Author Topic: The Sloth of Sin (July 2006)  (Read 1103 times)

Richard Johnson

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The Sloth of Sin (July 2006)
« on: August 02, 2006, 02:33:11 PM »
The sloth of sin
By Richard O. Johnson, associate editor
Forum Letter, July 2006 issue
(Copyright 2006 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.)

Some years ago the National Enquirer had a contest for the King of Spud. They were searching, they said, for the biggest coach potato in the United States. The winner was a 35-year-old bachelor in Fridley, MN who kept three televisions on while he was home, and had another constantly going in his office at work. “All I do is watch television and work,” he admitted. “There’s nothing I like more than sitting around with a six-pack of beer, some chips, and a remote control.”

I’m pretty sure I had this guy in confirmation one year. He could be a poster child for what the Christian tradition has called sloth. Today we’d call him lazy, and see it as a character flaw, or maybe, if it becomes bad enough, a psychological problem. But is it a sin? And if so, why?

Sloth is unique among the famous seven deadly sins in that it is only the Judeo-Christian tradition that seems to be concerned about it. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers generally agreed that pride, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, and greed were morally wrong. But they didn’t say a word about sloth. The Hebrews and the Christians, however, saw it as a grievous sin.

The dictionary defines sloth as “laziness,” and even the newer Bible translations tend to use that word — “lazy” rather than “slothful.” The trouble with that definition or that translation is that it really confuses things, in a couple of ways.

First of all, sometimes what looks like laziness is actually quite a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with lying on the grass beside a stream on a beautiful spring day and letting your mind disengage from the cares of the world. Indeed, if we’ve made any spiritual advance in modern life, it may be our appreciation of the importance of leisure. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” we used to say — and today we understand this is true of Jack and Jill and all boys and girls and men and women. We need to have time to play — time, we might even say, to be lazy.

But there’s something else wrong with equating sloth with laziness: often it is the people who are the most busy who struggle most intensely with sloth. They are people who fill their lives with one thing and another, always working, or always exercising, or always volunteering — as if the moment they stop doing things, everything will fall apart. I’ve known pastors like that. I’ve not infrequently been a pastor like that. Such folks are far from lazy, but underneath all the activity, sloth often is lounging around.

We could use the word “lazy,” though, if we understand sloth to be not so much a physical laziness as a laziness of the spirit. Sloth means not really caring much about anything. Dorothy Sayers puts it this way:

It is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.

In other words, to be slothful is to turn so completely in on yourself as to take no notice of anything or anyone else.

A Simon & Garfunkle definition

Of course all of the seven deadly sins have a strong element of selfishness about them; but with most of them, there is at least some interaction with the world. The lustful person is engaged in some kind of relationship, as distorted and destructive as it may be. But with sloth, there is no outside world. It is all me. It is the reality expressed eloquently a generation ago by the Simon & Garfunkle song, I Am a Rock:

Hiding in my room,
safe within my womb,
I touch no one
and no one touches me.
I am a Rock.
I am an Island.


With sloth, you see, you don’t want, you don’t seek, you don’t need to be in relationship with anyone or anything. You just exist, with no sense of purpose.

Stuck in sloth

I’m convinced that sloth is one of the premier sins of our time. Walk into any bookstore and check out the section on self-motivation. We’re so consumed with sloth, you see, that we are desperately seeking some advice for how to get out of it, how to get ourselves moving. It doesn’t matter if the subject is exercise, or financial planning, or relationships, or spiritual life — we feel stuck. We feel that we can’t move. And that’s sloth.

Or think of it another way. One of the biggest psychological maladies in our day is depression. Well, clinical depression is a terrible thing, often a serious medical problem, and I certainly don’t mean to deny the importance of getting help with it. But we might say that, just as an eating disorder might be related to gluttony, depression is related to sloth. When we are depressed, we are unable to move — in a figurative, and sometimes a literal, sense. For the depressed person, nothing matters. Symptoms of severe depression include things like a sudden disregard for personal hygiene, or the cleanliness of one’s surroundings; or a sudden disinterest in relationships. These are also characteristics of sloth. The slothful person just doesn’t care about anything. He or she is, as the Psalmist puts it, “as useless as a broken pot.”

Of course most of us don’t get to the extreme of needing psychological help for depression. Yet most of us also are troubled by sloth. As a specifically spiritual problem, sloth means not wanting to make the effort to live as God asks us to live. It means, at its nadir, not caring about God. Psalm 42 is another good example of this. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” The psalmist recognizes that his soul is heavy. In modern language, he might say something like, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get a grip on my life? Why am I feeling this way?” He also understands that the root of his problem is that he feels separated from God.

And that, you see, is why Christians regard sloth as a sin.

Godly indifference

To be slothful, unengaged in life, is to be unmindful of God. It is to be indifferent to God. Christianity teaches that God has given each one of us a vocation, a calling. We have a purpose in life. When we become so turned in on ourselves that we can no longer fulfill or even recognize that purpose, then we have become alienated from God and from others, and indeed, from ourselves.

“I passed by the field of the one who was lazy [again, that word really is “slothful”], by the vineyard of a stupid person,” says the writer of Proverbs, “and see, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down.”

He’s not really talking about horticultural matters here, but things of the spirit. The person who ignores God, who refuses to live in relationship with God, quickly finds his spirit overgrown with thorns. It doesn’t take long for that to happen: “a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber.”

Sluggish hope

The writer to the Hebrews strikes the same theme, but less obliquely. “We want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish” — again the word is really “slothful.” The Christian life is one of diligence; when we will not work at it, we quickly stop growing in faith and hope.

Frederick Beuchner describes the slothful man as one who “goes through the motions, who flies on automatic pilot. Like a man with a bad head cold, he has mostly lost his sense of taste and smell. He knows something’s wrong with him, but not wrong enough to do anything about it. Other people come and go, but through glazed eyes he hardly notices them. He is letting things run their course. He is getting through his life.”

That’s how life feels to me, sometimes, especially my spiritual life. Just getting through. No sense of taste and smell. But I know it’s not what Jesus wants for me, Jesus who says, I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly. Abundant life! That’s the promise, the desire. Just getting through, going through life on spiritual autopilot, useless as a broken pot — well, it’s called sloth. It’s one of the deadliest of sins.

— by Richard O. Johnson, associate editor

Copyright 2006 ALPB All rights reserved.

« Last Edit: November 24, 2006, 12:47:09 AM by Richard Johnson »
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS