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February 4, 2021

Spiritual Lethargy Definition and Guide From Grace Theological Seminary

Written By Grace Seminary

Called to care for and cure souls, pastors invest a significant amount of time and energy in addressing a malady that can be diagnosed as spiritual lethargy. The Apostle Paul urged the Thessalonians to avoid succumbing to spiritual lethargy: “so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober” (1 Thess. 5:6).[1]  Paul also attempted to rouse those saints in Rome who were in a moral stupor: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber” (Rom. 13:11, NIV).  Peter the Apostle warned believers about the prowling adversary (1 Pet. 5:8).  In the face of ever-present spiritual danger, all believers must be “in a wakeful activity” taking great pains to be watchful.[2] 

So what exactly is the spiritual lethargy definition? 

Spiritual Lethargy Definition

Spiritual lethargy may be defined as a state of indifference and/or inertia with regard to one’s own spiritual growth and vitality.  A. W. Tozer describes this condition well: “there is little communion and little joy in the Lord. To have a cold heart with little pity, little fire, little love and little worship is spiritual lethargy.”[3]

Some of the most common symptoms include any combination of the following:

  • Chronic indulgence in sinful thoughts and actions
  • Little or no desire to pray
  • Engagement in exclusively Christ-less entertainment
  • Avoidance of personal accountability
  • Decreased appetite for Bible study
  • Selfish and materialistic orientation
  • Reluctant and sporadic church attendance

Some of the above symptoms may be difficult to detect even by observant and discerning shepherds with pastoral ministry degrees. For example, a person who is languishing in spiritual lethargy may still engage in some form of religious activity albeit in a perfunctory manner. Further, those symptoms do not heal easily.  However, pastors should be encouraged by the fact that none of them are incurable. 

Now that we understand the definition, you may be wondering how to overcome spiritual lethargy. We’ll talk about that next!

A Biblical Approach on How to Overcome Spiritual Lethargy

The Bible instructs pastors on how to address spiritual lethargy when it overcomes those under their spiritual care.  All churches have at least a few members who are dying spiritually and also some who need to be roused out of their slumber.  One of the pastor’s responsibilities is to wake up the sleeping and exhort them to help restore those who are dying.  By the grace of God, a living remnant can restore a dying church.

Take for example the church in Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7).

The Ephesian Christians were active workers who persevered and remained morally upright.  They were theologically orthodox and discerning in doctrinal matters.  Despite these commendable qualities, the Ephesian church neglected something essential: “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4).[1]  The Ephesians’ love for Christ had lost its depth and fervency.  Their once vibrant faith degenerated into a cold orthodoxy.  The Good Shepherd urged His sheep and contemporary pastors should urge their flocks to return to their first love.

How does a Christian with an indifferent heart return to Jesus?  The Son of God told the Ephesian church: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen” (Rev. 2:5a).  Every believer has the capacity to bring to mind what their relationship with Christ was like.  Pastors should attempt to stir the memory of the lethargic believer as a means to stir the heart. After you’ve understood the definition, the following questions may help you identify how to overcome spiritual lethargy:

  • Do you remember what it was like when you first fell in love with Christ?
  • Do you recall the spiritual exhilaration you experienced when you told others about your Savior?
  • Do you remember the wonderful sense of anticipation as you scheduled times to converse with Christ?

After challenging the Ephesian church to remember their former condition, Jesus commanded them to “repent” (Rev. 2:5b) of their present condition.  Speaking the truth in love, the pastor can challenge the lethargic person as follows: Change your mind about your sinful indifference toward Christ!  Determine now to break away from your lifeless religiosity!  Reverse the cooling trend by taking steps to rekindle your love for Christ! 

In addition to remembering their former condition and repenting of their present condition, Jesus urged the Ephesian believers to resume their former conduct: “do the deeds you did at first” (Rev. 2:5c).  The deeds they did at first were prompted by love, not obligation.  With a heart freshly revived, the deeds would now be done with renewed enthusiasm and a deeper sense of satisfaction. 

If this spiritual lethargy definition and guide piqued your interest, a pastoral degree might be for you. At Grace Theological Seminary, we offer a wide variety of pastoral ministry degrees and delivery methods that will prepare you to help your church fight against spiritual lethargy. It’s our mission to help you empower your flock to pursue vibrant and thriving relationships with Christ. 


[1] All Scripture quotations are from the Updated New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.

[2] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Messianic Jewish Epistles: Hebrews; James; 1 & 2 Peter; Jude (San Antonio, TX: Ariel Ministries, 2005), 379.

[3] A. W. Tozer, The Dangers of a Shallow Faith: Awakening from Spiritual Lethargy (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2012), 20, 55.

Rock LaGioia

Rock LaGioia

Rock LaGioia, Professor of Pastoral Studies and Director of Doctoral Programs, is passionate about building up the body of Christ by training the next generation of effective church leaders. Rock has many years of pastoral experience and enjoys preaching and teaching sound doctrine regularly at worship services, conferences, and seminars.

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