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Acedia and the Church

2011 June 9

I was at the pool with the kids recently and couldn’t help but overhear a very loud and opinionated conversation happening near me. Apparently two families were just meeting as their kids splashed together in the water and they were doing the whole share about their lives thing. One woman shared about how they make money from poker tournaments and so can spend most of their time out on their boat. It was just a few minutes later that she started going off on all the idiots in America who don’t understand the value of money and so want to force people to give it away to undeserving poor people. She ranted for quite some time about how those liberals are ruining our country and teaching our children that you don’t have to work to get money. At one point she even threw in that she goes to church and knows that only the people who deserve healing should be given help.

I listened incredulous to this conversation (which was loud enough that everyone at the pool couldn’t help but hear) and finally just left because the hate speech was escalating to the point that I would rather not expose my kids to such things. Listening to her rants though made me think of a talk I had just heard about the dangers of acedia. The term is most often associated these days with the sin of sloth (one of the seven deadly sins), but it goes much deeper than mere laziness to describe the state of not caring or being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world. It’s a spiritual apathy that turns one inward instead of outward in a life oriented around loving others. In the talk I heard, it was compared to compassion fatigue – not having the spiritual resources to care anymore. In the talk I heard the advice that was given to combat acedia was to focus on my own relationship with God – which was defined as incorporating rituals of prayer and reflection into my days and disconnecting from the electronic world.

That’s advice I’m hearing a lot in the American church these days. Feeling overwhelmed and far from God? Then do more for yourself – reconnect (or disconnect as needed), get healthy, then you will have something to give back. Another talk I heard recently advised people to never do anything because they think they should. It’s okay not to care about poverty or kids dying in Africa if those aren’t the passions God has given you. God gave us gifts and passions so we should spend our time on only the things that fill us with joy. In other words – my relationship with God is all about me. I as an individual must be happy, healthy, and whole – that is why I was created and that is how I am to live. I must not feel guilty about not serving God or others if such things don’t make me happy, I should only do the things that feel comfortable to me.

I hear this kind of stuff over and over with reminders that the Christian life cannot be just about action and service but must contain contemplation to be balanced. I agree with that, but every time I hear that line I have to ask if there really is such a dire and pressing danger that the church in America is focusing so much on action and service that we are neglecting contemplation? In truth, I see exactly the opposite at work. We are instead so concerned with our own individual spirituality that we rarely if ever engage in serving others. We like hearing talks that tell us to think more about ourselves and not feel guilty about not serving others. At my church recently there even was an audible collective sigh of relief when the pastor explained that while “blessed are the poor” can refer to the physically poor, it also refers to the poor in spirit which includes our own spiritual needs and struggles. It’s far easier to care for ourselves than others.

Maybe most of the church isn’t so caught up in themselves that like the woman I heard at the pool they argue for not helping others at all (although that is a becoming a common response these days), but it seems like the greatest commandments these days are “love myself then love God” instead of “love God, love others.” But in reality, our acedia, our spiritual fatigue, isn’t to blame on us not pampering ourselves with enough quiet times or devotional moments, but on our rampant self-absorption. Constantly hearing that we need to focus more time on ourselves simply adds to the problem. It’s not that I don’t see tremendous value in contemplation or think that we all need to practice self-care, but that perhaps we need to alter the most basic ways we view ourselves in the world. We are not rugged individuals dependant on getting our own relationship with God right; we are members of the body of Christ, existing in relationship with God and others at all times. Our gifts are meant to be shared eucharistically in community. It is a way of living that the philosophy of Ubuntu that Desmond Tutu writes about refers to. It is living not for oneself, but as a member of a community where one is “open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

The last thing the American church needs are more messages telling us to focus on ourselves. Guilt trips and shoulds don’t help much either for our “it’s all about me” mentality knows how to resist anything that makes demands on our self. It will take a drastic change in mindset to move us past our “I think therefore I don’t give a crap about anyone but myself” operating system. But I think for the church to not only get over this plague of acedia, but to survive, we must start thinking communally. As Ubuntu thought states, “I am because we are.” We belong to God which means we belong to each other – embracing that relational identity may perhaps be our only hope.

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16 Responses leave one →
  1. June 9, 2011

    That’s strange. I always thought the whole point of grace is that we DON’T deserve it.

