Damn the spiritual torpor!: Resist acedia

[Warning: obscure historical reference with mild linkage to Philadelphia ahead].

Our church is full of people committed to being full-on Christians. That’s great! Last week their imagination and love was flooding out all over. June has not vacationed them into a stupor at all.

But there is danger. Some of us are running in to what has always tormented radicals:

  • Once you are no longer aspiring to discipleship, because you are basically there…
  • Once you are no longer gulping in knowledge about life in Christ, because you already have it…
  • Once you are no longer strikingly tempted, because you have overcome the big stuff…

what happens?

It is easy to get bored.

I mean, really,

  • how many meetings can one attend,
  • sing moderately-produced songs,
  • listen to speeches that don’t offer any surprises,
  • and have conversations with people whose next words can be predicted

before that seems rather old?

The radicals we call the desert fathers and mothers, saw this post-conversion sense of being OK, or just static, as one of the most dangerous places to be, as far as life in the Spirit goes. They would actually court temptation; they would really dig in to their desires and passions — because in the process of overcoming temptation they were acquiring essential energy. Whenever we’re bored around God or God’s people, we’re in danger. Whenever we feel self-pity or ennui because our spiritual experiences aren’t what they used to be, we’re under attack. Whenever we are just on “off” because we’ve let ourselves drift into torpor, we’re in trouble.

Check for acedia

Sermons and small group discussion can be a real danger zone for torpor. If you become accustomed to falling asleep during them, or if they seem like a lot of “blah, blah, blah” it is a good time to check for acedia. Teaching and dialogue will always be important. But once you’ve been taught and once you’ve had the dialogue — that can be a dangerous part of the journey.

There are many reasons we might find ourselves wandering into spiritual danger. It comes from not developing good judgment, not confessing our sin, not confronting our excuses, or not gaining understanding about how to deal with difficult circumstances so our hearts can stay soft.

Once we confront those dangers, we will certainly be saved, but that is just the beginning. It is exercising mercy and love that breaks through our scabs, confusion and hardness and helps us heal and develop. Sitting around being smart about the faith or just being well-processed psychologically often leads us to boredom. Aren’t quite a few of us smart, therapized and listless right now? Acting in mercy and love and truly receiving it keeps us energized. John has got it right when he says, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18).  Anything else leads to isolation and that feeling you get when you are in a room full of people and you just don’t want to connect.

Vivian van Blerk, The Seven Capital Vices : Acedia (Sloth), 2008
Vivian van Blerk, The Seven Capital Vices : Acedia (Sloth), 2008

The well-recognized roads to acedia are even broader in our era because people are not conversant in sin. The rules now say, “You’re OK.” And, really, no one is supposed to say much about whether they think that is true. So when we are confronted with the feeling that something is wrong, we tend to say, “I’m OK, so this feeling must be someone else’s fault or something else’s influence.” Like the picture above suggests, we end up alone on our chaise, zoning on TV, always in reach of the fridge, perfectly “OK.” Our wide choices of distracting media give us endless opportunity to engage in conversation about nothing, watching stories that have been repeated a hundred times. We end up in despair, since we are supposedly OK, but it does not feel like that. We stop working on being forgiven, since prevailing thinking says there is no need for forgiveness. So it is more,  “Pass the Doritos” for us. (Or “Pass the Garden of Eatin’ Organic Blue Tortilla Chips,” if “the Garden of Eatin'” that what what passes for spirituality with you, now).

Damn the spiritual torpor!

So often we have a great deal to bring to the community and its mission, but we are just too spiritually exhausted and relationally put-upon to offer it. Instead of seeing our burnout, resistance and resentment as temptation, which could fuel change and renewal, we come late to the meeting, plan a vacation, or take a pill for our “depression.” But I say, “Damn the spiritual torpor!”

[Here’s the obscure reference]. Most days I ride my bike on a street near my house named Farragut. He’s the civil war admiral who said, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” He was charging through a minefield in Mobile Bay. I wrote this piece with Farragut in mind. We have our own spiritual minefields to move through:

  • submerged temptations to stop being radical because that’s a lot to deal with
  • resistance to something new because to get to it we’d have to move through what is
  • fear of relational dangers that seem impossible to navigate
  • homeostasis in some infantile spirituality

We could sit outside the battle in torpor. Damn the spiritual torpor! Let’s wrestle with the temptations, instead, and cooperate with our development.

5 thoughts on “Damn the spiritual torpor!: Resist acedia

  1. This is a really good post, Rod. One of the reasons that I like to “dig-in” with Bible study is because it helps me realize where I need to be forgiven and transformed since I’ve quit “The Big 3” Even those areas, however, still need to be covered with prayer and I’m always aware of my vulnerabilities. The Bible tells us that “sin crouches at our door.” I believe that the current “I’m okay/you’re okay” philosophy that our society endorses has gone a long way in discouraging the kind of inward reflection that would cause someone to be aware of ways that need to be saved/transformed/changed, and discourages us from talking about it with others for fear of appearing judgmental.

  2. Oh, gosh. You might be talking to me. One pushback, though 🙂 — as a person who does take a pill for depression during the darker seasons, I find that it helps get me out of the torpor and back into a place where I can engage in the fight.

    1. Totally glad you said that Sarah. I am not against meds for people who need them, not in the least. But I am sure you know they are over-prescribed for people who have unaddressed issues that the med might even compound.

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