How God Cares for Those Who Don’t

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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.

1. Meaninglessness

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?

2. Easiness

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.

3. Trendiness

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.”

4. Entitlement

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.”

5. Stuck

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?”

Written by Paul Maxwell
Read more at Desiring God

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