Uche Anizor: Overcoming Apathy
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Uche AnizorUche Anizor (Phd, Wheaton College) is an associate professor of theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. His other books include How to Read Theology and Representing Christ. He is married to Melissa and they have three children.
Wishing you cared more about your faith? Uche Anizor gets it. He dialogues about the nuts and bolts of overcoming apathy and morphing from lethargy to zeal.
Uche Anizor: Overcoming Apathy
Dave: I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about this; but when I was coaching high school football, back in Michigan, I had this one kid this one year on the team who was this outspoken Christian.
Ann: No, I don’t even know this story.
Dave: You don’t know what I’m going to tell you.
Dave: Actually, I’m pretty sure his dad was a pastor. But here is what happened: at the same time, he was the laziest, most apathetic—and I remember I confronted him one day about that—because I’m like, “Dude! You show up late; you don’t care; you don’t work.” I said to him—I literally said these words—I said, “Don’t tell anybody you’re a Christian.”
Dave: That’s what I said. Now, I didn’t mean it exactly as it came out; but what a meant is: “If you are going to call yourself a Christian, and you’re going to be a lazy—‘I don’t care,’—you are not representing the heart of God.”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: Apathy—a mindset about: “I don’t really care about my life, and my actions, and even how I play or how I work,”—is not the heart of God. We’re going to talk about that today. We’ve got Uche Anizor in the studio with us, first time ever, on FamilyLife Today. Welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Uche: Thanks for having me on. This is great.
Dave: You are sitting over there, smiling; because you’ve written a book called Overcoming Apathy. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book about apathy, especially/I mean, your subtitle is perfect.
Ann: It’s: Gospel Hope for Those Who Struggle to Care. I’m thinking of the parents, who are listening; they are thinking, “Dave just described my child.” [Laughter] “I don’t care,”—it’s not an easy thing to deal with but, also, even to live with.
Dave: You’re a professor of theology at Biola.
Dave: PhD from Wheaton?
Dave: You are a schooled, intelligent man.
Dave: Yes, schooled; okay. [Laughter] And a husband and a dad of three kids.
Dave: Of all the things to write about—you know, you’re thinking: “A professor of theology, at seminary level, is going to write about theology.” You write about apathy: “Who cares?” Why would you write about that?
Uche: Even though I’m a professor, I’m a human: imagine that. [Laughter] I’m a Christian as well, and I have a desire to actually live a Christian life that is honoring to the Lord. I questioned, really early, in my Christian life, why I didn’t feel as passionate about things that I knew I should have been passionate about.
As a brand-new Christian, I got involved with Campus Crusade for Christ®. My first day on campus/my university campus, I saw the Crusade booth, and I got plugged in I grew a ton; but really, early on, I started to notice there were several people around me who seemed to be more fully committed to the things that Crusade was all about: evangelism, discipleship, reaching the world.
Dave: “Win, build, send.”
Uche: “Win, build, send,” or “Win, build, train, send.” Yes, all those things; right?
Uche: I knew they were all good things. I was committed to them intellectually and, even, committed to them in terms of my will. My will was committed to it, but my passions weren’t as strong.
Ann: So you’re kind of comparing yourself to other people around you, wondering, “Hmm?”
Uche: “What’s the deal with me in particular?”
Dave: So you remember this from—how long ago was that?
Uche: This was/I was probably 19/20 years old.
Dave: Yes; so you felt that, early, in your Christian walk?
Uche: You know, I had some of the typical brand-new Christian zeal for God stuff: I was always into Scripture; I went out and shared my faith regularly. But a lot of this was just me knowing what was good/what was right; and me wanting to honor the Lord and pursue what was good and right. It wasn’t that I was not doing anything; it was just more of an issue of: “Why does my heart sort of lag behind my actions?”—so to speak.
Ann: Is it personality, though, Uche? Or is it/you are saying it is more than that.
Uche: I knew it was more than that; because I was a Buffalo Bills fan, and I could get excited about the Bills. [Laughter] When the Bills lost four Super Bowls in a row, I was very emotional and very passionate about it. So it wasn’t personality; it was something a little bit more.
Dave: As you dove into that, what did you find out?
