While most would recognize the deadly nature of the sins of pride, vainglory, envy, and anger, sloth does not seem to be that bad.  It’s not good to be lazy, but does it really rate so high as sin to be among the seven deadly?  In order to answer that question, we need to look at the attitude that underlies laziness.

Because of the rather mild contemporary understanding of sloth, theologians and philosopher often used the word “acedia” to designate this sin.  Acedia is directly derived from the Greek word akaydia, which is never used in the New Testament, but the noun and verb forms are found nine times in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, which includes the Apocrypha.  It is translated as “faint” (Psalm 61:2 [60:3]; the superscription of Psalm 102 [101:1], Psalm 143:4 [142:4]; Isaiah 61:3), “sorrow” (119:28 [118:28]), “distressed” (Daniel 7:15), “wearied” (Ecclesiasticus 22:13; Baruch 3:1), and “empty” (Ecclesiasticus 29:5).[1]  Here are some sample passages.

 

“For the enemy has pursued my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead. Therefore my spirit faints within me; my heart within me is appalled” (Ps. 143:3, 4 ESV).

“My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word” (Ps. 119:28 ESV)!

“As for me, Daniel, my spirit was distressed within me, and the visions in my mind kept alarming me” (Dan. 7:15 NAS).

“O Lord Almighty, God of Israel, the soul in anguish and the wearied spirit cry out to you” (Bar. 3:1 NRS).

 

These verses describe a soul or spirit that is greatly oppressed and troubled.  Sloth or acedia describes a spiritual state that is much more serious than the common meaning we attach to laziness.  Understood in the light of these passages, acedia or sloth can be defined as the feeling or conviction that life and its responsibilities are impossibly burdensome.

There are several symptoms of acedia.  It is shown by a lack of effort or concern for God, self, and others.  It often felt as boredom (ennui, world-weariness [weltschmerz]), which is often masked by decadence, cynicism, and anger.  One experiences sorrow, sadness, and melancholy or depression.  Finally, and most dangerously, it leads to despair and hopelessness.

In many ways, acedia is the most specifically religious or existential of the seven deadly sins.  For this reason, it is often seen as especially characteristic of the modern world and its loss of faith.  The French existentialist, Albert Camus, famously opened his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” by claiming that the one serious philosophical question is whether life is worth the pain or whether one should commit suicide.

In addition to the use of the word acedia in the Septuagint, there are four vivid biblical examples of the sin and its terrible consequences.  Although these passages do not use acedia, they powerfully describe it.

  1. Vanity of life.  Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 describes “life under the sun” (v. 3); that is, life without reference to God.  “All is vanity” (v. 2), a whirlpool of emptiness that drains all vitality.  Work has no profit (v. 3; 2:18-23), wisdom and knowledge are erased from memory by the grave, and sensual pleasure brings only weariness (v. 9; 2:1-11).
  2. Despair that comes from personal suffering. With his loss of family, possessions, reputation, and health, Job laments his birth (Job 3).
  3. Hopelessness in the face of injustice. The caring person feels this hopelessness when he considers the plight of the oppressed. It is vividly portrayed in Ecclesiastes 4:1-3.  After stating that the dead are better off than the living (v. 2), the author continues, “But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (v. 3).
  4. Despair of the possibility of forgiveness. Overcome with guilt, Judas hangs himself for betraying Christ (Matthew 27:3-5).

The sin of acedia is a failure of love, faith, and hope.[2]  Its ennui lacks the passionate commitment that the love of God entails (Philippians 3:12-16).  Its sense that there is nothing new fails to believe that God is all powerful and has acted to make a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Finally, acedia is the deadly sin that is most clearly a failure to hope in God.  Nothing has ever changed, and nothing ever will (2 Peter 3).  However, the Christian is one who hopes. “According to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13).  We are “saved through hope” (Romans 8:24).

Before moving on to ways in which we can overcome acedia, a cautionary word needs to be given concerning the symptoms of acedia.  Symptoms of acedia, such as sorrow, are not necessarily sinful.  Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35).  Paul assumes that we will grieve, but he wants us not to “grieve as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  Jesus himself felt abandoned by God and uttered that haunting cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46)?  When he does so, he is quoting from a prayer of David (Psalm 22:1), who was experiencing a similar feeling.  These emotional reactions to difficult, even horrific circumstances, are not sinful.  They are human.  Overcoming the shock of these event is a process—a process in which we need tools to help us and the wisdom and love of others to guide us so that we ultimately do not fall into the condition of acedia.

