Of all the deadly sins, surely sloth is the lightweight. I mean, sloth? Seriously—a deadly sin? When it comes to the other six, we get it. We know pride goes before a fall. We know anger too often leads to violence. We know lust destroys from the inside out, that envy put Jesus on the cross. We even get that gluttony can lead to premature death. But seriously, has anyone ever died from taking it easy? I'm pretty sure the coroner's report never reads: "Cause of death: too many naps." Sloth may not get you to the top of the ladder, but is that so bad?
That's not to mention the fact that Americans are probably the most hyper-active people on the planet. We literally run on Dunkin' Donuts, Red Bull, or Adderall. We work longer hours and take fewer vacations than most of the industrialized world. When we're not on the job, we're making home improvements, driving the kids someplace, or working out at the gym. Walk into any health club at 7:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, and you'd be hard-pressed to say that Americans are slothful.
Sloth seems to be the least deadly, and the least relevant, of all the seven deadly sins. Yet we all procrastinate. We daydream. We run late for appointments—or miss them entirely. We fritter away whole evenings in front of the TV. We spend too much time on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, or whatever our web addiction happens to be. We intend for things to happen that we never actually start. We start things that we never actually finish. We end up neglecting God or people because of our laziness or distraction.
Maybe that's why the Bible takes sloth so seriously. "How long will you lie there, you sluggard? / When will you get up from your sleep? / A little sleep, a little slumber, / a little folding of the hands to rest— / and poverty will come on you like a thief, / and scarcity like an armed man" (Prov. 6:9-11). That bit of ancient wisdom is attributed to Solomon. He was arguably one of the most industrious men in history, and yet he discovered firsthand the trouble a person can get into when they have too much time on their hands.
A later verse in that same collection makes the point even more directly: "One who is slack in his work / is brother to one who destroys" (Prov. 18:9). Like "one who destroys"? Really? But think about it. How many dreams have died, how many relationships have suffered, how many plans have been aborted, how many initiatives have failed, simply for lack of effort? Maybe it's time we talked about sloth, seriously.
Today we're concluding our series on the seven deadly sins. It's been an uncomfortable journey, at points: appropriate for the soul-searching season of Lent. All seven of these sins are lurking in the dark corners of our souls. They're robbing us of joy, ruining relationships, and wreaking havoc in society. But along the way, we've also found help, healing, and hope for overcoming these dark tendencies.
Let's turn our attention to the sin of sloth. Ironically, we have successfully put it off till the end. We'll take our usual approach: spending a few minutes understanding this sin and why it's so deadly, then getting on the solution side by pointing to a lively virtue and healthy habit.
What, and why?
What is sloth, and why is it so deadly? Some of us, when we hear the word "sloth," think of a three-toed mammal famous for hanging around, moving slowly, and sleeping 15 hours a day. That brings to mind another mammal of the five-toed variety—a human on a couch—which helps to clarify the meaning of the word.
The dictionary defines sloth as "reluctance to work or make effort." Then it adds a variety of synonyms—laziness, idleness, sluggishness, apathy, lassitude, lethargy, languor, and torpidity—none of which look good on a resume. The ancient word is the Latin, acedia, which sounds equally unbecoming and basically means "lack of care."
We are more interested in the spiritual dimension of sloth, and to understand that, we have to go back once again to the Desert Fathers, the monks of the third and fourth centuries who went to the desert to escape the evils of the world, only to discover that those evils were resident inside of them. They were the ones who originally named and profiled these seven deadly tendencies.
They described Sloth as "the noon-day demon." They discovered that in the middle of the day, when the sun was high and their metabolism low, they found it difficult to focus on prayer and study. They found it easy to look out the window and let their minds wander: to wonder if life might be better at some other monastery, or even out in the world. Listen to the words of Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth-century monk, describing this malady:
The demon of acedia … attacks the monk about the fourth hour [which would have been 10:00am]. First of all, he makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be 50 hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly toward the windows, to [want to] jump out of his cell … and further he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself, for manual labor, and also instills the idea that love has disappeared from among the brothers and that there is no one who cares about him. … He leads him to a desire for other places … and to pursue a trade that is easier and more productive … and adds that pleasing the Lord is not a question of being in a particular place.
You see, there's more to sloth than a case of the afternoon "sleepies." It could bring a monk to the brink of quitting his vocation and abandoning God's call.
As the years and centuries went by, great spiritual masters continued to confront the deadly force of sloth. In the seventh century, Pope Gregory described sloth as the temptation to take the easy way out and to avoid hard things. Aquinas defined sloth as a lack of appetite for God. A.W. Tozer described it as spiritual complacency—an unwillingness to grow in faith. A contemporary theologian named Peter Kreeft applies sloth to the modern world by including busyness as well as laziness. The workaholic may be as guilty as the couch potato, he says, because their constant activity keeps them from attending to the most important things and people in life.
None of us are monks, but sloth sneaks up on us in all kinds of ways. It sets our minds to wandering when they should be focused. It persuades us to stay on the couch, or in the pew, instead of getting up and doing something. It preoccupies us with trivial things—like, say, March Madness or the latest viral video—that we have little time or attention for things that really matter.
