One of the more misunderstood of the Cardinal Sins is sloth. This is because most see it merely as laziness. But there is more to sloth than that. Lets take a moment and consider some aspects of the Cardinal sin we call in English, Sloth.
The Greek word we translate as sloth is ἀκηδία akedia (a = absence + kedos = care), meaning indifference or negligence. St Thomas speaks of sloth as sloth is sorrow for spiritual good. By it we it shun spiritual good, as toilsome (cf ST II-II 35,2).
Some modern commentators speak of sloth as a don’t-care feeling, some even as a kind of falling out of love with God and the things of God (cf Rev 2:4). On account of sloth, the idea of right living, and the gift of a transformed humanity inspires, not joy, but aversion or even disgust, because it is seen as laborious, or as involving the setting aside currently enjoyed or sinful pleasures. By sloth many experience sorrow, not joy or zeal, in following God and receiving a transformed human life. Rather they are distressed at the prospect of what might have to occur should they embrace the faith more deeply.
Sloth also tends to dismiss the power of grace since it focuses on the “trouble” or effort attached to walking in the Christian way, rather than to understand it as a work of God.
As said above, many people today equate sloth with laziness. But sloth is not merely laziness, it is more properly understood as sorrow or indifference. While it is true, sloth may sometimes look like boredom and and a casual laziness toward attaining spiritual good, it is also true that sloth can also be manifested by a frantic busyness about worldly things, so as to avoid spiritual questions or live a reflective life.
Consider, for example a man who is a workaholic. Now suppose too that this man has a wife and children. A man in this position has some very significant gifts and duties beyond his career. He is a husband, a father, and the spiritual leader of his home. He is also a disciple, whom the Lord has summoned to new life, to the great discovery of God, and the deepest meanings and realities of his life. He also has the awesome dignity to announce these truths to his wife and children.
But all of the duties and glories of his vocation overwhelm and even scare him. It all seems so irksome and the task too open-ended. Frankly, he doesn’t want to reflect too much, because it might summon him to ponder things he would like to avoid considering, such as moral questions, or priorities, or whether he is really spending enough time with his wife and children, or whether his life is really focused on things that matter most. No, its all just too irksome, too ridden with uncertainty to enter more deeply into the spiritual life. Work is easier, and at work they call him “sir” and do what he says.
So, he buries himself in his work. And this helps him to avoid prayer, and reflection. Of course there is “no time” for mass or for praying with his wife and children. There is no time for scripture, retreats and the like.
This man is not lazy, but he is slothful. In the end his workaholism is sloth, for it is sorrow and aversion at the gift that the Lord offers him to come out into the deeper waters and lower his net for a catch. His sorrow for spiritual goods, in this case, is manifest by a kind of avoidance rooted in fear. By sloth he is not joyful at the invitation of the Lord or the Church. Instead he is sorrowful and averse to what he sees as toilsome, and possibly as raising uncomfortable things he would rather not look at. He does not hate God or the faith, but it is all just too much.
That said, sloth does often manifest as a kind of lethargy, and kind of boredom that can’t muster any interest, energy, joy or enthusiasm for spiritual gifts. Such people may be enthusiastic about any number of things, but God and the faith are not among them.
To a great extent boredom is elevated in modern times and this fuels sloth. In effect we are hyper-stimulated in the modern world. Our frantic pace, endless interruptions, and the rich abundance of entertainment, fast-paced movies, video games, all are a feast for the eyes but they hyper-stimulate. From the time we awaken to our return to sleep there is almost never a moment of silence, or a time when we are not being bombarded by images, often flickering and quickly changing.
This hyper-stimulation means that when we come upon things like quiet prayer or adoration, or are asked to listen for an extended period, or when the imagery is not fast changing we are easily bored.
And boredom feeds right into sloth. The “still, small voice of God,” the quiet of prayer, the simple reading of Scripture and pondering its message, the unfolding of spiritual meaning through reflection, the slower joys of normal human conversation in communal prayer and fellowship…none of this appeals to many who are hyper-stimulated, and used to a breakneck pace. Sunday, once the highlight of the week for many (due to the music, the beauty of the liturgy, the hearing of the sermon, the joy of fellowship and the quiet of Holy Communion), is now considered by many as boring and about as appealing as getting a flu shot; a necessary evil at best. Thus, sloth is fueled by the boredom our culture feels at anything not going 90 miles and hour.
Peter Kreeft says that
Sloth is a cold sin, not a hot one. But that makes it even deadlier. [For] rebellion against God is closer to him than indifference….God can more easily cool our wrath than fire our frozenness, though he can do both. Sloth is a sin of omission not commission. That too makes it deadlier, for a similar reason. To commit evil is at least to be playing the game… Sloth simply does not play God’s game, either with him or against him….It sits on the sidelines bored….Better to be hot or cold than lukewarm [Back to Virtue, P. 154].