Traditionally one of the ways to overcome acedia has been through physical labor and prayer.  Since acedia is so much a mental state, physical labor has the advantage that it helps distract the sufferers from the mental and emotional prison that they have locked themselves into.  Prayer is combined with this, but one must be careful that the prayer does not become an internal dialogue rather than an encounter with the living God.  In particular, prayer should focus on gratitude.  If the struggler cannot do this on his own, then reading aloud psalms of praise and thanksgiving as his own prayer should be done.

The mind also needs to be directed toward positive thoughts through meditation.  The content of the meditation should be of the victorious resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:58) and the return of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20-28) in order to restore hope.  Focus should also be on the biblical promises of victory in one’s personal life. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).  Reading of stories of individuals and groups succeeding against the odds can lead to hope as well.

Those who are politically active have the tendency to lose hope as they see the continuation of evil in the world despite their and others’ best efforts.  It is probably best that they forget the “big picture,” at least for a while, and focus on small but very real victories.  In addition, mediation on the Lord’s promise that he ultimately will right all wrongs and bring to end this present evil age brings hope (Revelation 21:1-4).

Finally, acedia is a lonely sin. The one under the grip of acedia should avoid isolation.  Involvement in and encouragement by the body of Christ will help to restore faith and hope.

In the next post we shall look at greed, the first of the three deadly sins that focus more on externals than the first four.

 

 

[1] The Septuagint [LXX] references, which often differs in numbering from the English, is enclosed in brackets where needed.

 

[2] It should be noted that the symptoms of acedia overlap with several of those of clinical depression.  Someone experiencing these symptoms should get help not only from a professional spiritual counsellor but also from a qualified Christian psychologist.

24 Responses to “Sloth”

  • Lauren Drum:

    First off, this was a great post, as usual, as it opened my eyes more to the truths of sloth and how it can go much deeper than just laziness. Sloth can lead to depression, isolation, and even the feeling of loneliness and ultimately the worst thought ever, that you would be better off dead. That isn’t something that you mess around with, as it is very serious. As I was reading about how sloth can lead to isolation and the thought of committing suicide, I started thinking about how that is really Satan messing with our mind and how we should focus on God, especially in times like that. This post really has given me a greater understanding of sloth. Thank you Dr. Isley!

    • Thanks, Lauren. Your point about Satan is important. We do face an enemy that we are told was a liar and murderer from the beginning (John 8:44); so he does desire to destroy us. He is also the accuser who seeks to make us despair of God’s love and forgiveness (Revelation 12:10).

  • Drew Sullivan:

    At first I thought sloth was more being lazy, avoiding pain and work and didn’t realize it came from a lack of hope for life, despair, or perceiving of vanity. While I was reading this post I was reminded of how dangerous despair was in the Faerie Queen and how close he came to getting RCK to killing himself and now I see why sloth is one of the deadlier sins. Also, do you think king Saul in the Bible struggled with sloth? He seemed to despair of God’s favor and it caused him to be angry at David…

    • Thanks, Drew. We should look at talk about that passage in the Faerie Queene. Be sure to do that. I hadn’t thought about Saul before, but think that you may have a point. Saul had reached a point of desperation because he knew he was wrong and that the Lord did not favor him because of his disobedience. Instead of trusting the Lord, he just drifted farther and farther away. Of course, he did resent David and wanted to kill him.

  • Sophie Cather:

    The portrayal of a sloth in modern times is a happy, cute animal who spends its life lounging in trees, enjoying exotic meals, and sluggishly moving about its habitat. I would agree with Lauren that sloth is a serious issue, but it is also disturbing that our idea of a sloth is characterized by pop culture as a happy animal. Just a thought.
    Anyways, Proverbs 26:14 is a verse that has resonated with me for a while, “As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard turn in his bed.” Not only is this a great analogy, but the verse has served as a great warning for me. A hinge on a door is not actively doing anything, nor is a slothful person/ sluggard doing anything to actively benefit his life. Thus, the sin of sloth can significantly affect a believer’s life, for it can hinder the Christian from actively pursuing God.
    I do have a question about one of your suggested methods to dealing, and ultimately, overcoming sloth. “Since acedia is so much a mental state, physical labor has the advantage that it helps distract the sufferers from the mental and emotional prison that they have locked themselves into.” Personally, I have not found distractions to be helpful. Either my mind continues to dwell on problem, or my desire to be in a state of “peace” is so great that I procrastinate dealing with the issue in the first place. I am aware that certain tools work for different people, but prayer does not always produce an immediate change. I was curious if you had any advice for the “in-the-moment” solutions.

