Sloth

A sluggard says, ‘There’s a lion in the road,
a fierce lion roaming the streets!’
As a door turns on its hinges,
so a sluggard turns on his bed.
A sluggard buries his hand in the dish;
he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth.
A sluggard is wiser in his own eyes
than seven people who answer discreetly.
Proverbs 26:13-15

Starter Question
Is being slothful really all that bad?

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
(Romans 7:15-25)

If you’ve ever had occasion to stay in a hotel you’ll be familiar with the ‘do not disturb’ signs provided for weary travellers to hang on the outside of the bedroom door to ensure the housekeeping team don’t burst in with vacuum cleaners while the occupant is attempting to slumber. One such example frames the request very politely indeed: ‘Please don’t wake me. I want to sleep a little longer.’

Perhaps that’s the image you conjure up when you hear the word ‘sloth’. Of all the deadly sins we are being challenged about in this Lent series, sloth is the one most of us know least about. Sloth is usually reduced to the idea of laziness and what, really, is so deadly about being a bit lazy? Laziness isn’t really seen as much of a problem these days. It might be a minor character flaw, but is it any more serious than that? Can sloth really be called a sin — and a deadly sin at that? 

The Church Fathers certainly thought so. And, whilst they might not have used the language of Seven Deadly Sins, Luther and Calvin thought so too. So what is it?

What is sloth?
Sloth is a stubborn and ongoing feeling of listlessness, restlessness, or boredom. It seeps into the soul and poisons the mind so that instead of revelling and delighting in the work and relationships that God has given us, and loving him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbour as ourselves, we seek refuge in escape, disengagement, and over-stimulation.  The results are destructive.

Sloth isn’t the passing experience of boredom or distraction we all know. Nor is it the same as depression. Sloth is something long-lasting that causes us to view the good things God gives us – work, relationships, prayer, study of the Bible – as burdensome demands to be escaped from. It makes us look at the place where God has called us, and the people he’s called us to be with, with a restless and discontented eye and seek to find a way to wriggle out of what we see as the constraints of our situation. We can do so either by withdrawing, or by burying ourselves in over-activity and finding other ways to fill our time.

Suddenly sloth seems very relevant to life in the West in the 21st century. Which of us hasn’t used, for example, scrolling through social media as a ‘way to unwind for five minutes’ which becomes two hours of our lives we’ll never get back, and prevents us from doing the thing we’re actually supposed to be doing?

It’s not hard to think of other examples of modern manifestations of this ancient vice: the single person’s feeling that all would be well if only he or she were married, or the married person’s feeling that marital faithfulness is a destructive straightjacket and all would be well if he or she were in a relationship with someone else; the feeling that we would be so much happier if we just found a different job; the all-too-pervasive listlessness experienced in prayer.

Make no mistake. Sloth, with its restless combination of anger and wrong desire is indeed deadly. It’s destructive of relationships. It’s destructive of work. And it’s especially destructive of prayer.

Whilst it’s by no means the primary interpretation of the passage from Romans 7, the words still seem to me to describe well someone in the grip of sloth: ‘For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.’ There’s that sense of being pulled away, not having the strength to do the thing we know God wants us to do, perhaps deep down not even having the will to try.

Wrestling free
So how can we be free of it? There are some helpful means of grace for us to practise during Lent. Praying short, direct prayers so our attention doesn’t wander. Setting ourselves short tasks and not stopping until they’re complete. Praying that we will again see the work and relationships we have as a source of delight rather than discontent.

Above all, however, as for Paul in his anguished writing, the way we are to be free is by Jesus giving us freedom: ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ He alone frees us from the shackles of sloth, brings piercing light to show the way through the fog, and stills our restless hearts to find their rest in him.

Questions for Reflection:
1. What aspects of sloth can you identify in your own habits?
2. What passages of Scripture could you memorise to help you focus when tempted by sloth?
3. How will remembering the love and grace of God in Christ help you overcome sloth?

Prayer
Almighty and everlasting God,
you give us grace to know you,
work through which to serve you,
and neighbours to care for:
deliver us from the sin of sloth
and give us instead perseverance to run with joy the race you set before us,
loving you with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength,
that we may bring glory to you in all that we do,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ,
Amen.

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