A Warning About Sloth in a Story from the Old Testament

The Israelites in the Desert, Jean-Léon Gérôme

This week in daily Mass we are presented with a vivid portrait of the sin of sloth and its effects:

A critical moment has arrived for the people of Israel. Having seen the Egyptian army defeated at the Red Sea, they have now crossed the desert in a short period of time, perhaps a matter of months. It is now time to enter the Promised Land and savor its “milk and honey.” This is the Land that God had promised them through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In effect, God says, “It is yours. Go and enter it.”

The LORD said to Moses [in the desert of Paran],
“Send men to reconnoiter the land of Canaan,
which I am giving the children of Israel.
You shall send one man from each ancestral tribe,
all of them princes.”

In response, Moses sends out a party of chosen men to reconnoiter the land. Upon their return, they verify the goodness of the land:

After reconnoitering the land for forty days they returned,
met Moses and Aaron and the whole congregation of the children of Israel
in the desert of Paran at Kadesh,
made a report to them all,
and showed the fruit of the country
to the whole congregation.
They told Moses: “We went into the land to which you sent us.
It does indeed flow with milk and honey, and here is its fruit.”

But then they spread among the people a discouraging report:

However, the people who are living in the land are fierce,
and the towns are fortified and very strong!
Besides, we saw descendants of the Anakim there ….

We cannot attack these people; they are too strong for us.”
Thus they spread discouraging reports among the children of Israel
about the land they had scouted, saying,
“The land that we explored is a country that consumes its inhabitants.
And all the people we saw there are huge, veritable giants
(the Anakim were a race of giants);
we felt like mere grasshoppers, and so we must have seemed to them.”

At this, the whole community broke out with loud cries,
and even in the night the people wailed

Caleb, however, summoned the people to faith:

Caleb, however, to quiet the people toward Moses, said,
“We ought to go up and seize the land, for we can certainly do so.”

Note therefore the fear and subsequent sloth among the people. There is no doubt that entering the Promised Land will require effort and sacrifice. There will be obstacles to overcome, but God has already delivered them in a wondrous and miraculous way. He had parted the Red Sea, fed them with bread from Heaven, and supplied water in the desert from its very rocks. Surely the favors of the Lord are not exhausted; His arm is not shortened nor His strength spent!

How quickly they have forgotten the deeds of the Lord! They will not trust Him to deliver them again. This is no rash presumption that they can take the Land; it is based on a promise and a clear directive of the Lord.  As in the Exodus and crossing of the Red Sea and the desert, it will involve effort and trust, but the outcome is promised and they have already seen a foretaste of the fruits of the Land.

Never mind any of this; the people wail. It is too hard, too much effort. They fear the sacrifices, even the war, necessary to make the entrance. They (still) do not trust God to help them with the necessary graces.

Sloth is an oppressive sorrow or an aversion to the good things that God is offering. It is usually rooted in the perception that inheriting these good things involves too much effort or sacrifice. Sometimes we also perceive that it might involve changes we are not willing to make, such as giving up our favorite sins or attachments. In sloth, all this seems oppressive and sorrowful to us.

This story from the Book of Numbers is an image for our spiritual life. God parted the waters for us in our baptism and brought us out of slavery to freedom. Although we are in the desert of this world, He has loosed us from the grip of Satan and now feeds us with His word, the Eucharist, and many graces. The Promised Land of Heaven is just ahead!

Despite the promise of God and the help of His grace, many still consider the effort and sacrifice necessary to inherit Heaven to be too much. Turning away from favorite sins and attachments and engaging in spiritual warfare is all just too much. To many, forsaking apparent goods in order to attain true and lasting goods seems a poor trade-off. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Better the lesser pleasures I have now than the greater ones I can have later, after sacrifice and effort. The trinkets of this world come to be preferred to the treasures of Heaven.

This is sloth: sorrow or aversion to the good things that God is offering.

The sad result of sloth is that we fail to inherit or enjoy the true and lasting good that God is offering us. God will not make us take what He offers. He will not force us to take the journey, to undertake the effort or spiritual battle necessary to attain to the good things of Heaven. We seem perfectly willing to make many sacrifices in order to get worldly trinkets, but if we are unwilling to make sacrifices for heavenly glories, God will not force us to do so. If we don’t want what God is offering, we don’t have to take it.

God will encourage us through the “Calebs” of our time. He will continue to inspire preachers and teachers who will summon us to faith, trust, and zeal so that we both desire Heaven and become willing to engage in battle for it.

Finally, here is the sad ending of the passage from Numbers:

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron:
“How long will this wicked assembly grumble against me?
I have heard the grumblings of the children of Israel against me.
Tell them: By my life, says the LORD,
I will do to you just what I have heard you say.
Here in the desert shall your dead bodies fall.
Forty days you spent in scouting the land;
forty years shall you suffer for your crimes:
one year for each day.
Thus you will realize what it means to oppose me.
I, the LORD, have sworn to do this
to all this wicked assembly that conspired against me:
here in the desert they shall die to the last man.”

Indeed, that sinful and slothful generation would never see the Promised Land. They don’t want it (at least not at the cost prescribed), and so it will not be forced upon them. If they want the desert they can have the it—until it claims their dead bodies. For the Nation of Israel, this would be a kind of forty-year purgation. For the sinful and slothful individuals, there would be no Promised Land. That generation would die inheriting what they wanted: the desert.

So, too, for us. Heaven is promised to us but it is not required. We have a decision to make: Will we engage in the spiritual battle with the help of God’s grace, receiving the Promised Land of Heaven, or not? The Day of Judgment is not about what God wants (He wants to save us); it is about what we want. The judgment to be made is this: did you and do you want the Kingdom God is offering, with all it values and its citizens or not?

Pray for zeal and joy, two virtues that are necessary in order to combat sloth. Pray to desire what God wants to give!

5 Replies to “A Warning About Sloth in a Story from the Old Testament”

  1. Jesus made atonement for the four great sins of Israel: (1) by His forty-day fast He repaired the sin of Israel when they failed to enter Canaan when called a first time: (2) the sin of trying to live by bread alone (Deuteronomy 6); (2) putting God to the test at Massah; and (3) the sin of the golden calf.

  2. We may think Israel dumb for forgetting God’s wonders and becoming slothful, yet we are slothful in God’s Omnipresence and forget the Eucharist.

    Likewise, we may think Israel evil for wanting to conquer Canaan, yet we are evil for not repenting – unlike the Canaanites who did repent.

  3. Do you have suggestions for spiritual reading, or practical tips, for overcoming acedia?

    1. If acedia is Sloth or any of the vices, then Sinners Guide by Ven. Louis of Granada is a good resource

Comments are closed.