Is there a place for indifference in the Christian life? Is apathy ever a good thing?

In my previous column, I interacted with Jeffrey Bilbro’s Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News. I recommended we “look local” instead of getting caught up in “distant dramas” that grab our attention but leave us with little to no agency in bringing about change.

Today, I turn to a provocative section of Bilbro’s book, where he encourages us to develop a “holy indifference,” a kind of “sacred apathy” when it comes to the results we might achieve when advocating for a cause.

Pascal and “Holy Indifference”

What is holy indifference? Bilbro begins with a letter from Blaise Pascal to his brother-in-law in the mid-seventeenth century.

Pascal’s brother-in-law wrote him about a controversy in which he was involved, and Pascal replied by sketching a view of Providence as guiding not only our efforts, but also those of our opponents: “The same Providence that has inspired some with light, had refused it to others.” In other words, the God that allows you to have the right perspective on this particular issue also allows others to be wrong about it. Recognizing that the outcome of all our controversies is in God’s hand––that in some sense he wills or permits people to hold different views on these issues––should radically temper our emotional investment in the victory of our preferred side. (36-37)

Bilbro believes we can learn epistemic humility from Pascal’s approach. Pascal would have us ask: What if we are misguided in what we think is the right thing to do in a situation? Or what if, even when we’re right, God Himself allows others to oppose us? Sometimes, your opponent wins. But whatever happens, God is in control of the outcome. For this reason, Bilbro says, we are to “care deeply about the issues to which God has called us but to care without worrying about the score, the outcome” (40). In other words: “holy indifference.”

Confidence and Humility 

Where does this “holy indifference” originate? Bilbro believes it’s rooted in two things:

  1. confidence in God’s sovereignty, and
  2. humility regarding our ability to discern what God is up to in contemporary events.

He writes:

God often accomplishes his providential purposes in ways that we do not expect, so we should not be too quick to rejoice over what seems like a positive development or to despair over what seems like bad news. Further…we should be very cautious to claim that we can recognize what exactly God is doing in any given situation. (37-38)

This is holy indifference—to be confident in your faith that God is in control, and humble in your acknowledgement that you don’t know how He might be working out His providential will. It could be God’s will for a righteous cause to encounter a terrible setback. Or it could be that, even if our cause is winning, we’re being led astray in terms of temptation and character.

A high view of Providence and a chastened sense of our ability to recognize God’s methods of victory frees us from worrying about whether a given event is good or bad. Even when the events of the news seem irredeemably evil, they remain under the hand of the Creator who is working all things according to his plan. (38-39)

What’s the benefit of “holy indifference”? Freedom and joy, Bilbro writes. Because we trust in God’s sovereignty “we are freed from emotional over-investment in the day’s drama” (41). We don’t have to follow the same worldly path as the politicians and pundits whose strategy is always focused on the next temporal victory. Instead, we look around to see what good work we can do in both the short-term and the long-term, trusting that God will use our efforts for His purposes.

Is Indifference an Excuse for Inaction? 

Bilbro’s advocacy of “holy indifference” could turn into an excuse for inaction, right? Perhaps you already register this objection. Isn’t this just a way for comfortable and privileged people to diminish their passion for righteousness and justice? Does holy indifference mean we can embrace apathy regarding our love for neighbor?

Bilbro anticipates these concerns, and so he clarifies that, rightly understood, the indifference concerns the results of all our efforts, not indifference toward other human beings, or indifference toward the cause itself. To get at what he recommends here, picture not the privileged but the persecuted. He writes:

Certainly apathy can be an attitude of the privileged who are insulated from the effects of bad news, but holy apathy is also the attitude of the martyrs who faithfully obey God regardless of the events swirling around them, events that they are powerless to control. In reality, we are all powerless to control the outcome of the political, social, and cultural disputes of our time, and the vast majority of us have little opportunity to directly influence these battles; when we follow their developments with bated breath, rooting for our chosen side to win, we display a lack of faith in Providence and an outsized view of our own power. And the result is that we profane our minds, macadamizing them with trivial updates instead of meditating on eternal words so that we, like the blessed man of Psalm 1, can bear fruit to bless our neighbors in whatever situation we find ourselves. (42-43)

That’s the holy indifference that Pascal (and Bilbro) recommend. Not indifference or apathy toward suffering, as if we can neglect matters of justice and righteousness, but joyful trust in the sovereignty of God and gracious humility at seeing our own limitations, so that we, with happy abandon, adopt the attitude of the martyrs who “commit to acting faithfully regardless of the consequences” (43).

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