When I started this series on despondency, I did not plan on writing this specific blog post. I had planned for posts that were more “short and sweet,” or if informational, then at least with a semi-personal flair to it as well. This post is different. It is incredibly informational, and not so personal, in nature. This post has been quite the undertaking, and is definitely not conducive to leisurely blogging, especially for a full-time mother who is very out of practice with utilizing Bible study tools, so these types of posts – long and informational – will be very rare. As a caveat, I encourage any readers who are not from an Orthodox background to read the footnotes carefully to get a further understanding of the theology of the Orthodox Church in regards to sin.
In my last blog post, I discussed the definition of despondency, also known as acedia, as defined by some prominent Church Fathers. I also discussed my own definition of acedia: the reversal of joy. However, as a former Baptist, who was taught to diligently study the Scriptures, I feel that it would be negligent if I didn’t further discuss acedia from a Biblical perspective. That is what this post is an attempt to do: identify references to the experience of acedia in Scripture so that a deeper, biblical understanding of this spiritual phenomenon can be grasped.
Admittedly, creating a firm understanding of acedia from Scripture is quite the undertaking due to the lack of obvious and clear references to it in Scripture. The word acedia (or akedia in the late Greek) is not actually found in the New Testament; nor is there a direct equivalent in the Old Testament. One may even do a word search for the literal definition of acedia in Greek – the negative prefix a (meaning lack of), and the noun kedos (meaning care) and still come up lacking in Scripture references that seem related to the experience of acedia. Perhaps the closest word equivalents, at least in the New Testament, are katepheia (meaning shame, dejection, gloom or a downcast look indicative of sorrow), lype (meaning grief or sorrow), or perhaps even katheudo (meaning to sleep, to be euphemistically dead, to yield to sloth or sin, and to be indifferent to one’s salvation). Of course, we cannot forget the more well-known word, sloth, which is okneros in Greek.
Acedia is also not found in any of the lists of sins in Scripture (Prov 6:16-19; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; 2 Tim 3:1-5); yet, various ancient theologians named it among other “passions”1 which they thought were prominent. Evagrius of Ponticus, perhaps the first true theological “expert” on acedia, compiled a list of eight generic thoughts (logismoi2 in Greek): gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory and pride. Although this list is not explicitly found in Scripture, Evagrius compiled this list in Greek by utilizing Scripture, and he called the eight thoughts “generic” because he theorized that all other thoughts, which may lead to sin, are generated from these eight thoughts (also called “passions.”)3 The eight generic thoughts are opposed to the eight virtues also listed by Evagrius: temperance, prudence, poverty, joy, forbearance, patience, moderation and meekness. Later, St. John Cassian translated Evagrius’ list into his Latin “Eight Evil Thoughts,” but with some slight variances in their meaning: gluttony, fornication, avarice, pride, despair, wrath, vainglory and acedia. Finally, Pope Gregory I, the Catholic pope from 590 to 604 A.D., compiled a list of sins derived from St. John Cassian’s list, which makes up what is now well-known as “The Seven Deadly Sins.” However, in his list, Gregory made vainglory a part of pride, added envy to the list and combined acedia and sadness/despair and termed it sloth. Sadness and acedia were combined due to the close relationship that exists between them, namely in the sense that sadness often develops into acedia, and what Evagrius himself said about sadness can often be applied to acedia as well.4 The currently recognized version of this list is as follows: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.5 Unfortunately, the word sloth does not fully encapsulate the experiences of either sadness/despair or acedia. Thus, for centuries since, acedia has been transliterated into sloth, causing a proper understanding of what acedia is to be lost to the Western mind. Nevertheless, Scripture does have strong references to the experience of acedia, and Evagrius clearly saw them. I will from here discuss just a few of them.
The logical place to begin when discussing acedia is Genesis, specifically the account of “the Fall” in chapter 3, since the Orthodox Christian understanding is that all of the disordered passions, including acedia, are the result of Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God, resulting in the perfect mode of man’s existence being changed into a fallen mode of existence, and resulting in spiritual death. Many of the events in the account of the Fall are reminiscent of the symptoms of acedia. It is interesting to note that a lack of trust in God’s words and disobedience to God’s command – both classic symptoms of acedia – are what lead Eve, and then Adam, to partake of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, ultimately causing sin to enter the world in the first place. Furthermore, Adam and Eve’s subsequent response to their attainment of the knowledge of good and evil is to sew fig leaves together to hide their naked bodies, and then to hide themselves from the presence of God. This hiding from the presence of God too is reminiscent of acedia. As I mentioned in my last blog post, acedia is a disordered relationship with time, specifically with the present moment, and thus, is also a disordered relationship with God who is mystically Pure Presence. I can only speculate that prior to their disobedience through eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve were intimately and constantly in God’s presence, perhaps even witnessing the divine perichoresis6 themselves. They likely understood better than anyone what St. Paul the Apostle meant when he told the philosophers in Athens that God “is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being'[…]” (Acts 17:27b – 28, New King James Version). Adam and Eve’s covering and hiding themselves from God’s presence is thus only an external symptom of an internal sickness resulting in disunion with God: spiritual death, which acedia is part and parcel of.
Following the account of the Fall is another reference to the experience of acedia, and it is found in the person of Cain. In Genesis 4, Cain and Abel both bring offerings before the Lord. Cain brings “some of the land’s produce as an offering to the Lord” (v. 3, Christian Standard Bible); however, it is Abel’s offering – “some of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions” – that the Lord prefers (v. 4-5). It appears that the reason the Lord does not regard Cain’s offering as highly as Abel’s is due to it’s lack of quality, and thus lack of sacrifice on Cain’s behalf, in comparison. This lack of quality and sacrifice on Cain’s part is yet another symptom of acedia – a lack of spiritual effort or lack of care for spiritual things. In addition, in the Christian Standard Bible, verse 5 says that Cain became “furious, and he looked despondent” due to God’s lack of regard towards his offering. Paniym naphal,which means “fallen countenance” or “downcast face,” is the Hebrew phrase which is translated as despondent here. Then, in verse 6, the same Hebrew phrase is used again when God asks Cain, “Why are you furious? And why do you look despondent?” Tragically, the ultimate result of Cain’s despondency is to murder Abel (v. 8). Not only does Cain’s despondency lead to a physical death for Abel through murder; it also leads to a spiritual death for Cain in which he is banished and must hide from God’s presence/face (v. 14) in a fashion not unlike his parent’s, Adam and Eve’s, hiding from God’s presence and then being expelled from Paradise after the Fall. Acedia, it seems, is a common human struggle, beginning with the Fall of man, and continuing to be passed down from generation to generation up to now through our common fallen humanness.
Another reference to the experience of acedia is found in Exodus 6. In this passage God tells Moses of His promises to the Isrealites – that He will bring them out of their enslavement to the Egyptians, bring them to the promised land and be their God. Yet, when Moses tells the Israelites all that God told him, “they [do]not listen to Moses on account of their despondency and cruel bondage” (Ex 6:9, New American Standard Bible). Interestingly, this is the only time in the Old Testament that the word despondency is used, and only in the New American Standard Bible (NASB), though the word despondent is used elsewhere.7 What strikes me about this, is how the translators came about using the word despondency here. The Hebrew phrase miqqotser ruakh, which means “because of the shortness of spirit,” is translated as despondency here. Broken down further, the word qotser means “shortness,” and the word ruakh means “spirit, wind or breath.” This is reminiscent of Evagrius’ definition of despondency as “a slackness of the soul, namely a limpness of soul.” It also reminds me of Genesis 2:7 where it says, “Then God formed man out of dust from the ground, and breathed in his face the breath (ruakh) of life; and man became a living soul (St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint).” Despondency is thus, in a sense, the reversal of becoming a living soul – it is allowing the soul to become slack or limp; it is a “shortness of [the] breath” of life. There is some disagreement about what the phrase miqqotser ruakh should be translated as. For instance, some believe it should be translated as impatience instead of despondency. It is also translated as grief or discouragement, among other words, in other translations. However, even if the NASB translation is a poor one, I don’t think it would be wrong to classify as despondency what the Israelites often experienced. There are numerous examples in Scripture, other than Exodus 6, in which the Israelites “slack” in their devotion to God, are not obedient to His commands, do not believe in His promises, and even worship idols. If this isn’t despondency (or acedia), I don’t know what is.
Perhaps another fitting example of someone who experienced acedia is King David. I have heard many people point to King David as someone who may have suffered from depression, and there is definitely some strong evidence for that in the Psalms; however, there is also strong evidence of a possible struggle with acedia in the Psalms. Psalm 12 (13) is a profound example of David’s struggle with the “reversal of joy,” which is how I defined acedia in my last blog post, and his overcoming of it which allows him to rejoice once again. Verses 1 and 2 show this “reversal of joy”:
How long, O Lord? Will You forget me to the end?
How long will You turn Your face from me?
How long will I take counsel in my soul,
Having grief in my heart daily?
