Acedia: What It Is and Why You Should Know About It

There’s one area of temptation especially common among clergy that I want to bring to your attention. It is nearly unknown, though its sad results litter the wreckage of many a ministry.

I’m talking about something the ancients called acedia. It’s commonly translated sloth, but that’s misleading. We’re not just talking about habitual laziness or being a slacker at work. Our spiritual ancestors saw beneath superficial sloth and laziness to its underlying spiritual cause: disappointment with and disaffection from God’s divinely ordained gifts, be they in the realm of creation or redemption.

Acedia means a lack or absence of care. And that’s deadly. Whenever we grow numb to Christ’s saving work and the Father’s gracious gifts by which he makes us and preserves us, spiritual boredom takes hold, followed by apathy and subsequent despair. Where acedia takes root in the soul of a pastor, the flock suffers greatly.

The complex demands placed on pastors in our time call for extraordinary management and leadership skills, and many of us have an increasingly difficult time keeping up with the demands. Parishioners and church judicatory leaders are quick to point out a rise in dysfunctional pastors who are simply not at the top of their game. But you and I know that pastors are not trained seals. Ministry involves a lot more than a job description and performance evaluation.

Still, I’m sure you’d agree that if we lose our zeal for the gospel and the service of Christ’s people, it’s a matter of grave concern. Unaddressed, that kind of spiritual apathy can quickly gut our pastoral habitus and ruin our ministry.

CLINICAL DYSFUNCTION

Research has shown that increasing numbers of clergy suffer from debilitating emotional dysfunctions. Collectively called “burnout,” some of these disabilities stem from something now identified as Compassion Fatigue—the consequence of constant immersion in the emotional rollercoasters of the people to whom they minister. Likewise, research shows that clinical depression among pastors exceeds rates common in the general population.

Sadly many pastors don’t seek care from licensed clinicians, though emotional dysfunction responds very well to treatment by mental health professionals. Sadder still, far too many church leaders and ecclesiastical supervisors remain uninformed about the extent and impact of these illnesses and available treatment.

But remember: Mental illness and disorders involving the mind and emotions have clear spiritual dimensions as well. If it’s tragic that too many pastors remain undiagnosed emotionally speaking, it is doubly tragic when those who preach the gospel to others themselves become spiritual casualties (1 Cor 9:25). How sad it is when pastors who care for others live effectively in a spiritual desert with no pastor to care for them.

Likewise self-care is essential. We who take up the Savior’s calling to tend the souls of others need to tend our own soul first. Watchfulness and prayerful vigilance are crucial when it comes to acedia, which I’ve come to believe is pandemic in its spiritual impact on clergy today.

Just a head’s up: Acedia can be chronic or episodic. In my own experience and from what I’ve observed while caring for other pastors, spiritual boredom comes and goes for most of us throughout our ministry. But then acedia can also sink in its talons and take hold for long stretches of time.

Whether chronic or acute, acedia always calls for watchful vigilance as well as intentional treatment—both your own spiritual self-care and in the care you receive from your soul’s physician.

WARNING SIGNALS

How can you tell if you suffer from acedia? Here are some of the clear warning signs:

  • Ministry begins to lose its luster and you find it harder and harder to rouse yourself to tend to the souls entrusted to you.

  • Or conversely, you might throw yourself into frenetic ministry to others just to avoid having to tend your own soul, since you’ve grown cold and numb to the things of God.

  • You lose touch with both the art and craft of ministry; you find yourself acting not out of your pastoral habitus but just going through the motions and impersonating a pastor.

  • Ultimately the word of God and prayer become more and more an official duty and less and less a personal treasure.

If any of these cluster of symptoms become the norm for you rather than the exception, I think you can be pretty sure you’re experiencing acedia.

Acedia is certainly not child’s play. I’ve seen it take a good man down to near capitulation and bring him to the brink of despair.

How sad it is when pastors who care for others live effectively in a spiritual desert with no pastor to care for them.

