Overcoming Apathy, Gospel Hope for Those Who Struggle to Care

This book addressing apathy among Christians, written by a professor of theology at Talbot School of Theology, received Christianity Today’s book of the year award for 2022. The purpose of the volume is to explore apathy or indifference toward the things of God among Christians who are perplexed and want to change (p. 11). Chapter one lays out the case for the pervasiveness of apathy among Christians, chapter two defines it, chapter three looks into some of its causes, and chapter five points to solutions.

Anizor believes our culture is a breeding ground for apathy due to the many distractions (p. 24) and the general attitude in our society that it is cool to not care about anything; therefore, we are numb to the meaningful but alive to the trivial (p. 22); he uses the sitcom “Seinfeld” as an example (p. 18). The greater the truth, the more we yawn, the author claims (p. 35).

Having already replaced the word “passion” with “zeal,” believing passion is overused (p. 37), by chapter two, Anizor recognizes the need to define apathy. He searches for a definition by engaging with ancient philosophers, monks and theologians, psychologists and psychiatrists, and apathy’s cousins, such as depression, despondency, and dry spells (pp. 42-43). He decides that sloth (Greek: acedia), meaning indifference, lack of diligence, basically going through the motions (pp. 46-47), best overlaps with apathy. “Sloth is a lack of joy in and love for what’s truly good. Ultimately, sloth is apathy toward God, the things of God, and the life of God in us” (p. 49). Dorothy Sayers nails it when she writes that sloth is “the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for” (p. 51). The author believes depression, despondency, and dry spells are relatives of apathy (pp. 56-65). These, apparently, are both sins and sicknesses, as is evident by his definition: “Apathy is an emotional kin to psychological and spiritual sickness in which we experience a prolonged dampening of motivation, effort, and emotion, as well as a resistance to the things that would bring flourishing in ourselves and others. It is a sin that expresses itself as restlessness, aimlessness, laziness, and joylessness toward the things of God” (p. 63).

But what causes apathy? Anizor offers seven possibilities in chapter three (pp. 67-96):

  • Doubt (pp. 69-73)
  • Grief (pp. 74-77)
  • Triviality (pp. 77-82) (If everything is awesome, then nothing is awesome)
  • Feelings of inadequacy (pp. 82-85)
  • Lack of discipline (pp. 85-89)
  • Fragility (pp. 89-91)
  • Lack of purpose (pp. 92-95)

In chapter four, Anizor begins to discuss the cure for apathy which he believes is the gospel (pp. 100-106). This rescues us from our greatest enemies, sin and Satan (p. 102). Yet, the author admits that, though Christ has healed us, we still “find ourselves experiencing the sickness of indifference and disinterest” (p. 107). In other words, despite the gospel, apathy is still part of our lives, as it is the author’s. What is to be done? First, we can recognize that apathy, like any sin, can be forgiven, and that God is committed to His bored creation (pp. 108-110). In addition, we need to regain a proper Christian self-image (pp. 111-112). Further, convinced that the gospel is the cure, he redefines it as God, which is not the biblical definition of the gospel, in this reviewer’s opinion (p. 113). However one defines the gospel, it is apparently not the cure for apathy. After all, the author believes the gospel, yet still he finds himself apathetic (p. 113).

Assuring the reader that Jesus bears with us amid our doubt, he next turns the reader toward hope (p. 115) and strangely offers Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as an example of that hope (p. 117). But the author cautions that we need to be realistic in our dreams; after all, most of us are not going to change the world (pp. 120-121). We must draw our significance from the fact that we matter to God (pp. 120-122), who has given us His yoke to bear but promises us that it is not heavy (pp. 122-127). “What God wants most for us and from us is that we know Him. That is real life” (p. 127). The gospel offers apathetic people everything they need for godliness (p. 128); at least Kanye West says so (p. 127). But if ever the gospel leads to a happy ending of joy (p. 129), it still remains to be seen as to how this works out in practice. The burden of chapter five is to provide the means by which apathy can be combated.

