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What is Sloth? It is More Subtle and Devilish Than Mere Laziness

March 16, 2015 36 Comments

Bored, overweight man sits on the sofaOne 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. Let’s take a moment and consider some aspects of the cardinal sin we call 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 sorrow for spiritual good. By it, we shun spiritual good as too toilsome (cf ST II-II 35,2).

Some modern commentators speak of sloth as a “don’t care” feeling. Some even say it is 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 too laborious or as requiring setting aside currently enjoyed or sinful pleasures. By sloth, many experience sorrow rather than joy or zeal in following God and receiving a transformed human life. 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, focusing on the “trouble” or effort attached to walking in the Christian way, rather than understanding grace 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 sloth may sometimes look like boredom and a casual laziness toward attaining spiritual good, it can also be manifested by a frantic “busyness” with worldly things so as to avoid spiritual questions or living a reflective life.

Consider, for example, a man who is a workaholic. Now suppose 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, one whom the Lord has summoned to a new life, to the great discovery of God, and to the deepest meaning 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: moral questions or priorities, whether he is spending enough time with his wife and children, whether his life is focused on the things that matter most. No, it’s 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’s “no time” for Mass or for praying with his wife and children. There’s 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 to the gift that the Lord offers him: to come out into the deeper waters and lower his net for a catch. In this case, his sorrow for spiritual good is manifested in 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 raising uncomfortable things he would rather not think about. He does not hate God or the faith, but it is all just too much.

That said, sloth does often manifest itself as a kind of lethargy, a boredom that can’t seem to muster any interest, energy, joy, or enthusiasm for spiritual gifts. Such people may be enthusiastic about many things, but God and the faith are not among them.

Boredom seems to have increased in modern times and this fuels sloth. In effect, we are hyperstimulated in the modern world. The frantic pace, the endless interruptions, the abundance of entertainment, fast-paced movies, and video games all overstimulate us. From the time we awaken until we fall into bed at the end of the day, 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 hyperstimulation 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 changing quickly enough, 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 the pondering of its message, the unfolding of spiritual meaning through reflection, the slower joys of normal human conversation in communal prayer and fellowship … none of these appeal to the many who are overstimulated and used to a breakneck pace. Sunday, once the highlight of the week for many (due to the beauty of the liturgy, the music, the hearing of the sermon, the joy of fellowship, and the quiet of Holy Communion), is now considered boring and about as appealing as going to the dentist, a necessary evil at best.  Thus, sloth is fueled by the boredom our culture feels at anything going less than 90 miles and hour.

Peter Kreeft says,

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: we do not pray, attend Mass, go to confession, or read Scripture. We do not grow in our spiritual life and thus we fail to become the man or woman God made us to be. In some sense every sin contains an element of sloth, for when we sin we show a kind of aversion to the perfecting graces that God offers us. Rather than seeing the moral law of God as a great summons to freedom, we reject that call as “too much trouble.”

Socially, too, there are many manifestations of sloth. Two that are common in the modern world are secularism and relativism.

1. Secularism – By secularism, I am referring to a preoccupation with worldly things (rather than the more current meaning of hostility to religious faith). It is amazing how passionate we can get about worldly things. Perhaps it is football, or politics, or the newest electronic device. Perhaps it is our career, or the stock market, or something in the news. Yes, we are passionate people, and even the most reserved of us have strong interests occupying our mind.

And yet many of those who rejoiced at the basketball game that ended so thrillingly, or were passionately engaged at the political rally, or were so excited about the latest twist on their favorite television show, many of these same passionate, joyful people can muster no interest whatsoever in prayer, Mass, or Bible study. And if they do get to Mass they look like they’re in agony until it’s over.

This is secularism and it is a form of sloth. We have time and passion for everything but God. It is a very deep drive. We are mesmerized by many things of the world, but bored and 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 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 such thing as 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 such a thing as truth (and there is), then I should joyfully seek it and base my life on its demands and promises.

Many indulge in relativism because it is an easy way out. If there is no truth then I am not obliged to seek it nor base my life upon it. Frankly, many are averse to and sorrowful toward the truth because they find its demands irksome. This is sloth. 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 avoids the gift, couching his sloth in words such as “open-mindedness” and “tolerance.”

To be sure, there is a place for tolerance. But the true virtue of tolerance is usually misunderstood today and is often 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 dismiss that there is truth to be found cannot rightly call their position “tolerance.” It is in fact indifference and is 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, are the first steps on the road to healing. Sloth is, of course, one of those drives that is so deep that ultimately we must fall to our knees and beg deliverance from the Lord, who alone can heal us.

The gift that the Lord offers us is promised in this 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 kindle a fire of love in our hearts for God and for the gifts He offers.

