I remember waking up for the first time, spiritually. I was twenty-three. My attention, my energy shifted. I saw a world outside my world. I cared about the needs of others. “I was on fire for the Lord,” to use the tired-old phrase.
That experience so impacted me that I left engineering to become a full-time pastor. My first day on the job, I remember spilling over with passion and excitement. I get to work with a few hundred Christians every day, people as eager to change the world as I am. What a dream.
I was equally naive and unprepared, ill-prepared for the apathetic response to my save-the-world-blueprint. I could not, for the life of me, understand why other Christians weren’t as passionate as myself. Why didn’t they care?
I get it now.
I’m now the one who’s deaf to such voices, blind to the pain and suffering around me, unmoved by the call to justice. I hate this. Somedays, I do care. But most days, I’m merely riding the hedonistic treadmill. I move quickly and exhaust myself going nowhere. I’m controlled by my calendar. Completing my daily to-do list is my life’s greatest purpose. Take the kids to school. Sit down and write. Read 50 pages of a book. Finish the day with a zero in my inbox. Check, check, check, check. Great job today, Frank. You killed it today. Same thing mañana. Ready…break!
Because we’re so prone to this slumber-esque existence, one of the greatest tasks of any pastor is to call people to Wake up! I believe, in fact, anyone who challenges others to a life outside their own immediate needs is a pastor, regardless if you work at a church or a bank or stay home with the young ‘ens.
But why? Why do we fall asleep? Why do we stop caring about justice and mercy and walking with God?
We’re created to care. You believe that, right? When people hurt, we should hurt. When our eyes see injustice, something in us should feel compassion and empathy. When we meet someone who sacrifices their immediate needs for some greater good, embraces risks and isn’t afraid of failure, we’re inspired. And why? Maybe because we catch a glimpse of how we’re supposed to live.
We’re formed in God’s image, after all. The God we serve cares about justice and redemption and restoration. He doesn’t pull the string on creation and watch from a distance as it all unfolds. He’s with us. He even steps into our world to become the ultimate sacrifice for us.
So, if we’re created to care, why are we so care-less?
That’s a catch-all answer, Frank.
Fair enough. But I’m going somewhere, and before we embark, I want to pave the way with this: when we stop caring about the common good and instead live only for our personal, immediate needs, something sinister and evil is at work.
Indifference deserves more than a passing “meh.” Satan is behind our spiritual slumbering.
Why indifference is the sin of all sins
His demon of choice to keep us asleep is acedia. Sounds ancient, yeah. Has a caveman-vernacular-feel to it. I get that. Not much is spoken about this sin in modern-day Christian circles. And that is exactly Satan’s plan. So long as this demon remains hidden, it’s power remains. You can’t overcome a sin you can’t name.
You might know acedia as indifference or spiritual apathy. Those are more modern equivalents, I suppose. The word, though, acedia, simply means “absence of care.”
What you choose to call this sin matters not as much as the seriousness you give it.
Spiritual indifference has both personal and societal consequences. Some even consider it the alpha sin, the worst of all sins. The early church father, Evagrius, referring to acedia as the “noonday demon,” says, “the other demons are like the rising or setting sun in that they’re found in only a part of the soul. The noonday demon, however, is accustomed to embrace the entire soul and oppress the spirit.” Alexander Schemann says, “The basic disease is sloth…It is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source.”
Indifference convinces us that change isn’t possible. Left unchecked, it grows into a deep-rooted cynicism, the kind that gives the same response to personal transformation and societal injustice: “What for?”
When this sin is full-grown, we no longer want ourselves or the world to change.
Indifference keeps us small and locked in self-preservation mode. It’s the sin that forces you to settle for less than you were created to be. It’s the sin that numbs your heart and your capacity to feel. It’s the sin that says “What’s the use?” in the face of the difficulties of marriage or meaningful work or anything else that involves commitment and perseverance and pain and failure (which is almost everything that gives life meaning).
Jesus speaks to the seriousness of acedia in the Parable of the Talents.
You know the story, right? A master divvies out talents to three servants: to the first, five; to the second, two; to the third, one. The first two do something with their talents, trading them and acquiring more. One-talent guy, however, does nothing. He buries his talent and pulls up a chair until his master’s return.
When the master finally returns from his extended trip, he asks the three to pony up. The five-talent guy presents his master with five more. The two-talent guy presents his master with two more. The master praises both as “good and faithful servants.”
The one-talent guy, however, gives his master back exactly what he received, one-talent. To this, the master loses it, calling this servant “wicked and slothful.”
There it is. Slothful.
This man was guilty of what? Playing it safe. Risking nothing. Investing nothing. Burying his treasure and sitting still. This is the sin of indifference on full display.
And what’s more?
Spiritual indifference convinces us God is unfair and hard to please and can’t be trusted. That’s what the one-talent man says, right? “I knew you to be a hard man… (Matt. 25:24). Indifference paints a toxic image of God. Once the portrait is complete, the only thing we see is fear.
Now you get it? How indifference progresses into fear?
We start by playing it safe, and image of God changes to reflect a God who values comfort and security. In this world, risk is irresponsible. In this world, God is unfair and rewards people who save for the future and behave properly.
From this toxic image of God comes almost every form of evil. Shame. Dehumanization. Greed. Pride. Lust.
The societal effects of indifference
What happens when acedia infects a culture? I’m tempted to say “America,” but you would judge me cynical and I want you to like me, so I’ll nibble around the edges instead.
When spiritual indifference infects a collective group of people, the oppressed and marginalized become something less than human, often scapegoats for the privileged and powerful. In a culture where apathy flourishes, the most powerful elevate their platforms by blaming the culture’s problems on the powerless.
Why is our economy declining? Them. They’re the problem.
How do we make our country safer? Get rid of them.
Now, don’t miss this. This oppression of the powerless by the powerful is ONLY possible when the MASSES stop caring.
How does something like Auschwitz happen? How does one man, one regime murder millions of Jews? One man, I would argue, didn’t. The masses were responsible for it. “Whenever totalitarianism of any kind rears its ugly head, it’s because ordinary people have stopped caring about the life of the people and the nation,” says historian John Buchanan.
When ordinary folks – the largest majority of society – care more about their personal comfort and security than the well-being of others, you can be sure the ancient demon of acedia is to blame. You can also be sure that if ordinary folks don’t wake up and confront this demon, more evil will follow.
A more recent example of this is the disgusting saga of Larry Nassar sexually abusing hundreds of girls (and now, we find out, boys too). How does this happen? The university and others associated with the USA gymnastics received warning at various points along the way. They were ignored. Why?
Acedia. Lack of care. More concern for security and comfort than the well-being of others, particularly the powerless and voiceless.
I want you to see these stories, not just as examples of the powerful and privileged being more concerned with their personal security than the well-being of the oppressed, but as the manifestation of evil.
To remain silent in the face of injustice is sin. It’s indifference. To place personal comfort over the oppression of another human or group of humans is evil. We need to own this as such and repent. We need to wake up! We need to stop living for personal comforts and immediate needs. We need to care about injustice and oppression. We need to see that small voice that says “who cares?” or “my voice won’t make a difference” as evil. That’s the demon of indifference trying to creep into our hearts and minds.
We need to recognize that we were created to care. And this sin will use any means necessary to prevent us from taking risks and speaking out against injustice.
In the next post, I want to paint a picture of life without acedia and give a few practical ways to wake up and live with more meaning.
Grace and peace, friends.
Frank is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.