We live in a world where indifference of any type is perceived as wrongful, but is it really? One saint who promoted the idea of holy indifference is St. Francis de Sales, who said, “Indifference is to be practiced in things belonging to the natural life.” But St. Francis de Sales isn’t the only one to have discussed indifference as being something that can be holy, but the whole entirety of the bible and lives of the saints are filled with examples of holy indifference.
Holy indifference can take on three different forms, which I will call corrective indifference, transformative indifference, and transcendent indifference. There are many examples of each of these forms of indifference in the bible, and each type has a specific purpose in the salvific work of God. They build upon each other, and the first two forms of indifference are frequently used by God to lead us into the perfect state of indifference that Francis de Sales is referring to, of which I call transcendent indifference.
The harshest form of these types of indifference is corrective indifference. Flowing from this form of indifference comes God’s justice and punishment. It is a state in which God has placed himself in a place of indifference to any past good you have done, and any past favors he has done for you. Thus, he is prepared to enact his justice without mercy. This type of indifference is found throughout the old and new testament. One clear passage that defines this form of indifference is in Hosea chapters 4 and 5. Here God accuses Israel of having committed many sins. As a result, God rejects them, becoming indifferent to his own people. As it says in Hosea 4:6, “I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” Furthermore, in Hosea 5:6 it states, “With their flocks and herds they shall go to seek the Lord, but they will not find him; he has withdrawn from them.” They are God’s chosen people, and yet God turns away from them, indifferent to them. He allows them to be ruined through their own sinfulness. But why? The answer is found in Hosea 5:15, “I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress they seek me, saying, ‘Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn, that he may heal us; he has stricken, and he will bind us up.’” This is the ultimate purpose of corrective indifference, to lead the sinner to repentance. There are many different forms of this corrective indifference in the bible, and frequently the result is that the protection of God is withdrawn, leaving His people to face the consequence of their sin, which is death. Yet when death occurs as a result of this withdrawal, or indifference on the part of God, it still has the effects of leading those who witness it back to a renewed dedication for God.
One extreme example of this can be found in Acts 5. Ananias and Sapphira lied to Peter and subsequently God by choosing to sell their land and give only part of the money to the apostles, keeping part of it for themselves. Both of them, after talking to Peter and having their sin revealed to them, fell to the ground and died. Death is the consequence of sin, and yet Christ has died for our sins. The death of Ananias and Sapphira for having sinned that day shows symbolically a refusal of Christ to pay the price for their sin. But why would a God who is so loving and merciful to have died for our sins choose to do this? The answer can be found in Acts 5:11, “And great fear came upon the whole Church, and upon all who heard of these things.” The fear being discussed here is fear of the Lord.
Fear of the Lord leads souls to act righteously, while fear of Satan leads people to sin. When we fear God, we do God’s will to avoid punishment. This is why fear of the Lord is important. God turned a blind eye to Ananias and Sapphira for their sin and allowed them to pay the price, but the result was a correction of the whole Church, leading them to greater righteousness. This is the ultimate purpose of corrective indifference.
The Catholic Church still employs various forms of corrective indifference in order to lead souls back to God. Excommunication is one of the most obvious examples of this. It has a two-part effect very similar to what I explained above, to both lead the soul who is excommunicated to realize the gravity of their actions as well as warn other Christians to refrain from doing the same. A soul who is excommunicated from the Church is alienated from it and in a certain sense abandoned to face the consequence of their sin. But the hope is that they will return like the prodigal son once they realize the gravity of their mistake.
For the faithful who live righteously and have no need of corrective indifference, it is highly likely they will experience God’s transformative indifference. The purpose of this indifference is to transform us to more closely emulate the perfection of our creator. This type of indifference on the part of God is well illustrated in the book of Job. For those who are not familiar with this bible story, it is about a man named Job who was righteous and pleased the Lord. The Lord looked with favor upon him and he obtained many blessings and material wealth as a result. But at the bidding of Satan, God allowed the tempter to take all these things away, to see if Job would maintain his faithfulness without all the blessings God bestowed on him.
