The Two Slides of Sloth

A sermon I delivered on January 30, 2011 at Bethel Christian Reformed Church.

I opened the sermon with two vignettes:

The first, someone on a couch, refusing to get up to go to church because they had been out partying the previous evening.  He justifies to himself that God really isn’t worried about all that “religious stuff” – he and God are cool, just as long as they stay out of each other’s way.

The second, someone frantically pacing around the couch, listing off the many things they have to do at home, work, church, too busy to sit down and rest.

This morning we are talking about sloth.

But what is sloth?  It’s not a word that we use very often.

The Genesis Club kids are right – sloth is an animal that is known for being very slow moving and for sleeping 18 hour per day.

But this is not the sloth we are talking about today.

This morning we are talking about sloth in terms of what Eric correctly pointed out– sloth is one of the seven deadly sins.

The list of the “Seven Deadly Sins” was not created to rank sins or to create an exhaustive list of all sins.  The point of the “Seven Deadly Sins” is like when a doctor makes a diagnosis.

The doctor makes a diagnosis not to tell you that you are sick – you already know that, otherwise you wouldn’t be at the doctor in the first place.  A diagnosis names your sickness so that the doctor can determine the best treatment.  In other words, the purpose of a diagnosis is to help you get better.  Once the doctor knows what your sickness is, she is able to create a plan to help begin the healing process.

However, if you are like me, it is very difficult to admit when you are sick.  I mean, how many of us actually enjoying going to the doctor, hearing that we are sick, and being told the potentially uncomfortable things we must do to get better – like when a bone is broken, and the doctor tells you she must break it again in order to fix it.  The remedy is like taking a spoonful of Buckley’s – it tastes awful…but what is the rest of the slogan…it works (or so they say).

This is exactly why the list of “Seven Deadly Sins” was created in the Middle Ages.  It is to help us name our spiritual sickness and gives the necessary remedy to help us get better.

Sloth is probably the most overlooked deadly sin, because it is usually defined as laziness.  And laziness, to our minds, isn’t necessarily a bad thing – except for when you want the house painted and your husband would rather watch football.  Even then, laziness is more annoying that deadly (or so we husbands hope).

However, the definition of sloth as laziness is only partly correct.  The “Seven Deadly Sins” are dealing with spiritual sickness – so sloth has less to do with being a couch potato and watching football all day (although, as we will see, this can and does play a role in sloth) and more to do with spiritual laziness.

In our discussion about sloth in youth group, someone had a great definition of sloth – sloth is taking advantage of God’s love.  In other words, sloth is being lazy about love.

So, if the diagnosis of our spiritual sickness is sloth, what are the symptoms?

There are two main symptoms of sloth – apathy and busyness.  And although it may not seem like it, these two symptoms are two sides of the same coin.

Let’s look at the first symptom – apathy.

Spiritual apathy is like being a couch potato with your faith.  I want all the blessings that come with being Jesus’ follower without the hard work it requires.  I don’t really want a relationship with God, I would rather just have the bare minimum of belief.  I mean, I’m willing to call myself a Christian and go to church on Sunday and go through the motions, but as far as I’m concerned, outward appearance is enough – no inner transformation is necessary – it is messy and difficult.  As long as I talk, look, and act like a Christian, that is good enough as far as I or anyone else is concerned.  I’m fine just the way I am – I don’t need to grow or be challenged in my faith.  I am comfortable with where I am, so don’t expect me to get off the faith-couch.

In other words, sloth is a lack of passion.  More specifically, it is the failure to be passionate about the things that God is passionate about.  And what God is passionate about – Jesus summarized it best – God is passionate about our relationship with him and with others.  What happens when you are apathetic about a relationship with a friend, neighbour, family member or spouse?  The relationship will suffer and will continue to do so to the point that the relationship becomes nearly non-existent.  The same is true of our relationship with God – if we do not carefully tend it, it will not grow.  Our faith becomes like an atrophied muscle – weak and withered.  However, when it comes to following Jesus, we cannot be couch-potatoes.  As Peter notes in second letter, God will give us everything we need to follow him, but it is still up to us to get up off of the couch and follow.  But with sloth our apathy causes our muscles to atrophy – we’ve become so weak that we are unable to get off the couch and follow him.

The second side of sloth is busyness.   It is the inability to rest and the failure to “be still and know that I am God”.  It is about being perpetually on the move and always on the go.  The busyness of sloth can take many forms – being too busy with work, family, hobbies, and even church stuff.  Indeed, it is often the church stuff that keeps us too busy to connect with God.  In the words of one pastor – “we become so busy with the things of God that we forget the God of the things”.  We become so restless that we unable to find rest in God.  It is as though our wheels are spinning so fast, that we are going nowhere.  We become caught up in a cycle of doing things simply because we are used to doing them.  As a result, we become like a fibrillating heart – beating so fast that no blood is pumping.  And we all know what happens when the heart stops pumping.