Here’s how it usually unfolds: It’s as if your soul has been injected with spiritual morphine. You become listless and unresponsive to the work of the Holy Spirit through his means. A pervasive numbness prevails; a numbness not just of emotion, but of heart and soul. I’m convinced that’s why some pastors turn to porn. It’s their way of treating their own unbearable emotional and psychic pain. It jolts them out of their bleak, numb world of acedia. What they’re seeking is not really pleasure, but the ability to feel something again.

But acedia doesn’t always present as a porn propensity. It can cast its toxic shadow in any number of ways.

One pastor I eventually treated for acedia came to me initially because he wrestled to contain an inexplicable simmering rage while quietly becoming more and more detached from all that he knew to be good and holy and true. Ministry for him became first a chore, then a burden.

He no longer had the emotional energy to connect with his wife and children as he wanted to, though he knew he was robbing them of the husband and father they loved. The holy things of God began to lose their luster; he found himself less and less inclined toward prayer and God’s word. He grew impatient in his ministry, and it became harder and harder for him to listen to the troubled hearts and souls of his parishioners.

Eventually he and I began to recognize in these symptoms acedia’s telltale signs. Besides the medical help he was already receiving for his anxiety, I advised him to change his work habits, take more time out for his family, etc. But here’s what I wrote him during some of his darkest days:

You also need to take on yourself the full armament that Christ supplies (Eph 6): Take up the sword of the Spirit, and pray at all times in the Spirit (which for me simply means to pray to the Father through the Son by the power of the Spirit). Acedia regarding holy things: No desire to care/pray, no ability to hear, no sense of peace … all are symptomatic of demonic attack. There’s no reason to fear, however. (This is) the normal result of what happens when a man takes up the mantle of the ministry and begins to do real work in service of Christ and his kingdom.

The devil is God’s devil: He inadvertently does God’s work.

Like moths to a flame, the forces of darkness are drawn to the light; demonic influences can’t help but be drawn to such a man doing quality work in the kingdom in order to undermine his work, drive him to desperation, get him to sin in any possible way (pride is of course a favorite) and to break his bonds of love with others closest and dearest.

But he’s a defeated enemy. He can harm you none. The One who fights for you is stronger than he. In fact, the devil is God’s devil: He inadvertently does God’s work; attempting to separate you from Christ, Satan drives you closer to him. Go to Jesus; he has the words of eternal life, as you preached so well last Sunday. Take those words as your own even when you don’t feel anything; embrace them and revel in the promises he brings you. What you have taught and embodied so well for others believe for yourself.

I’m happy to report this pastor is well along the road to recovery today. While acedia still rears its ugly head occasionally, it’s clearly in remission. While his vocations as husband, father, and pastor can at times be overwhelming and exhausting, they are fulfilling for him now, and he delights in them once more. He’s infatuated with the care of souls again. Best of all, he knows the telltale signs of acedia and knows when and where to seek help and how better to address them himself by prayer and the word of God.

DELIVERANCE FROM EVIL

None of us can be at the top of our game at all times. You know as well as I do that good and effective pastors have their ups and downs emotionally speaking, as well as episodes of greater or less productivity. But when you become chronically disillusioned with holy things and apathy toward God’s work becomes unrelenting, it may be that you’re not dealing just with an emotional low, but acedia. That’s a spiritual temptation, part and parcel of the enemy’s attack in spiritual warfare. And just as sexual temptation, it needs to be addressed spiritually—both in terms of self-care and most likely also the care of another pastor.

Every pastor needs a pastor. But quality self-care begins, according to our Lord’s direction and example, with prayer for protection: “Lead us not into temptation.” Then we pray for our Father’s intervention: “But deliver us from (the) evil (one).”

Ultimately there’s not a man among us who can save himself under the continual onslaughts of the devil, world, and our own sinful flesh. Some things we can handle, but others are above our pay grade. If it were just a matter of working harder or working smarter, we could tackle that. Usually, that is. But you can’t outwit Satan. You can’t single handedly tackle the sinister influences of this fallen world any more than you can keep a lid on the raging impulses and obsessions of your own sinful nature.