This withdrawal of God’s favor is a form of transformative indifference. Although God loved Job, he chose to turn a blind eye to him and allow him to suffer at the hand of Satan in order that he might be glorified in his triumph. Job experienced the death of loved ones, loss of wealth, and poor health, but he maintained his faithfulness to God. By passing through this state of transformative indifference on the part of God, he was further glorified as a holy man imitating the perfection of his creator. This is illustrated Job 42:10, when God restores Job with twice as much wealth as he had before after praising Job for his righteousness. This doubling of physical wealth is symbolic for the doubling of spiritual wealth obtained by individuals who undergo this trial.
In the modern Church, individuals can experience God’s transformative indifference in a variety of ways, but one common term for this experience is the ‘dark night of the soul.’ Many saints have been noted as having experienced this dark night of the soul, to include St. Teresa of Calcutta. St. Teresa experienced periods of spiritual dryness and feeling distanced from her creator, leading her to an even greater longing for her God. But for other saints, such as St. Teresa of Avila, many illnesses were part of this experience of transformative indifference. But one aspect of this form of indifference is that although it frequently begins on the part of God towards the individual, it commonly becomes the individual who expresses this form of indifference towards self. When this happens, the individual is close to the state of transcendent indifference. An individual who expresses transformative indifference towards self permits many grave sufferings to come upon themself. This can be seen through great acts of penance and self-rejection, or it might be seen through granting God permission to bring great suffering to oneself, such as in the case of the saints who experienced the stigmata. But in every case of transformative indifference, the aim is to seek further union with God our creator.
For those who experience great levels of sanctity on earth, they might experience transcendent indifference. In this state, the individual becomes completely indifferent to the things of the world, and all hopes, wants, and desires become placed in heaven and the things eternal. In this state, an individual no longer belongs to the world, but belongs completely to heaven and God. We can see Jesus leading his disciples towards this state of indifference to worldly things in Matthew 8:21, “Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’” This passage is hard for many Christians to understand, but the call ultimately is for us to become indifferent to the matters of the world in order to place all our focus in the things of God. For this reason he says, “leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Worldly people are spiritually dead, but Jesus calls his disciples to be indifferent to worldly things, which is what I refer to as transcendent indifference. Transcendent indifference places the person in a state which is quite distant from the world. As is written in Matthew 8:20, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Animals with holes and nests have a place of belonging. Similarly, people with property and homes have a place of belonging. But the Son of God has nowhere to rest, for this world is not his home. This shows the disconnect Jesus had to the things of the world. Although he was in the world, he was not of the world, and this disconnect from worldly things and focus on the things of heaven is what I refer to as transcendent indifference.
Many saints have been noted as having reached these heights of indifference to worldly things. One notable example is St. Maximillian Kolbe, a priest who was killed in Auschwitz. St Maximillian first exhibited transformative indifference towards his own life in choosing to die in place of a man with a family. But during the long process of being killed, starting with starvation and ending with an injection of carbolic acid, St. Maximillian seemed indifferent to the circumstances which surrounded him, remaining calm and leading the prisoners in prayer. This disconnect from the terrible worldly circumstances he was faced with and complete focus on the things of heaven is this state of transcendent indifference.
We live in a world where evil constantly tries to grab our attention, to make us care about what it is doing and the chaos it is creating. But we as Christians are not called to pay attention to the commotion of evil, but to treat it as nothing and place our focus on what truly matters, the things eternal. One passage that expresses this point well is 1 Kings 19:11, where God said to Elijah:
“Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind and earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Eli’jah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
What is beautiful about this passage is that Elijah did not find God in the great and powerful events such as the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, but in a small voice. In many ways, the only way for Elijah to have encountered God was to look past all these things in order to encounter him through a small voice. Similarly, we live in a world where there are many wars and disasters occurring, but in order to encounter God we must see past it all. This is the goal of transcendent indifference, to be able to see past all the commotion of the world in order to encounter God, and it is to this perfect state of indifference that each and every Christian is called to attain.