One of the most frustrating parts of my life is that I’m not as passionate about God as I should be. I imagine many Christians feel similarly. There are some, however, for whom this feeling goes deep and lasts long.
Some of us may find ourselves in the midst of a long stretch of feeling fairly indifferent about the things of God. We know that Bible reading, prayer, church involvement, missions, evangelism, and many other means of grace should capture our hearts, but we just can’t seem to get excited about them. We are spiritually apathetic. And while we may be aware of our apathy, we often find ourselves feeling helpless to pull ourselves out of it. It’s one thing to diagnose a disease, but quite another to heal it.
“Zeal — the antithesis of apathy — can be cultivated.”
Scripture is clear that we have a role to play in overcoming apathy. For example, Paul exhorts, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11). The assumption here is that zeal — the antithesis of apathy — can be cultivated. So, how do we find healing from crippling indifference?
Three Questions for the Apathetic
The path to healing begins with coming to grips with the causes of our indifference. While there may be many causes (and many permutations of causes), I want to pose three questions that may help diagnose the possible issues underlying our apathy.
1. Am I living in unconfessed sin?
One possible cause of spiritual indifference is the choice to walk in sinful disobedience to God in some area of life. If we are unremorseful or unrepentant about our sin, we likely will find ourselves feeling cold, distant, and disinterested. Our experience of apathy, then, may be God allowing our fellowship with him to cool in order to snap us out of our sinful stupor and draw us to him in repentance. David writes,
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer (Psalm 32:3–4)
David interprets the emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion he feels as the result of his silence regarding his sin. In a similar way, the source of our listlessness may not be as mysterious as we might think. Those who are cold to God are allowed by him to grow still colder.
“If we sow to satisfy our sinful desires, we should not be surprised to find ourselves feeling distant from God.”
Paul echoes this scriptural connection between sin and deadness when he cautions, “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7–8). If we sow to satisfy our sinful desires, we should not be surprised to find ourselves feeling distant from God and less enthusiastic about what matters to him. This is not to say that sin is always or even often punished with apathy. Yet we do well to remain open to the possibility that willful and unconfessed sin may be blunting our passion.
2. Have I neglected God’s means of grace?
I fear that sometimes we make spiritual growth overly complicated. It seems we are regularly trying to find the secret key that unlocks closeness to God and power in our spiritual lives. Yet in our search for that key, we often neglect the basics. What are the basics? Here’s one: “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you will grow, grow, grow.” In other words, hear God’s promises and commands, and then respond to him — this will make you more like him. Dallas Willard is correct when he writes,
We can become like Christ by doing one thing — by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself. If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live. We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father. (The Spirit of the Disciplines, ix)
What did Jesus do? He prayed, studied and meditated on God’s word, and regularly served others (among other activities). Those are the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. They are some of God’s means of showering his life-transforming grace on us. If we neglect these, is it any wonder we are growing dull to God? Remember, it is those who meditate on God’s word day and night — that is, those who make this a disciplined practice — that are like vibrant trees planted by streams of water (Psalm 1:2–3). The less time we spend with a beloved friend, the less likely we are to have him on our minds and in our hearts.
3. What fills my mind daily?
If God is not filling our thoughts and occupying our attention daily, then what is? The reality is that we are always being formed. We are being shaped by everything that holds our gaze, whether we realize it or not. The problem for us is that we are regularly beckoned to fix our eyes on objects that really don’t matter much. We are in a culture where the peripheral and irrelevant are presented as meaningful and worthy of our attention. This is a problem for those wanting to maintain spiritual zeal.
In the foreword to his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, cultural critic Neil Postman contrasts the dystopian visions of George Orwell (1984) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) — and through them paints an insightful picture of the dangers we face today.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. (xix)
Our world is Orwellian and Huxleyan, but Huxley’s concern is relevant here. We have become a trivial culture and, unfortunately, triviality numbs us to the meaningful. In a world where everything is seemingly significant, what are we really supposed to care about?
Paul exhorts the Colossians, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2). In doing so, he calls them to continually carry with them the distinction between the trivial and the meaningful, and to set their minds on the latter. The problem with making everything important is that everything might become equally important. It becomes increasingly difficult to feel the grandeur of something that really is a big deal. As Postman writes, “The public has . . . been amused into indifference” (110–11). At a time when everything is posted, liked, commented on, and retweeted, we are slowly being conditioned to treat worthy things unworthily or, worse, to stop caring about anything. Does this describe you?
Again, I could have highlighted other factors that contribute to apathy (like fatigue, grief, doubt, and more), but I’ve highlighted these three, as they are among the most common in my experience. It may also be the case that apathy is a mere symptom of a greater issue. Even still, view these questions as a launching point for further reflection.
As I said earlier, we do have a role to play. What is it? How can we “lift our drooping hands” (Hebrews 12:14) and take steps to overcome indifference?
If the issue is unconfessed sin, own the sin before your Lord and before someone else. Confess. Repent. Receive God’s forgiveness for you in Christ (1 John 1:9).
If the issue is a lack of spiritual disciplines, start small, but start somewhere. If Bible reading has become stale, shift gears and try listening to an audio version. If prayers have become repetitive or you don’t know what to say, pray the Psalms or grab a hymnbook and pray those songs as if they are your own heart’s desire. Shake things up. But start somewhere, anywhere. These are just small ways to fight the good fight of the faith (1 Timothy 6:12).
If the issue is filling your mind with too much triviality, consider fasting from Twitter, other social-media platforms, or even your phone (for a short season). Seek to cultivate a sense of meaning by only reading long-form material — that is, edited articles or books that require you to slow down, reflect, and respond thoughtfully. We are in a crisis of meaninglessness, and we exacerbate it by being less reflective and more reactive. Give yourself the time and space to be “renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Ephesians 4:23).
As with most parts of the Christian life, the solutions may be straightforward but not easy. This is especially the case for the apathetic, for whom motivation is the main issue. So, it’s worth repeating: start small, and then pray that God will enable you to take more steps forward and sustain you in continuing those steps. He is at work in you to will and to act for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).