Is there anything wrong with enjoying some basketball on a rainy spring afternoon? I don't think so. But what if we were as attentive to our Bibles as we are to our brackets? What if we followed the sayings of Jesus as intently as we follow our Twitter feed? What if we prayed for our Facebook friends instead of just checking to see what they had for dinner?
The essence of sloth is captured in a medieval painting by Hieronymus Bosch. It shows us a man dozing in his chair in the middle of the day, with a pillow under his head and a little dog curled up at his feet. A nun stands next to him, offering him a prayer book and rosary beads, but he is not able or willing to wake from his slumber. He'd rather snooze than hear from God.
It brings to mind the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is troubled to the point of death, facing the greatest test of his life. He asks his disciples to keep watch with him while he prays, to be with him in his hour of need. He goes off to pray and returns to find them sleeping. "'Couldn't you men keep watch with me for one hour?' he asked Peter. 'Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation'" (Matt. 26:40-41). Twice more, he asks them to keep watch with him, and twice more, they can't keep their eyes open. Finally, he says to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise!" (26:45-46).
All he asked of them is that they would care enough to be with him in that moment: to be awake and on the alert. But they couldn't, or wouldn't, do it. Not only did they miss an opportunity to be with the Lord in his hour of need, but they failed to prepare for their moment of testing, as well. How differently Peter might have responded if he had strengthened himself through prayer?
How many moments with God have we missed because we were too sleepy, or too busy, or too distracted to notice? How many opportunities to do good have we missed, simply because we never got around to it?
Generally speaking, the other six deadly sins are sins of commission. Lust, anger, envy, gluttony: We think or feel or do something that we know to be wrong or hurtful. But sloth is a sin of omission—failing to think or feel or do something right and good.
It's not just about falling asleep during your quiet time. It's about making excuses when God prompts you to do something: "It's not a good time." "It's not my gift." "They'll think I'm weird." It's about avoiding conflict when conflict is called for. It's about waiting for someone else to step up. It's about dreaming of somewhere else instead of being present where you already are. The great commentator Derek Kidner writes, "The slothful person … deceives himself by the smallness of his surrenders, so by inches and minutes opportunity slips away." We haven't really done anything wrong, but we've failed to do something good: something that could potentially change a person's life or save their soul. We begin to understand why sloth is so deadly.
Sloth shows up in my life as busyness or distraction rather than sluggishness. I'm a morning person, so getting up to spend time in prayer and Bible study isn't such a struggle for me. I had some good role models that way. Growing up, I got used to finding my mom reading her Bible when I came down every morning and hearing my father pray from behind the bedroom door. That's a pretty deeply ingrained habit for me.
What is a struggle is to slow down and give my full attention in that time with God. My mind rushes ahead. I want to get the day started—check my email, steal a quick look at my calendar, get a jump on my sermon. "No time to check my prayer list today—I'll just go from memory. No need to journal today," I tell myself. "I can reflect in the car, on my way to the office. I don't have to pray out loud this time—I'll just pray silently." Ten minutes later, I wake up with my head on the couch cushion!
My wife and I had a plan to use World Relief's online devotional for Lent each morning or evening. It's just the two of us at the table. I'm ashamed at how seldom we have actually followed through on that. We forgot, or were in a rush, or got distracted. Who knows what insights, what encouragement, we might have missed?
For me, sloth is the thank-you note I meant to write, the phone call I still haven't made, the neighbor I still haven't invited to church. It's the half-written article, the unfinished project, and the unfulfilled promise to "do lunch one of these days."
While the simple diagnosis would seem to be lack of discipline, what it really boils down to is a lack of devotion.
Lively virtue: devotion
That's what I'd like to offer as the virtue for this week. For each of the deadly sins, we've been identifying a corresponding virtue and a habit that can help us get there.
The virtue corresponding to pride is humility, and worship helps us get there by reminding us who we really are before God. For the sin of anger, the corresponding virtue is righteousness, and prayer—honest, passionate prayer—helps us know and do the right thing with our anger. We exchange lust for love, and gluttony for centeredness, when we practice fasting and feasting: learning to say "no" to lesser things and finding real satisfaction in the good things of God. We move from greed to contentment when we practice generosity, and from envy to real joy when we cultivate gratitude for God's goodness to us. I'd like to propose that the lively virtue corresponding to sloth is devotion.
There are a few other virtues we could have gone with. Traditionally the corresponding virtue has been courage, since it's often fear that keeps us from doing what God asks. But it seems a bit too narrow in scope. For a while, I was working with diligence, which calls us to action and perseverance, but it seems overly focused on trying harder; it felt cold and dutiful. So I found my way to devotion, because it implies affection as well as action. Remember that acedia means "the lack of care." Devotion is the opposite of that. When you're devoted to someone or something, you don't just care about them—you care enough to do something. Devotion is about love as well as labor. It's about being and doing: being present to God and others, and then doing good when we have the chance.
