Does this sound familiar?
- I don’t feel like going to church.
- What are we doing here anyway?
- Everyone is irritating me.
- The Spirit is not here like it used to be.
- I have outgrown this _____________.
- I don’t get anything from reading the Bible.
- I think we should start looking for another church.
- I am not being fed.
- I know I should pray, but I just don’t feel like it.
There is a natural rhythm to all relationships. We have seasons filled with passion and intimacy and other seasons marked by monotony, predictably and even boredom. Many factors can account for the fluctuations; not enough sleep, busyness, laziness, relational ruts, or neglect.
At other times we are merely experiencing the effects that accompany the seasons of having young children, financial stress, taking care of elderly parents, or graduate school. More often than not, if we wait a while, our relationships bounce back, but not always. If the dry season last a long time it may be indicative of a more serious issue—an issue capable of causing serious relational damage.
So, how do we tell the difference between a passing season and a destructive problem? It is not easy to figure it on our own. Most of us need a little help. We may need the input of a friend or a counselor to identify the real problem and some creative solutions.
The same rhythms show up in our relationship with God.
We all experience seasons in our relationship with God in which God seems close. Prayer is fulfilling and transforming. We are learning and growing and walking with God is the most important relationship in our life. Each week we look forward to church. The people in our small group are our closest friends. Serving others is fruitful and satisfying. But also can experience difficult spiritual seasons. Prayer is hard work, people at church irritate us, and watching a Seinfeld episode for the twelfth time is more interesting than studying the book of Ephesians.
Sometimes we are going through a dry spell. If that is the case, maybe we need to adjust the way we pray or it could be as simple as staying faithful to our spiritual habits and waiting it out. Often within a few weeks or months, our passion for God returns and our spiritual life is reinvigorated. But sometimes it’s not so simple. Our struggles can be symptomatic of a more serious spiritual issue. If left unchecked it can cause catastrophic consequences to our relationship with God.
What are we talking about? The condition is called Acedia. Acedia is a spiritual ailment in which we lose our interest in growing in our relationship with God. It is a condition much deeper than simple spiritual dryness. It will not go away with time. In fact, with time, if ignored, it gets worse.
What does Acedia look like? How do we know we have it? Acedia reveals itself in a number of ways but the most two common is laziness and restlessness. In laziness we will often lose our desire to pray, read the bible, go to church or even think about spiritual questions. It all can feel like too much work and not worth the effort. In the midst of Acedia, everything related to our relationship with God looks and feels dreary, grim, and listless.
Acedia also manifests itself with a general feeling of restlessness. Some people describe it as feeling “uncomfortable in their own skin”. During church, you might feel like running out of the building is the only reasonable response. When you try to pray or read the Bible your body and mind may fidget and long for something more satisfying to do. In extreme cases, you are tempted to think the only answer to your struggle is to find a new church or small group or to avoid church all together.
What is the source of Acedia? The source of Acedia is spiritual. It shows up unannounced to those who are in the midst of trying to be faithful in their relationship with God and this is what makes it different from other spiritual ailments. The spiritual fathers and mothers of the third and fourth centuries called Acedia the “noon day demon” because it often affects people around mid-life. It can also manifest itself at the mid-point of a ministry project or spiritual goal.
Acedia can also pounce on you at specific times of the year. Often it can creep in between Christmas and Lent or after Easter. These are both times of the year in which we have just completed a season of intense spiritual investment and we tend to become spiritually disoriented because we don’t have the external structures to focus our efforts like we do in Advent and Lent. The lack of structure makes us vulnerable to Acedia.
How do we respond to Acedia? Most importantly, Acedia should not be ignored. It needs to be confronted directly. If we ignore it, like many physical issues or injuries, it will not fix itself, it become much worse. If left alone it will wreak havoc on our relationship with God.
Two specific spiritual disciplines are necessary for combating Acedia. It depends upon how it reveals itself. The first is staying put and the second is getting active. This advice might seem to contradict itself. How can we get active and stay put at the same time?
Let me explain. If we are struggling with spiritual restlessness we need to practice learning to stay put for short periods of time each day. As we learn to stay put and resist the uncomfortable feeling of wanting to escape; God will empower us to overcome the temptation to run away from the internal struggle and will help us to grow through it. Running away either by looking for a new church or new anything will not remedy Acedia.
A similar process happens with spiritual laziness. If we are struggling with laziness we need to spend some time each day getting off the couch and doing something physical, like exercise or manual labor. Go for a walk, weed the garden, or mow the lawn; anything to get you off your seat for a while. God made us as spiritual and physical beings. What we do physically affects us spiritually and vice-versa. Consistent physical activity over time can reinvigorate us spiritually.
If you are serious about addressing your Acedia I recommend you pick up the book Thoughts Matter by Mary Margaret Funk. As the title indicates, the author helps us to understand how much our thoughts influence our relationship with God. She has an excellent chapter on Acedia with some very helpful suggestions on how to work through it. Another helpful book is Acedia & me by Kathleen Norris. Norris shares her personal struggles with Acedia and helpful advice for overcoming it.
I know what you are thinking, for those struggling with Acedia the last thing in the world you want to do right now is read a book, but I need to encourage you, for your own sake and for the people around you, you need to take a positive step to address your spiritual condition. If you don’t want to read a book, you might consider meeting with a Spiritual Director.
We all go through various seasons in our relationships with people and with God. But it is important to know the difference between a temporary setback and when we need the help to break free from a more serious condition. Most importantly, we need to realize there is hope and help available. I pray for God to help you take the necessary steps toward spiritual health.
– Steve Nickles, M.Div.