After reading the same sentence for the third time, I knew it was pointless.
I was sitting in my library, enjoying some well-earned peace and quiet, and trying to read a book while my family was out of the house. But it was no use. My brain was a colorful riot of anxieties and unanswered questions—many I was powerless to do anything about—and no story, not even a well-crafted one, could quiet the din.
I sat the book down in frustration, rubbed my tired eyes, and let my gaze fall on the beeswax pillar candle I’d lit before starting my failed attempt at relaxation. Breathing deeply, I savored its redolent, earthy scent and watched the flame. It didn’t twinkle or dance like so many I’d seen on kitchen countertops and intimate restaurant tables. Instead, it burned constant and strong—not even moved by a gentle puff of air. I sat mesmerized by this unbroken taper of fire and soon noticed my heart rate dropping and my mind suddenly releasing the thousand and one cares that had distracted me only moments before.
Many of us lack this quality of serenity in our spiritual lives. For that, we need what Gregory of Nyssa called apatheia—a kind of detachment from anything that robs us of our peace and weakens our trust in God. In his treatise on the Lord’s Prayer, he writes, “So if we ask that the Kingdom of God may come to us, the meaning of our request is this: I would be a stranger to corruption … so that the passions which still rule me so mercilessly may depart from me, or rather may be altogether annihilated … The passions cease to be troublesome when apatheia has appeared; death is undone and corruption is no more when life and incorruption reign in us unopposed.”
I sat mesmerized by this unbroken taper of fire and soon noticed my heart rate dropping and my mind suddenly releasing the thousand and one cares that had distracted me only moments before.
In other words, to achieve apatheia is to maintain a sense of serenity no matter what comes our way, to trust that the Lord has a purpose for everything and remains faithful in the midst of it all. It means we burn like that candle’s flame—steady and sure as the dawn. (Or to use an auditorily based metaphor: Instead of trials being experienced as ear-splitting heavy metal music gushing from speakers in our mind, apatheia reduces them to nothing more than ambient noise in a faraway room.)
This is what the apostle Paul spoke of when he wrote, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with little, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (Phil. 4:10-12). The word Paul chose for “content” is autarkés. This passage is the only place the term occurs in the entire New Testament, and it refers to a kind of tranquility that is God-produced and can come only through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. That is the quintessential experience of apatheia.
This peace of soul isn’t the main goal of the Christian life by any means. Rather, it’s a by-product of seeking after God wholeheartedly (Heb. 11:6; Jer. 29:13). The aim of apatheia is certainly not that we become insensible to suffering (our own or others’)—instead, we trust in God and live beyond the suffering. It is a way to die to ourselves, begin to declutter our hearts, and make room within ourselves to love God and others as we are called to in Scripture. To pray “‘Thy will be done,’ come what may” is the beginning of something magnificent—true knowledge of Christ and His power working both in and through us.