You just can’t make yourself care.
You do care somewhere, deep down, about your spiritual walk and your relationship with God. You know full well what it is you ought to be doing, or not doing. You know what needs improvement or what needs a change. And you just don’t care.
So the Bible sits unopened and serious prayer goes unsaid and every now and then you half-glance at a Scripture or a devotional so you don’t totally fall off the edge of the world, but otherwise you don’t really bother. It’s not that you’re angry at God, or frustrated with Him. It might almost be better if you were.
You just don’t care, and you don’t know how to make yourself start.
I am convinced that indifference and apathy are some of the greatest struggles in the Christian life. Being angry at God? Feeling hurt by God? Bewildered by God? All of those states indicate that you’re engaged with Him in some way. That He matters to you. That you two are interacting in some way.
But indifference comes creeping. It often follows a cycle of triumph, too. In fact, it goes a little bit like this:
Trial/Suffering/Problem —-> God’s Intervention/Help/Comfort —> Gratitude/Joy/Intimacy—> Apathy and Indifference
When we’re terrified or uncertain, we often reach for God. When He intervenes, we’re glad. But all too often in the in-between moments, when emotions are either running low or have been burnt out – when a relationship with God demands more than we’re willing to give from our reserves and the crisis has passed and everything is more or less fine – indifference is what results.
I had a student once who, when confronted with the information that he was failing my course, shrugged and said, “Whatever.” That’s indifference. Whatever. And it’s so horrifying precisely because we can miss so much and miss out on so much when we’re subject to it: not just the riches of a deep and engaged relationship with God, but whatever work He might have for us to do.
Knowing that, I’ve tried to develop some techniques to work around indifference and apathy when they hit – because they will hit. Here are mine.
1. Try a radical change in routine. Feeling ambivalent and disinterested in your normal spiritual practices? Change them up hugely, even if that means discomfort. If you normal study your Bible indoors in a prayer room, take it on a hike and study it under a tree. If you normally pray alone but can’t make yourself care about doing it, pray with a buddy for a while. Change the music you listen to or the things you pray about. Read something different. Join an uncharacteristic ministry or spend time with a godly friend you never see. A lot of times indifference and apathy come from a grudging frustration with the “regular” routine, and doing something wildly different can shake us out of it.
2. Name it. Tell people “I just don’t care.” Confess your apathy to close spiritual friends, to your pastor. One of the reasons indifference thrives is because we can easily mask it by pretending as though everything is fine. Acknowledge it! Call it out. Doing so will keep you from pretending it doesn’t exist, and you might find help or advice from those close to you.
3. Embrace it. We feel indifferent, and so we wait until we feel something meaningful before we engage with God – and then the weeks pass by while we wait. Embrace your indifference! Start your prayer life with it: “God, I just can’t seem to make myself care today, and I hope you forgive me, but I am here. I am with You. Please work on me as you will.” God knows already; give Him what you have so that He can work with it. Recognize that sometimes indifference is a sign of things being relatively stable and calm in your life (and sometimes is a sign of lack of resources or burnout), and start there: with honesty, with a recognition of what is. “I feel indifferent lately,” you say to yourself, “and that’s just how it is – but I am going to continue my spiritual practices regardless, and offer this indifference to God so that He can deal with it.” Work with it. Work around it.
4. Take care of yourself. Periodically, indifference stems from exhaustion. We don’t care because we’re so tired. If it’s possible, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. If you’re going through a rough time, enlist support from friends and from your church. Find a babysitter. Drop an activity. Spend a day doing the things you need and want to do. If your indifference stems from burnout, you’ll be amazed by the difference some support and care can make.
5. Shift the focus to others. You can’t make yourself care right now. Okay, fine, but people are still going hungry, they’re still lonely, they still have needs and they still need God. You can do something about that. Indifference and apathy seems like an enormous obstacle when we’re focused on ourselves: I feel this and I think that and I need those other things. But when you start working for other people, you’re forced to place your own concerns and feelings, whatever they are, aside. If you’re feeling indifferent, go do some service or ministry work. Often you’ll find that a) it helps to get your mind out of it’s self reflective whatever state and b) working for others sometimes fosters a road out of indifference and into compassion, love, and joy. God will use it.
6. Deal with it the way you deal with indifference in other circumstances. I learned from an early age that, whether I felt like doing some things or not, they were required of me for the outcomes I desired. As a kid, I was indifferent to teeth-brushing, but understood that my oral health depended on it. I am many days indifferent to cleaning toilets as an adult, and yet it has to be done. Now let me be clear: I’m not comparing a relationship with God to dirty toilets and toothbrushing, but the work of a relationship with God is exactly that. It’s work. It’s effort! Even when you don’t feel like it, even when you don’t care, even when you don’t want to. If we only ever maintained our relationships when we were 100% feeling it, we’d never have any. So if you’re feeling indifferent, to you I say: so? Do the work of love anyway. Don’t put in a half-effort. Reach out to God. Pray seriously and thoughtfully. Communicate. Seek Him. Do things even if you don’t care. Have faith that God will reward and bless those efforts and break through the shell of indifference.
At times it’s easy to feel like Christian indifference is this uncontrollable fog of apathy that permeates our lives and steals our spiritual joy. But it’s not. It’s a regular part of Christian life, and there are a lot of ways to deal with it. So when indifference comes, be ready for it: you can find a workaround.