In the rain forests of Central and South America dwells a small ugly-looking mammal called a sloth. This little creature is so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat. When it moves—which is rarely, since it spends 20 hours a day sleeping—it travels at a top speed of 13 feet per minute.
When we think of the sin of sloth, the image of this creature is what probably comes to mind, hanging from a tree branch with its three toes, or possibly that of a beer-guzzling slob sprawled out on a couch in front of the television in his boxers with everything around him going to pot. The sin of sloth, however, does not necessarily mean inactivity, which is sometimes necessary, but encompasses a host of things from being lethargic to being too busy.
Why is this sinful? It is sinful because God designed people to work to provide for their families, help their community, and use their gifts and talents for his glory. There are different ways we can be slothful: physically, intellectually, and spiritually.
We are physically slothful when, like the three-toed sloth, we begin to do things in slow motion or not do them at all. P. Evans, in The Man Behind the Mask, tells of this incident that reveals a truly slothful person. One afternoon, the doorbell rang in Peter Sellers' London flat. As Sellers was busy in his study, his wife Anne went to the door, where she was handed a telegram. The message? "Bring me a cup of coffee. Peter."
In western nations, the labor cost is so high that few people have servants to help them. Not so in the east, especially in Asian countries, where labor is so cheap, some families employ two or even three servants to do household chores. If this frees them to utilize their time better, that is fine, but not if it just serves to make them lazy.
Here is a passage from the book of Proverbs: How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest — and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man (Proverbs 6:9-11). Some translations use the word 'lazybones' instead of 'sluggard'.
Here is another: Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest (Proverbs 6:6‑8).
This instruction may have inspired the famous Greek author Aesop to tell his well-known tale of The Ant and the Grasshopper.
The Ant worked diligently all summer, working up a sweat as it gathered grain under the blazing sun. However, his neighbor, the Grasshopper, just spent his time singing and laughing at the Ant's labors. Then winter came, and with it came a scarcity of food. The Grasshopper had nothing to eat. He peeped into the Ant's house and saw mounds of grain stacked in one corner.
"Could you please spare me some food," pleaded the Grasshopper. "I don't have any."
"Why?" asked the Ant. "What did you do all summer?"
"Oh, I sang," said the Grasshopper.
"You sang," said the Ant. "Now you dance!"
The Ant was perhaps not very Christian in its attitude, but the main moral of the story is obvious. We reap according to what we sow. And we need to work while we can to provide for the times when we can't. Paul is very clear about this in his letter to the Thessalonians. He wrote: In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat." (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10).
Fitness becomes important to fulfil this function. God has given us bodies and we need to look after them by getting proper rest, eating the right things, and ensuring we have enough exercise. This isn't so that we have perfect bodies, but that we have fit bodies so that we have the energy to do the things we are required to do.
As dangerous as physical sloth is, more dangerous is spiritual sloth.
Thomas Aquinas defined a capital sin as "one which leads to other sins." Spiritual sloth leads to other capital sins, making it the most dangerous of all the capital sins. As Aquinas says, "those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures have recourse to pleasures of the body." When we don't make place for God in our lives, we will make place for other things, and these, despite our best intentions, can end up being very sinful.
Spiritual sloth creeps in slowly but, unless corrected, can lead to a repugnance of all things spiritual. We can recognize the signs when the time we spend in prayer begins to decrease, or the quality of prayer diminishes. The speed with which we head south can be blistering. I speak from experience.
As much as I can, I spend time in spiritual pursuits. A few years ago, in the pre-Covid era, a typical day would involve going for a church service, doing some Scripture study, engaging in a spot of journaling, interceding for the needs of the world, and in some dedicated personal time with God.
One morning, I decided to skip the service so I could sleep a little longer. I had gone to bed late the previous night and reasoned that God wouldn't mind if I had a little extra shut-eye; besides, I was spending a lot of time with him, anyway. The following day I didn't journal because I had somebody come for counseling, and she ate up my journaling time. I didn't do the Scripture study on the third day because I had to drop my daughter to school.
Excuse followed excuse, and by the end of the week, I discovered that my prayer time had come crashing down from three hours to less than thirty minutes! The week after, I found myself spending time on pursuits other than prayer, and though they were innocent, before the week was out, sin had me sprawling to the ground.
That's how it goes. The only way to break free is to get rid of spiritual sloth and get back into solid prayer. If there is sin in your life, it is because you are spiritually lazy. Guaranteed.
One of the deadliest things about sloth is that it can interfere with God's plans for us and the world. If I am spiritually slothful, then I am not attuned to his will; if I am not attuned to his will, then I don't know what he wants me to do; if I don't know what he wants me to do, I am not going to fulfill my destiny!
Signs of Spiritual Sloth
Spiritual sloth can disguise itself in busyness. There is a lovely story in the Bible that illustrates this. One day, when Jesus was in Bethany, Martha invited him to her home. She promptly went into the kitchen and busied herself with cooking something for him while her sister Mary sat at Jesus's feet, listening to what he had to say. Martha wasn't too pleased with this and finally, unable to contain herself any longer, went out to Jesus and said to him: "Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" (Luke 10:40).
To her shock, Jesus gently chided her: "Martha, Martha," he said, "you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:41‑42).
Martha failed to realize what was really important. When Jesus was around, it was more important to be with him rather than do things for him. There is a lesson in this for all of us, especially those who find themselves engaged more in works of ministry rather than spending time with Christ in prayer. This is spiritual sloth because we might be doing one to avoid the other.
