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Anger. Of course it is a deadly sin. News stories about road rage and disgruntled workers shooting former coworkers remind us of the deep anger which permeates society. Envy has destroyed many relationships and on a national level can lead to war. Surely it is a deadly sin. But Sloth? Really? Are our neighbors sinning because they enjoy extra time in the Jacuzzi? Are our children sinning when they procrastinate? Am I sinning by mindlessly decompressing in front of my iPad? Is sloth that bad?
In fact, as a type A personality, I envy (oops, a deadly sin). people who can relax and not worry Maybe the productive people in our society could use a dose of sloth in order to chill out. Few educated, productive individuals see sloth as a personal problem affecting them, and calling it a sin? Forget about it. No one asks a pastor, “I need help. Can you recommend a good book on sloth?”
In our society we see sloth applying to a class of people: the chronically unemployed, the stereotyped deadbeat welfare recipient, the mythical people we hear about who are on disability when they could work. But those of us who work, those of us with calendars filled with obligations – well, there is no way that sloth is an issue in our lives, and it is certainly not a sin we commit.
Not so fast. A problem in our understanding of sloth is one of translation. What we call sloth was called acedia (in Latin) and connoted much more than laziness. A full recipe for acedia includes 1/2 a cup of laziness, but also contains an equal part of apathy. A-pathos – without emotion – it means we don’t care. Thus, when we mix apathy with laziness, it means we don’t care that we don’t care. The acedia problem becomes more difficult to root out. An individual suffering from acedia finds herself in an unfulfilling job in a job, but doesn’t care enough to look for another. A married couple with acedia finds their relationship barren, but continues to go through the motions because change is too much effort.
But apathy and laziness are only part of the complete recipe. We must also add a stick of boredom and stir thoroughly. Here is James Gleick’s portrayal of boredom:
You are bored doing nothing, so you go for a drive. You are bored, just driving, so you turn on the radio. You are bored just driving and listening to the radio, so you make a call on the cellular phone. You realize that you are now driving, listening to the radio, and talking on the phone, and you are still bored. Then you reflect that it would be nice if you had time, occasionally, just to do nothing. Perhaps you have a kind of sense organ that can adjust to the slowness, after being blinded by the speed. The void is not so dark after all. With the phone not ringing, the television switched off, the computer rebooting, the newspaper out of reach, even the window shade down, you are alone with yourself. The neurons don’t stop firing. Your thoughts come through like distant radio signals finding a hole in the static. (James Gleick, in Faster, p. 268)
Now for the final ingredient in the mixing bowl of acedia: two cups of distraction. At this time of year, our primary distraction is football. We pretend it matters so much because it really matters so little. But it does distract us from real life, meaningful relationships, or involvement in causes that could make a difference. Did you know the word “sport” comes from the Latin disport, which means to distract? The latest mass shooting pales in importance next to Tom Brady’s availability for a fantasy football league. God bless you, Tom Brady. Thanks to deflategate, I don’t have to think about those victims. Or my soul. But sports is only one distraction.
Even our crammed schedules are distractions: 5:00 am – Crossfit; 7:30 am – take kids to school; 7:45 am -work, where I multitask all day; 4:30 pm – take kids to French and fencing lessons, while on a conference call in the car; 5:00 pm – gourmet cooking class; 6:30 pm – drive through Chik-fil-a while on the way to scouts….. And so it goes.
The distracted life is a wasted life and not only do we not care, but we are glad. Secretly, we love our busy-ness because it distracts us from the need to look for God working in the world or to think about how we might invest in the work of the Kingdom.
In the end we have the perfect recipe for purposeless, unfulfilling, unredeeming “life.” We waste our lives on things that don’t matter. We ignore the greater calling of life, lest it demand something of us. Yet, we are bored with it all and not care. As ancient Christians pointed out: we despair of it, but we don’t care enough to repent of it.
Such a life is acedia and such a life is sin, precisely because of its waste and because it is self centered and ignores God. Sloth is not just a sin of an imagined lazy member of of the welfare class; rather it is the sin of all who waste their lives on loves that are too small and causes that are not worthy of our devotion, but serve to protect us from having to respond to the impulse of the Spirit to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and with all our might. The fact we don’t care enough to do anything about it is just a further indictment that the sins ours.
Here are a few quotes that related to acedia:
The word “boredom” does not exist in any ancient language. It first appears in the 17th century. No one knows its origin.
Peter Kreft in Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 187
The Church name the sixth Deadly Sin as Sloth. It is the sin which believes nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.
Dorothy Sayers in Creed or Chaos?, p. 108
The religion that costs nothing, that demands no hard sacrifices of other things, that does not lift the life out of low-level motives, is worth little and makes little difference to the life. The type of religion on the other hand, which costs the all, which makes the cross the central fact that dominates the life as its one driving power, becomes an incalculable force and turns many to salvation.
Rufus Jones in The World Within, p. 43
From The Seven Deadly Sins, Wilson Angus, editor:
The malice of sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty, but in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair. p. 58.
Fiction and non-fiction alike are full of characters who fail to do what they should because of the effort involved. p. 19
Sloth is the background radiation of the day. It is the easy listening station of the culture. It is everywhere and no longer noticed. p. 20