Sloth of course gives rise to many sins whereby we do not pray, attend mass, go to confession, or read Scripture, we do not grow in our spiritual life and whereby we fail to become the man or woman God has made us to be. In some sense every sin contains an element of sloth for when we sin we indicate a kind of aversion to the perfecting graces God offers us. Rather than see the moral law of God as a great summons to freedom, we sorrowfully reject that call as too much trouble.
Socially too there are many manifestations of sloth. But just to mention two that are common in the modern world.
1. Secularism - By secularism, here is meant not the more recent hostility to religious faith, but more the older meaning of the word wherein one’s preoccupation is essentially a worldly one. It is amazing how passionate and interested we can get about worldly things. Perhaps it is a football game, or it is politics, or some new electronic device that has just come out. Perhaps it is our careers or our, or the stock market, or something in the news. Yes, we are passionate people and even the most reserved have strong interests that occupy their mind and vividly capture their interest.
And yet, many of those who rejoiced at the basketball game that ended so thrillingly, or were passionately engaged at the political rally, or excited about the latest twist on their favorite television shoe, many of these same passionate, joyful people can muster no interest in prayer, Mass, or Bible study. And if they do get to Mass they look in agony until it is over.
This is secularism and a form of sloth. We have time and passion for everything else, but not for God. It is a very deep drive. We are mesmerized by many things of the world, but bored, sorrowful and thus slothful over the things of the spiritual life. Where is the joy? Where is the zeal? Where is the hunger for completion in God?
This is sloth. It is not merely depression or boredom, it is sloth, it is a sorrow toward the spiritual gifts of God. It is a deep drive of the flesh, and it has to go. But only God and our openness to his grace can ultimately save us and bring us more alive from this death directed drive.
2. Relativism – Many today indulge a notion that there is no absolute or unchanging truth to which we are summoned and must ultimately conform. This is relativism. And many who practice it actually congratulate themselves for their “tolerance” and open-mindedness. They think of their relativism as a virtue. But, more often than not, relativism is simply sloth masquerading as tolerance. The fact is, if there is a truth, (and there is), then I should joyfully seek it, and base my life on its demands and promises.
But many indulge the notion of relativism, for it is an easy way out. If there is no truth then I am not obliged to seek it, and base my life on it. Frankly many are averse to and sorrowful toward the truth for they find its demands irksome. This is sloth, for their sorrow is directed toward a very precious spiritual gift of God, the gift of truth. Instead of joyfully seeking the truth, the relativist is sorrowful and avoidant of the gift though they couch their sloth in other words such as “broad-mindedness” and “tolerance.”
To be sure there is a place for tolerance. But the true virtue of tolerance is usually misunderstood today and equated with approval. The proper understanding of tolerance is the conditional acceptance of or non-interference with beliefs, actions or practices that one considers to be wrong but still “tolerable,” such that they should not be prohibited or unreasonably constrained. The key point that is often lost today is that the tolerated beliefs or practices are considered to be objectionable, wrong or bad. If this objection component is missing, we are not speaking any longer of “toleration” but of “indifference” or “affirmation.”
Hence, relativists who slothfully dismiss that there is truth to be found cannot rightly call their position “tolerance.” It is, in fact mere indifference, and a form of sloth.
For all of our modern claims to be tolerant and open-minded, the more usual fact is that we are just plain lazy and slothful when it comes to seeking the truth. We (collectively speaking) do not love the truth but shun it, sorrowfully regarding its possible claims on us. Jesus said rightly, This is the judgement: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God (Jn 3:19-21).
A few reflections then, on Sloth.
Coming to recognize sloth for what it is, calling it by name and learning its moves is the first step on the road to healing. Sloth is, of course, one of those drives that is so deep that we must ultimately fall to our knees and beg deliverance form the Lord who alone can heal us.
The gift that the Lord offers us is promised in the beatitude: Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6).
We must also ask for and seek the fruits of the Holy Spirit, especially love, joy, and peace. These gifts enkindle a fire of love in our hearts for God and for the gifts he offers.
Since sloth is a very deep drive, we must cast ourselves on the care of God with great humility, recognizing our poverty and seeking his miraculous grace to give us grateful, loving and passionate hearts.
Finally, since sloth can also be generated by the feeling of being overwhelmed at the perfection of our call, we do well to consider two points:
- We ought to meditate carefully on what our specific call is. Since we cannot do and be everything we need to come to an understanding of our own gifts and how God expects us to reasonably use them. Having done this we do well to stay in our lane.
- It is also true that we must understand that spiritual progress grows in stages and by many steps, not by one giant leap. Hence we not not be so sorrowful or adverse to the good things God offers, for, as a loving Father he leads us and forms us most often in gentle ways as one spiritual victory leads to others.
Pray for zeal, joy, hope, confidence and a hunger for holy things. The Christian journey is meant to be a thrilling one as we experience how God is utterly transforming us.
I don’t know, something tells me, after a heavy post it’s time to play the Bach Jig Fugue. It’s Joy in G Major!