My wife and I got married YOUNG. Now in our early thirties, we've been together for a decade and are getting ready to have our fourth daughter. (GULP) We survived the first half of our marriage simply because we were pretty nice, laid back people that didn't fight much. I think we got lucky in that regards.
That said, a big part of us not fighting was due to the fact that I was a master at avoiding conflict. Usually, if the scrape was a minor one, one of us would just give in to the other's preferences. But when it got a little more serious, I would just shut down. Stop reacting. Stonewall her. Sometimes I'd literally fall asleep mid-argument. That never went well. Don't do that.
From an early age, I had mastered the deadly sin of sloth. Sloth is the sin of not showing up for your own life. While many might associate it with laziness, it's not really that. A person can be busy and still be slothful. Sloth is the avoidance of pain. The problem is that all good things in life are painful from time to time. The Stoic thinker Musonius Rufus said it like this:
"Because we humans acquire all good things by pain, the person who is himself unwilling to endure pain all but condemns himself to being worthy of nothing good.”
This is why sloth is lethal. In our avoidance of pain, we avoid our lives altogether. Mark Twain said it like this, "Most men die at 27, we just bury them at 72." Sloth prevents growth in all other areas of life. Change takes hard work and is often painful. The slothful are not interested. So if a person struggles with lust but also struggles with apathy, the lust will never get challenged until the apathy is overcome.
The Hebrew word for sloth paints the picture of a bow that is unstrung or without an arrow. In other words, something not fulfilling its purpose. A solider avoiding war. A person not doing what needs to be done. What’s within their power to do. What God created them to do.
The early church fathers used the word acedia to describe sloth. Acedia means to not care. We are probably more familiar with the term apathy, which means to have no passion. A person with sloth/acedia/apathy is disengaging and disconnecting, refusing to put skin in the game. Refusing to try. A slothful person is haunted by the nagging question, “Why bother?”
Sloth is a mask for fear. Fear of failure, or making a mistake, of succeeding, of not being enough. Fear of what will have to change if you start paying attention. Fear can paralyze or overwhelm us into inaction. What we fail to realize is that if we fail to pay attention and fail to act courageously, the thing that we are afraid of will most certainly come to pass.
Sloth is not the same as laziness. In fact, in our day and age of being ultra-connected and having infinite, instant distractions on hand, sloth more often shows up as busyness. We fill our lives up with the wrong things and never get around to the things essential to our life.
Think of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus at their house. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus while Martha busied herself in the kitchen. Flustered that Mary wasn’t carrying her own weight, Martha approached Jesus and complained that she was left alone to do the work. Jesus cut right to the heart of it-
“Martha, it is clear that you are troubled and anxious about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen that.” (Luke 10:41-42)
This is a great summary of sloth and busyness. We fill our lives with many things at the expense of the necessary thing.
Slothful people are great at making excuses for why they haven’t gotten around to the important things in their lives. Consider Martha, the Son of God was sitting in her living room, ten feet from her. When asked why she wasn’t front row, soaking it all in, she could give the convenient excuse, “Someone had to prepare the food! Someone had to do the dishes!” When you have an opportunity to get that close to Jesus, you order pizza.
What was Martha avoiding or hiding from?
Sloth can be avoidance of two things- Avoiding the things in your life that bring health and joy (rest, exercise, work/vocation, spiritual disciplines, relationships, etc.) or avoiding dealing with the things that are currently bringing you harm (unhealthy relationships, being over-worked, addictions, past wounds, physical health issues.) In either scenario- avoidance is costing you your life.
So if sloth is about avoidance and disconnection, it goes to follow that the opposite of sloth is intentionally engaging and connecting. The corresponding virtue to the vice of sloth is diligence. Diligence simply means “to pay close attention to.” To notice. Rather than sleep-walking through life, to be fully alert, accountable, and responsible for your life.
Perhaps ironically, one key to overcoming sloth is to slow down. Notice what is going on in your life. Ask yourself- what conversation am I avoiding? What bad habit do I keep running back to and failing to overcome? Where am I feeling overwhelmed or inadequate? Why?
When feeling overwhelmed in an area of life, seek out advice from those that seem to have a healthier approach to that area. Break it down into bite sized chunks. Pay attention to the little details.
Physical activity is a good remedy for sloth. Get up and get moving. Do something. The early church father Cassian viewed manual labor as a cure for sloth. Evagrius noted that our physical inactivity is often a reflection of our inner condition.
We become slothful because we want to avoid the pain of changing or failure. We want to avoid the tension of life. But as most weight-lifters know, time under tension is where real growth takes place. Don’t avoid tension, pain, or risk.
Understand the true nature of grace. Many of us implode and shut down by the daunting impossible ask of perfection. We don’t even try because failure is certainty. This is a misunderstanding of grace. Dallas Willard once wrote,
“Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.”
Realize that you are needed. You. Are. Needed. God created you in His image with tremendous potential and limited time. The world needs you to show up to your life. Edmund Burke wrote, “All that’s necessary for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing.” James said it centuries earlier in another way. “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:17) Unlike other sins that we commit, sloth is a sin of omission.
Stop being a slave to the urgent at the expense of the essential.