How long will my enemy be exalted over me?
Verses 3 and 4 show David’s movement towards God, and thus towards healing from acedia, as he recognizes his need for and dependence on God:
Look upon me and hear me, O Lord my God;
Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep in death;
Lest my enemy say,
“I prevailed against him”;
Those who afflict me greatly rejoice, if I am shaken.
And finally, verses 5 and 6 show David’s relief from acedia and his new ability to rejoice:
But I hope in Your mercy;
My heart shall greatly rejoice in Your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord who shows kindness to me;
I will sing to the name of the Lord Most High.
Psalm 87 (88) is another Psalm that seems to depict David’s struggle with acedia. In fact, this psalm is often titled “A Prayer for Help in Despondency” in many Bible versions. However, Orthodox Christian commentary I have found concerning this psalm say nothing about despondency. Instead, the Church Father’s saw this psalm as a prophecy concerning Christ and His death, burial and resurrection, especially his burial and His soul’s descent into Hades. The death, the grave and the descent into Hades that Christ experienced are described as “the pit” (v. 5), “the dead” (v. 5, 11), the “grave” (v. 6, 12), “the lowest pit” and “the shadow of death” (v. 7), “darkness” and “a forgotten land” (v. 13), and “despair” (v. 16).8 It is no surprise then that this psalm is prayed in the Service of Lamentations at the Tomb during Holy Week in the Orthodox Church, leading up to the commemoration of Christ’s descent into Hades, and finally, the celebration and feast of His resurrection from the dead. Nevertheless, it was King David who recited this psalm, and one cannot read it without feeling that David himself must have experienced a type of death and a descent into a type of Hades. Perhaps the pit, the darkness, the shadow of death, the forgotten land and the despair that David mentions are his recounting of a spiritual struggle that he had on earth that he likened to the grave. Perhaps it was David’s “dark night of the soul.” Whether it was the struggle of acedia or another spiritual struggle, many of the verses in Psalm 87 (88) are reminiscent of the experience of acedia.
So far I have only focused on references to acedia found in the Old Testament; from here, I will move on to references that are found in the New Testament. One of the first passages that comes to mind when I consider the symptoms of acedia is the “Parable of the Talents” found in Matthew 25:14-30. In this passage, Christ gives a parable to his disciples about the kingdom of heaven, likening it to a man who gave his three servants various talents: “And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability… (v. 15, New King James Version).” A talent was a great sum of money in the ancient world, but in this parable, the talents also represent the gifts given by God to each person according to his abilities. In the parable, the one “who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money” (v. 16-18). As a result of the faithfulness of the two servants who traded their talents and gained interest on them, the man calls them “good and faithful servant[s]” (v. 21-22). However, the third servant who feared his lord, and as a result, only hid his talent and did not gain interest on it, is called a “wicked and lazy servant” and has his talent taken from him and given to the servant with ten talents (v. 25-28). Christ ends the parable by saying that the “unprofitable servant” should be cast into “the outer darkness” (v. 30). The symptoms of acedia are clearly manifest in the wicked, lazy and unprofitable servant who hides his talent instead of investing it. He is lax, careless and not invested in what his lord has given him. It is interesting to note the similarities of the servant’s fear of his lord (v. 25) and the resultant hiding of his talent, to Adam and Eve’s hiding their naked bodies and hiding from the presence of God, as well as Cain’s hiding from God’s face/presence. It seems that there is a common element of hiding, avoiding and/or running from the presence of God in those who suffer from acedia. As a result of his carelessness and lack of faithfulness (his acedia), the servant’s talent is taken away, and he is cast “into the outer darkness,” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 30). The acedia of this servant is in contrast to the zeal and care of the other two servants with what their lord has given them, and as a result, they are given the opportunity to “enter into the joy of [their] lord” (v. 21, 23). Once again, we see here the reversal of joy – “the outer darkness” which the despondent servant receives – and also the joy which the faithful servants receive.
