SoThe Sin of Sloth
Proverbs 24:30-34, 26:13-16, II Thess. 3:6-13.
There is an animal found in the jungles of South & Central America that has been named the SLOTH. It was so named because it was slow. When Europeans discovered it they were amazed at how little progress it made. It would take it an entire day to move 50 feet if it moved at all. Its feet were useful only for hanging suspended from the branch of a tree while it slept or fed. It slept thru the day and at night woke up to feed on the closest leaves and only moved when it has to find other leaves. Scientists believe that the lethargy of the sloth is due to its extremely low body temperature.
The Sin Defined
When John Cassian around A.D.400 created the first known published list of the 7 deadly sins, the name he gave to this sin was ACEDIA. It is a Latin word and means “to be without care”. He coined the word from his experience of life in a Monastery. He saw that the great sin of many of the Monks was that they had become indifferent to their duties and obligations to God. They had lost interest. They couldn’t care less.
It became known as the Clerics’ Disease; the Monkish Problem. When Edmund Spenser writes his allegory The Fairie Queen in the 1500’s, he paints a picture of the 7 deadly sins. For 6 of these sins he paints them as men riding animals – Swine, camel, wolf, lion, etc. They come on in pairs, two by two. But there was one that led the entire entourage. It was sloth dressed in the garb of a holy monk and was called the nursemaid of sin. It was the one that keeps the others alive and well fed.
It affected Spiritual Life
It was seen in prayerlessness in men who had committed themselves to a life of prayer. It resulted in spiritual dryness and prolonged nights of the soul. It resulted in doubt and the failure of faith as the monks became weary with well doing.
It affected Emotional Life
There came a sadness about the self and about the world. Melancholy. It led to despair of making any difference in the world around them. There was a lack of feeling about anything, and life became a routine, as George MacDonald says, they went through their days, “wearily, wearily, drearily, drearily.”
It affected intellectual life
The monks became bored with study of the word and theology. It had little practical output and therefore study diminished. It led to apathy and inertia in thinking so that prayers and study were “done” but not thought about. “A chapter a day to keep the devil away” was the response, rather than a desire to deepen understanding.
It affected physical life.
With the sin of Acedia came physical laziness, idleness, indolence, tardiness, oversleeping. In fact it was a vicious circle. Pessimism about the self and the world led to lack of physical involvement, and lack of physical involvement led to a weariness of the soul.
In a phrase then, what is this sin of Sloth? John Cassian says: “It is sluggishness of the heart, closely akin to dejection.” Thomas Aquinas said it is, “Lethargy in the presence of spiritual good.”
Dorothy L. Sayers is more eloquent as she describes this sin.
“It is not merely idleness of mind and laziness: it is that whole poisoning of the will which, beginning with indifference… extends to the deliberate refusal of Joy and culminates in morbid introspection and despair.
Sayers continues in another place:
It is the sin which believes in nothing
cares for nothing
seeks to know nothing
interferes with nothing
finds purpose in nothing
lives for nothing
and only remains alive
because there is nothing it would die for.
It is a sin that affects our entire culture. Medieval theologians called it, “The Demon that wastes at Noonday”. The sin of the middle years of life. The sin becomes dominating, whether in a person’s life or an institution’s life, when after the first bursts of enthusiastic beginnings, there comes that failure of nerve and the settling down into the care-less-ness of middle age.
The Biblical Concern
Of course if this sin is so damaging then the scriptures themselves cannot be silent about it. And the Old and New testaments have much to say about it whether it is the book of Proverbs speaking about the sluggard (proverbs 6:5-ll, 24:30-34, 26:13-16) or Paul speaking to the Thessalonians about idleness.
But it is in the teachings of Jesus that the sin of sloth gets its most vivid teaching. In the book Ecce Homo by Sir John Seeley it is pointed out that there is a radical difference between the villains of the parables and the villains that figure in all other literature. In the stories that others tell, the villains are usually perpetrators of foul deeds. The wicked go around stealing, maiming, raping, plundering, killing, deceiving, lying, blaspheming, committing adultery, etc. They do the things they should not be doing!
But the villains in the parables of Jesus are villains who do nothing! and that is precisely their crime. His villains leave things undone that they should have done. The priest and the Levite pass by on the other side. They do not add insult to injury. They do not put the boots to the body. They add no more bruises. They just do nothing. They are villains. Nathan Hale said it well, “All that is needed for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.”
The story of the three stewards who are given large sums of money to invest, is particularly vivid. One man does nothing with his resources and Jesus paints the rage of a master who cries out “You wicked and slothful servant… cast out the worthless servant into outer darkness.” And later Jesus will gives another parable just as forceful. It is the story of the sheep and the goats. The villains are those who did nothing. “In as much as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.”
And Jesus goes further as he talks about the rich man who did not feed the beggar at his door. And about the prodigal’s older brother who refused to come in, but preferred to live in anger and apathy.
The villains of our Lord are often guilty of simply doing nothing. And that is the grave sin of inertia in the face of great possibilities.
Now there are two ways we can respond to this message
We can feel so bad about our inertia, that we can get more depressed. We can beat up on ourselves, and say “I can’t do anything right.” Guilt feelings rarely bring joy for our despair, or energy for our inertia. Feeling worse about ourselves is poor motivation at best, and crippling to our souls at worst.
Or, we can decide to become workaholics and run faster, and jump higher, and get busier. But the result of that will be that we will get more physically and emotionally tired and worn out, and we will re-enter the downward cycle of despondency, and each time we do that it will be more difficult to slow down the descent into spiritual depression.
So what do we do?
I must confess that I am a sacramentarian. The celebration of Holy Communion is for me one of the chief means of grace. Some in the church have called the bread and wine served in the Lord’s Supper, the “medicine of immortality” like “the fountain of Youth” where the old are rejuvenated. They had good insight. This celebration in part is for the healing of human hurts. The Lord’s Supper is to give strength to those who feel their utter weakness.
- So the celebration begins with an invitation to come and dine. Can you hear Jesus saying, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest?”
- In the second part of the celebration we come expressing the weakness or weariness of our lives, and even our wickedness. We come to confess before God the very things that damage our souls and our relationships.
- But we cannot stay there. We must leave our confession with God, and enter further into the celebration. For we are to move towards what the church has called “The Great Thanksgiving”. For we are not called upon to re-enter despair or run until we are exhausted, but we are asked to lean on God, to rest in him, to stop for a while from our running downhill into despair or struggling up hill to exhaustion. Listen to the offer he makes. Bread for those who have run out of energy, and wine to re-intoxicate our lives with joy. Daily bread from the ovens of heaven, and wine that can be poured into the wounds of our weariness. A new receiving of Jesus Christ the bread of life, and a new connecting to Christ who is the vine. (And for those who love the stories from the Lord of The Rings, He offers bread, like Lembas bread, elven food, that gives us energy for the journey ahead, and he offers us wine, that is like the waters of the Ents, that helps us to grow tall through the seasons of our lives!)
- And then as we receive from God the gifts he offers, as we eat and drink, we re-fall in love with him, and receive his joy, and leave strengthened with might by His Spirit within ourselves. For the good news of the Gospel is, that if there are 7 deadly sins, there are 9 fruit of the Spirit, and as Paul reminds us, “The Fruit of the Spirit is Love”, the antidote for not-caring any more, and “The Fruit of the Spirit is … Joy”, the antidote for our sadness.
Thanks be to God! Amen.