ourselves with the truth that we are not our apathy. Indifference doesn’t define us, even though at the present moment it may feel like it does. What is most true of us is what God has done for us through Christ. We are already free from slavery to apathy, healed of a bent toward indifference, forgiven for our numbness. The apathetic are not barred from God’s grace.
Grace empowers. Grace motivates. Grace causes us to put forth a real effort in our fight for godliness.
Make no mistake, this is not all about touchy feely love and self-affirmation. We most certainly must own that we’re in a bad place. Yet, this is where we encounter the paradox of grace. There is a wonderful prayer that captures this paradox:
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul.4
When we are at our lowest, and feel at our least powerful; when we’re stuck in the muck of our apathy but bring ourselves to God, then will we know his grace more fully. Apathy can be one of the hardest things to overcome. It can be bewildering and feel impossible to defeat. The paradox of apathy—that we are numb to the greatest things—can be conquered by the paradox of grace as we confess our powerlessness and really take in the good news of God’s gentle and merciful heart.
Practice Makes Passionate
Yet, God’s grace is not an invitation to let go and let God. It is not a justification for passivity when it comes to breaking free from our apathy. This is another dimension of grace’s paradox, and it is captured by the apostle Paul when he writes, “[God’s] grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). Grace empowers. Grace motivates. Grace causes us to put forth a real effort in our fight for godliness.
And when it comes to overcoming apathy, we really are in a fight. But the way to victory in this fight is through cultivating a heart that is less prone to apathy and quick to respond to it when it arises.
I’d like to suggest two practices that can help cultivate meaningfulness in your life and undo the crippling effects of the trivial.5 This renewed sense of meaning is an antidote to apathy.
Practice silence. In the midst of the deluge of news, opinions, and noise, we need to make silence and solitude a priority. How else can we have the space to process our thoughts, our feelings, our sense of calling, our values, our mission? We know that our Lord regularly went away for times of solitude and prayer (Matt. 14:13, 23; Luke 4:1–2; 5:16; 6:12). These silent times likely helped him prepare for difficult times ahead, to grieve, and to pray deeply. I don’t think we pray deeply unless we’re clearer on what’s going on inside our hearts. We may want to plan times of extended solitude (maybe 24 hours), where we get away somewhere and get off the grid. Another option is to try and inject moments of solitude into our everyday lives. Perhaps we choose to not listen to anything on our 15-minute drive to work or 30-minute morning run. Small choices like these can help declutter our minds, freeing us up to think about what really matters.
Practice gratitude. Thankfulness is a central part of the Christian life. But as we think about apathy and triviality, I want to highlight the subversive nature of gratitude. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:3–4: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” Notice that thanksgiving undermines filthy, empty, trivial, and mocking talk. We replace triviality with gratitude to God. Calling out all the good things we have from God immediately gives perspective to our daily lives. Paul even suggests that thankfulness infuses meaning to every good gift God has given. “Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4). Start small by thanking God every morning for the everyday things like a warm shower, breakfast, family, a job to go to. During tough seasons, pause and write down the things you’re thankful for. Experts have shown that those who write down what they’re grateful for display greater mental health than those who don’t.
May God help us in our battle to be passionate about the things that matter.
- Jonathan Edwards, “Resolutions,” in Letters and Personal Writings. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 16, ed. George S. Claghorn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 753–59.
- Robert S. Marin, “Differential Diagnosis and Classification of Apathy,” American Journal of Psychiatry 147, no. 1 (1990): 24.
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 2006), 110–11.
- William Bennett, The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002), xxiv–xxv. Used with permission.
- I present a number of other practices in Overcoming Apathy (Crossway), chap. 5.
Uche Anizor is the author of Overcoming Apathy: Gospel Hope for Those Who Struggle to Care.
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