Uche: At the time, I had no answers; so I either just classified myself as: “I guess I’m just an apathetic Christian,” or “Maybe I’m a depressed Christian or something; but I don’t know what the deal is.” I just kind of put a little bookmark in my mind and said, “Okay, I’m going to come back to this question, sometime, later in my life. I want to answer the question of: ‘How can I be a Christian but, also, be apathetic?’”
Later, in my life, as I became a theology professor, I started to interact with tons of college students, mentoring several college students. While they had some sort of common issues—young men struggling with a variety of typical issues and what not—
Dave: —temptations, yes.
Uche: —temptations. The one thing that stood out to me, that was common to all of them—well, not all of them; most of them—was they just had a hard time caring about the things of the Spirit/a hard time caring about the things of God.
That just struck me. Here I am, at a Christian university, with kids who are getting an excellent, Christian education. They are taking ten Bible classes; they’ve got chapels—opportunity after opportunity—and yet, still, they are like: “Yes, you know, I’m struggling to like spend time in the Word,” or “…pray,”—or do all these other sort of baseline Christian things. It just struck me: “I need to think about this some more. I want to write something about this someday.”
Dave: You were watching young men and young women experience the same thing you experienced?
Uche: Precisely; yes.
Dave: It’s 20-some years later, and nothing has changed.
Uche: Yes; that’s right.
Dave: Where did you go to dig this answer out?
Uche: I just said, “Okay, I want to write a book on this, and I don’t know where the book is going to go. I don’t know what the answers are.” I’m not an expert on apathy—I’m a theologian by training—I’m not an expert on psychology or all these other kinds of things. I just said, “Okay, I’m going to try my best to try to get my mind around myself.” Most of my thinking on it is just me thinking about: “What are the various sort of causes? What are the things that are sort of pulling me toward or have pulled me toward apathy?”
In the course of studying it, I came to a number of different conclusions.
Dave: A lot of listeners—me included—would be like, “Okay, I’m relating to a lot of what Uche is saying in terms of, like, the zealous fire that maybe was there early. It doesn’t seem to be as hot,
Dave: —“maybe even warm to cold.”
Ann: Dave, you could even ask this question: “I’m so much more excited to watch that new Netflix® show than I am to open the Bible.”
Uche: That’s right.
Ann: I think a lot of people could relate to that.
Dave: And the same thing happens in our marriages.
Uche: Yes; that’s right.
Dave: We have an infatuation—and newlyweds’—
Dave: —season, that is just hot and heavy.
Uche: That’s right. [Laughter]
Dave: Here we are year two, five—forty years later—and we are just apathetic.
Uche: That’s right; going through the motions, yes.
Dave: Define it for us. Do you have/I mean, how do I know if I am the guy you are talking about?
Uche: I think every person/every Christian can identify seasons in their life—whether it was a really short season, like a day or two, or whatever—where they felt like: “I don’t love God the way that I should love God,” “I don’t really care to be in this church service,” “I don’t really want to read my Bible.” Those kinds of things are just common to being a human/common to being a Christian.
When I talk about apathy, I’m not just talking about those sort of momentary lapses, so to speak. I’m talking about more of a pervasive sense of just not being motivated to do the things that we know we are called to do. It’s more of a pervasive, prolonged bout with that—something that feels like: “This characterizes my orientation towards all things spiritual,”—that’s sort of more of what I am getting at.
Dave: If I am, again, listening—and going: “Okay, I’m there; it’s been three months,” “…it’s been three years,”—I would hear you, and I go, “Okay, I’m sort of/I’d be the classic definition of apathetic.” Obviously, the next question is: “Okay, how do I dig out of this?”
Ann: —or even: “What’s the problem? Why am I feeling that?”
Ann: I would think you had to face that when you were in that situation in college.
Uche: Yes; so there are going to be a number of things that sort of bring apathy about in our lives. I don’t claim to know all the causes; and I think the causes are going to be complicated, and mingled together, and all that stuff. However, we do have a responsibility to try to figure out: “Okay, me as a unique person, what are the things at war in me, causing me to sort of slide into this sort of blah/this meh sort of state of being?”
