Believers often describe the Christian life as a series of peaks and valleys, with periods of joyful discipleship followed by seasons of spiritual listlessness. Uche Anizor, a professor at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology, writes for those trudging through the valley in Overcoming Apathy: Gospel Hope for Those Who Struggle to Care. Matthew LaPine, a pastor and author on topics of theology and human psychology, spoke with Anizor about the causes of spiritual apathy and the pathway back to a passionate pursuit of God.
What motivated you to write a book on apathy among Christians?
There are two motivations. One comes from experiences early on in my Christian life, particularly when I worked with Campus Crusade for Christ. Basically, my job was to mentor students and do regular evangelism. However, there were many days when I would dread facing these monumental spiritual tasks. It troubled me: I had raised support to do this, but when it came time to do it, I didn’t really want to. Fear of evangelism was probably a factor. But overall, there was a general “blahness” in my attitude. During that time, I told people over and over that my main vice as a Christian was being an apathetic person. So I wanted to get my mind around why that was.
My other motivation comes from having mentored lots of students during my years at Biola. They struggle with typical stuff, but I think the main thing is just not caring about their spiritual life. Intellectually, they know the importance of knowing theology, loving Jesus, and living the Christian life. But they can’t get themselves to care the way they know, deep down, they should.
When it comes to the pull of apathy, do you see any generational differences?
There is apathy in every generation. But different people process and evaluate it in different ways. The irony right now is that younger people are often far more emotionally aware than their elders. They are aware of their internal world, aware enough to want to talk about it openly. But I’m not sure that awareness leads them to deal with what’s going on inside. Their friends might say, “Yeah, I totally connect with that.” But they’re all stuck in this self-affirming mire.
Perhaps previous generations were less emotionally aware. Even if they had feelings of apathy, they would just persist in putting their heads down and getting the job done, whereas members of this emotionally aware generation might stop doing something when they don’t feel genuine passion. If they’re feeling apathetic about the things of God, they’ll be less inclined to continue pursuing those things.
How would you distinguish between apathy and close cousins like depression, despondency, and what might be called “dry spells”?
It’s important to note that I’m not using the term apathy in a clinical sense, but instead as it pertains to the things Christians purportedly value, the things of God. There is overlap between this kind of spiritual apathy and depression. But there are certain characteristics unique to each. Depression relates to things like suicidal ideation and a pervasive lack of energy or motivation in every area of life.
Apathy, however, tends to be more selective. With the young men I’ve mentored, they are not apathetic about everything. They might be quite excited about gaming, or their girlfriends, or the LA Lakers. Depression tends to be more pervasive, and it might require therapy or other forms of treatment that wouldn’t necessarily apply to apathy.
As for despondency, I define it as a deep sadness, or bewilderment, especially as it pertains to the things of God. If we’re dealing with despondency rather than apathy, what the despondent person needs most is to be comforted.
With dry spells, or what we might call the dark night of the soul, we’re dealing with something that is good and divinely orchestrated. God intends it for our good. The person going through the dry spell just needs help to persevere through it and press into God.
In the book, you outline several possible causes of apathy, from the situational to the spiritual. How can someone untangle these possible causes?
Many people are bewildered by their apathy. In the book, I present seven possible causes, a mix of internal and external factors. I’m aware that I could have come up with more, but the goal is simply to offer some aids to self-diagnosis—some mirrors to help assess where you are. Perhaps, for example, my description of spiritual doubt rings true to you. Or perhaps you’ve been immersed in triviality and just stopped caring about basically everything. Or perhaps you’ve just stopped doing anything that pertains to God, and so naturally you’ve grown indifferent. If any of these causes don’t seem to fit, just move on to the next one. The book is meant to be something of a conversation partner.
In your own case, you describe how your season of apathy arose from both doubt and depression. Can spiritual and nonspiritual causes reinforce one another?
Apathy can have causes that aren’t obviously moral or spiritual. Think of grief, for example. Scripture doesn’t treat grief as problematic or sinful. We all grieve, even if we aren’t meant to grieve like those who have no hope. So even though grief is an amoral category, it can contribute to hopelessness, which is something that tends toward apathy. There are other things—like consuming media or experiencing certain forms of doubt—that may not be inherently problematic, but which can lead to apathy if they are mishandled or overindulged.
You recommend combating apathy through cultivating—mixing a military metaphor with the language of gardening. Why this combination?
The combat metaphor communicates that we’re called to engage in real spiritual battle with the flesh and with the Enemy. This is not passive Christianity. It’s not “Let go, let God.” We’re engaged in a battle.
However, this battle doesn’t turn on some decisive moment where I take out my sword of the Spirit, recite some Scripture, slay the Devil, and move on with life. Overcoming apathy involves cultivating a life of virtue, of integrity and holiness.
You write about the importance of cultivating community, affection, meaning, mission, generosity, and fortitude. What has been most important in your journey away from spiritual apathy?
I would say community—both church community and Christian community broadly speaking. Being with God’s people has kept me going in my drier seasons, especially when wrestling with doubt. Simply being with normal Christ-ians and taking part in the life of the church have been key. It has been helpful to have close friendships with people who are passionate.
I realized that it was critical not to spend time only with people who were stuck, like me. I’m not saying we cast off people who are struggling. But it’s important to have some accountability on this issue, especially from those who are fighting for zeal and are real examples of it.
What is your greatest hope for this book?
I hope those who are struggling with apathy can get a clear sense that God is for them and with them. The Father has given us his Son and his Spirit, which empowers us to move beyond apathy in our lives. I hope this book can give people real hope that change is possible, even if there are no silver-bullet fixes. Apathy isn’t destiny. Ideally, the book can offer some tools to help people take baby steps toward overcoming it.
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