Because sloth is such a deep drive, we must throw ourselves to 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 caused by the feeling of being overwhelmed at the perfection of our call, we do well to consider two points:

  1. 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 particular gifts and how God expects us to use them. Having done this, we do well to “stay in our lane.”
  2. We must understand that spiritual progress grows in stages and by many steps, not in one giant leap. Hence we need not be so sorrowful or averse to the good things God offers us. As a loving Father, He leads us and forms us most often in gentle ways as one spiritual victory leads to another.

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 that after a heavy post like this it’s time to play the Bach Gigue Fugue. Since sloth is sorrow, Joy is an essential solution. Here is Joy in G Major!

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Comments (36)

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  1. Annette Strachan says:

    Can we ask priests who do not wear a wedding ring, to please consider doing so. Thanks.

    • That might be problematic since it is really only the Bishop who is permitted to do so. So too for the wearing of large crosses by priest, this too pertains to the office of bishop and priests should generally avoid such things.

    • Daniel says:

      They aren’t married, so why would they?

      • Annette Strachan says:

        Part of an article published in today’s New Advent, by Terry Mattingly, http://www.getreligion.org quotes Pope Francis:’ “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.” ‘ might be a help to you. Thanks.

  2. edraCRUZ says:

    Yes, Monsignor, this was a heavy post. It was as though it was pounding my innards to a pulp while I was reading it. Guilty as charge and thanks I really need this post for my deeper contemplation in time for a confession. It was timely for I was searching the CCC on this sin but it was kind of not that deep than what you elaborated. Now, I must work by the help of the HOLY SPIRIT for my remission. Your post gave me the ideas on what things I need to do. GOD Bless you, Monsignor.

  3. John says:

    One of you best reflections Monsignor!

  4. Charles G says:

    If one is lazy at work (i.e., wasting time surfing the net), I guess one should not confess sloth then, since it is not really related to indifference to spiritual things? I suppose it is still theft of a sort, since you are not doing the work your employer is paying you to do, so perhaps we confess it under that category.

  5. Tracey Kelly says:

    yes Father, that WAS heavy. Oh how easy it would be if we could just print these articles and give them to those who need to hear this message. Yet as you state…the indifference is the deadliest side effect of sloth. Padre Pio said “pray, hope and don’t worry” Yet I worry and hope….so I pray:)

    • Patty says:

      LOL. Your comment so resonated with me. And then I saw who wrote it and found it was my close friend, TK!

  6. Alan Rogers says:

    Thanks for the great article.
    Obviously, Diane Bish does not suffer from sloth! One of the greatest organ pieces of all time, and one of the world’s greatest organists. Thanks!!!!

  7. Frank says:

    Unlike Diane B but this soUbded like to
    Much noise sorry Bach I get enough noise every where …. A better joyful music piece would have better better to conclude your article .

  8. Ann says:

    Another great St. Patrick’s Day post Msgr. I found the parsing out of the terms tolerance versus affirmation interesting, as well as the rest of the article. I always learn something when I read here, thank you for this blog. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

  9. Richard Connell says:

    I’d say that this is the take away from this post:

    “The gift that the Lord offers us is promised in this 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 kindle a fire of love in our hearts for God and for the gifts He offers.”

  10. Anderson Thomas says:

    Clear and concise. A message well explained.

  11. Aunt Raven says:

    There are several books on Sloth entitled “The Noonday Devil” but the one I recommend is by Fr Bernard Basset, SJ. Its subtitle is, tellingly, “spiritual support in middle age” I first discovered it in my early 20’s, but was already being tempted by the “tyranny of relativism” though it did not yet have that name. It is a good set of strategies for conquering sloth, more accurately called “acedia” One major problem you do not address in this excellent posting is the relationship and the difference between accedia and clinical depression, which is not uncommon among older christians of a certain temperament. There are some mental and emotional states and attitudes in ourselves which we can help, and some we can’t, and it is VITAL to learn the difference.
    I am now near 70 and the book still has appeal to rouse my spiritual energy, especially when I don’t “feel like it.” I have re-read my copy of Fr Basset’s “The Noonday Devil” until it fell to tatters; it now consists more of tape than paper and last year I broke down and searched out another second-hand copy in better condition. Ii highly recommend it, but make sure that you get that title by the right author.

  12. Deb says:

    I am currently reading The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of our Times. This book was just published in February and it is looking at acedia as weariness, sadness and lack of purposefulness. It is a link to depression, burn-out and midlife crisis. This book starts with the writings on it by the early desert fathers.

