The Deadly Sin of Sloth
Sloth is the kind of inactivity which leads to poverty and to depression. Sloth produces feelings of worthlessness and the tendency to make excuses. Of course, the difficulty here is to distinguish between what is actual depression rather than mere sluggardliness. Our spiritual forebears tried to untangle this distinction through the concept of acedia, the opposite of spiritual joy (there is a helpful explanation of this on Wikipedia) and what we can say is that depression and sloth tend to feed one another. By succumbing to the deadly sin of sloth we lay ourselves more open to the crippling effects of depression. In this sense, depression is a spiritual matter, as well as a medical one.
While not all depressives are sluggards, not all sluggards are depressed: some are just lazy! While they may not be depressed, usually these individuals are not happy either, because – perversely – slothful behaviour makes life less comfortable rather than easier (“Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks” Eccl. 10:18).
As well as trying to distinguish between sloth and depression, we need to make the much clearer distinction between sloth and Sabbath. Rest is not the same thing as laziness. Genuine rest is active in a way that sloth is not. Rest is focussed on something, on reconnecting with God and other people and in recharging depleted spiritual, emotional and physical energy levels. An example and a distinction – to get a good nights sleep is not lazy; to stay in bed all day is.
What, then, are the signs that we may be falling prey to the sin of sloth?
Procrastination is a key indicator. If we are forever putting-off-till-tomorrow what needs to be done today the chances are high that we are living a sluggardly life. A more subtle evidence of procrastination is when we always leave the hardest job till tomorrow rather than dealing it with it now. A great strategy for overcoming sloth and being effective in life is to do the most unpleasant task of any day (whether it is making a difficult phone call or emptying the bins) as the first task of the day. Get the worst thing over and done with first, and everything else feels so much easier! (A helpful little book on this theme is Eat That Frog, by Brian Tracy.)
An even more subtle sign of sloth is what Bill Hybels describes as ‘selective sluggardliness’. Selective sluggardliness is when we are very diligent in every area of life and other people generally think of us as energetic and productive, but there is one important area in which we are bone idle. It might be that you are diligent about all kinds of things, but neglectful of your physical health (this is the example Hybels gives in the case of his father). It might be that you are diligent in everything, except managing your personal finances. Or perhaps you are completely undisciplined about learning peoples names. No matter what the area of sluggardliness, if it is an important enough area, it will undermine all diligence demonstrated in other areas. You might get away with it for a long time, hiding it away as your dirty little secret, but it will find you out in the end.
Of course, probably the greatest evidence of sloth is your internet history. Facebook, the sluggards friend!
Sloth is not simply a matter of personal productiveness; it is a spiritual matter. The warfare attrition of the Christian life makes us vulnerable to sloth because we get tired. Spiritual weariness (acedia again) can cause us to retreat into the sluggards shell. This is why Paul urges the Galatians not to “grow weary in doing good” (Gal. 6:9) but to keep looking for the reward that will be ours in Christ. Spiritual conservatism can also make us lazy. One of Jesus’ most frightening parables is the case of the talents, and the masters rebuke of the servant who was too timid to invest his money: “You wicked and slothful servant!” (Mt. 25:26).
Like all the other deadly sins, sloth has to be battled against. The trouble is, if you are a sloth you will probably be too lazy to engage in the fight! You’ll think you can put it off till tomorrow… This is why our connection to the body of Christ is so vital. Paul instructed the Thessalonians to, “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak” (1 Thes. 5:14). Distinguishing weakness from faintheartedness from idleness can be a pastoral challenge, but it is not one we should shirk. And where we see an idle brother we all have the responsibility to warn him. A failure to do so compounds the sin, and leads to spiritual torpor.
Go on, eat that frog. You’ll feel much better when you do.