Fighting Acedia

By Stephen Pietsch

The wisdom of Scripture and long experience of Christians from all ages show us some well-attested and effective ways for us to respond to acedia. You will notice that they all are linked and that they work together.

Confession and forgiveness

Acedia is a vice (see the editor’s letter). As a sin that occurs in the mind and heart, it makes us both victims and culprits. It is a spiritual reality through which our naturally rebellious and inert human nature is tempted to reject God and His Word and to push away the duties of our vocation. Therefore, confess it, name it out loud, and recognize and repent of it. This is an important antidote to our own tendency to say “I suffer from acedia,” as if it is an entirely external malady of which we are hapless victims. We must recognize our own rebellious complicity in acedia, and name it honestly. Then we receive the Gospel personally, richly, repeatedly. This breaks the power of sin in our lives and speaks the renewing power of God’s mercy into our hearts and minds.

Pray the Lord’s Prayer

It is obvious, right? Pray for God’s help. Yet when acedia has hold of us, we often find praying the hardest thing to do. Gathering our will and words to pray is irksome and unappealing. Lean on the prayers of Christians who have struggled before us and borrow their words. Most of all, lean on the prayer of Jesus, which He handed on to us — the Lord’s Prayer. Many, including Luther, discovered the inner beauty of the Our Father as a prayer during spiritual attack and trial. It prays for and so teaches us to desire that order and health in our lives that breaks down in acedia. It prays for God’s reconstruction of heavenly priorities in our lives, for the kingdom’s coming first of all, bringing with it the provision of all that our body and soul need here and eternally. So much the better that these holy words come quickly to our lips so that we can easily make use of them.

Talking back

One aspect of our freedom in Christ is the liberty to talk back to the devil, as Luther did. We are free to rebuke the devil, to contradict him, to refuse him entry into our lives, by Christ’s authority, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Evagrius of Pontus, in fourth-century Egypt, wrote about talking back to the demon of acedia. He felt no incongruity or embarrassment in acknowledging and identifying demonic mischief and unseen demonic presences. He believed that the devil and other demonic spirits placed evil and destructive thoughts and impulses in our minds, which need to be rebuked and “spat out.” He called this practice antirrhesis (opposing speech): telling the devil and his evil thoughts to get lost. Yes, out loud. It is best done using words of Scripture. We see this everywhere in Luther, who tells those under spiritual attack to rebuke the devil and send him packing, with whatever rude rejoinders and gaseous emissions came in useful.

This is no quasi-pentecostal novelty but the ancient and apostolic pattern of Christian life and spirituality. It continues even today in the Baptism of a child in which there is an exorcism: “Depart thou unclean spirit and make way for the Holy Spirit.” Recall also Luther’s morning and evening prayers: “Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.” Neither Luther nor Evagrius thought this up. They modeled their practice, simply and faithfully, on Christ, who drove Satan away in the desert with the words of Scripture. We can do the same. Talk back to the devil. You owe him no polite deference.

Mutual conversation and consolation

Acedia more easily gets a foothold on us when we are alone too much. Being alone is sometimes needed and healthy. But the Early Church fathers and Luther warn repeatedly that too much solitude makes us vulnerable. Luther counsels us to get busy with our neighbor whose conversation will draw us out of our own lassitude. Finding friends, Christian fellowship and spiritual conversation with people with whom you can build trust, talk honestly, build trust, talk honestly and pray with is important.


Fasting is a biblical way to fight against all demonic attack. This is picked up once again by John Cassian (circa 360–435) and later western fathers, based on Jesus’ own fasting in the desert. The food Jesus needed above all other nourishment was God’s Word. Jesus also tells His disciples that some demons can only be fought against through prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29).

Acedia is, among other things, a loss of holy appetite, a distaste for the things God has given us. People might say, “I am just so sick of everything.” Acedia disorders our appetites and thoughts. Like all spiritual temptations, it is deeply involved with the body and with all its demands and desires. Fasting is an ancient Christian spiritual practice that works on us spiritually via our bodily appetites and desires. In modernity, people wonder how denying food to the body can have any spiritual effect; we have separated the body from the spirit in our modern world. Our forefathers knew well that the body and spirit are deeply intertwined; fasting affects our spiritual being deeply and creates movement in the soul — perhaps even more strongly than in the digestive tract. Fasting interrupts the cycle of desire and gratification, allowing God to reorder us. This can be especially helpful when we seek to live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4) as Jesus did. Using our accustomed mealtimes to read and pray Scripture allows God to reset our jaded spiritual palates. Fasting moves you and your appetites out of the center of reality by crucifying the flesh (Gal. 5:24) to develop a renewed appetite for the holy things God has prepared for you. It can create joy as we anticipate the enjoyment of God’s presence and gifts.

Study of the Word

Part of the holy life is close study of Scripture and, in our own tradition, the Lutheran Confessions (especially Luther’s Large Catechism). This is not just daily devotions, but your own serious Bible study and theological reading. “I can’t afford the time,” your impatient flesh might say. But reading and studying the Bible keeps our beings rightly ordered.

Study of God’s Word develops the skills, virtues and habits that acedia seeks to break down. It builds in the habitus of Bible reading. It is often hard and taxing when we first start this, so it is good to start small, with 15 minutes of study in a sitting. With the Spirit’s help, this soon grows and bears fruit.

On the human level, studying God’s Word is like developing any capacity. It takes training. For some Lutherans this has looked suspiciously like placing confidence in our own works; however, Scripture teaches us to do this (1 Cor. 9:27). It is part of the renewed heart and the new obedience of faith.

On the spiritual level, when we study the Word, God is fighting off the infection of acedia, bringing His health and soundness and energy back to our life and our vocations. Prioritizing God’s Word helps us push back against the apparent urgency of distractions, and over time, establishes a stronger spiritual order. You are what you read, so read what you are. Your habits of thought, your categories, your values, your insight, your emotions will be reshaped and transformed by the Word of God (Rom. 12:2).

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of The Lutheran Witness.

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2 thoughts on “Fighting Acedia”

  1. In response to Paul K’s thoughtful and Gospel filled reply:
    I say AMEN to Heb. 10: 24-25!
    Personally contacting, encouraging and letting those whom you haven’t seen or heard from in while, could mean so much to them…and show them they are missed, bring them joy, and perhaps even back to the fold!!!

  2. The article offers a prescription for individuals to address their own malady. But Christians also find fulfillment and joy in looking after one another in this regard.

    “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:24-25 ESV)

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