I never thought that Sloth was a vice that I struggled with. Lust? Pride? Envy? Sure, I could see that in my life, but not sloth. I work 60 hour weeks, I enjoy what I get to do.
I love my work, I love my job so much!
Maybe I love my job too much.
I grew up hearing the Proverbs about the Sluggard, and how all the lazy people in the world just needed to check out the work ethic of those hard-working ants. I always imagined sloth as the person who lounges around on the couch and knows by heart every daytime talk show.
And while that can be sloth, it’s probably not the kind of sloth most of the people reading this are most familiar with.
It’s interesting that many of the sins that are in the list of the seven deadly sins are also things that people from other religions/cultures said were bad. Many of the sins are things that Greco-Roman culture listed as vices to be avoided, but not sloth.
Sloth is a uniquely Christian sin, because there was an assumption that God was going to judge each person’s life, and what each of us did with our life would be revealed (this is why the famous Protestant Work Ethic was so effective)
But the Christian definition of sloth, does not just mean we should be industrious, in fact, by working hard we may actually be giving into sloth. Lots of workaholics can be in fact captured in the vice of sloth, because we are using our “hard work” to avoid the actual hard work.
Let me explain.
The Desert Fathers (who gave the world the seven deadly sins) called Sloth the “Noonday Demon.” It was the sin that was the most tempting in the hottest and hardest part of the day.
These desert fathers saw that around noon the sun appeared to stand still, life started to drag on, and that was when they were the most tempted to start questioning the way of life they had been called to…or where they had been called to it.
Here’s how Evagrius of Pontus writing in the 3rd century says it:
This demon drives [the monk] along to desire other places where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to those reflections the memory of [the monk’s] dear ones and of his former way of life.
In fact, Thomas Aquinas himself said that the real root of sloth for the ancient monks came: “from the fact that we groan about not having spiritual fruit and we think that other, distant monasteries are better off than ours.”
And that’s when I realized that sloth was more than just laziness, and that it was a vice that I was beginning to realize was closing in on me.
As long as I have been in ministry, I’ve caught myself daydreaming of working at other churches. A few times a month, I’ll think about living somewhere else, serving some other group of people, doing a different kind of job. And I always compare the best parts of the new job to the worst parts of the one I currently have.
There the people will love me, I tell myself. There I won’t get those emails or have to take those phone calls, they’ll probably pay me more, and send more encouragement cards. Why, the people here just don’t know how lucky they have it, but these next people will.
Here I need to say, I know this is ridiculous. I really do love my job, and both of the churches I’ve worked at are amazing churches with great people. Which makes this line of thought all the more outlandish, especially since it’s so common.
But what I’ve started to notice since reading about the 7 deadly sins, is that the times that I’m the most tempted with sloth, are also times that I’m working the most.
The main time that the noonday demon attacks me, if I’m being honest, is when there is tension in some relationship that needs to be dealt with, but that I don’t want to deal with.
There’s some conflict that needs to be had, or some misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up, but I don’t want to do that. I’d rather send emails, write a new sermon, and daydream about a new job where everyone is perfect and the pay is just right.
I’d rather do those things, because the work that is waiting on me is hard work.
And here is where sloth reveals itself to us the most clearly. Sloth really is the avoidance of hard work, but it’s probably not the hard work we think it is.
In fact, Jeff Cook says one of the biggest symptom of sloth is zeal over petty matters. It’s pouring all of our energy into being a fan of some sports team who doesn’t even know we exist, while we ignore the work in our marriage. It’s being obsessed over the new pair of shoes, or our appearance while we leave little energy for the kids.
In the words of Cook:
“Sloth, in fact, is a sorrow about goodness. It finds those things that we were made to enjoy and pursue to be useless and boring instead. Sloth tells us that the good life is dull.”
I’m starting to believe that what we sometimes call doubt is actually a camaflouged version of what the ancient monks would have named Sloth. Behind many of our doubts isn’t so much the question “Is it true?” but the question “Is this worth it?”
Because real faith asks us to engage with God, and there comes a point in ever disciples’ life where we begin to do the math for the whole cost of discipleship.
What many of us call cynicism is often just a symptom of Sloth. Because what is cynicism if it’s not checking out of the world as an active participant? (There’s a German word for this that describes sloth as a defense against the pain of the world).
This is why the William Willimon says that the opposite of Sloth isn’t the hard-working ant of the Proverbs. The opposite of Sloth is Joy! The kind of Joy that isn’t chemically induced or propped up by constant entertainment, but the kind of joy that looks at the life we already have, the relationships and responsibilities that we have been given and says, “Yes. I was made for this. I can do these well. I will be where I am at, and no where else.”
This is the Joy of life, that says here and now is good and worth while and the work that I’m called to here is good even when it’s hard.