    • Sophie, these are some very good questions and insights. Thank you for them. I especially appreciate your concern that sloth hinders us from actively seeking God. It is true. A slothful person lacks any passion. Much of my advice on overcoming sloth is related to the fact that it is such a mental sin and that people get caught up in dwelling on it forever and a day. it is helpful to them to be active and not be alone. I know what you mean about prayer. I often end up just thinking in my head and so returning to the problem rather than praying to God. That is why I warned that prayer shouldn’t become an internal dialogue. I would also say that if one has become a captive to sloth, there may not be an immediate solution. It will take time. Talking to a good friend who is wise can be helpful. They can guide you to more positive thoughts and especially to Scripture passages that lift our spirits. They may also help us examine ourselves and see why we are feeling hopeless when we do have hope. I too find Proverbs 26:14 to be a good analogy. I also like verse 15. “A sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth.” Thanks again.

  • Tess Ewing:

    Thank you Dr. Isley for another well-thought out blog post. During this post I did come across many questions however. To start with, in your introduction, you mentioned how people think that sloth surely cannot be as bad of a sin, and that just got me thinking. If Jesus says that all sins are equal, then why do we have these seven sins labeled as the “worst” of all sins, if all sin is equal. Is it meaning that it these sins have more negative consequences in this case? As well, you talked about how sloth is feeling hopeless about life, but if sometimes (even though I know that there is a purpose to life) I still do not do stuff because I’m feeling to lazy per-say, how would I differentiate the difference of that being me having a pore and unwilling attitude, of me being slothful!

    • Thank you, Tess. These are good questions. First, does Jesus say all sins are equal? I would say that all sins are equal in the sense that any sin is an offense to God and deserving of death. On the other hand, on the human level, notice that in the Old Testament there are different punishments for different sins–fines of different amounts, death, etc. If you’ll remember in the beginning these seven are called deadly because they are of the spirit and the root of so many other sins. Your last question is interesting. We all at times don’t feel like fulfilling our responsibilities or doing anything. This could be due just to being tired or some other issue. Also, being a slothful person is a lifestyle, almost a way of looking at the world around us. One feeling of being lazy, does not make you slothful.

  • Jaley Barkley:

    Sloth is a term that I think of laziness and avoiding something because it is to hard. Reading this post really opened my thoughts about sloth and how dangerous it can be to yourself and to others. I feel that it is very easy to feel slothful because doing work and things that require effort seem hard to people. I like how you said that it was a lack of effort because slothful was could be avoided very easily if people put effort into all things they do, but that is a very hard thing to do. I was wondering if depression was an example of sloth. An example you gave was from Ecclesiastes, which talked about how everything is vanity under the sun. I think of that phrase as nothing means anything because they are depressed. Is that a correct interpretation or am I looking at it wrongly?

    • Thank you for the good questions, Jaley. I would say first that depression can be a symptom of sloth understood in the way the post defines it, but not necessarily. People can and do become depressed for different reasons.”Life under the sun” is a phrase from Ecclesiastes. It means considering the world and life as a whole without God. The conclusion of the author is that the result of viewing life as if there were no God, leads to sloth or acedia.

  • Skylar Ball:

    I thought this was very interesting to read about slothfulness, I never really thought of it as that big of a sin, but this showed me that it was much more than just laziness. I was wondering why we use the term sloth instead of acedia, because in reading this it seemed to me that acedia was more obviously seen as a sin, if that makes sense.

    • Thank you, Skylar. Your question is an interesting one. The most likely reason that we use sloth is that it is the traditional English term. Unfortunately, as we moderns have moved farther and farther away from serious considerations of the spiritual life, sloth became just laziness. Acedia is a loan word too; so, it’s not as readily used.

  • Chandler M Vincent:

    Dr. Isley,
    I think the modern sympathies for sloth is pointed towards boredom and lack of wanting to do anything, and as you pointed out it is still not good to be lazy. But is being lazy a sin or just a lack of respect for one’s own health? Also I have noticed in my experience in the mental health realm, laziness often branches off of sloth (I.e. depression). So in that context is it a branch of the sin, or still just disrespect?
    Another question I would like to put to you is, many people have depression or other things not of their free will but because of how their brains work. It is not an active thing of them not trying to look on the bright side of things, but instead an internal things they cannot help. I know with my personal experience with depression I was able to overcome it by fixing my life, physically, mentally, and spiritually (the most helpful one of the three). But I also know people who are doing well in all three catagories but are still dealing with the crushing weight of depression and anxieties, not that they do not have hope in God, but instead that their brain is trying to convince them that they shouldn’t. Making them be in constant battle with themselves, putting them in a state of depression. Is this, therefore, a sin?
    Thank you so much for what you wrote, it was really a different view from what many people think of sloth as today. I hope you are doing well, and I am praying that you and your household are doing alright. I hope your night is peaceful.

