We often talk about being spiritually engaged, but when it comes to sin, what we need is detachment.
Have you ever battled a 230-pound tuna? I do every day, and I bet you do, too.
Let me explain. On July 19, 2013, Anthony Wichman, a 54-year-old fisherman from Kauai, Hawaii, snagged a 230-pound Ahi tuna, hauled it into his boat, and then hooked it through an eyeball. The enraged beast took one more dive, causing the line to tangle around Wichman’s leg, capsize his boat and pull him into the Pacific Ocean. Somehow Wichman managed to use his waterproof cell phone to call for help, and the Coast Guard arrived with a rescue helicopter crew. Later that day, the grateful and untangled fisherman was reportedly recovering from rope burns and bruises. I assume the fish was turned into a delicious meal or two.
How to Get Hooked
It’s a strange story about the fisherman who got hooked by one whale of a tuna. But in my mind, this story captures how the Bible describes sin: I think I’m the master of my little boat, pleasurably trolling for fish, when—BAM—I get hooked by something beyond my control.
Some people struggle with obvious ways of getting hooked, like addictions to drugs or alcohol. Personally, I’m hooked by more socially respectable but spiritually lethal sins—pride, lust, anger, greed, unbelief, or contempt for the poor, to name a few. Someone belittles or ignores me, and I’m hooked by resentment. I get hit with some bad financial news, and I’m hooked by greed and selfishness as I wrap my arms more tightly around my little treasures. Some people can’t think straight about political or spiritual issues the way I do, and that hooks me with self-righteousness and anger. Suffering and pain cross my path, and unbelief tangles around my soul, dragging my faith overboard.
Of course, I’m not just the victim of these scenarios; I choose to get hooked. In a sense, I want to get hooked. It happens so regularly that at times I wonder: Is it possible to live a hook-free life? I don’t expect temptations to disappear, but is it possible to face life’s big tunas and slowly become a less “hookable” human being?
According to the good news in Jesus, the answer is a resounding yes. The New Testament claims that growth in Christlikeness gradually frees us from getting ensnared by sin’s power. This good news was so embedded in the early church’s understanding of following Jesus that they adopted a special word for it—apatheia.
That sounds like apathy, the state of “I couldn’t care less,” but that’s not what those early Christians meant by apatheia. The term originally came from a group of ancient non-Christian Greek thinkers called the Stoics. These men had a few good ideas, including the claim that the “good life” must involve facing unruly passions like envy or anger while remaining unfazed. Stare them down, and train yourself to remain calm, cool, and collected, refusing to let them hook you.
Apatheia isn’t just the ability to detach from unruly passions; it’s the invitation to attach our lives to the God who loves us.
The apostle Paul had direct contact with Stoic philosophers at least once. (See Acts 17:18-32.) He spoke to them about God’s power by quoting the Stoic poet Aratus’s line “For we also are His children,” although Paul was referring to the one true God of the Bible, not the pantheistic concept of Stoicism.
Later, some key Christian leaders basically said, “Nice work, Stoics, but we’d like to take your version of apatheia, filter it through the Bible, and offer our own rendition.” As an example, a fourth-century Christian leader named Evagrius said that apatheia “creates a state of deep calm based on obedience to the commandments of God and the practice of virtue.” That squares with the apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 6:12-14: “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts … For sin shall not be master over you.” Becoming a Christian means that God has unhooked us from the sinful patterns that entangle and knock us overboard.
But because they knew Jesus, those early Christians added a crucial element to apatheia—love. Unlike their Greek counterparts, they couldn’t stop talking about apatheia and love in the same sentence. Apatheia isn’t just the ability to detach from unruly passions; it’s the invitation to attach our lives to the God who loves us. Paul makes clear that the Christian life isn’t just about avoiding sin; it’s also about union with Christ, being “dead to sin” and “alive to God in Christ Jesus,” and living your whole life “not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:11, Rom. 6:14).
Back to our fisherman. Once the Coast Guard helicopter arrived, he could have brushed away the hand of his rescuers and said, “Hey, no worries, rescue crew. It looks bad, all tangled up in my own line that’s attached to a massive, enraged fish with a big hook (mine) gouged into its eyeball, but have no fear. I’ll just stay calm and serene as I untangle myself, right my boat, push it to shore, and carve up some tuna steaks for dinner. Really, I got this.”
