Sin is a tricky thing. We might think we understand what we’re dealing with, but oftentimes the problem we see on the surface is merely the symptom of a deeper, underlying issue. That’s especially the case with sloth (not the adorable, furry critters, but the ancient vice).
You may have heard of the sin of sloth, but it’s important to know that there is much more to it than mere laziness. Sloth manifests in different ways and for different reasons. And as with many sins, for the Christian to successfully combat it they need to learn to identify what it actually is and why it rears its ugly head in our lives.
Sloth’s Many Faces
We typically equate sloth with laziness, and by and large that can be correct. Some people are indeed slothful by refusing to do anything but laze about and indulge in self-gratifying activities. But other times being slothful can actually involve getting a lot of work done! . . . It just isn’t the work one ought to be doing. You can be a workaholic and still be slothful.
This is because, at its core, the sin of sloth is about neglecting what God is calling you to do, for any number of reasons. As James 4:17 (NLT) puts it, “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.”
Sloth is a topic that ancient Christian monks wrote profusely about. They sometimes referred to it as “the noonday demon” — meaning it can be that feeling of apathy towards your responsibilities that often strikes around lunchtime. How often do you find yourself preferring to do anything — even the most mindless activity, like endlessly browsing social media or binge-watching YouTube videos — rather than the actual tasks at hand? That’s sloth.
Or I should say, that can be a mild case of sloth. But the “noonday demon” can sometimes manifest as a much more serious and chronic illness, of which a desire for distraction is just a symptom.
Sloth as Anti-Worship
In its more severe form, sloth can be defined as a deep-seated rejection of the goodness of one’s place in life and of the work God is calling you to. It is a lack of trust, a discontentment, a desire for anything else but what God has laid before you. It is a rejection of the truth that God is with you even in the most mundane of tasks, and that every good endeavor can be an opportunity to cultivate virtue.
This kind of sloth is deeply dangerous. When people’s worldview has such a diminished sense of God’s presence and his goodness that they can’t see any value in life’s responsibilities, it can lead to any number of other sins: aimlessness, spiritual confusion, substance abuse, chronic escapism, using others for pleasure, self-loathing, despair, or even suicide.
The person plagued by this deeper form of sloth typically ends up drifting in a nihilistic malaise, bored with life in general, or else they turn to a life of unrestrained hedonism to try and mask the void in their souls.
Doesn’t that sound like a portrait of many people in our culture these days?
In his book Signature Sins, Michael Mangis writes:
“Sloth has come to be synonymous with physical laziness, but the original Greek word akēdia has a rather different meaning. Acedia is spiritual listlessness or laziness. It is the antithesis of worship. Sloth is the neglect of the greatest commandment: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. . . . We are slothful when we neglect anything that God asks of us and when we don’t do what needs to be done. . . . Sloth comes from distrust that God’s goodness is sufficient to make the hard work of the spiritual life bear fruit” (pgs. 52-53, emphasis added).
In other words, sloth is anti-worship. Rather than recognize and submit to God’s worthiness and the goodness of his calling in our lives, slothful people turn and run the other direction — and in so doing, they slip toward nothingness.
Now, you might not outright say that God’s calling on your life is pointless or bad, but oftentimes we say it just as much by what we do (or, in this case, what we neglect to do).
We can be slothful by disdaining the job God has placed us in.
We can be slothful by neglecting spiritual disciplines or refusing to take our place in corporate worship in the Church.
We can be slothful by failing to evangelize and make disciples, leaving it to others to do for us.
We can even be slothful by obsessing over “ministry” activities that cause us to neglect our God-given task of loving and serving our families.
I must confess, I’ve been battling the “noonday demon” in each of these areas myself. A lot lately, actually. But to be able to put a name to this evil is the first step in combatting it.
Attack the Root, not the Fruit
We don’t often realize just how many of our problematic spiritual symptoms stem from a root of sloth. When we neglect our duty to worship and serve God rightly in the avenues he intends us to, it leads to the symptoms described above, and potentially many others as well.
When I stress out over all the things happening in the world that I can’t really change, it’s usually because I’m being negligent in the things I can change, like prayer or having conversations with my friends and neighbors.
When I struggle with pet sins like gluttony or losing my temper, it’s most often when I’ve been slothful about maintaining good rhythms of rest and worship.
When I feel myself wanting to do nothing but complain about my job, it’s because I forget that I have a God-given duty to do all things with excellence and faithfulness as a representative of Christ wherever I’m at.
When we focus our attention on the goodness of work, on the value of diligence, and on gratitude for our Creator who calls us to bear his image in our labors and relationships, we can ward off the attacks of the “noonday demon” and pursue a life of virtuous obedience to the glory of God.
Do battle with sloth. Your spiritual life just might be depending on it right now.
See you down the path.