When I think about my Christian life, one of the things that stands out to me is I’ve struggled with doubt at various points in my Christian life. During those bouts with doubt—and sometimes, they are long bouts—they are not necessarily intellectual doubts. There are a variety of kinds of doubts; but when I’m battling doubt, my motivation for the things of God are obviously going to wane—right?—because I’m questioning the very thing I’m supposed to be most passionate about. I’m questioning: “Is He out there?” “Is He the exact God that I believed in?” “What about Jesus and the resurrection?”—these kinds of questions; you know? Every now and again, they will rise up in my mind, create these doubts; and have a real affect.
I’ve had to reckon with my own doubts and try to identify: “Where is my doubt coming from?—are these intellectual?—are they otherwise?”; and then deal with them.
Uche: I always go back to one thing, and one thing alone: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Uche: I go back there all the time.
Dave: You’ve got to go back to the source and say, “Okay, I’ve got to deal with this so that the fire comes back.” But that’s not the only one.
Uche: No, there are several.
Dave: What are others?
Uche: Yes; I think about things—like being inundated by trivial things all the time—so at every moment of every day, someone is trying to tell me that something trivial is meaningful. I can imagine being inundated with meaningless things that people are telling me are so meaningful, like: “What’s this celebrity doing?” “What’s that celebrity doing?” “What did LeBron James say?”
Uche: All of these things—they matter—but not really. When someone is telling me that these things are meaningful—“You should really care,”—what ends up happening is, over the course of time, we don’t just not care about meaningful things; we kind of treat everything the same: “If everything is important, nothing is important.”
Ann: We get numbed to it after a while?
Uche: I think we get numbed by triviality.
Dave: For some reason, we put a higher value on things that, like you said, aren’t that significant. I mean, I’ve seen—and I’d love to say I never did this; but I did it, too—I’ve seen people get more passionate about fantasy football,—
Uche: Oh, yes.
Dave: —or whatever, than they ever do about Christ.
Uche: That’s right.
Dave: You find yourself just immersed in that. You’re saying, when that happens, the things that really matter often get pushed aside and the things that don’t become the thing we are zealous about.
Uche: Or at some point, we kind of give up on all of it and say, “Nothing really, really matters.” We become numb to everything.
Ann: Can that slip into depression? How would you know when that apathy has gone into depression?
Uche: That was one of the things I tried to tackle, because they overlap significantly. Apathy can be a symptom of depression; but depression doesn’t necessarily/are not necessarily the same thing as apathy. The depressed person tends to be, oftentimes, like: “I can’t get motivated by the things that matter, or the things that don’t matter, and anything in between. I just cannot get motivated.”
Apathy just tends to be—in my understanding, at least, as I speak about spiritual apathy—it send to be selective. It just latches onto the things that we value most.
Dave: We’ve talked about doubt can cause us to be apathetic; [also] distractions and getting involved in things that aren’t as important.
Dave: I want to ask you about this: “What about sin?” I know that in my own life—I’d love to say, “I have a friend who…”; but this isn’t a friend; this is me—when I’m struggling with a sin, let’s say pornography or some kind of thing that is like a secret/hidden, I can walk in a church service, where people’s arms are raised in worship of God—I’m not saying that’s the only indicator of a zealous, passionate walk with God; but you can feel something is happening: they really are ascribing worth; they are fully in—and I am standing there, like, “I can’t feel what they are feeling.” I think a lot of us—because I’ve got a secret going on, that nobody here knows about—
Ann: Did you feel like that, Dave, when you had struggled with that in the past?
Dave: Yes; that is why I am bringing it up. It’s like, if somebody looked at me, they wouldn’t know.
Uche: That’s right.
Dave: But in terms, of fervor in my heart for Jesus, it’s not there.
Uche: That’s right.
Dave: It’s, in some ways, because I’m not willing to repent of this sin. Is that pretty real?
Uche: Yes, that seems intuitively correct; right? We’re responsible to have our minds set on the things of the Spirit; we’re responsible to sort of feed the spiritual, so if we’re not engaging with the spiritual: that could be sort of actively engaging in spiritual disciplines, things of those sorts; or if we are not actively dealing with God rightly.