Rob Bell explains this well.  But rather than quoting him, I’ll let him speak for himself.

(You can watch the video, Shells, here)

Like all the “Seven Deadly Sins”, sloth is all about love.

In this case, it is being lazy about love.  Sloth turns us into spiritual coach-potatoes; but it can also tempt us to become so busy that we cannot take pleasure in doing nothing for God.  Whether in terms of apathy or in terms of busyness, in sloth we are avoiding the work of relationships, with each other and with God.  We remove God from the center of our life and replace him with other things – our personal comfort and our busy schedules.  We end up taking our relationship with God for granted – either with the false confidence that I don’t need to change or with the malicious despair that I am not doing enough for God, as if God’s kingdom entirely relied on my activities.  I distract myself with God’s work in order to convince myself that I am being faithful, when in reality I am attempting to avoid the hard work of discipleship.

But God calls us to be still and know that he is God.

When I give into apathy, I have no problem being still.  However, by failing to connect with God in the stillness, the stillness quickly becomes complacency.

When I give into busyness, I have no problem knowing God because to my mind he is the reason for why I do what I do.  However, in my busyness, I fail to be still, to rest and to fully trust God.

So what is the remedy for sloth?

The remedy for sloth is not easy or painless.  It requires doing the difficult work of being brutally honest with myself, of looking at my life and seeing where apathy and busyness prevent me from truly and deeply connecting with God.  On the journey of faith, it means turning off the cruise control, getting off the smooth highway, getting out of the driver’s seat, and, in the words of one song, letting Jesus take the wheel, even if it means going off-road into the wilderness.

The slothful person is always looking for the easy way – the way that avoids pain, discomfort, and conflict.  The way that is about easy belief, complacency and outward appearances.

And yet, Jesus assures us that following him is a difficult path, indeed, he always takes the road less travelled.  It is only when we are willing to follow him into the unknown, unsafe, unpredictable, uncomfortable wilderness that we learn what it means to trust God and to be in full relationship with him.

Faith is a journey that requires us to give our entire lives, body, mind, soul, spirit, to him.  It is a journey that demands that we take up our cross and follow Christ.

And yet, in spite of the hardships and difficulties, we learn to rest in the promises of our loving and gracious guide.  We learn to enjoy simplicity and rest.  We learn how to fully trust.  We become the people God has made and called us to be by turning our lives completely over to him.

Anne Lammot once wrote that God loves us just the way we are…and that he loves us too much to let us stay that way.  Christian discipleship begins and ends with grace, but we have to be careful that we don’t take grace for granted – this is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.  This is a counterfeit grace, a false grace that far too many Christians are willing to slothfully accept, whether in apathy or busyness.  In accepting this false grace, we overlook true grace, the grace that cost Jesus his life and asks us to give ours as well.  Bonhoeffer wrote, “Grace is costly because it compels a person to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him…but it is grace because Jesus says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”.

As you go from this place to be the church, the people of God, in the world, may you be woken up from your spiritual slumber, getting of the couch, willing to take the difficult path of discipleship, following Jesus and finding perfect rest in him.  Amen.

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3 thoughts on “The Two Slides of Sloth

  1. I knew sloth was a deadly sin, but I was not very well schooled at its meaning, nor how to combat sloth. There are a few times in life when a light goes off, and a lasting change is made. This article is one of them.

    I came across this article after watching a special on the downfall of Detroit. A reporter cited sloth as one of the contributing factors of Detroit’s demise.

    I have found over the last two years of working with small businesses in the Tampa Bay area that the biggest problem facing our small business community is the lack of people willing to work. This isn’t a “quality” worker; its a worker at all. The era of entitlement and apathy seemingly reigns supreme. So many businesses are hiring, but few want to work, show up for work or do a good job while at work. Salary increases nor other incentives improve this situation; this has had me puzzled for a long time. Your article sums up today’s society. Whether or not one is religious, this article lays out an overarching problem: people are apathetic and/or too busy to see the forest through the trees.

    What are some of the things that you think contribute to overall sloth? Instant information that causes most to be on their cell phones 24/7? Societal de-emphasis of competition where everyone is a winner? De-emphasis of religion? Lack of personal accountability (i.e. let’s find a way to blame someone else for a mistake)?

    I have learned so much from this article, and I hope I can now find ways to improve my personal slothy state as well as help others to both care about what they do and to take the time to stop and smell the roses.

    I’m not surtae you care about how sloth relates to the business community in a non-religious way. In the event that you do, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we as a community can help combat sloth without forcefully invoking religion.

    Thanks again!

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