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 beat up 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 down to the Babylonian idol, they refused. They knew that God was able to deliver them, and they said as much to the king. “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Dan. 3:17-18). They said that their God could deliver them. But even if He decided not to, as far as they were concerned, the king could throw them into the furnace. They didn’t care. Of course they didn’t care about the furnace because they did care, and deeply, about honoring God. And this is the basis for sanctified apathy.
The more we care about honoring God, the less we will care about receiving honors from men. This is important because if we care about the opinions of men in the wrong way, it keeps us from being able to believe in Jesus (John 5:44).The more we care about being approved as a faithful workman by God, the less we will care if others condemn or oppose us on their own puny authority (2 Tim. 2:15).
Modern Christians are constantly exhorted to care. This is legitimate, indeed it is inescapable. But the problem is that we are regularly told to care about all the wrong things. “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 that 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 on our intellectual abilities? 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 receiveth it not, 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 (manward). Will we seek to hear “well done, good and faithful servant”? Or are our lives lived for the attaboy?
We are also 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 that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. For not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth” (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 God alone are told that they are kings and priests on the earth. The idolatrously insecure will inherit nothing. And when nothing is experienced but the 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 means that humility 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 that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men” (Rom. 14:18).