At the beginning of chapter 16, Jeremiah gets a message from God that he can’t be happy about. He needs to forget any plans he has regarding marriage or a family of his own. In fact, he needs to forget about other aspects of community interaction, such as attending funerals. The reason? “Both great and small shall die in this land” (v. 6a). There’s no point in getting attached; these people are doomed. In verse 8, Jeremiah is forbidden to go to parties—so much for a social life!
So is this just a case of God making the prophet’s life even more miserable than it otherwise would have been? Does Jeremiah have no say in how he lives his life?
In the May 18 issue of the Christian Century, Belden C. Lane writes about “Caring and not Caring.” He refers to the Desert Christians, the desert fathers and mothers: Roman Empire-era monastics who went out and lived in the Egyptian desert. Lane says, “On the one hand, I tend to care entirely too much about others’ approval. I need to ignore it. On the other hand, when I’m not appreciated enough, I’m eaten by resentment and begin to turn inward—and a crippling indifference creeps up. The Desert Christians identified these two very different kinds of indifference as apatheia and acedia. They saw the one [apatheia] as an important virtue (trimming one’s life of trivial matters) and the other [acedia] as the worst of the seven deadly sins (undercutting any possibility of love).” (26) That deadly sin, of course, is sloth.
Today, we have conflated these two aspects of indifference. We rarely, if ever, distinguish between apathy and acedia. The former began as a healthy detachment that ignores what’s unimportant and is needed for spiritual life and growth. The latter is a state of inner listlessness that just doesn’t care—at least, doesn’t care about anything important.
So maybe the choices in Jeremiah 16 aren’t so one-sided after all. Maybe Jeremiah understands the difference between apatheia and acedia. Maybe by seeming not to care, he demonstrates the very depth of caring.