In 1983, Australia hosted an ultra-marathon from Sydney to Melbourne. 544 miles, one of the most grueling races in the world. The starting line was crowded with young athletes in peak physical condition, Nike logos stamped across their backs, when an old man joined them, dressed only in overalls and old workboots. His name was Cliff Young, a 61-year-old farmer. No sponsor, no professional training, just a childhood spent running down 2000 sheep on his family’s vast farm.
The race began, the runners took off, and the old man in the overalls started walking slowly down the road. Night fell, and the athletes, many miles ahead, stopped for eight hours’ rest. But Cliff Young kept walking into the dark, like herding sheep, towards the light that he knew would come. When the sun rose, he had left the pack of professional runners far behind. Cliff walked nonstop for five days, and the pack never caught up. He won the marathon by ten hours and set a world record, one shuffling step at a time through the night.
In contrast, I’ve always been a person who struggles with apathy. Not the mild spiritual kind where you forgot to tithe or your prayer life’s not too exciting. This is the soul-deep, crippling kind where you sabotage your life and relationships because you just can’t find the energy to care. The Nike runners of life sprint by, the Cliff Youngs walk tirelessly, and I…sit still. On the ground, in the dark, although like Cliff, I know the sunlight is coming.
If you’ve grown up in the Christian community, you’re familiar with messages that we do not have to fear what the world—death, disease, violence, temptation–can do to us. Perhaps, however, we do need to fear what we do to ourselves. Apathy is one of the most insidious forms of sin-slavery on the planet. So many sins are the result of passions gone amuck, but apathy is the sin of nothingness. No desire, no effort. It’s a void, one that the Bible is not kind to. Apathy is one of the seven deadly sins. Dozens of verses talk about those who are “lukewarm”, “asleep”, “slothful in zeal”. The entire book of Proverbs is one long sermon against slothfulness.
And yet, we don’t like to talk about it, not seriously. Facebook passes memes around poking fun at the ways apathy costs us. A self-deprecating post about chronic procrastination gets thousands of notes on Tumblr. Everyone clicks “like” and laughs and breathes a secret sigh of relief, because if everyone can relate, if it’s part of the human condition, then we can’t help it, right?
Except we can. When the pressure’s on, when judgement or scrutiny or public failure is the consequence of doing nothing, the apathy often melts away. Which means I do have the choice to be better, I’m just not making it.
Why are we apathetic? The answer’s different for everyone. Maybe it’s fear, insecurity, or the scars of a past failure. Maybe it’s a clinical issue to get some additional help with. Maybe it’s plain old selfishness. Maybe it’s simply that everyone else seems to be effortlessly running and it is so hard to lift one foot and take a step after a lifetime of habitual sitting. But it’s not the distance we travel, not the speed by which we cover the miles, but the faithfulness we walk with that matters. One tiny, shuffling, mustard-seed step towards the sunrise. Then another.
God is not frightened by our apathy. He is not defeated by it. Our Father does not want us to sit in the dark. He wants His sunrise to find us walking, hopping, crawling on hands and feet, whatever it takes. And the Strength, the Will, the Love that sweated blood in Gethsemane, facing the most hellish suffering that any human on earth ever has or ever will face—He’s there, endlessly patient, for those of us who can’t face getting out of bed in the morning. We might be His stuck sheep. But we are still died for. We are still called to run the race, if we could just lift our feet.
I hope none of what I’ve said so far applies to anyone reading this post. I hope you’re brave and strong and burning up for Jesus, that there is a deep well of driven purpose in your soul you draw from every day. I hope you’ve never been in a place where it felt like there was a grey cocoon between yourself and the rest of the world, and inside that cocoon, nothing mattered because none of it felt real anyway.
But if you’ve been there, if (like me) you’re there now, here’s a few lessons I’m trying to learn this year:
- Find the point where enough is enough. Shoddy last-minute work? Missed opportunities? Losing friendships that might’ve grown into something beautiful with just a little effort and commitment? Religious lip-service to a God who died for us? When do we become tired of having something worth living for and not living for it? Hold onto that. Take the anger, the regret, the guilt. Admit it, and let it fuel you.
- Realize that although apathy is a chain you fasten yourself, you are not the One who can unlock it. The very definition of apathy—passive indifference—means that we don’t have the willpower to escape it. Only His grace, over and over again, can make us free.
- Boldly invite Him into your apathy. There is no dark place that our Savior has not paid the blood-price to enter into. “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you.” He wants to live in the ugly with us.
- Choose differently, one moment at a time. Tiny choices become big ones. Say “hi”. Set an alarm to wake up 10 minutes earlier, and do it. Make that phone call. Ask about the missions trip. Send two sentences to someone on social media who’s lonely. Pick a person you know and say a prayer for them every morning on your commute for a week. Then pick another. It’s not about trying to banish apathetic feelings from our lives, it’s about changing apathetic decision making, moment by moment.
I have always understood that Jesus could set me free from the things I sinfully and wrongly cared about. I am learning now that He can set me free from not caring at all.
2015, by all accounts, was a hard year for a lot of us. What if this new year isn’t a year of great victory or defeat, but simply a year of movement?
“You enlarge my steps under me, and my feet have not slipped.” (Psalm 18:36)
Here’s to 2016, friends. The Light’s about to rise. Let’s start walking.
i’m waking up from a dream that had me thinking
i’m better off asleep under this tree
safe and sound, we’re cold and useless
come out into the open sun
(“a distant shore”, the wandering tree)