If I want to maintain a zeal for God, zeal comes in relationship with a person and real engagement with a person. If my engagement with a person is being stunted by sin, and really dark sin that I’m not dealing with, then I should not be surprised that my heart is becoming colder, and colder, and colder to the things of God and of God Himself.
Dave: Do you feel the same thing is true in a marriage?
Uche: Absolutely; yes. In a marriage, if you are going through the motions, and you are not trying to—for lack of a better term—be intimate with one another: you are not willing to own sin and confess sin to one another—seems like a law of the universe—that the marriage is going to fade as well.
Dave: I mean, as I’m listening to you, I’m thinking, “All the things you said about how our fire goes away with our walk with God are also true in a marriage.
Uche: —because it’s relational.
Dave: If I’m doubting, she is committed; if I’m getting distracted—
Uche: That’s right.
Dave: —by all the other things, and I’m not putting attention into my marriage; if there is sin: I mean, there is going to be no fire.
Dave: I mean, you’re going to be that married couple that sits there, and may look good in church; but you know, deep down inside: “We’ve lost our love.”
Uche: That’s exactly right.
Dave: Talk to the married couple; talk to the Christian: “Okay, I am there. I’ve got to get out. Where do I start?”
Uche: We start with the recognition that our struggle with apathy is just one struggle, among many other kinds of things, that Christians have to struggle with. What do Christians do with their struggles?—they recognize that they have the God, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; that is who God actually is.
We don’t want to treat apathy as if apathy is something wholly unique and wholly other. It is a sinful orientation toward God, but it is not more sinful than other sorts of things; so what we need to do is recognize that God is for us, and that God is going to be the answer to our apathy, and that God is engaged with us, even as we are kind of like: “I don’t give a rip about God.” His Spirit is engaged with us, and He’s going to use a variety of ways to try to pull us out of that apathy.
The first thing we recognize is that God is for us, and that we’re not pulling from our own resources, we’re not trying to sort of get to God; God is already with us. But then we have to recognize that God gives us grace, and that grace then empowers us to engage in a battle; so apathy and dealing with apathy is going to be a battle that’s not going to be won with one knockout blow.
Ann: Is that how you saw and dealt with it, back in college? Even when you went on staff with Cru®, walk through your whole process of what happened.
Uche: Well, during that time, if I am being honest, I didn’t deal with it; right? I just struggled through it and just felt a lot of—I don’t know if shame is the right word—but just felt really inadequate as a staff member. My time with Cru was almost entirely positive; but there is that one element of me, feeling like, “Man, I just stink. I’m just not where these people are at.” So to be honest, I didn’t really deal with it back then.
The process of dealing with it just kind of came over time—and I wasn’t, in particular, battling apathy as a thing—I was just trying to grow in my Christian life.
Ann: Yes; so now, if you have a college student that you are mentoring—
Ann: —you can see it: he is just not passionate about his walk with God; he wants to, but he’s like, “It’s just not going on,”—how do you coach him and mentor him?
Shelby: That’s Dave and Ann Wilson with Uche Anizor on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear Uche’s response in just a minute.
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Alright; now, back to Dave and Ann’s conversation with Uche Anizor and how to mentor a young person, who can’t get motivated about the things of God.
Uche: I have to diagnosis the issue. Typically, what I’ll do is I’ll ask questions; the questions are really basic questions: “How are you spending your time?” “How much time are you devoting to, I don’t know, playing video games?” “How much time are you devoting to other loves/other things that you really love?”—and then—“How much time are you devoting to the things of the Spirit?”
They are going to say, “I’m not motivated to do the things of the Spirit, so that’s why I’m not devoting any time to it.” I’m going to say, “Well, the math is pretty simple: if you don’t do the basic things that keep you connected to God, then you’re not going to be connected to God, and then you’re not going to feel your connection to God. Then you’re going to grow cold in your feelings toward God,”—
Uche: —that’s apathy.
We have to diagnose it first. Typically, the diagnosis is pretty straightforward; it’s: “People are not engaging with God; and as you don’t engage with God, you grow cold to God.”
Dave: Yes, just like in a marriage: if you’re not engaging with your spouse, you can say whatever you want—“I still love her,” “I still love him”; and you do—
Uche: —you do.