Healthy habit: attentiveness
But how do you get there—from laziness to love, from distraction to devotion? The healthy habit I'd like to suggest is attentiveness. By "attentiveness," I mean making our way through the day with our eyes and ears open to what God might be showing us, with our hearts and hands ready for the opportunities he brings our way. I'll say that again: Attentiveness is having eyes and ears open to what God might be saying, and having hearts and hands ready to respond to opportunities. It's an attitude as well as an action.
Listen to these words from the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. "For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light … everything exposed by the light becomes visible. This is why it is said: 'Wake up, sleeper, / rise from the dead, / and Christ will shine on you'" (Eph. 5:8, 13-14).
What a great response to the sin of sloth. Wake up, man! Open your eyes, woman! Stop sleepwalking your way through life! These are probably the lyrics to an ancient hymn of the church, calling on believers to shake off their complacency and be changed. It's an attitude of expectancy, of passion, of desire for Christ and his fullness.
But that attitude leads to action. Paul continues: "Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. … Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:15-16, 18). Notice: Be care-ful, not care-less! When opportunity comes your way, act on it! Seize the moment! Don't stumble through life like a drunkard, with your senses dulled and your reactions slow. Be intentional. Let the Spirit of God move you, and when he moves you—do something! Being and doing. Passion and action. That's how we were meant to live.
Attentiveness is actually a collection of habits. It's the habit of spending time with God on a daily basis—to read and pray and be with him, what we often call "daily devotions." That's when we're most likely to hear from God: to gain a sense of direction for the day, or for some challenge we're facing.
But remember that devotion is inspired by love, not just duty. That makes such a difference. You see, when that alarm clock goes off in the morning, and you're having a hard time getting out of bed, you can grit your teeth and try harder. Or you can remind yourself that someone is waiting for you downstairs—someone who is there every morning or evening wanting to spend time with you, wanting to speak into your life, wanting to hear what's on your heart. When you think of your daily quiet time in terms of relationship instead of duty, it's far more satisfying and far more motivating.
Attentiveness is the habit of taking a Sabbath. You see, there's nothing wrong with rest. God made us to take breaks, to take naps—to set aside a day each week in which we cease from our labor and simply attend to God and others. Ideally, on that day, we spend time in God's presence, centering our lives in him, and we spend time with people—especially friends, family, and the body of Christ.
But Sabbath isn't just about one day a week. It's a habit of finding times and places to rest, to be with God and others. It can be a daily thing—a cup of tea or coffee in the middle of the day, a walk after dinner, journaling before bed. It could be a weekend away, or a vacation on purpose.
Every once in a while, I try to create a quiet space and pray a simple prayer out loud or in my heart, depending where I am: Here I am, Lord. Is there anything you have to say to me? And then I just wait. I might take a walk or sit quietly. I might read some Scripture, or sing, or just listen to the wind. Sometimes there's nothing—but sometimes there is.
But attentiveness is also getting in the habit of doing. If we care about someone or something, we act or re-act when we have the opportunity. When you sense a prompting to call a friend, or cook a meal for someone in need, or make a donation, or visit someone in the hospital, or join a small group, or volunteer to serve—do it! Right away, if you can! If not, decide when you will do it—and make a commitment to do it.
Every year around this time, we have people we'd like to invite to Easter services. They're people we love and care about: people we've been praying for or talking to. We mean to invite them, we really do. But we forget to pick up some extra invite cards. We never get around to making the call. We put it off—thinking it might not be the right time. We chicken out—afraid we might look foolish. And we end up sitting in the service on Easter morning, moved by the music or the message, and wishing we had made that invitation. Don't let that happen this year!
For a few years now, Karen and I have been talking about starting a Bible study in our neighborhood. We've known these neighbors for 14 years now: raised our kids together, helped each other shovel driveways. They come from a variety of Christian traditions, and some are more active than others. Year after year, we've talked ourselves out of it or not gotten around to it. It's a bit of a risk. It would mean another night of the week. So we've talked about it, prayed about it, but have never done anything about it.
Well, during this year of living on mission, I was feeling especially convicted about it. The Lord just kept bringing it to my mind, and I kept finding reasons not to act on it. But as Lent approached this year, it occurred to me that if ever we were going to suggest something like this, Lent might be the time to try. Long story short, we sent invitations out to five neighbors. For days there was no response—at all. We wondered if we had made a big mistake. Eventually two couples responded, and both declined. We were seriously about to call the whole thing off, when providentially, Karen bumped into one of women at the end of the driveway. They ended up having a meaningful conversation, and the neighbor said they'd never done anything like this, but they thought they'd like to give it a try—and hoped their husbands would, too!
We've been meeting for two weeks now, studying the gospel of Mark and having a wonderful time together as we explore the Scripture and make some real connections with God and each other. My only regret is that we didn't do it sooner. I shudder to think how close we came to missing it entirely—simply for lack of care or effort.
I don't know what God might be wanting you to do these days. Maybe all he wants is for you to be with him more intentionally—to attend to him and allow him to speak into your life.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.