Chapter five is devoted to practical steps a person dealing with apathy can take. A mixture of helpful and unbiblical suggestions unfolds. For example, Anizor rightly turns the reader toward the Holy Spirit who instructs, empowers, transforms, and gives us both the desire and ability to act (p. 135). But he also moves his reader toward behaviorism: “Practice forms habits, which in turn form us… [and] shape our hearts…” (p. 132). “We become what we do” (pp. 132, 163), the author assures us. By contrast, the Scriptures do not teach that our habits change our hearts but that our hearts determine how we live. Anizor is better when we says, “The best way to deal with apathy is by developing a new way of living, thinking, and feeling (p. 133). But his claim that Paul called us to play dress up in order to put on Christ (pp. 133-134) misunderstands the whole thrust of Paul’s instructions. But never mind, because this concept can be supported by C. S. Lewis who told us to “pretend until the pretense becomes a reality” (pp. 133-134). Anizor badly missed the point of Scripture with his emphasis on behaviorism rather than heart change.

Anizor also has unwarranted confidence in the power of confessing our sins to others: “Sin spoken and confessed has lost all of its power” [so says Bonhoffer] (p. 136). The author is confused when he proclaims that “other believers have the role of extending and pronouncing God’s forgiveness and healing” (p. 136). And he wrongly thinks that “by confessing actual sins, the old self dies a painful, humiliating death before the eyes of another Christian” (p. 137). This confession, we are promised, leads to a second breakthrough – the breakthrough to a new life (p. 137). Both psychology and Fyodor Dostroyevsky confirm this idea, but Scripture is lacking.

The author is on steadier ground when he writes that “we are apathetic because our hearts are alive to things that don’t matter and numb to things that do… We need a reawakening of love for the right things” (pp. 140-141). If this is true, then we defeat apathy by cultivating stronger affections. But how? The author offers four suggestions (pp. 144-147):

  • Refuse to remove yourselves from the presence of God [Comment: Christians cannot remove themselves from the presence of God, so Anizor must be referencing a mystical, subjective feeling].
  • Receive regular reminders of God’s love for you.
  • Reflect on how your daily rituals are sharing your affections [more on this below].
  • Reclaim fasting [Comment: fasting is never presented as a cure for apathy in the Bible, and the author offers no proof texts].

Anizor is correct that much of our apathy is caused by loss of a sense of meaning, purpose, and mission (p. 147). We need to cultivate meaning. But instead of turning his readers to Scripture and timeless texts such as Colossians 3:1-4, he turns them to C. S. Lewis (pp. 148-149) and spiritual disciplines promoted by Dallas Willard and his ilk (pp. 151-159). Suggested practices for cultivating meaning include:

  • Get clear on your convictions and values [Comment: this is a biblical step].
  • Take silence (and solitude) seriously. Examples of Jesus are given, but nothing else from Scripture. These practices are drawn from Dallas Willard and the Spiritual Formation movement.
  • Take Sabbath even more seriously—rest your mind and body.
  • Embrace “slow” and long form media.
  • Practice gratitude – thankfulness pervades the NT [Comment: this is a biblical step].
  • Cultivate sacrificial generosity [Comment: while generosity is taught in Scripture, J. D. Rockefeller is a curious example of one who multiplies his wealth through generosity (pp. 159-161)].

Four caveats that are of value (pp. 151-159):

  • Sin patterns in our lives may lead to spiritual coldness.
  • Apathy may be a symptom of something else.
  • Passion can look different at different ages.
  • Different personality types or temperaments may express passion differently.

Overcoming Apathy may address a common issue found among believers, but it does not often turn to the Word of God for either the cause or the cure. While there are some bright spots in the book, sadly the author draws most of his understanding on apathy from outside sources such as psychology, monks, philosophers, and so forth, rather than Scripture. For example, here is a collection of some of Anizor’s resources and experts: Chesterton, Nietzsche, Harvard Business Review, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Evaorius (monk), John Cassian, Ellen DeGeneres, Jordan Peterson, Dallas Willard, Nassim Taleb, Dorothy Sayer, the Chosen TV show, MLK, Narnia, Kanye West, Tolkien, Bonhoeffer, Dostoyevsky, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Bob Newhart, Brennan Manning, K. A. Smith, and J. D. Rockefeller.

While some of the information and quotes from this stable of luminaries are interesting and thought-worthy, none carries the authority of Scripture. This ultimately is the weakness of the book.

by Uche Anizor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 185 pp., paper $14.61

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel

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