    I grabbed it because I seem to suffer from a lot of that and yet I am on fire for the Lord. The only thing that seems to give me joy is the Lord, the Sacraments, my spiritual friendships. I find nothing but peace and joy when I am at Church or religious functions or in prayer, it is the rest of life that wearies and drains me. Hence, I need daily Mass and the grace the Lord pours out on me there to take me through my days.

    So, I am seeing acedia as the opposite of what you have written. I don’t have a spiritual boredom, I have a boredom with the world and all that surrounds me that is NOT of the Lord.
    Well, I am lazy too, I suppose that doesn’t help. 🙂

    • Laney says:

      Deb…you just described me perfectly! Is that Acedia? And what do your confessors recommend? Any advice? Doing my daily tasks and duties drains me and takes such effort, yet I am energized and invigorated by anything spiritual…adoration, prayer meetings, spiritual reading, serving the church, etc. But my vocation leaves little room for that.

      • Cassandra says:

        It is unwise, even dangerous, to ask (and be told) or follow the advice given for someone else by their confessor. Advice is directed toward the individual and their state in life.

        Go find a good confessor and follow the advice given to YOU.

  13. Henry Dee says:

    The article clarified A lot for me. I’m 87 and I pray A lot but at my age I slouch often in my chair because I have no ambition at that moment. I’m often tired and daydream while lying on my bed. I often wonder if I’m just lazy
    or slothful. This is A problem for me and I can’t just get over it. I don’t think confessors want to bother with the problems of the elderly so I don’t mention these things to them. Perhaps someone out there can offer some advice for me to follow. Because the elderly have little energy we have little ambition. That’s why I slouch often.
    I do attend daily mass and say A daily rosary and A few other prayers but in between do practically do nothing.
    Any suggestions out there?

    • Erin Manning says:

      Mr. Dee, this is just the opinion of an unqualified laywoman, but if you are 87 and you pray a lot I don’t think you need to worry if you lack the physical energy to do much more. I’m sure Msgr. Pope would agree that if a person is physically unable to do certain things he or she is not being slothful by not doing them!

      St. Clare of Assisi is the patron saint of TV because when she was too ill to go to Mass she would “see” Mass on the wall of her convent cell. Perhaps when you are feeling a lack of energy you could watch a good religious program on EWTN or on DVD, or even watch a televised Mass and pray along.

    • Trudy says:

      i understand competely. i seem to have lost all my “steam”, do not know if this is due to age or just laziness! just have to keep praying and trusting in our God!

  14. Ryan says:

    God can more easily cool our wrath than fire our frozenness, though he can do both.

    How can anything be either easy or difficult for the Omnipotent One? He either wills something, or He doesn’t.

  15. Miss Francigirl says:

    What an imformative and easily understood lesson! Please consider doing the same for all the deadly sins. Thank you.

  16. Donna says:

    Excellent post for reflection during Lent!

    For Henry Dee: I think it’s wonderful that you attend daily Mass and say a daily rosary. Unfortunately, my mother who is your same age, cannot do either of these things in her condition. However, I know that her sufferings are not in vain. Please consider offering in prayer your lack of energy/ ambition for others, perhaps even my mom. Intercessory prayer is powerful, and unites us spiritually. I will pray for you too.

    P.S. Don’t give up on confessors. There are many good ones who are concerned with the spiritual well-being of people of all ages. God Bless.

  17. Anna VanSant says:

    What you are describing as sloth sounds a lot like anxiety and depression to me.

  18. Cassandra says:

    Father!

    How about a post about the closely related vice of effeminacy (ST II-II 138,1) so rampant today?

    Whereas with Sloth the sorrow is directed at the difficulty and suffering of a task, with Effeminacy the sorrow is directed at the loss of pleasure in undertaking a task.

    E.g., tearing oneself away from the pleasure of surfing the net and reading *about* prayer, rather than attending to the task of *actually* praying.

    And with that, I’m off to my neglected prayers.

  19. ConvertfromIdaho says:

    Along with edraCRUZ, you opened my eyes and heart, the more I read your post Monsignor. It was one of the best blogs you’ve ever written to date. This is the first time, since converting to the Roman Catholic Church 47 years ago that I’ve ever read about what sloth actually entailed in such detail, and I thank you for making it something so easily and simply understood!

    Hopefully, after studying your article more fully, I can stop asking “why?” to the many questions I have about simply being Catholic. Thanks again, Father. God Bless you.

  20. Ed Hamilton says:

    Father, what is the solution to sloth? I think mid-life crisis is what I’m in and it sounds like sloth. Do you have an article about that? Its a terrible problem and sounds like a lot of people need help with it!

    • Alphonsus Jr. says:

      There’s what appears to be a good new book about this. It’s entitled The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times, by Dom Jean-Charles Nault.

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