Vocation and Temptation: Acedia, Anfechtung and Me

I know I have been absent from this blog for some time. My apologies for this. Initially my absence was due to some planned vacation and travel. But then other elements began influencing it—Acedia (spiritual apathy) and Anfecthung (affliction). This post will speak a little bit about these challenges, which may just resonate with a number of you as well.

I’ve written much about the importance of every Christian’s daily vocation—our daily stations of life as a spouse, parent, son, daughter, worker, Christian neighbor, and congregational member, and how they function to serve our neighbor and be the places where we can witness to others. However, it is also precisely in these vocations that Satan begins his attacks on us. His aim is to get us to abandon each of these vocations. And he will do so by afflicting us in any number of ways.

Spiritual warfare is a sinister and tumultuous battle all Christians endure, but fewer and fewer are recognizing how it works, myself included. John Kleinig has written wonderfully on this in his book Grace Upon Grace, and insightfully unpacks the nature of Satan’s attacks: In short he says, “The German word Anfechtung describes Satan’s attack upon our faith in Christ and God’s condemnation of us as sinners” (p.22).

But it is also helpful for us to understand that this Anfechtung has multiple dimensions to it. Luther himself used it in three different ways. David Scaer unpacks the word and the toll each dimension brings upon the human soul:

The American Translation of Luther’s Works uses all three [translation of the word Anechtung], “temptation,” “trial,” and “affliction,” plus “tribulation.” Each of these English words develops one facet of Luther’s Anfecthung and related words. “Temptation” points to the Christian’s life as a period of testing by Satan. In this temptation the Christian is given the opportunity by God to overcome Satan personally, but there can be no suggestion that God is the origin of sin or provokes the Christian to sin. “Trial” suggests a probationary period before God’s bestowing a great good. Through the trial, God puts the Christian to the test to measure the depth and sincerity of faith and to bring it to a higher level. Thus, trial points to God’s control over the Christian’s suffering during the Anfechtung. Suffering does not happen through chance. “Affliction” reflects the real suffering and pain the Christian endures during the Anfechtung. The Christian does not necessarily experience physical pain, but real agony in his soul about his personal salvation. “Tribulation” also refers to the Christian’s suffering during the Anfechtung but suggests the wider dimension as affliction suffered by all Christians. (“The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther’s Thought,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, January 1983, p.15).

There are other elements that can be added to this affliction. For me, it is not Anfechtung alone that’s been plaguing my soul. It’s been combined with what is seen as a debilitating form of spiritual apathy that is known by the ancients as Acedia (a-kah-dee-ah). (Presently, very few would be able to observe these things about me, as I’m guessing is true for many of you out there as well. But, it is an intense internal spiritual battle that, if left unchecked and untreated, can certainly begin to manifest itself in spiritually unhealthy and observable ways. Thus, at this point, other than my wife and Father Confessor, few would know that I have been wrestling with this.)

In any case, the notion of Acedia is probably best unearthed by others more well-versed in it than I. As such, Kathleen Norris in her 2008 work Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life vividly opens up the depth of this affliction by drawing on her own experience, and even more aptly, by engaging in the insights of one of the ancient monastic Desert Fathers:

“Acedia” may be an unfamiliar term to those not well versed in monastic history or medieval literature. But that does not mean it has no relevance for contemporary readers. The word has a peculiar history, and as timelines on the Oxford English Dictionary website reveal, it has gone in and out of favor over the years…

At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cry out,” as in a lament. Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother.

…I first encountered the word acedia in The Praktikos, a book by the fourth-century Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus. Across a distance of sixteen hundred years he spoke clearly of the inner devastation caused by the demon of acedia when it “[made] it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long.” Boredom tempts him “to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine [the lunch hour].” But Evagrius soon discovers that this seemingly innocuous activity has an alarming and ugly effect, for having stirred up a restlessness that he is unable to shake, the demon taunts him with the thought that his efforts at prayer and contemplation are futile. Life then looms like a prison sentence, day after day of nothingness.

As I read this I felt a weight lift from my soul, for I had just discovered an accurate description of something that had plagued me for years but that I had never been able to name. As any reader of fairy tales can tell you, not knowing the true name of your enemy, be it a troll, a demon, or an “issue,” puts you at a great disadvantage, and learning the name can help to set you free. “He’s describing half my life,” I thought to myself. To discover an ancient monk’s account of acedia that so closely matched an experience I’d had at the age of fifteen did seem a fairy-tale moment. To find my deliverer not a knight in shining armor but a gnarled desert dweller, as stern as they come, only bolstered my conviction that God is a true comedian…

The desert monks termed acedia “the noonday demon” because the temptation usually struck during the heat of the day, when the monk was hungry and fatigued, and susceptible to the suggestion that his commitment to a life of prayer was not worth the effort. Acedia has long been considered a peculiarly monastic affliction, and for good reason. It is risky business to train oneself (“training” being a root meaning of asceticism) to embrace a daily routine that mirrors eternity in its changelessness, deliberately removing distractions from one’s life in order to enter into a deeper relationship with God. Under these circumstances acedia’s assault is not merely an occupational hazard—it is a given.

