Apathy is commonly thought to be a specific non-emotion: “I don’t care.” The apathetic carries an air of smug, Gregory-House-ness. Or, just sitting in a beanbag. Lots of XBox. Sleeping until 10am. Untucked shirts. Untapped potential. Relationally disengaged. We think of apathy as slow, numb, and half-hearted — an emotional anesthetic.
But apathy of this sort has not survived the existential crisis of millennials. It has evolved into something stronger, less condemnable by modern standards. “I don’t care” has become a parasite on something much more forceful: “That doesn’t matter.” Recently, apathy has thrown off its garments of unrespectability and taken the judgment seat of cultural prestige. “I’m not motivated” has been replaced with a bigger philosophical gun: “I’m not persuaded.” Self-indulgence now piggy-backs on self-involvement.
We now face a bigger, badder “I don’t care.” It’s more complex. Topics of God, church, love, community, spiritual discipline, theological conviction, relational faithfulness, life, work, family, friends, whatever . . . all receive a definitive, self-assured and swank “Meh.”
Aspects of Apathy
As with any concept, it is best to begin with a clear definition. For our purposes, we will define apathy this way:
The disposition of dismissal or reluctance toward a particular idea, person, or group, often experienced as a lack of emotion.
This sort of apathy has five basic components.
Apathy is the emotional middle finger to meaning. It’s a breakup text from your desires to your worldview. Apathy is when your life’s purpose statement is a stock “Thanks, but no thanks,” indifferently sprawled on a crumpled Post-it to remember later, maybe. Apathy is a void. It’s a flat “Nope” to the universe. It is emotionally vacuous. Power: empty. Content: none. Emotions: blank stare. Meaning: when will this blog be over?
It’s easy to be apathetic, because it doesn’t require maintaining any shape or holding any line. Apathy is not a thoughtful evaluation that says, “I really don’t think that this is worth pursuing.” It is a fortified “Do Not Disturb” to any and all persons and opportunities. It is an emotional Saturday afternoon nap. At times, this is an understandable temptation, because relationships and opportunities are hard. But it makes us behavioral Jell-O in the face of our basic compulsions. Without meaning, the rule of conduct is the moment’s whims, impulses, and fancies. Difficulty is rendered a vice, and ease a virtue. Ethics follow.
Apathy is chic. “That doesn’t matter,” for whatever reason, elicits the response among its less critical hearers, “Wow, they’re perceptively and strategically questioning all of our preconceived notions about what is valuable.” Apathy is counterfeit insight. And anyone who doesn’t comply is just stupid for not getting the joke. Apathy holds an endowed chair in present-day cultural discourse, funded by the appeal of “Hmmm. You’re so right.”
The burden of proof is on the person who cares. “That matters” is on the chopping block. It’s a given that rejecting meaning and value should be much easier than standing for it. And it must be that way. The only way for apathy to spread is for it to become an assumption. It will never be an explicit or defended value. That’s why the rules of apathetic discourse are primitively nonverbal: a knowing glance, a scoff, a shoulder shrug, a rhetorical confused look. Any of these maneuvers are conversation-enders from the apathetic’s perspective. The sermon, plea, request, command, and treatise will always receive a disarming, rhetorical “And?” End of conversation. Apathy demands the place of a basic human right: “Life, liberty, and please just stop.”
Paradoxically, apathy can be rather violent and enslaving. Yes, its battle cry is “Whatever.” But try to rouse the apathetic, and you have a real fight on your hands. Apathy is a powerful non-emotion. It shackles you to yourself. It’s a motivational straight jacket that you can’t feel or try your way out of. Often, the apathetic will fight as hard as you push them for the opportunity to dismiss any prompt for activity or stance. In this way, apathy really is a kind of oppression — emotional, spiritual, and physical oppression experienced by the apathetic. Apathy can be scary in this way — to not care, and not be quite sure how to care again. If we can justify and defend the place we’re at, it doesn’t feel quite as bad being stuck there. In that way, apathy can be a form of suffering. “How do I care again?”
Redeeming the Apathetic
Apathy does not trump the Redeemer. God engages apathy in a few surprising ways. Here are five things God offers the apathetic.
