By Mike Willis
Having previously defined apathy and shown what is wrong with it, we now become concerned with finding out whether or not we are guilty of apathy toward our Lord. Paul wrote, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Cor. 13:5). Christians need to constantly be sure that they are not separated from God through sin. Furthermore, because of the prevalence of apathy in the world around us and the general acceptance given to those who are spiritually apathetic, we especially need to be careful to examine ourselves regarding whether or not we are personally guilty of showing apathy toward God and His word.
The Subtlety Of The Spiritual Disease
There are some sins which are committed so blatantly that one can have no question in his mind regarding whether or not he is guilty of sinning before God. Fornication, adultery, theft, murder, and a number of other sins are of such a nature that one can, at any given moment in time, definitely state whether or not he has been guilty of doing these things.
Other sins pertain to general dispositions in one’s heart. They are the kinds of sins which gradually pull one away from God. Although each of us would readily admit that these are sins, we are not able to spot them in our lives quite so easily as the ones mentioned above. For example, covetousness is a sin, as all of us would admit (Col. 3:5); yet, who have you known who ever confesses being guilty of covetousness? Conceit and arrogance are so subtle that some people actually become proud of their humility! Who have you known who openly confessed that he was conceited and arrogant (Phil. 2:3)? Sins which affect us so subtly as these sins are those which we must be extremely careful to avoid.
Apathy certainly falls into the second of these categories. It smites the heart first of all and later manifests itself in outward acts. The subtlety of apathy lies in the gradual manner in which it hits a man. A man does not wake up one morning apathetic toward Christ; rather, he drifts away from Him gradually. Consequently, as we study the sin of apathy, our attitude should be that of the eleven apostles when Jesus announced that one of them would betray Him; they asked, “Lord, is it I?” (Matt. 26:22).
How do I know whether or not I am becoming apathetic toward Christ? How does apathy manifest itself to us? Let us see how apathy afflicts the Christian.
Manifestations of Apathy
1. Loss of zeal. The New Testament Christians were a zealous bunch! As Paul described the traits of one who had given himself as a living sacrifice to God, he mentioned that he was “fervent in spirit” (Ram. 12:11). Indeed, the first Christians were fervent in spirit! They “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). When some among them lacked the physical necessities of life, others among them “sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (Acts 2:44-45). Throughout this period, they continued “daily with one accord in the temple” listening to the word of life being preached to them (Acts 2:46).
This spiritual zeal lived for a long time after Pentecost. As the number of the disciples continued to grow, the physical needs of the members grew. Yet, “neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (Acts 4:34-35). The record specifically mentions the fine example of Barnabas in this regard (Acts 4:36-37).
Not even persecution could extinguish the burning zeal of the early disciples. When Stephen was stoned to death, there began a great persecution against the church which was in Jerusalem which resulted in the scattering of the early disciples throughout Judea and Samaria. One would think that such a persecution would have dampened the spirits of those early Christians, cooling their burning zeal. Instead, “they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).
Those among the early Christians who did not manifest this same zeal for the Lord were soundly rebuked. The author of Hebrews wrote,
But, beloved, we persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak. For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: that ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises (Heb. 6:9-12).
Christians of the first century were not expected to be slothful with reference to their service to Christ; they were expected to be diligent in their labors.
Yet, the first place that apathy strikes is the heart of man. The burning zeal, which might properly be called “one’s first love” (Rev. 2:4-5), is assaulted by the devil. A good description of how this occurs is found in Screwtape’s instructions to Wormwood (from The Screwtape Letters, a fictional account of one devil’s instructions to another devil on how to destroy a Christian); C. S. Lewis wrote as follows:
In the first place I have found that the Trough periods of the human undulation provide excellent opportunity for all sensual temptations, particularly those of sex. . .
But there is an even better way of exploiting the Trough; I mean through the patient’s own thoughts-about it. As always, the first step is to keep knowledge out of his mind. Do not let him suspect the law of undulation. Let him assume that the first ardors of his conversion might have been expected to last, and ought to have lasted, forever, and that his present dryness is an equally permanent condition. Having once got this misconception well fixed in his head, you may then proceed in various ways. It all depends on whether your man is of the desponding type who can be tempted to despair, or of the wishful-thinking type who can be assured that all is well. The former type is getting rare among the humans. If your patient should happen to belong to it, everything is easy. You have only got to keep him out of the way of experienced Christians (an easy task nowadays), to direct his attention to the appropriate passages in Scripture, and then to set him to work on the desperate design of recovering his old feelings by sheer will power, and the game is ours. If he is of the more helpful type, your job is to make him acquiesce in the present low temperature of his spirit and gradually become content with it, persuading himself that it is not so low after all. In a week or two you will be making him doubt whether the first days of his Christianity were not, perhaps, a little excessive. Talk to him about “moderation in all things.” If you can once get him to the point of thinking that “religion is all very well up to a point,” you can feel quite happy about his soul. A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all – and more amusing (pp. 26-28).