Of course, that’s not what happened. I imagine Wichman gladly acknowledged his need for help, joyfully taking the hand of the rescuer who cut the line and drew him out of the ocean. I also imagine that in that moment of deliverance, Wichman felt nothing but joy, relief, and gratitude. He wasn’t hooked by the tuna—or by anger or greed or selfishness or lust. He had one thought: Thank you for setting me free. That is Christian apatheia.
No one lives an untethered life. So take your pick: Hook into your favorite sins, or allow God the Father to gently draw you to Himself.
Apatheia occurs when we’re so surrounded by and immersed in Christ’s mercy and our need for His mercy that it gently unhooks us from temptation and draws us to God the Father. This is a work that starts with God’s grace. Evagrius stressed that we “have been brought into apatheia by the mercy of Christ.” In the third century, Gregory of Nyssa said, “We are led to God by desire, drawn to him as if pulled by a rope.” In other words, no one lives an untethered life. So take your pick: Hook into your favorite sins, or allow God the Father to gently draw you to Himself.
The Power of the Nail
For the follower of Christ, apatheia involves a lifelong process of engaging in spiritual practices that help us break from sinful habits and bond with Jesus. One early Christian, John Cassian, said this process was like driving a nail out with a nail. Take the ugly, bent, rusty nail of sin and drive a shiny, straight, new nail of virtue right through it. Squarely face your sinful habits, receive Christ’s grace and forgiveness, and then drive them out by replacing them with the new way of Jesus, the One who offers us a new heart with new and holy habits.
Consider the old rusty nail called greed. I have a special relationship with it. I’m extremely frugal (okay, some people call me cheap), but here’s how greed snares me: I worry about money a lot. Rather than trust God’s care for my finances, I constantly imagine silly worst-case scenarios where I’m flat broke. So I cling tenaciously to my little pot of cash and churn with anxiety. This greed restricts my ability to receive love from God and pour out love for others.
Those early Christian leaders had a straightforward remedy for this situation: Give. Take the nail of financial generosity and drive it through that rusty old nail of greed until you break its hold on your heart. Then you will acquire the fruit of apatheia—a peaceful, Christ-tethered heart that gets drawn closer to Him.
John Cassian, a fourth-century theologian, used a phrase from the Beatitudes to define apatheia— “Blessed are the pure in heart.” He said this referred to those who are single or simple in their heart’s focus.
Or take the particularly nasty nail of anger, a sin that Evagrius called “the most fierce passion.” Throughout the gospels, Jesus says things like “love your enemies,” “forgive others their trespasses,” and “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” In other words, get unhooked from your anger and bitterness. Take the bright, straight nail of forgiveness and drive it through that bent but tenacious one of bitterness. Then do it again, and again, and again.
That’s the only way Jesus finally freed me from my long battle with resentment after a deep hurt. I must have hit the nail of forgiveness at least 500 times, praying alone, praying with others, starting and then halting the process of letting go. I can’t recall the exact date, but at some point, I hit that nail one more time, and the anger was gone.
Help from the Unhookable One
Of course, there’s something more powerful than swinging my little hammer—the presence of Jesus. The author of Hebrews describes Him as the “One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). In other words, Jesus is the world’s first and only unhookable human being.
I love the portrayal of Jesus in a 17th-century painting titled “Christ Before the High Priest,” by the Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst. In a dark room illuminated by a single candle, Jesus stands before the high priest, who sits and points an accusing finger in the Lord’s face. His critics should be in total control. But Jesus, His robe askew and hands tied, is utterly calm. His accusers are building their case to crucify Him, but Jesus is in control. And, amazingly, the Lord’s eyes radiate not anger, resentment, hate, or fear, but the tenderness of love, even for His enemy. This is perfect freedom. This is apatheia.
Every time I gaze at van Honthorst’s painting, I think, I could never do that. I am much too hookable. So I don’t just need Jesus’ example on how not to get hooked by sin. I need Him. I need His mercy and power. I need to cry out, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner, a deeply flawed and hooked man. I need You to rescue me.” Thank God, as the author of Hebrews urges, we can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
By Matt Woodley
Illustrations by Jonathan Bartlett