    • Thank you so much for your prayers, Chandler, and your good questions. I was very concerned that people might think that depression, one symptom of sloth, is always due to sin or even is a sin. That’s why I included the footnote about getting professional help for clinical depression. I am so glad that we have Mrs. Gossard teaching the class with me. I think that she’ll be able to give us some helpful insights on these issues. Thanks again.

  • Kylie Cleverdon:

    Thank you for this blog post, Dr. Isley! I enjoyed reading this one in particular to the rest, because I have been finding myself struggling with this lately, and I was very curious to find out how to stray away from slothfulness or acedia. I did come up with a question though… so you stated that sloth is a failure of faith, hope, and love. As I read this, I tried to check myself to see if I think I might be failing to do these things when I’m feeling slothful, but I really don’t think these things come to mind. So, I guess my question is, does slothfulness always lead to or conclude in a failure of faith, hope, and love? Because whenever I’m feeling slothful, it’s after a long day at school or after a conditioning practice and this is what I usually call “lazy” because I don’t feel like doing anything because I’m sore, worn out, and tired. I’m trying to figure out how this example is a failure of faith, hope, or love.

    • Thank you, Kylie, for your question. I think that it’s important not to associate with sloth being tired or worn out and thus wanting to rest. These are just normal reactions of a body that has done a good day’s work and wants a break. In other words, you feel like doing nothing because you are physically tired, not because you are being slothful. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is “God gives sleep to his beloved” (Psalm 127:2). Enjoy one of life’s great pleasures that God has given us.

  • Taryn Durbin:

    This was a very good post, thank you Dr. Isley! I have always thought of sloth as being lazy but this post helped me to understand the issues that come with sloth. A slothful person experiences sorrow, sadness, and depression which often times leads to despair and hopelessness. Sloth can ultimately lead to one taking their own life. In addition, I never really thought of sloth as being a sin, especially one of the seven deadly sins. After reading this article, I now understand why sloth is such a big sin. A question I had while reading this is: Is sloth and acedia the same thing or is acedia just another word for sloth?

  • Jude Borchers:

    After reading this I realize just how much I misunderstood what sloth is. Laziness that I would normally attribute to sloth is just a symptom of a deeper problem. From what I read, I believe that the deeper problem is a sense having no purpose. You’re not being active because you feel that there is no reason to act. I can see why this would be a problem for Christians because we have a God given purpose and this feeling would reject it. My one question is from when you talked about prayer. What exactly do you mean by an “internal dialogue” rather than an encounter with God?

    • Thanks, Jude. I believe that you have captured the meaning of this sin quite well. “Inner dialogue” refers to a way in which I drift in my prayers. Rather than actually speaking to God, I begin merely to mull things over in my mind. I have found that I will lose my focus on praying to God and begin to do this instead.

  • Halle Pavlik:

    This essay really opened my eyes to what sloth really is. I have to admit that I was one of those people that thought that sloth was merely laziness. I can see now my mistake. I did not realize how mental this issue is. I am definitely anxious to see whar Mrs.Gossard has to add. I think that she will be able to provide insight into many questions we may have. One of my questions is Why do some people experience this more than others? Along with this are we able to pair this term with depression or are these completely unrelated terms?

    • Thanks, Halle. I think that we dealt with this in class today, but, just in case, depression-like symptoms can be rooted in several underlying problems. The sin of sloth may be one of those, just as a headache could be the symptom of various problems.

  • Hadley T.:

    Dr. Isley, thank you again for such a post which gives insight to one of the 7 deadly sins. Sloth being a conviction that life is too burdensome is not at all what I had in mind. How/why is it so different than the modern conception of sloth (laziness)? At first glance, they do not seem to directly connect. EX. I can believe something is worth doing, but not do it just because I don’t feel like it. However, the slothful person would not do said action because it seems to hard.
    side note: instead of the term Apocrypha could you use Deuterocanonical? the former denotes falsity, which is up for debate.
    thanks again!

    • Good question, Hadley. The connection between the two is that they both show an aversion to making an effort. In common modern usage, sloth is used, perhaps as a more refined term than laziness, to describe an unwillingness to exert oneself to accomplish something. As one of the deadly or capital sins, sloth also describes a lack of effort but it is based more in a loss of hope and faith, which means that it is felt that there is no purpose in making an effort. With regard to the word “Apocrypha,” I sympathize with your concern because the adjective “apocryphal,” does denote “false.” I, as do many Protestants, use it as a term to describe a number of books that other Christian traditions include in the Old Testament. I rather like what the Geneva Bible translators wrote of them, “as books proceeding from godly men they were received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of history and for the instruction of godly manners,” but are not canonical. I couldn’t in good conscience describe them as “deuterocanonical” because I don’t think that they are canonical. The best that I can do is write “the Aprocrypha, called deuterocanonical by Roman Catholics.”

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