What is God’s attitude toward “That doesn’t matter?” Actually, a hearty approval, in many circumstances. What does God have in common with the apathetic? A stark distaste for trivialities. Both God and the apathetic have absolutely no interest in things that do not matter. In this way, God can issue with the apathetic a holy and blessed “I really just do not care.” We see this in our eschatology. He burns away all the dross (1 Corinthians 3:12–15; cf. 1 Peter 1:7). What does that specifically look like? “I’m taking away your anklets, your little trinkets, your frivolous religious nonsense. This doesn’t matter. None of this matters” (my paraphrase of Isaiah 3:18-26; cf. 1 Peter 3:3). In a sense, God is the Apathetic One, who embodies “I don’t care” actively, perfectly, and meaningfully.
Apathy might be a result of burnout. Apathy can be a manifestation of undetected or untreated disillusionment. What can God offer the disillusioned? A break. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Apathy might just be a sign that you’ve reached your emotional, bodily, or spiritual limits. There comes a point where trying to tow the line on some project, enterprise, idea, ideology, relationship, or institution stretches a person beyond their limits. “I can’t do it. I just don’t care anymore.” Apathy can be our subconscious way of giving up. So, what is there to do? Get out of there. Get away from whoever stole your joy for a while. Regroup. God does not think that rest is giving up. He’s sojourning with you (Leviticus 26:11–12). He’s not gossiping about you with your enemies (Psalm 138:7). Take a step away from an overwhelming context. Re-evaluate how you might engage again once you’ve had some time to refuel. Know your limits. God does (Proverbs 30:1–6).
Within the topic of rest, we should also note that apathy can be a product of a pattern of sin. Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). With impurity in conduct can come impurity in vision. In a downward cycle of sinful indulgence, we experience a haze, which can very easily lead to apathy — a dull, half-baked sluggishness. It is no wonder, then, that in David’s infamous repentance Psalm — Psalm 51 — he prays first “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” and subsequently, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:10, 12). To be willing is interwoven with joy, which God creates through cleansing the heart with the blood of Christ (Hebrews 10:22). God battles sin-wrought apathy with the joy of purity.
God gives freedom to be wrong, and still be okay (Zechariah 2:8). Personal identity isn’t found in a cultural ethos. Apathy avoids the risk and the effort of being wrong by avoiding standing for anything altogether. No wonder it’s trendy. When a person feels the security to make an assertion, stand for a value, go to church, or actually care, despite the condescending sneers from their fellow millennials, they critique the institution of unquestioned apathy. Security in God’s love disarms shrugged shoulders, scoffs, and sneers. “Things matter, and I care” will receive a popularly endorsed “You’re stupid” from the apathetic. The kingdom of light conquers the kingdom of the Accuser, of fear, of aggressive self-involvement, not with a violent response, but with an eschatological “That’s fine. I still care” (Acts 17:29–34).
Apathy is not something that a person can always think their way out of. Sometimes, when we are unable to feel or do the things we want to feel or do, other people can perform them for us while God works (Galatians 6:2). Sometimes through communion, God causes “awe [to come] upon every soul” (Acts 2:43). The apathetic can wait in longing for that. And God does not take for granted that “love and good works” are instinctive, even for saints — we are encouraged to “consider how to stir [them] up” (Hebrews 10:24). Sometimes we need other people to believe for us. And sometimes the apathetic need other people to care on their behalf for a little while.
What is God’s attitude toward the apathetic? “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands” (Psalm 138:8). God has not met his match in apathy. God is purposeful. God is enduring. God is working. How does sanctification work in the heart of the apathetic? “I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me” (Psalm 57:2). We cry out and ask God to do what he is already doing.
You will never hear from God “Ah, just forget him. He’s too stubborn in his apathy.” He is wildly and endlessly passionate to pursue you, and your heart (Zephaniah 3:17). Even in a season of dry apathy, God will cultivate a heart of love and concern in you (Psalm 51:10–12; Hebrews 10:22). We have a guarantee: Apathy is a season. God will not let us not care forever. “Light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death . . . lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. But I have trusted in your love; . . . I will sing to the Lord” (Psalm 13:3–6).
Apathy is a unique mixture of haughty rebellion and suffering. God offers himself to the apathetic. God says to the apathetic, “Amen,” “Rest,” “You’re okay,” “Rely on your brothers and sisters,” and “I’ve got you.” God is not scared by apathy’s stubbornness, or confused by its complexity. He cares for you deeply, and gives the apathetic a simple chorus: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:12).