What are the other signs of spiritual sloth?
We'd rather go to a party than a prayer meeting. We'd rather read John Grisham than John Ortberg. We'd rather listen to Jerry Seinfeld than Rick Warren. This isn't to say that we shouldn't go to parties, read Grisham, or listen to Seinfeld, but we need to reexamine our priorities if we find we give more time and importance to these things than the things of God.
Intellectual Sloth & Sloth of the Will
Intellectual sloth is the reluctance to do anything to improve one's mental condition, be it through reading or other intellectual exercises. An intelligent person wastes his God-given gifts if he doesn't spend time in challenging intellectual activities and pursuits. And this means more than solving Sudoku puzzles!
Taken in combination with spiritual sloth, intellectual sloth results in a poverty-stricken soul. The Bible is God's word to his children, but many Christians have never read it in its entirety even once. Have you? What excuses have you made for not doing so? That it is difficult to understand? Have you considered laziness might be the real reason?
In addition to the Bible, Christians who wish to progress in their spiritual life need to read at least one new book a month; few do. Consequently, there is very little of the mental nourishment required for spiritual growth. God also told us to love him with all our minds (Luke 10:27).
We can also be guilty of sloth of will, whereby we don't do things, either because we get distracted from the tasks at hand or don't take our responsibilities seriously. Do you often get distracted from your work?
In his biography, President Reagan: The Role Of A Lifetime, Lou Cannon narrates this incident. Secretary of State James Baker once gave Ronald Reagan a briefing book to study before the next day's World Economic Summit in Williamsburg, Virginia. In the morning, Baker was dismayed to learn that the president had not even bothered to open it and asked him why. "Well, Jim," Reagan replied, "The Sound of Music was on..."
We all have responsibilities that we need to take seriously. In the parable of the talents (see Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus told of a man who gave three of his servants a sum of money before he left on a journey. In his absence, the first servant, who was given five talents, immediately put his money to work and made five more. The second servant, who had been given two talents, likewise doubled his money. The third servant, however, buried the one talent he had been given into the ground.
When the master returned, he was delighted with the first two servants. He said to each of them: "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!"
But he was furious with the third man who tried to justify his action saying, "'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'
"His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest." Notice how Jesus called the servant lazy!
And then he goes on to deliver sentence. "'So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"
While this parable refers to talent as a monetary measure, the lesson also holds good to talent as a gift. All of us have been endowed with several gifts, but many of us never put them to good use. Some of us have not even discovered what they are! We will be questioned about it one day, and we better have a good answer.
Sloth of the will also impacts relationships. Consider a husband and wife sitting a the dinner table for what should have been a peaceful meal, except it erupts into an argument about some nonsensical thing. The rest of the meal is completed in silence, after which the couple goes to separate corners, like boxers after a bell goes off. They sit sulking, after which time they go to bed sulking and wake up sulking. If they wanted, they could kiss and make up, but that, of course, would require more effort than either of them is willing to expend. That's sloth. How do you plead?
The Virtue: Diligence & Discipline
Samuel Johnson once said: "What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence." Diligence is careful and persistent work or effort. We need the disposition to think and act with a proper sense of urgency and zeal. Not only does this virtue help us fulfill our calling as Christians by keeping us away from sin, but it also leads us to care for others.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul states that even as we excel in faith, speech, knowledge, and love, we should also strive towards diligence—or earnestness—in everything we do (2 Corinthians 8:7).
In his second letter, Peter speaks of how God has given us everything needed for life and godliness. However, he says we need to "make every effort" towards growing in holiness (2 Peter 1:5-7).
Timothy, too, tells us to "do our best" to present ourselves to God as one approved by him (2 Timothy 2:15).
Diligence requires discipline. As Paul wrote: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
We are all required to do the best we can, put in all the effort we are capable of, and exhibit sincere earnestness—be diligent—in everything we do. Not only would we become better individuals, but we'd also make a better world.
The Gift: Knowledge
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2). To discern the will of God—what is good, acceptable and perfect, we need the gift of knowledge.
The gift of knowledge helps us to have the mind of God, and it's a powerful gift to have because we can see things in the light of what they actually are. We usually do so with the blinkered glasses of judgments that we have formed through our learning or our experiences that, while sounding wise, may actually be utter foolishness. Paul learned this the hard way. As he, himself, says: "If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Philippians 3:4-6).
"Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish ..." (Philippians 3:7-8).
What happened to him? He suddenly saw himself through God's eyes and realized that everything he held to be important was only so much more rubbish to be thrown into the trash. What are we in comparison to him who created us? The advancement of the sciences has led us to believe that we are masters of the universe, but are we?
Let us learn to look at the world and its people through God's eyes; it will change our outlook on everything. It will inspire us to become the people God created us to be: holy, pure, and perfect.
The purpose of this study on these seven sins was not to fill us with embarrassment that we are such sinful beings there is no hope for us. Instead, it is to help us become more like Christ. We can't change if we don't know we need to change. Once we discover something wrong, we acknowledge it, which is always the first step toward achieving any goal. Then we turn to God in repentance, accepting the forgiveness that is always forthcoming. And finally, asking for the grace to lead a life without pride, envy, anger, lust, greed, gluttony, or sloth.
The more we can eliminate them from our lives, the more we will resemble Christ so one day we can declare like Paul, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).
May the Spirit be with you.