Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth
I: -- Sloth:
the word has a dreadful sound to it.
laziness, stupefied laziness, time-wasting, talent-wasting laziness.
No wonder our Christian foreparents labelled sloth a deadly sin.
“Just a minute”, someone objects; “if
sloth is a deadly sin, are you telling us that workaholism is a lively
grace? Are you telling us
that while obsessive-compulsive illnesses are just that – illnesses,
obsessive-compulsive work is a singular instance of health?”
I am saying no such thing. There’s
nothing in any obsessive-compulsive mental disorder that any of us needs
or wants. In other words, we
are no more eager to commend workaholism than we are to commend any
instance of illness.
The workaholic doesn’t merely work hard;
doesn’t merely work every waking minute; he’s driven
to work all the time. As
soon as he stops working, however briefly, he feels guilty, anxious,
useless, distressed. Weekends,
holidays, evenings; all are given over to compulsive work.
Never mind that his children are crying for him.
Never mind that his wife has given up expecting to kiss him.
Never mind that his health is breaking down.
He has a neurotic obsession.
There’s nothing in any manifestation of illness that healthy
people want to emulate.
As a matter of fact, all of us need what I
call “vacant time”. Vacant
time isn’t the same as wasted time.
Vacant time is necessary. Vacant
time is something like vacant space, such as a vacant lot.
A vacant lot isn’t a useless lot.
There are few things more useful, more needed, than a vacant lot.
A vacant lot gives youngsters a place to play.
It prevents a residential area from becoming too congested.
It provides visual relief in the midst of brown-brick sameness.
In the same way, vacant time gives us time
to play. It decongests our
lives. It provides relief
from frenzy. Several years
ago I learned that I simply had to have vacant time.
Previously I had felt guilty about vacant time. To
be sure, I knew I couldn’t read Sixteenth Century Latin all the time.
I knew I couldn’t hammer out sermons all the time.
And so I decided to afford myself relief; that is, when I
wasn’t working diligently I was determined to use my non-working time
fruitfully. And so in my
“down” time I decided I’d become thoroughly acquainted with
Canadian literature, perhaps even acquiring expertise in it.
Soon, I discovered, reading Canadian literature wasn’t a
leisure activity that refreshed me; instead it was one more effort where
I was driven to excel amidst anxiety and weariness.
Soon I was forced to admit that vacant time had to be vacant.
I needed time where I wasn’t doing anything important or useful
– unless you count my health and the freshness I need for work
important and useful. As I
re-read the gospels I was startled at how necessary Jesus deemed his
vacant time to be; how unwilling he was to surrender it; how frequently
he went away “to a solitary place”, we are told, away from the press
of crowds and frustration at disciples and the misunderstanding his
family foisted on him. We
are never going to call our Lord’s vacant time sloth.
II: -- Then
what is sloth, and why did our Christian foreparents regard it as
spiritually lethal? Sloth is
the persistent state of being “tuned out”; of being unengaged; of
relishing indifference. Sloth
is the state of remaining uninvolved, uncommitted, uncaring.
Sloth is the state of being a spectator in life, even wilfully
absent from life. There are
many reasons for such sloth.
[a] One is
the selfish desire to keep ourselves for ourselves, the “selfist”
desire to keep our own life uncomplicated and unperturbed by ignoring
people whose lives appear more difficult than ours, even endangered.
Several years ago I was purchasing candy in
a variety store in
when an 18-year old “tough” began harassing the Egyptian
storekeeper. The 18-year old
had obviously been in the store before since the storekeeper recognized
him instantly and became increasingly upset, almost hysterical: “You
getta outta my store right now”, over and over.
The fellow refused to leave the store.
The storekeeper became near-frantic.
There was a customer in the store besides
me, a big man who could have assisted the storekeeper in a moment.
But as soon as this big man saw trouble brewing he slipped out
the door and disappeared, leaving the distraught, middle-aged
storekeeper to handle this teenaged tough, with only a skinny preacher
to help him. I had a word
with the hooligan, and he left. Whereupon
the storekeeper fell all over me in gratitude.
The man who sneaked out of the store
exemplified sloth. He
didn’t care if the storekeeper were robbed or beaten up or terrorized.
He wanted only to “avoid trouble”, as he would have put it.
In truth, he wanted to keep himself for himself.
He was willing to jeopardize a defenceless man whose predicament
was obviously difficult and danger-ridden.
Think of the vocabulary we hear every day.
“Don’t get involved. Go
with the flow. See where the
wind’s blowing. Add up the
room.” All of which means,
“Stand for nothing. Stand
up for nothing. Stand up
with no one. Protect
yourself by abandoning everyone except yourself.”
This is sloth.
reason for this deadly sin is self-pampering. Self-pampering
is evident in many areas of life today, and typically evident (to me, at
least) in education. Certainly
we don’t want education to be unrelieved misery for children.
Nevertheless, we harm children by giving them the impression that
school is supposed to be fun all the time.