Having succeeded in persuading Christian to this form of religion, Wormwood was complimented by Screwtape. He wrote,
Obviously you are making excellent progress. My only fear is lest in attempting to hurry the patent you awaken him to a sense of his real position. For you and I, who see that position as it really is, must never forget how totally different it ought to appear to him. We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however, slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry hi into the cold and dark of utmost space.
For this reason I am almost glad to hear that he is still a church-goer and communicant. I know there are dangers in this; but anything is better than that he should realize the break he has made with the first months of his Christian life. As longa s he retains externally the habits of a Christian he can still be made to think of himself as one who has adopted a few new friends and amusements but whose spiritual state is much the same as it was six weeks ago. And while he thinks that, we do not have to contend with the explicit repentance of a definite, fully recognized, sin, but only with his vague, though uneasy feeling that he hasn’t been doing well lately.
This dim uneasiness needs careful handling. If it gets too strong it may wake him up and spoil the whole game. On the other hand, if you suppress it entirely – which, by the by, the Enemy will probably not allow you to do – we lose an element in the situation which can be turned to good account. If such a feeling is allowed to live, but not allowed to become irresistible and flower into real repentance, it has one invaluable tendency. It increased the patient’s reluctance to think about the Enemy. All humans at nearly all times have some such reluctance; but when thinking of Him involves facing and intensifying a whole vague cloud of half-conscious guilt, this reluctance in increased tenfold. They hate every idea that suggest Him, just as men in financial embarrassment hate the very sight of a bankbook. In this state your patient will not omit, but he will increasingly dislike, his religious duties. He will think bout them as little as he feels decently can beforehand, and forget them as soon as possible when they are over. A few weeks ago you had to tempt him to unreality and inattention in his prayers; but now you will find him opening his arms to you and almost begging you to distract his purpose and benumb his heart. He will want his prayers to be unreal, for he will dread nothing so much as effective contact with the Enemy (Ibid., pp. 36-37).
Though this account is thoroughly fictional, I am certain that one of-the Devil’s first assaults on the newly converted Christian is to attack his zeal for the Lord. If he can destroy the Christian’s zeal for the Lord and let him become apathetic toward Christ, the battle is won, although the complete and final apostasy might be years in the future! Hence, the first sign of apathy is loss of zeal for the Lord.
2. Loss of spiritual interests. The loss of zeal for the Lord is followed by a general loss of interest in spiritual things. The dramatic change which has occurred in a Christian when he has lost his zeal for the Lord is evident in the number of things of a spiritual nature which once held his interest which are now boring to him.
A change is immediately noticed in one’s desire to learn the word of God. The person who is about to be converted to the Lord manifests the attitude of those gathered at the house of Cornelius who said, “Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God” (Acts 10:33). He will desire someone to preach to him about the Christ (cf. Acts 13:42-44). After becoming converted, he will be like the newborn babe who “desires the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Pet. 2:1-2). He will give heed to reading (1 Tim. 4:13) and will “study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). When the burning zeal for the Lord is destroyed, a change will be immediately noticed in one’s study habits of God’s word. Rather than constantly turning to study God’s word, rebukes will need to be given for failure to study God’s word. Comments, such as the author of Hebrews made, will need to be given to the man who is apathetic toward Christ. “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat” (Heb. 5:12; see vs. 13-14 as well). He will need to be admonished to become stabilized in the faith that he not be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14-16). Indeed, one of the manifestations of apathy is the loss of interest in studying the revealed word of God.