There’s not a man among us who can save himself under the continual onslaughts of the devil, world, and our own sinful flesh.

It’s true, frustratingly and consistently true. We do not wrestle with flesh and blood in either of these matters: sexual lust, acedia—or for that matter a whole raft of other temptations. Ultimately this whole struggle is a spiritual battle, beyond the range of our puny intellect and feeble willpower to curtail. That’s why you can’t fight this battle, not really. You can only defend yourself and call in the champion to fight for you. Christ Jesus, who by his blood and cross has conquered in the fight already, intercedes for you at the Father’s right hand.

And God your Father in heaven for Jesus’ sake will take care of you, of that you can be sure. He is the almighty Maker of heaven and earth, and yet at the same time he is your true Father. That means you are his true son, dearly loved. He is guardian and keeper of all his beloved children. He guides you waking and he guards you sleeping. Under his protection you can safely rest even in the most distressing hours of your life.

So call upon him in every trouble, won’t you? Pray, praise, and give thanks to him. He is good, and his mercy endures forever. Whenever you are at the end of your rope—mentally, physically and spiritually exhausted—he will then be your strength and stay.

You won’t know this, of course, relying on your five senses. Ministry can be not only exhausting, but depleting. And then when you’re at your lowest ebb, Satan stirs the pot. He plays his trump card. He calls your attention not merely to your sins, but to the frightening developments around you and the fearsome unknown future ahead of you. All of these are things you can see, and hear, and touch, and feel. Any one of them can be terrifying enough, but collectively they will do you in. For left to your own devices, you will most certainly cave and give up.

PERSISTENT SENTRIES

But you can stand against this attack, provided you are arrayed in the protective armor of Christ Jesus your Lord: his truth, his righteousness, his gospel, his faith, and his salvation. Wield the sword of his Spirit with prayer and supplication, knowing that your Father in heaven delights in hearing your prayer and will most surely deliver you in his own time and way from all that ails you. So don’t cash it in. Never ever give up; be just as persistent in meditation and prayer as the devil is in his attacks against you and those you love.

Remember: In this battle you’re never a warrior. You’re a sentinel. Your primary task is to do sentry duty, guarding against enemy attack. You can never tell where the next attack will come from, or where it will be directed. It could be against you, of course, but frequently the devil is too cagey for that. Coward that he is, sometimes he launches his most vicious assaults on those nearest and dearest to you: your wife and children, your closest friends, your parishioners.

In every offensive and by any means possible his sworn, relentless goal is to uproot and utterly destroy God’s good and gracious work in Christ.

THE BATTLE WON

But he’s already judged, and the verdict is in. “It is finished,” Jesus cried in his dying breath. All the work of Satan to destroy, all his lies and accusations, all the sin and mayhem he has imposed on God’s good creation—all of this has been obliterated and eradicated in the death of our enfleshed God for the sins of the world.

Christ’s dramatic victory was affirmed and attested by his triumphant resurrection from the dead three days after his stone cold body was laid in its tomb.

So you can be confident, dear brother, that there’s nothing in all creation that can ever separate you from the Father’s love for you. Stand your ground, then, in the evil day. Some days are sure to be worse than others spiritually speaking. That goes with the territory in ministry. Temptations are sure to come; if not for you, then certainly for those you love.

Therefore always remain alert to fend them off. Wield the word, the Spirit’s sword. Pray persistently in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies you already now and then in eternity hereafter forevermore.

And always remember this: The sufferings of this present time can’t hold a candle to the joy that still awaits us (Rom 8:18).


Taken from The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart by Harold L. Senkbeil. Copyright (c) 2019. Published by Lexham Press, https://lexhampress.com/.

Harold L. Senkbeil is an Executive Director of Doxology: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care. His pastoral experience of nearly five decades includes parish ministry, the seminary classroom, and parachurch leadership. He is author of numerous books, including Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness and Sanctification: Christ in Action.