The word apathy has all kinds of negative connotations, and rightly so. But I would like to commend the word for at least one positive application, if for no other reason than to make us think about how we interact with the culture around us. The word means to “not care,” but it also carries the sense that the reason for not caring is lethargy, pride, or some other character failing. When Sosthenes was beaten outside the place of judgment, the judge, a man named Gallio, cared for none of these things (Acts 18:17). Gallio was the brother of Seneca, the famous Stoic philosopher, and the Stoics were famous for not caring about things. Maybe Gallio had picked up a few tips. But there is a godly way of not caring. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were commanded to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, they refused. They knew God was able to save them, and they said as much to the king: “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Dan. 3:17–18). If God decided not to deliver them, as far as they were concerned, the king could throw them into the furnace. Of course, they didn’t care about the furnace because they did care, and deeply, about honoring God. This is the basis for sanctified apathy.
Modern Christians are constantly exhorted to care. This is legitimate; indeed, it is inescapable. But the problem is that we are told regularly to care about all the wrong things. It is said among us, “If we continue to maintain that God created the world in six days, we will not be granted academic respectability.” To which we must reply, well, who cares? Why should we care that the guardians of the academy believe we are not intellectually respectable? They believe that the moose, the sperm whale, and the meadowlark are all blood relations. Why do we want their seal of approval? It is like asking Fidel Castro to comment on the economic viability of Microsoft.
But there is another twist. Pragmatic calculations are frequently self-defeating. The man who buries his talent in the ground, after a very careful risk analysis, is the man rebuked by his “hard” master. The man desperate for respect is often the one who does not receive it, while the one who strives for excellence as defined by God in heaven—he stands before kings (Prov. 22:29). In the kingdom of God, the one who would be great must become the least of all. The one who would rule must serve. The one who wants praise must not care about praise.
However, we are created to need praise. So the only choice we have is whether that need will be expressed vertically (Godward) or horizontally (man-ward). Will we seek to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant”? Or are our lives lived for the “Attaboy”?
We are told that we are seeking praise from the place where we offer praise. Those who seek praise from men always prime the pump by offering their own praise first, and we call this flattery. Those who seek praise from God are those who give the glory, all of it, to the Lord. “But ‘he who glories, let him glory in the Lord.’ For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:17–18). We are told to render glory to God, and in return, we are commended by Him. But if we commend ourselves, we are not approved by God, however much we feel our self-esteem may have been enhanced.
The meek inherit the earth. Meekness is submission before God, and those who bow before Him alone are told that they are kings and priests on the earth. The idolatrously insecure inherit nothing. And when nothing is experienced but outer darkness, there will be no echoes of flattering praise at all.
Living this way, before the face of God, keeps our “not caring” from being a self-contained arrogance. Some people don’t care about what other people think for all the wrong reasons. They do not acknowledge the idols in the neighboring city because they are enamored of their own idols. But humility before God extends all the way out to the periphery of our lives. At the same time, the authority of the living God extends this far as well. So we certainly do not want to make ourselves obnoxious to men just for the sake of doing so. Christians are not called to cultivate bad breath, bad manners, and so on. As far as it is possible with us, we should be at peace with all men. But the priorities have to be right. “For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men” (Rom. 14:18).