There is yet another reference to acedia depicted in the Gospel of Matthew (26:36-46), as well as the Gospel of Mark (14:32-42) and the Gospel of Luke (22:39-46). All three Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ coming to the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples to pray to the Father. Before he leaves to pray he tells his disciples to wait for him, to pray and to “watch” with Him. However, when Jesus comes back after praying, he finds the disciples asleep. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark this happens three times. The first time this happens Jesus says to them, “What! Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:40-41).9 The lack of zeal and lack of interest in prayer, as well as the feelings of ennui, sleepiness and inattentiveness, of the disciples here is comparable to that experienced during moments of acedia. Even the direct, face-to-face commands of Jesus and his stern warning to them that if they do not pray they will enter into temptation are ignored by the disciples. Their spiritual responsibility is overtaken by the heaviness of their eyes. The Greek word for “spirit” in Matthew 26:41 is pneuma. This is similar to the word ruakh in the Old Testament. It refers to that part of the human that is “the breath of life,” or the soul – the part of him that desires God and the spiritual life. It’s that part of him that is “slack” when he gives into acedia. In contrast, the Greek word for “flesh” here is sarx. It can refer to the literal physical body of the human. Thus, Jesus’ words here could be referring to the willingness of the disciples’ spirit to pray and seek God which has, to Jesus’ dismay, been overcome by the weakness of the flesh, namely the disciples’ physical exhaustion and need for sleep. However, sarx can also refer to the part of the human that is opposed to the spirit – the part that does not desire God and that can be incited to sin. If this is the intended meaning of the word sarx in this passage, then what Jesus was referring to here could rightfully be the disciples’ apparent acedia – their spirit’s willingness to pray which has not just become overtaken by physical exhaustion, but also lassitude and sorrow. The close relationship between sadness and acedia that Evagrius often mentioned is thus seen in this passage as well. In fact, Luke 22:45 says that when Jesus came back to the disciples he found them “sleeping from sorrow.” Whether Jesus’ saying that “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” is referring to the flesh as the physical body or as the rebellious part of the soul, it points to the intense combination of internal and external symptoms associated with acedia.
In contrast, this same passage in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke show Jesus’ similar temptation to give into acedia, but unlike the disciples, he overcomes it. Scripture says that Jesus was “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15), so it is not improbable that he was tempted with acedia as well. In Matthew 26, Jesus tells His disciples that His “soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death (v. 38), so he leaves his disciples in order to pray. He prays to the Father, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (v. 39). Luke adds that His prayer was so intense that He sweats drops of blood (22:44). Jesus was filled with sorrow, presumably regarding His imminent death; however, unlike the disciples who allowed their sorrow to lead to acedia, causing them to fail even to pray, Jesus overcomes it through prayer and through surrendering His will to the will of His Father.
I will conclude this study on acedia in the Bible with perhaps another contrast between a person who gave into the temptation of acedia and a person who did not: Martha and Mary of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus. Luke says,
…And [Martha] had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.” And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her (10:39-42).
It is interesting to note that Martha is not rebuked by Jesus for her serving; however, she is rebuked for her distraction, worry and her troubled nature. Martha is not just serving, but she is “distracted with much serving.” This reminds me of the “stubborn urge for service” that St. John Climacus says is associated with acedia10 – a selfish service that I said in my last post causes resentment and hatred because it is born of brokenness and is only used as a distraction from the symptoms of acedia. In Martha’s case, her resentment and hatred is for her sister, Mary, who is not helping with the service, but is instead at the feet of Jesus. Jesus, however, tells Martha that only “one thing is needed”: being in His presence – the very thing that Martha seems to be, at best, simply distracted from, or at worst, actively avoiding. Martha seems to be deep in the pit of acedia. Mary, on the other hand, has chosen “that good part” – being in Jesus’ presence – and this, Jesus says, “will not be taken away from her.”
Acedia appears to be a common human struggle, inherent to the fallen human condition. It is one of many disordered passions experienced from the first man and woman, Adam and Eve; inherited by their son Cain; passed down to God’s chosen people, the Israelites; suffered by the “man after God’s own heart,”11 King David; warned against in parable by Jesus; afflicted upon the disciples; overcome by Jesus Himself; and struggled with by Martha of Bethany, among many others. For those to whom the experience of acedia is a familiar and difficult struggle, Scripture provides, not only examples of others who have struggled, but also consolation and hope that it can be overcome. Through it’s overcoming, the sufferer – just like King David, the two faithful servants, Jesus and Mary of Bethany – will find joy, spiritual reward, peace and the promise that what is gained through choosing to spend time in God’s presence will not be taken away.