Dave: —but if there is not that daily connection, it’s going to grow/your heart is going to grow cold; that’s natural.
Uche: That’s right.
Dave: It’s unnatural—a couple—we always say, at the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway with FamilyLife: “You always drift toward isolation.
Uche: That’s right.
Dave: “You have to work to stay one.”
It’s no different with our walk with God.
Uche: I think that’s right.
Ann: It’s interesting: I used to do a talk, where I took a sponge that was an old crusty, dry sponge; and I cut it out in the shape of a heart. I said, “This is our heart; and if we don’t saturate that sponge with God—with His Word, with community/with church—where we’re pouring into our heart…” I could take a fingernail and just crust it over; you could hear it scrape.
Ann: It gets to the point where you can’t even bend the sponge anymore.
Sometimes, I used to think, even when I felt like I was apathetic: “I’m just going to spend some time in the Word today,” so that was great; but it still wasn’t enough. It’s that consistent pouring into; because whatever we pour into that heart, is going to come out of the heart.
Uche: That’s right.
Ann: I would take water, and just drench it [the sponge] of saying, “What would it look like to drench our hearts?”—and that sponge became so saturated that it just starts dripping out water.
I was saying, “That’s what I long for”; but it also takes that discipline of—and even the analyzing: “Where am I right now? What have I been pouring into my heart?”—and the discipline of: “And I’m going to spend time with God.” I feel like this happens, at the beginning, when your heart is hard. You do it; and it’s like, “Okay, I did it”; but the more we do it, the more we want to do it; but it takes a little bit.
Uche: That’s right.
Dave: In some ways, it’s like—at least, what I am thinking right now—put yourself under the fountain. I don’t know who said it—we’ve all used this quote—“If you are far from God, guess who moved,”—you know one of those kinds of things. God didn’t move.
Dave: I think there is some truth to that.
It’s like: “I’ve been under the spigot; I’ve been under the Source of living water, and I’m just not going back there enough.” Again, it’s not like a legalistic: “I’ve got to do my daily devo with God”; but when you do meet with Him, and talk with Him, and listen through His Word, and listen to His Spirit—it may start really small—but He starts to warm your heart up. The more we plug in; the warmer it gets—not that it is never going to get cold again—
Dave: —it will—but it’s like: “Is today the day to say, ‘Okay, God, I’m coming back’?
Uche: That’s right.
Dave: “I’m going to start right here.”
Uche: Yes; I think a danger a younger generation might have, over an older generation—it’s not that one generation does apathy and the other generation doesn’t have apathy—that’s, clearly, not the case.
Uche: However, one of the differences might be that a younger generation won’t just gut it out. If they are not feeling it, they may not be as willing to just do what they know they need to do to get out of apathy, because they are not feeling it.
Part of the aim of all of life, for a certain generation, is to live authentically: so if I am not being real, or if my passion for God isn’t real—and I’m just kind of engaging in my quiet time because I should—then maybe, I shouldn’t; because it’s not real. I think that is a huge mistake. I think, if a younger generation can just latch on to this reality, that: “A lot of times, you are not going to feel stuff; and that life is not driven by feelings.”
Feelings really do matter, and your emotions toward God really do matter; but life is not driven by these emotions. Oftentimes, we have to make consistent choices. The consistent choices will build the kind of feelings that we want; but oftentimes, in a sort of instant generation, you want the feelings immediately. If I ask a young Christian, “So how was your quiet time today?”—they’ll say—“I didn’t get anything out of it.”
“I didn’t get anything out of it,” typically means: “I expected an event to happen, or an experience to happen; because I opened up the Bible.” I’m like, “That’s just likely not going to be the case. What is going to happen is you’re just kind of laying some ground work—
Uche: —“foundations. You’re building an actual relationship, and relationships aren’t all about these sorts of highs. You have the highs, but it is not all highs. It’s about building a lasting, deep, meaningful relationship that, sometimes, doesn’t have the spectacular.”
Shelby: You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann’s conversation with Uche Anizor on FamilyLife Today. His book is called Overcoming Apathy: Gospel Hope for Those Who Struggle to Care. You can get a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson will continue their conversation with Uche Anizor about overcoming doubt and taking actions to rediscover yourself.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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