Avoiding the Sin of Acedia: Living the Christian Life in Step with the Spirit of Christ

We come into the Christian life, whenever we do, and start the walk. At first, at least in evangelical circles, we identify new converts, often times with such phrases as “they are on fire,” so on and so forth. But after time passes, trials and tribulations face us, and we
gain experience[s] in the church we might become jaded, or at the very least start to experience a sense of dullness towards all things spiritual. We begin to domesticate and normalize our faith to the point that we conflate our experiences with the object (and subject) of our faith, Jesus Christ. Once we take this step—usually subconsciously—a vacuum is created. This is where things become tenuous, and spiritually dangerous. We will attempt to fill this vacuum with all sorts of new experiences, experiences that are more akin to ‘sowing to the flesh’ rather than ‘to the Spirit.’ We start to engage in daily practices that ‘grieve’ and ‘quench’ the Holy Spirit in our lives, and this all out of the seeming mundanity of our spiritual lives; out of the idea that we have arrived as Christians, had all or most of the experiences one can have, and now are seeking fulfillment in life by other means. I remember, as someone who grew up in the church, having a conversation with friends (who had similar backgrounds) when we were just recently out of high school, we thought we were all ‘veterans’ of the faith; that we’d already seen it all. It wasn’t long after this that I started to slide in my walk with Christ, and what I have been describing thus far began to overtake me; leading to actions that did not magnify Christ, but instead magnified me.

In the ancient monastic church the ‘sin’ I’m referring to was called acedia. Cornelius van der Kooi offers a wonderful description of this as he is discussing participation in the Spirit of Christ in his development of a Spirit Christology; he writes:

. . .  We do not have the unique relationship with God that Christ enjoyed. We are God’s adopted children. Yet this status in itself is a great mystery: it is the triune God who dwells in us, who has poured out his Spirit in his church! At the same time, this indwelling is not a matter of peace but involves warfare. We are often stubborn and do not readily incline to the Spirit and his work. In fact, the Holy Spirit may be grieved and even snuffed out. The house may feel or even be empty. Before we know it, we may be overcome by what in the monastic tradition is called the demon of acedia. It is the feeling of emptiness, boredom, and discontentment, bordering on melancholy. It refers to those times when we live in our own little world, are asleep, are unguarded, and try to put our restlessness to death with nervous distractions. Here no therapy can help us but only healing. God’s Spirit must come in order to fill us and make us complete. Outside of that movement, we are lost.[1]

This sort of creep can even happen to us as we are seemingly and actively walking with Jesus; even in seasons when we think we are genuinely in step with the Spirit. It might not be as overt as the discussion I had with my friends years ago, it might be more subtle; we might be reading the Bible daily, reading theology texts, be involved in church ministries and activities, and yet acedia could still begin to grab a hold of our hearts and put us into a place of spiritual deadness; a spot where we are going through the motions. My sense is that acedia is alive and well in the Christian church, and is one that we need to recognize and repent of.

What this sin points up to me is that within the Christian life there is a vigilance that is required. It is reliance upon the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, that will provide the kind of vigilance we need to avoid this particular ‘demon.’ It is so subtle and ‘creepy’ that we might not know it is even happening to us until we have engaged in some sort of egregious sin that then makes our whole lifestyle all too apparent. This is why reliance upon the Holy Spirit in Christ is so important for the Christian life. He will ‘put us to death over and over again, that the life of Christ might also be made manifest through the mortal members of our bodies’ (II Cor. 4.10). I would suggest that this is what is required if we are to avoid acedia; we must, as the Apostle said of himself, ‘have the sentence of death written upon us that we won’t trust in ourselves, but in the One who is able to raise the dead’ (II Cor. 1.7-9). We can pray for this type of lifestyle, and God will and has provided that for us in Christ. But this type of lifestyle—the one that avoids acedia—is not comfortable. In fact this type of non-acedia lifestyle can cause great anguish, dark nights of the soul, bouts of depression and anxiety, physical tumults, and a host of other means through which the Holy Spirit in God’s providence in Christ, will produce his death in our lives that his life will also be present for the world to see, and for us to experience. If you dare, ask the Lord to arrest any sort of acedia in your life and see what he won’t do. His grace is sufficient (I say with fear and trembling).

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi, This Incredibly Benevolent Force: The Holy Spirit in Reformed Theology and Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 104-05.

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