Another sign of apathy which manifests itself in a loss of interests in spiritual things is diminished prayer. The early Christians were a praying people. They “continued steadfastly” in prayer (Acts 2:42). When Jewish authorities threatened the apostles and forbade them to preach Christ, they resorted to prayer (Acts 4:23-31). The early apostles would not forsake prayer in order to care for tables (Acts 6:4). When Peter was arrested, the church prayed fervently for his release (Acts 12:5). Yet as apathy sets in, one’s interest in praying to God is diminished. Whereas a man was one who engaged in regular fervent prayer, his prayer life will change. Fervent prayer will be replaced by formal prayer on a regular basis; soon this will get old and his regular formal prayers will become irregular until finally he simply quits praying. Apathy has destroyed him.
Another sign of a loss of interest in spiritual things which comes with apathy is lack of conversation about spiritual matters. One must recognize that one talks about what his heart is full of (Matt. 12:34). This is the reason that the early church went everywhere preaching the word (Acts 8:4-5). The spirit of these early Christians resembled that of Jeremiah, “But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay” (20:9). Similarly, when Paul was in Athens, he was “pressed in the spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ” (Acts 18:5). Yet, as our interests change from spiritual matters to secular matters, our conversations change as well. The apathetic person will be more interested in Dow-Jones than Jesus Christ, the Olympics than the race that is set before him (1 Cor. 9:24), and the prize fight than in buffeting his body (1 Cor. 9:27).
3. Consumed with secular interests. As the heart turns from total love and commitment to Jesus Christ, it be ins to become more and more consumed with secular interests. Though I recognize that a Christian cannot live in this world without some interest in secular matters, even these must be tempered. The things of this world have a tendency to entangle us (2 Tim. 2:4) and choke out the word of God (Lk. 8:14). In contrast to being entangled in the affairs of this life, the Christian is to look upon his period of time on this earth as a “pilgrimage” or “sojourneying” (1 Pet.. 2:11). His true citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20-21, NASB); his time spent on this earth is spent as a foreigner passing through a country which is not his own. He is searching for his true home in heaven. The writer of Hebrew described this attitude with reference to Abraham as follows:
By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God . . .These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seem them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefor God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city (Heb. 11:9-10, 13-16).
This was the attitude which early Christians had and all Christians are expected to have with reference to their lives on this earth beneath. It has been described as other-world mindedness.
Yet, the Christian smitten with apathy loses this attitude. He is consumed with the interests of this world. The apathetic family is the family which hurries to get their Bible lessons minutes before leaving for worship, rushes into the building at the last minute, goes through the motions of worship, and departs from worship to lay their Bibles aside until they once again must rush to worship. This is the secular Christian! His life is spent rushing his daughter to Brownie scouts, his son to peewee baseball, his wife to crafts, and himself to the football or baseball games. No time is left for the worship and service of God!
4. Hardness of heart. The result of this spirit toward the Lord is hardness of heart. The basic meaning of the word “apathy” is “without emotion.” Soon the message of Jesus Christ leaves such a person without emotion. He can sit through a sermon on the death of Christ, anxiously watching his watch to see when the preacher is going to be through. At the drop of the word “Baptism,” the songbook is jerked from the racks on the back of the pew. In some places, it is dangerous to use the word “baptism” after preaching 20-25 minutes; the invitation song might be begun before the preacher is finished!
At any rate, as the message ceases to penetrate the recesses of the heart, the heart becomes grossed, the ears become dull, and the eyes are closed (Matt. 13:15). When this happens, full apostasy gets in. Excuses are found for not attending worship; the family misses Wednesday nights and Sunday nights. Soon they are never seen in worship anymore.
Apathy is a dreadful disease afflicting Christians. Are you afflicted with apathy? Perhaps a more realistic question would be, “How seriously are you afflicted with apathy?” Before we go too far down this road which leads to total separation from Christ, let us repent and return to the way of the Lord.
- How does the culture in which we live affect us? What instances of its effects can you see in our attitudes toward God and the church, our dress, morals, etc.?
- Why is apathy such a subtle sin?
- Describe the zeal of New Testament Christians. Has it been restored in the congregation where you worship? Has it been restored in your life?
- What does a loss of zeal for service to God reflect as having occurred in the life of a Christian?
- Should one expect to always feel just exactly as he felt when coming out of the waters of baptism? Is zeal for God totally dependent upon warm emotions?
- What things reflect a loss of interest in spiritual things?
- How do legitimate secular activities draw one away from Christ?
- What is the significance of a Christian being known as a “pilgrim” or “sojourner”?
- What kinds of things are included in “world” in 1 Jn. 2:15-17?
- How does one’s heart become hardened?
Truth Magazine XXIV: 17, pp. 278-281
April 24, 1980