  2. June 9, 2011

    Oh, Julie, I wish I had time to write. I have a Sunday deadline, though (end of term; grades have to be submitted by Midnight Sunday), and can’t spend much time writing. Let me just say this: those people in my life that we remember most after they’re gone were the ones who literally gave themselves away for the sake of others. In my own life, no better example exists than my own mom. She was always thinking of the needs of others before her own. She never understood why we her children were so self-centered (!) When she died, we stood there as the visitation line circled around the room and out the door. We heard so many stories about what our mom had done for them; how she was there for them during their time of need. Some of the stories we had never heard before. We had no idea how many lives she had touched. And I’m sure that there were more who were unable to make it to the visitation.

    Right now I’m wrestling with the recently learned news of the passing of a high school classmate I had lost contact with over the years. She died of a very painful systemic condition (one of those diseases where the immune system attacks the body and it begins destroying itself). But her story is similar to my mom’s. Her obituary reads, in part, “[Mindy] served her church and community in many ways. She was an avid reader and enjoyed writing letters to her friends. Given her own medical trials and hardships, she had a special understanding of those experiencing suffering and pain. She will forever be remembered for her words and deeds of compassion and love for others.” (emphasis mine)

    How is it that as a society we value people like this so highly, and yet we still try to buy into the lie that it’s only about us individually? ANd why is it that the church, which should know better, parrots our culture in this way. We seem to know instinctively the value of lives given to others, yet we don’t want to promote it.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Julie, for raising this topic! Blessings,

    Don

  3. Lisa C permalink
    June 9, 2011

    Amen, amen, amen….and what if blessed be the poor actually does mean the poor.

  4. Larry permalink
    June 9, 2011

    Julie,
    Thank you, for this.
    It seems strange to me that someone talking about acedia would go on and encourage greater focus on the self, since that is the spiral one is caught in in acedia.

    In any case I think you have hit upon something that is unfortunately all too true about American Christianity, we are too focused upon ourselves.

    As the desert Amma’s and Abba’s point out that acedia is often subtle and can go unnoticed, it is a pernicious thing.

    So thank you for your words. A good reminder for one who also struggles daily with acedia.

  5. June 9, 2011

    I’m sorry those are the types of churches you are attending. That is not the message I am hearing. It is not the message I’ve ever heard in a church. Those who truly walk with God have a Spirit driven sense of compassion and reaching out.

    Is there self-absorption – there sure is, all around us. Something I was praying about – no, confessing – this morning.

    I have served the poor most of my life. The sad thing I’ve seen over and over is Christians “serving” the poor more interested in what makes them feel good rather than what those they “serve” truly need.

    Here is a story that describes this “serving” self as opposed to truly serving those we say we are serving http://kidtrekasp.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/after-school-programs-what-do-at-risk-kids-need/

  6. June 10, 2011

    great article – thanks for the reminder :)

  7. June 10, 2011

    thanks for your article…. (mike and i go way back…center lake etc…) thought you might find this following story interesting due to your post…. i was a pastor in mi in the 80’s …. a letter came to our church from another pastor in the area concerning a couple who worked full time in children’s ministry…. their ministry call took them to the inter city…. where they loved on the people and they loved on them…. the mission they worked for provided a salary… but it was near the poverty level…. the letter the pastor sent out concerned the loss of the couple’s car…. it died… the area pastor was asking all the churches that supported them in area to rally around them…. if each church put in $100 or more we could buy them a good used car. i was sitting in a board meeting a few days later when the letter was presented to it’s members…. after it was read a woman (a lady i would consider a pretty nice person and your average believer) blurt out with ” that’s the problem with these kind of people… they never plan for things like this!” my wife robyn and i couldn’t believe our ears… no clue what so ever with the real world… poor planning was not the issue…. it was blind eyes and cold hearts.

  8. June 10, 2011

    Great thoughts, Julie. I can only imagine that practicers of real contemplation (like Richard Rohr) are cringing at each reference to it here in this article. The “contemplation” you refer to (a.k.a. personal devotion/relationship with God) has, as you describe, really just become a facade, a thinly veiled form of American self-absorption. We put spiritual language on a practice that is really just classic selfishness and consumerism. It’s a trap that we’re all in danger of following into, I’m afraid.