If they are faced with something that isn’t fun, they don’t
have to do it. They fail an
assignment? In some
school-jurisdictions, the teacher is faulted if a student fails.
One of my friends, a supply-teacher in the high schools, emailed
me this week, telling me that where he was supplying, students could pay
two dollars and be marked “present” while they absented themselves
from the school premises and cavorted downtown.
For two dollars they wouldn’t be marked truant, didn’t have
to do any work, and could indulge themselves however they wished.
Isn’t education supposed to be preparation for life?
Don’t people flounder and founder in life if they lack
discipline and diligence and persistence?
My psychiatrist-friend tells me that people
complain to him that life has cheated them, because they aren’t having
a good time 24 hours per day without interruption.
He tells me that advertising has fostered utterly unrealistic
expectations in people. Advertising has led people to believe that life
is, or can be, or at least is meant to be, something like an endless
beach holiday in the
: uninterrupted pleasure, no demands, no setbacks, no grief, everyone
dancing and skipping in the company of “winners” with gorgeous
bodies and fashionable clothes, no frustration or anxiety or pain.
The problem, my psychiatrist-friend tells me, is that no one’s
life is like this, and no one’s is ever going to be, even though too
many people have been led to believe that what’s advertised is normal.
To expect all this is to want sloth.
The banality of many TV shows intensifies
self-pampering. Husband and
wife (or husband and someone else’s wife) jointly answer a trite
question. Their answer
qualifies them for the wheel of fortune.
The wheel spins, clicking dramatically as it slows down.
The last click is heard as the wheel stops at the first letter of
their name. They have just
won a motorized golf cart and a self-propelled leaf-rake.
People who have been saturated in such shallowness aren’t going
to immerse themselves in life, especially in someone else’s life, with
its tides and turbulence, its summons to stand up, stand for, and stand
with. Self-pampering fosters
[c] There’s a third reason
for sloth, a profoundly different reason.
This time the reason isn’t shallow self-indulgence.
This time the reason is despair; heartbreaking, mind-numbing,
immobilizing despair. Sometimes
we sweat blood for something we hold to be true, right, good.
For this we have made greater sacrifices than anyone will ever
guess. We have given our
utmost. And then we have
watched it all dribble away to nothing, apparently.
We have seen it all evaporate, it
would seem. Our attitude
never was “I couldn’t care less”.
On the contrary our attitude was “I cared so much – and what
difference did it make? I
don’t have it in me to care any longer.”
the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, contended bravely with
’s wicked and venomous queen. He
got nowhere with her, he felt. He
knew that she was going to skewer him first chance.
Elijah sat down and spluttered “Lord, take away my life”.
Then he stumbled into a cave where he could detach himself from
the turbulence and treachery around him.
He wanted to “tune out”, detach himself, isolate himself –
born of despair isn’t like sloth born of pampered self-indulgence.
Sloth born of despair has a history: someone has been wounded;
the spear-wound is either haemorrhaging still or it has become infected
or both. Wounded and
weakened now, she’s become too jaded to endure any more grief or
frustration or pain. She has
decided to “opt out”.
born of despair isn’t contemptible.
Its victims don’t merit scorn.
They do merit concern, however, because sloth is sloth regardless
of its genesis; sloth is deadly however much we think we can excuse the
sloth born of despair. Sloth
is lethal in that detachment from life is lethal regardless of the
reason for the detachment.
III: -- Having
probed several reasons for sloth, we must yet grasp precisely why our
foreparents called it sin, deadly
deadly, obviously, because it’s a breeding ground for trivia.
People who detach themselves from life with all of life’s tides
and turbulence; people who want no part of challenge and struggle; these
people invariably have large tracts of time on their hands.
What do they do with vast stretches of unfilled time?
They fill them up with trivia.
They watch TV by the hour. They
sleep. They become
self-absorption can appear harmless (they have huge stamp collections);
it can appear eccentric (they become experts in the history of dental
floss); it can be silly; it can be dangerous (since ever-greater thrills
are needed to stave off the boredom of the under-occupied).
In any case the self-absorption is selfist, even when it appears
virtuous. (What else can be
said of the 50-year old woman who spends three hours per day shaping her
body? We won’t say “She
has a remarkable body.” We
won’t say it because the truth is, her remarkable body has been gained
at the price of shrivelled heart and mind and spirit.)
Where sloth abounds, time fills up with trivia as surely as
motionless water fills up with algae.
But is this deadly
Time, after all, is the theatre of God’s incursion into human
history and human affairs. Time
is the theatre of God’s incursion into any one person’s heart.
Time, therefore, is also the theatre of our spiritual discernment
and the theatre of our obedience to God.
Sloth is deadly, in the second place, in
that it withers human relationships.
To step aside from life is necessarily to step aside from people.
It’s to step aside from people to whom our help can mean the
world; it’s to step aside from people who can mean the world to us.
