Most Christians who have committed their lives wholeheartedly to the Lord’s service know what it is to become dejected, listless and discouraged. We cease to feel much for the things that we used to be passionate about. We have little empathy for the suffering, or righteous anger about injustice. Prayer, worship and reading the Bible seem to be meaningless mechanical exercises.
In modern times, an extreme version of this state is sometimes called by the exciting name of “burn-out”. Long ago, however, the Greek word acedia was used, literally meaning “not caring”. Such sluggishness of heart was greatly feared by the early Christians. Although the word does not occur in the Bible, acedia was considered one of the most dangerous sins into which a believer could fall.
Even towering spiritual heroes can be overtaken by acedia, especially after a time of great stress, exertion or persecution. Elijah was afflicted so badly at one point that he begged to die: “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4)
Jeremiah, worn down by mockery and opposition to his prophetic ministry, reached such a low that he cursed the day he had been born (Jeremiah 20:7-18). John the Baptist was apparently overwhelmed with doubts while in prison and needed assurance that his cousin Jesus was indeed the Messiah (Matthew 11:3).
We have all come through a long hard year of coronavirus. Even if not much affected ourselves, we were burdened by the knowledge of rising poverty, shrinking economies and growing inequality across the globe, with increasing anti-Christian violence in many places too. At the same time, our normal spiritual disciplines and input were probably disrupted by lockdown.
Perhaps some of us feel the inertness of acedia creeping up on us? As a new year starts, our hearts sink and we struggle to find the energy to keep giving of ourselves.
If so, the Bible has a message for us at the beginning of 2021: “Let us not become weary in doing good.” (Galatians 6:9) These words were written by Paul, who knew all about stress, danger and exhaustion. In the first chapter of 2 Corinthians, he shares with us very frankly about a time when he hit rock bottom, when he became so extremely discouraged and his afflictions were so crushingly great that he despaired even of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
But Paul goes on in the same letter to state with determination that “we do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:1,16). In fact, the Greek word that Paul uses to the Corinthians, enkakoumen, usually translated into English along the lines of “not losing heart” or “not being discouraged”, is the same word that he uses to the Galatians, where it is most often translated along the lines of “not becoming weary”.
What is clear is that we must strive to conquer inner discouragement, rather than yield to it. We must not give up seeking to walk closely with the Lord, to hear His voice and to do His will. We must continue to do good, in Christ’s Name. Paul goes on to clarify what he means about doing good: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6:10)
So, we face a new year with courage, with faith, with trust in God and with a resolution that we will continue to serve Him with our whole being.
Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last
(Katharina von Schlegel, translated by Jane Borthwick)
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo is the International Director of Barnabas Fund and the Executive Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.
Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash