What is spiritual lethargy? If you would just do a check in the dictionary, you would find that the definition of lethargy or being lethargic is an attitude, or a state of laziness, sluggardness, tardiness. You feel very weak, as if you have no energy and no passion. Sometimes we would describe such a person as feeling dry, worn out, burnt out or weary. Then when we describe spiritual lethargy, we carry this attitude over to our spiritual life in terms of our relationship with God, our relationship with fellow men, in our service, in our own spiritual walk. There is this attitude of laziness, sluggardness, tardiness or slothfulness. A spiritually lethargic person is one who is spiritually dry, or spiritually weak. There is no passion and energy in our Christian life. This is what spiritual lethargy is.
Sometimes when we think of what is displeasing to God, or what God dislikes or what would cause God grief, we think of the things we would commit which would displease him. We know we have done so when we have committed and done sinful and wicked things like hating somebody, losing our temper or getting unreasonably angry with somebody. We know that God is displeased and disappointed with us. We know that these are wicked things and these are sinful things. If we have stolen something, have committed even adultery in our minds, have broken the Lord’s day, we know that we have done wicked things before the Lord. But somehow to many of us, as long as we do not do anything bad or wicked, and we do those things that are enough, God will be reasonably pleased with us. That is what we think.
As we have studied in Isa 43, you would realise that sin is not just something we do, but also not doing what we ought to do. This is also displeasing before the Lord. Spiritual lethargy is a state and an attitude where Christians do just enough (they think) to fulfill their responsibility as Christians but they do not do what they want to do in loving God and in loving others. They do not serve; they do not give of their lives; they do not consecrate themselves. They do just what is enough in order to do what they think is pleasing before the Lord. However we read in the Scriptures that spiritual lethargy is actually a very wicked thing. It is a thing which the Lord hates. It is a very sinful thing. It is a thing which displeases the Lord the most. In the Old Testament, Solomon gave a lot of warnings about it. In the book of Proverbs, he described the slothful and the sluggard. These are the lazy people. He said that they hide their hands, and that the slothful must learn from the ant. He described all these people in the Old Testament especially. And we know that the bible is a spiritual book so it could not be he was just describing physical or external laziness. Rather he was describing the laziness of a spiritual child of God. And when we go to the New Testament, we see a lot of warnings against spiritual lethargy. Remember the Lord Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. He told His disciples, “Watch and pray, lest ye enter into temptation” (Matt 26:41). And then the Apostle Paul throughout his epistles exhorted the Christians to walk worthy of their vocation wherein they had been called. In the book of Romans chapter 13, he gave a strong declaration, telling Christians to awake out of sleep – “it is high time to awake out of sleep” (Rom 13:11).
So spiritual lethargy – this attitude of laziness and sluggardness – I believe, is an attitude which plagues many a Christian. And it’s so deadly because sometimes we have this state of laziness, tardiness, spiritual dryness and we do not even realise it. We feel so dry, yet so comfortable in the way we are – just going to church once a week, fulfilling our duties in going for fellowship group meetings and prayer meetings. This is just about it that constitutes our Christian life. But in the text we see this morning in Isa 43, spiritual lethargy is a most wicked and deadly thing. Why is this so? First of all, consider what we have read. In Isa 43, from verse 1 all the way to verse 21, Isaiah reminded the people of who God is. When we talk about spiritual lethargy, we are not just talking about laziness or tardiness before another person such as your school teachers. Maybe you are lazy at home where you do not do your dishes, you do not do your laundry, which causes your parents to say, “I have a very lazy child.” When you are lazy at home, you are doing wrong to your parents. When you are lazy in school, you are doing wrong perhaps just to your teachers and then later to your parents as well. That is just about it.
But when we are talking about spiritual laziness, we are not talking about doing wrong before another man. We are talking about the attitude of laziness before God. We all love Isaiah 43, isn’t it? This passage is much quoted in cards when you want to encourage another brethren. We often would quote v2 “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” Isaiah brought and carried the Israelites through the past, through history, reminding again of what God had done for them – how He delivered them from Egypt, how He delivered them when the Egyptians were chasing them and they went to a dead end. It seemed like a dead end – the Red Sea. Then the Lord parted the Red Sea so that they could cross over. They faced many enemies; they faced a lot of challenges but the Lord delivered them out of them all. Then the Lord defeated all their enemies in the Promised Land. He defeated all the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Edomites and the Canaanites. He defeated all their enemies for them, and He gave them the Promised Land. Isaiah wanted the people to remember again what God had done for them in the past.
You may say that is all. Do not just think of God in what He has done, but also think of God for who He is. That is why in v11, Isaiah says that God declares this “I, even I, am the Lord; and beside me there is no saviour.”. You know, in your King James Bible, you notice that the ‘even’ and the ‘am’ here are in italics. So in the Hebrew bible, this verse can be read literally this way “I, I the Lord”. It is a declaration of who God is. God Himself says that He is the LORD. Who is the LORD? He is the covenant God – the covenant-keeping God; the one who has established and made a covenant with the nation of Israel. He had given His promise to the nation of Israel and He said that He would take upon Himself to fulfill all these promises to His people. He is the LORD. He is the self-sustaining God. He is the self-sufficient God. He is God eternal, He is God omnipotent – He is the LORD. Think upon who He is.
Then He says that the children of Israel were witnesses, and they were not just witnesses to what He had done but also witnesses to His glory. They would remember the time when the LORD appeared before Moses and the children of Israel in Mt Sinai, how they were fearful of Him because they had seen a semblance of just but His glory. Now I like us to think what we know of who our God is and what God has done for us. Christmas is over… is it? Yesterday was Christmas but the meaning of Christmas is not over. We know the meaning of Christmas – God giving us a Saviour. We have seen His greatest work in His redemptive plan for all of us sinners. We have tasted of it. You have tasted of it. You have seen how God had delivered you in time past when you were in the miry clay, in the horrible pit. When we were burdened with the filth and weight of sin, feeling so dirty, so unholy, and so wicked because we know the sins we have committed in our lives God gives us a Saviour and He has saved us. Unworthy as we are, the Lord delivered us. We have experienced and tasted the glory of God Himself. Have we not? When we read of His works in Scripture, His workings in our lives, God’s providence in very little things in our lives, we experience His glory.. Sometimes when we pray, the Lord answers us – the Lord answers us immediately, sometimes maybe the Lord may take a few years working His wonderful plan, but we see everything unfolding before our eyes. We taste of His glory. We experience the sweetness of a close communion with God. We experience the sweetness of fellowship in the Lord Jesus Christ. These are things which the Lord has done in our lives. As it were, as Job would say, our eyes are opened and we have seen the King. God has done all these things for us.
Yet do you know what the Lord said to the children of Israel? When we read of all these things, the Lord said ‘please, do not look at history, do not just look at the past, because I will do more for you…’ (to be continued)
(An excerpt from Pr. Joshua Yong’s message, the first in a series on ‘Warnings against spiritual lethargy’, preached during True Life 2012 YPF Camp)