1. The word “passion” is used often by Orthodox Christians to refer to the lowest level to which human nature can fall. There are two types of passions: the natural and the unnatural. The natural passions are those which are rooted in our nature (ex: hunger), and are therefore good, but when they are misdirected, they become unnatural (ex: gluttony). The passions are basically correct and healthy desires that have, because of the fall, become disordered. They represent an unquenchable thirst that cannot be quenched no matter how much a person seeks to have it quenched. It is even possible that the passions overcome the human will so that one who is in the throws of his passions, in a sense, no longer has a will – he is “carried along” by his passions, enslaved by them and no longer free. Passions and sins are not the same thing, but they are related in the sense that a passion is the interior state of a human which may lead him to the action of sin (hamartia in Greek, which literally means “missing the mark”). For the Orthodox Christian, a sin is not committed until the human consents by his own will to the logismoi (assaultive and tempting thoughts) which are brought on by the unnatural passions. For example, in the case of the passion of gluttony, which I used above, sin is not committed until the person consents to the logismoi and chooses to overeat. In the case of our prime example of acedia, which is also a passion, the person suffering from acedia would not be guilty of sin until he consents to not praying, to engaging in distraction, etc.
2. The Greek word logismoi refers to thoughts that are assaultive or tempting, not mere simple thoughts. See Footnote 1 above for more detail about how logismoi, sins and passions are related.
3. Gabriel Bunge, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1940), 40.
4. Ibid., 54.
5. The concept of the “Seven Deadly Sins” has become a popular for categorizing sin in the West; however, these “categories” have not taken root in the Eastern Church. The Orthodox Church views sin less as specific individual transgressions which leave the sinner with a stain of guilt that needs to be wiped out, and more as a universal sickness or disease that must be healed. It is the failure to become “truly human” and live as we were created: in the image of God. Evagrius himself only created his original list of generic thoughts in order to draw attention to thought patterns that lead to sin.
6. The Greek word, perichoresis, literally means “rotation.” It was used by the Church Fathers to refer to the intimate relationship that exists between the three persons of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I have heard this relationship also referred to as the “divine dance.”
7. Proverbs 15:15 in the New Living Translation (NLT); Genesis 4 in the Christian Standard Bible (CSB); 1 Samuel 1:18 in the CSB; Deuteronomy 28:65 in the CSB; Psalm 57:6 in the CSB; and Psalm 109:16 in the NASB.
8. This information was taken from the study notes on page 739 in the Orthodox Study Bible.
9. Mark 14:37-38 has a similar quote.
10. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, tr. Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), 162.
11. 1 Samuel 13:13-14; Acts 13:22
* This is the fifth blog post in a series called “Death to Despondency.” Click here to read from the beginning of the series.
I am glad you brought out Martha as an example of acedia. I had never considered that.
I was unclear: Are you saying that acedia was the cause or the effect of Cain’s unacceptable offering. I can see effect. Cause is a little hard to connect the dots for me.
Help me grasp the relationship between acedia and sorrow. You sighted “lype” as a possible was to represent acedia in Greek. Jesus was “perilypos” in Matthew 26:38. I assume that you believe that acedia is a sin, and Jesus was sinless, so in what way was his sorrow not acedic?
Regarding Cain: I think that acedia is both a cause and effect of Cain’s unacceptable offering. It seems to me that it was Cain’s lack of care for spiritual matters and spiritual laziness that leads him to provide an offering that is not as suitable as Abel’s was. Abel’s was from the “firstfruits” meaning that it probably was the first and best of his production and thus required some sacrifice on his part when he offered it to God. The text makes it clear that Cain’s offering was to be contrasted to Abel’s which makes me think that his offering probably required little sacrifice on Cain’s part and so probably wasn’t really even in offering in a sense. Then, due to God being displeased with his offering, Cain becomes furious with his brother and, at the very least, “looks” despondent. Evagrius talks about how the passions are intertwined in various ways and can lead to other passions. It seems that Cain suffered from various passions, anger and acedia specifically. Cain’s anger and hatred towards his brother Abel seems similar to that of Martha’s anger and hatred toward her sister Mary. Unfortunately for Cain, his leads to murder. He is then exiled and feels the need to hide from God’s face/presence in a similar manner to Adam and Eve’s hiding from God’s presence. Much of this is speculation, but it’s possible that Cain’s sin of murder and subsequent exile caused Cain tremendous shame which only confounded his acedia. I hope this helps some.
Evagrius said that sadness and acedia are related in that sadness often leads to acedia since sadness is usually associated with hatred of (or lack of gratefulness towards) what is present and a desire for what is not. He even said that sadness and acedia as separate passions are very similar and have similar symptoms so they are often confused with one another. Acedia is more of a passion than a sin. Thus, the sin does not occur until the person gives into acedia through consent. So…the disciples sadness led them to the passion of acedia, which led them to the sin of choosing not to pray, even when commanded by Jesus to do so. On the other hand, Jesus did not sin because he did not consent to the passion of acedia by not praying. He overcame acedia by praying and submitting to the Father’s will. Does that makes sense?