How many times in scripture are we told that the person we help
renders us “Christ” to that person, as it were, while the person
whom we allow to help us renders her the mirror-image of Christ to
Of course other people are inconvenient.
Then was Jean Paul Sartre correct when he wrote “Hell is other
people”? Other people can
be hellish; they can as readily be heavenly.
Their arms embracing us, our arms embracing them, can as readily
be those “everlasting arms” that are always and everywhere
“underneath” us, even as the everlasting arms of God are most
readily recognized in the arms of his human servants.
If we detach ourselves from life we attempt
to be entirely self-sufficient. No
one can be, of course; but the desire for self-sufficiency and the
attempt at it means that are trying to live in an ever-shrinking
universe. Sloth is deadly
just because it deadens.
Sloth is deadly, in the third place, in
that it’s so very subtle. It’s
like a hot cedar tub. Hot
tubs can be enjoyable, even helpful -- if we need a hassle-free
there’s something wrong with the person who wants a “time-out”
that goes on and on and on. Everyone
knows what can happen in a hot tub.
We luxuriate in the water. After
a while it starts to feel cool (even though the water temperature
hasn’t changed.) We make
the water a little warmer. The
process is repeated, several times over.
Next morning the newspaper carries our obituary, and readers are
told that our heart stopped beating.
Sloth is just like this.
-- Enough about the
deadliness of sloth. Let’s
look now at life and liveliness. The
key to life and liveliness in this context, as in any context, is faith.
Greater faith; resolute faith; resilient faith.
Elijah went to the cave to “get away from it all”,
overwhelmed as he was at the spiritual declension of his people and the
isolation it had brought to him. The
cave provided him needed respite, the hassle-free “time-out”.
Had he stayed in the cave, however, he would have succumbed to
sloth; had he stayed in the cave he would have gone under in the hot
cedar tub. But God
wouldn’t leave him in the cave. However
overwhelmed Elijah might be at the clamour of his people, bent as they
were on their shallow self-absorption; however deafened he might be at
their superficial noisiness, he could yet hear the much quieter sound of
“the still, small voice” of God.
And this voice asked him, “Elijah, what are doing there?
What are you doing in the cave?”
Rather lamely Elijah replied, “I’m here because I’m licked.
I’m here because I’m tired of standing up for You
all by myself.”
“What do you mean, all by yourself?”
retorted God; “there are 7000 who haven’t bowed the knee to Baal or
kissed him.” Elijah,
heartened once more, left the cave.
To be sure, he was thankful for the rest he’d had.
Yet in view of the fact that he had 7000 allies, it would have
been be silly, fruitless and inexcusable to remain in the cave.
Jesus calls men and women to be disciples.
They respond with an initial surge of enthusiasm.
Then the onerous aspect of discipleship’s collision with a
hostile world, added to the normal wear-and-tear of life, gets them
down. Easter morning finds
Peter speaking for the rest: “What’s the point of it all?
We did our best and it all boiled dry.
Let’s go back to fishing.”
Peter and his friends have plainly gone to the cave.
Whereupon the risen Lord appears before them and pulls them out
of the cave as he enlarges their faith and lends them resilience.
Once more they step ahead in the task he has given them.
As enlarged faith and greater faithfulness
overturn our sloth we are going to find ourselves viewed as odd.
A society bent on ease and drowsiness and self-gratification
can’t understand why anyone would ever step out in a commitment that
doesn’t promote ease and drowsiness and self-gratification.
Still, we who are Christ’s people march to the beat of a
In the city of
was treated roughly. He
didn’t take refuge in sloth, however, mumbling that he’d never
return, never put himself out again for ungrateful people.
Instead he said quietly to the Christians at Lystra, “It is
through many tribulations that we enter the
are two aspects to the resolute faith and resilient faith that overcome
sloth. One is vision.
With the eye of faith we have to see
the importance of the work to which God has summoned us.
If few others can see it, too bad; we
have to see it. We have to
see what is right and righteous and why.
The second aspect to our resilience is
courage. Courage is
distinguished from foolhardiness by one thing: the importance of what we
are doing. The person who
walks through fire as a stunt in order to impress onlookers is a fool,
while the person who enters a burning house to rescued trapped children
we reward for his courage. Any
person who came to the assistance of the beleaguered Egyptian
storekeeper – would that person have been foolhardy or courageous?
Is assisting a defenceless storekeeper something that God deems
we are called to take the stand that will always be unpopular; when we
are summoned to make the sacrifice for the person who will never thank
us; when we are called to do what’s right in an environment that
rewards two-faced palm-greasers – in all these situations others are
going to tell us we’re foolhardy.
We, however, are going to be sustained by our vision of what’s
right, as well as by a courage that rises in proportion to our vision.
Vision and courage will reinforce each other.
The temptation of sloth will recede.
There are always people we must care for,
even as there is evil we must resist, truth we must uphold, and a Lord
whom we must obey. He, after
all, has promised never to fail us or forsake us.