Around six years ago Jerry Bridges penned an important volume entitled Respectable Sins. In it he rightly pointed out how most Christians think they are doing pretty good because they avoid the really ‘big’ sins. They think that since they have not murdered anyone or raped somebody lately they are actually pretty decent people.
But they tend to forget that there are all sorts of other sins which God equally frowns upon, such as gossip or impatience or gluttony, and so on. Says Bridges, “The motivation for this book stems from a growing conviction that those of us whom I call conservative evangelicals may have become so preoccupied with some of the major sins of society around us that we have lost sight of the need to deal with our own more ‘refined’ or subtle sins.”
We look at a Hitler or a bin Laden or a Charles Manson or a notorious drug dealer and think to ourselves, ‘I am so glad I am not as bad as they are’. But we are as bad, at least when compared to a righteous, holy and perfect God. Our regular sins of back-stabbing, anger, pride, and the like are equally offensive to the God with whom we have to do.
I have often written about these less talked about sins. For example, based on Revelation 21:8, I have discussed how cowardice is an equally big sin. When we refuse to stand up and speak out about that which really matters because of fear of man or the desire to avoid controversy, that too is grievous sin.
Here I wish to discuss another such sin. It is not one which gets a lot of attention because it does not seem to be a major sin. But Scripture certainly sees it as a serious offence. I refer to the sin of complacency. This sin especially came to mind in my reading of the Minor Prophets. In Zephaniah this passage jumped out at me:
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps
and punish those who are complacent,
who are like wine left on its dregs,
who think, ‘The LORD will do nothing,
either good or bad.’ (Zeph. 1:12)
A major theme of this short book is that judgment is coming upon Judah, just as it had previously come upon her sister Israel to the north. While plenty of gross sins could have been mentioned – and other prophets certainly did highlight them – it is of interest that Zephaniah here focuses on complacency, apathy and indifference.
In God’s eyes this sin was just as wretched as any flagrant immorality or idolatry which Israel was also guilty of. As Waylon Bailey comments, “Here is the central indictment of the book. Zephaniah promised that the Lord would search out the ‘complacent,’ that is, those who are self-secure and undisturbed.”
Peter Craigie offers these incisive words about this verse: “The prophet describes the Lord diligently searching the dark corners of the city for those ‘who are thickening on their lees’: the metaphor was a common one to describe laziness (see also Jer. 48:11), drawn from the vintner’s trade.
“Wine was allowed to sit in the sun, to enrich the colour and add sweetness, but if left too long, it became turgid and undrinkable. Thus, a part of the reason for the coming judgment was to be found in that silent majority, not evil by any acts of heresy or horror, but culpable for having done nothing to arrest the slide into chaos occurring all around them in their nation’s daily life.
“Sometimes it is the apathetic and indifferent who are more responsible for a nation’s moral collapse than those who are actively engaged in evil, or those who have failed in the responsibilities of leadership. Sir George Adam Smith expressed the situation with marvellous cogency:
“‘The great causes of God and Humanity are not defeated by the hot assaults of the Devil, but by the slow, crushing, glacier-like masses of thousands and thousands of indifferent nobodies. God’s causes are never destroyed by being blown up, but by being sat upon’.”
But the sin of Judah in Zephaniah’s day is further compounded in the second half of this verse. The people think of Yahweh as little more than an absentee landlord. As David Barker helpfully explains, the sin of apathy “is exacerbated by the practical atheism of the people.
“While not necessarily denying the existence of Yahweh on a theoretical level, they deny his activity on a pragmatic level, either for good or for bad. Blessing or grief do not issue from him. This view of the non-involvement of God in national life is a serious heresy for Israel, flying in the face of the Israelite view of God as continually and actively involved in history.”
Wow, this double sin of apathy and practical atheism sounds like it describes perfectly so much of the Christian church today. Far too many Christians today acknowledge God with mental assent, but for all intents and purposes live as if there is no God.
And our apathy and indifference about just about everything that weighs heavily upon the heart of God is everywhere to be found. God’s people just don’t seem to give a rip about anything, except for their own “personal peace and affluence” as Francis Schaeffer used to put it.
Of course there are other important biblical texts about complacency. One that I often refer to is Amos 6:1: “Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria”. Or as the KJV puts it, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion”.
Once again, God warns about those who do not care about anything, and are simply living the good life. We call ourselves Christians but we show no concern at all for those things which God passionately cares about. We do not share his heart for a broken and needy world.
His name is being dragged in the mud on a daily basis; his church is the laughing stock of the world; his institutions of marriage and family are taking a hammering; 45-50 million of his unborn babies are being massacred each year; and yet most Christians do not care in the least.
Our damnable indifference, apathy and complacency not only break the heart of God, but must warrant his just judgment. We may not be killing the babies ourselves, or marching in the homosexual debauchery marches, or shaking our fists at God atheist-style, but are we really any better with our shameful silence and indifference?
Do we really think our sins of complacency and apathy mean nothing to God? Have we so quickly forgotten the clear words of warning as found in Revelation 3:15-16? “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
As Peter Kreeft recently wrote, “Better be a murderer of truth than a patronizer of it. Better fight against the light, if you won’t fight against the darkness, but at least fight. Care. Fight for the wrong side if you can’t fight for the right side, but don’t stand on the sidelines and sneer at the game. Have blood in your veins, not tepid water.”
I love the words of English writer and theological lay woman Dorothy Sayers. Speaking about the sin of tolerance, she hits the nail precisely on the head and perfectly describes the condition of so many people sitting in our pews today:
“In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair, the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”
How many believers today are just taking up space? How many are just going through the motions, pretending they are good Christians because they are not out on a shooting spree or an arson attack? Yet their lives are characterised by the very things which Zephaniah spoke so forcefully against: gross apathy and damnable complacency.
Let me conclude with the words of three great saints, none of whom could ever be regarded as complacent or indifferent:
“The stiff and wooden quality about our religious lives is a result of our lack of holy desire. Complacency is a deadly foe of all spiritual growth. Acute desire must be present or there will be no manifestation of Christ to His people.” A.W. Tozer
“The man who is content to sit ignorantly by his own fireside, wrapped up in his own private affairs, and has no public eye for what is going on in the church and the world, is a miserable patriot, and a poor style Christian. Next to our Bibles and our own hearts, our Lord would have us study our own times.” J.C. Ryle
“Could a mariner sit idle if he heard the drowning cry? Could a doctor sit in comfort and just let his patients die? Could a fireman sit idle, let men burn and give no hand? Can you sit at ease in Zion with the world around you damned?” Leonard Ravenhill
(For Australians Respectable Sins is available at Koorong Books.)