  9. June 10, 2011

    Julie,

    Christians today are neglecting contemplation but it is not because we are too busy serving. It is because we are too busy with careers, hobbies, sports, etc. We have numerous interests and we fail to employ clearly defined criteria for prioritizing what we do with our time and how we will act. Our actions should be shaped by our theology, not by our interests and desires.

    Until our churches proclaim a theology of sacrificial service and we honestly contemplate what it means to a follower of Jesus and embrace a theology of costly grace we won’t be the servants God calls us to be.

  10. June 11, 2011

    I’ve been thinking about this post quite a bit since you first posted it, not because I disagree with you, but because I think it’s spot on. I’ve always felt like one part of the reason for this is because so many churches set a bad example. When budgets are tight or giving is down, the first thing to be cut is always the ministries for things outside of the church – missions, benevolence, etc, etc. The not so subtle message is that the “me” of the church comes first.

    Then, when reading a few news stories of prominent conservatives calling for a day of prayer because of our economy, you know, the ones who are also slashing spending on the poor, sick, the elderly, and children? It seems to me that part of the reason why the focus is on prayer and contemplation is because then they can excuse their own action. If the external god can fix it then why should they bother? All you have to domis pray about it and then if he fixes it, great. If not, well then they guess it’s not god’s will.

    I find it all very disturbing.

    @Wanda – I think you should consider yourself very blessed to be where you are for after more than a decade as an Evangelical and student at Moody (and now as a former Evangelical watching from the outside) I’m very sad to say that Julie’s experience is not the exception.

  11. June 11, 2011

    Oh, Julie. You have no idea how you are speaking to my own heart on this.

    “It’s far easier to care for ourselves than others.”

    It wasn’t until I found myself fully invested in the life of a person (first as a “discipleship project,” then as friend) who is so, so needy in every way imaginable that I was able to realize how PAINFULLY difficult it is to serve others. And the struggle has been the source of a near crisis in my faith. I’ve sought counsel from many other Christians on it, and I feel like the resounding response has been to “find balance” “have good boundaries” and “take care of your self, too.” And I’m having a hard time finding scriptural justification for that but it is SO exhausting and then I just spiral into more navel-gazing about what how I can never measure up to The Greatest Commandment.

    Anyway.

    It is so encouraging to me to hear your thoughts. I have your book on my nightstand and am slowly working through it as time allows. Such wonderful, practical words. Thank you.

  12. June 12, 2011

    Really good stuff, Julie. Thanks for sharing this.

  13. Alicia permalink
    July 13, 2011

    It’s true – at Bible study people are way more ready to explain away how the command to the Rich Young Ruler was exceptional and we should not assume it applies to us than to just believe it and give sacrificially.

  14. July 29, 2011

    I deeply appreciate your challenge here. I’m sure you have read Tim Keller’s Generous Justice? Any one who does will not be able to live for themselves.

  15. alan permalink
    July 30, 2011

    Contemplation, like Bible reading, can be an obstacle and excuse to not follow Jesus. The irony is that in the contemplative can lead us further away from Christ when His call is to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow. Sometimes I think we rely too much on our own efforts in the good disciplines of Bible reading, meditation, etc to learn Christ when often God’s method is by the leading of the Holy Spirit into things, often hard things – the difficult things that love demands, where we find we have no resource in ourselves and we need to find
    in Christ in a living way the resource to make it thru. Romans 5 says that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produce character…” Sometimes it seems like we think – or at least I do – that we need to have it all together before we can go into things. And yet often God’s plan is that we launch out in a living faith knowing that in Christ we will make it thru.

  16. May 22, 2013

    I am interested in this acedia. And I think you make some good points.
    But I actually think that focussing on your relationship with God properly is likely to be the key. By this I don’t mean focussing on the religion…but on the relationship.
    The spiritual classics seem to suggest that acedia affects every aspect of your life…your prayers be one distracted, your Bible reading is inattentive, and you lose focus.
    The jesuit tradition of ignatius Loyola tries to take both the contemplative and the active tradition seriously and they both feed each other.
    http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/an-ignatian-prayer-adventure/
    I am now 60 and think I struggle (and give in to and ) with acedia and have done so for most of my life. But I do understand that it is not just contemplation or action…..one informs the other…because they both invite us to relate to God seriously
    What you suggest about the self-indulgence of much of modern Christianity is true, and indeed it seems to me Jesus spoke roundly against it n his own time
    I realise it is some time since you wrote the, original post and that you will have moved on

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