We might well ask if these crazy monks don’t have it coming: if your goal is to “pray without ceasing,” aren’t you asking for trouble? Is this a reasonable goal, or even a good one? Henri Nouwen tells us that “the literal translation of the words ‘pray always’ is ‘come to rest.’ The Greek word for rest,” he adds, “is ‘hesychia,’ and ‘hesychasm’ is a term which refers to the spirituality of the desert.” The “rest” that the monk is seeking is not an easy one, and as Nouwen writes, it “has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle.” Acedia is the monk’s temptation because, in a demanding life of prayer, it offers the ease of indifference. Yet I have come to believe that acedia can strike anyone whose work requires self-motivation and solitude, anyone who remains married “for better for worse,” anyone who is determined to stay true to a commitment that is sorely tested in everyday life. When I complained to a Benedictine friend that for me, acedia was no longer a noontime demon but seemed like a twenty-four-hour proposition, he replied, “Well, we are speaking of cosmic time. And it is always noon somewhere.”

Yes, I will attest that it is always noon somewhere. Much more could be said. But the means of this spiritual warfare are clear. Affliction and the apathy have been diagnosed. And Satan is relentless with them. Others who have experienced the depths of these afflictions are no doubt nodding their heads. The Apostle Paul is quick to remind us of the vastness of this war: For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12).

He is also quick to give us the remedy: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. (Ephesians 6:10-11).

Kleinig summarizes the battle like this: When Satan attacks us, we experience the righteousness and truth of God’s Word with our whole being, rather than just with the intellect; we experience the sweetness and loveliness of God’s Word with our whole being, rather than just with the emotions; we experience the power and strength of God’s Word with our whole being, rather than just with the body. Temptation is therefore the touchstone that God uses to assess our spirituality. Temptation reveals what is otherwise hidden from us. Just as a pawnbroker uses a touchstone to test the presence and purity of gold in a coin or a piece of jewelry, temptation also tests the authenticity of our faith and proves our spiritual health. (Grace Upon Grace, p.21)

However, speaking in all honesty, the attacks are painful and debilitating, and the “experience” Kleinig speaks of, at least for me, is seemingly fleeting. But perhaps that simply describes my own ongoing wrestling. After all, Satan’s desire for all of us is to give up and let him win. But here’s the thing. Jesus has already won. He is the victor! The defeated one is Satan, and as my Father Confessor reminds me, the Lord Jesus fights for me (and for you dear reader.) It remains something I have to constantly remind myself to “rest in.” Yes pastors, especially pastors, suffer from such spiritual maladies and desperately need the Gospel like everyone else.

May the words of the hymn below be for you as they are for me; solace in the midst of all my vocations:

Lord Jesus, since You love me, Now spread Your wings above me And shield me from alarm. Though Satan would devour me, Let angel guards sing o’er me: This child of God shall meet no harm. “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow,” Lutheran Service Book, 880.

Until next time,

Rev. Woodford

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3 responses to “Vocation and Temptation: Acedia, Anfechtung and Me

  1. Bless you, brother, for your transparency and honesty on a subject we pastors rarely find the courage to address personally. Too often we assume the source of our trouble is ‘flesh and blood’ and revert to political or managerial strategies, neglecting to take seriously the apostle’s admonition to address the spiritual dimension of our struggle.

    Thanks too for the illuminating quote from Kathleen Norris. Incidentally, we moderns tend to dismiss the sin of sloth as a mere failure of will, when the ancients clearly grasped its more sinister emotional and spiritual dimensions: “The Church names the sixth Deadly Sin Acedia or Sloth. In the world it calls itself Tolerance; but in Hell it is called Despair. It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.” (Dorothy Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” Creed or Chaos? (Harcourt, Brace:1949/ 1974 ed. Sophia Institute Press, p. 108 f.)

    Thanks most of all for putting this nasty business into context. While those suffering bouts of spiritual apathy, as you put it, may indeed benefit from psychological assessment and assistance, above all they need spiritual care clearly focused on the intervention and protection of Jesus, the victor not merely over sin and death, but Satan too. He is the great champion who fights for us, so daily we need to call upon Him: “Let thy holy angel be with me, that the Evil One may have no power over me.”

    Peace and strength in Christ. Romans 8:38-39

  2. My thanks also for your transparency. I am waiting on my copy of Kleinig’s book to be delivered by the ubiquitous brown truck.

    As one trained in counseling [and also trained as a pastor], I find it curious how many of my members seem to have higher expectations of psychology than spiritual care. The general malais of “acedia” is widespread: everything and nothing is wrong, and life unspeakably mundane. Even though perpetually disappointed, the old Adam and Eve can still be more fascinated by failed psychology than the promise of a Christ who keeps coming to us.

    When I meet with people there’s an initial overcoming of trust in worldly things, and redirection to God and his words that name and sustain us. Admittedly, dispensing with a spiritualized cult of self is more than a few well-timed theological maxims. Intervening at the level of the soul is nothing short of transformation – and that being the province of the Holy Spirit working in the Word. I imagine some may think, “With all of your psychological ‘credentials’ do you mean to tell me that we’re going to open the bible and talk about spiritual warfare? Pastor, are you kidding?!”

    Nonetheless, as I place rightly divided scripture before troubled souls, there are moments of gracious dawning as the Holy Spirit calls out to them – and a fresh trust that our real life is in Christ…and remains in Christ…thriving in him. Thus the challenge, and thus the glory.

    Grace & Courage!

  3. Thank you so much for your comments about apathy and sloth. There is no doubt when this condition becomes so strong in us it usually means that we are relying on our own understanding and looking to oursleves to control the situation. Example David walking the roof of his temple instead of in the battlefields with his troops or looking to God’s word to help him see what God’s will was for him at this time in his life.

    Thank you again for helping us recognize how subtle but dangerous Satan can be.

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