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The Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth

 

1st Kings 19:9-18                     Acts 14:8-23                           John9:1-5

 

I: — Sloth: the word has a dreadful sound to it.   Sloth suggests laziness, stupefied laziness, time-wasting, talent-wasting laziness.  No wonder our Christian foreparents labelled sloth a deadly sin.

“Just a minute”, someone objects; “if sloth is a deadly sin, are you telling us that workaholism is a lively grace? Are you telling us that while obsessive-compulsive illnesses are just that – illnesses, obsessive-compulsive work is a singular instance of health?”   I am saying no such thing. There’s nothing in any obsessive-compulsive mental disorder that any of us needs or wants. In other words, we are no more eager to commend workaholism than we are to commend any instance of illness.

The workaholic doesn’t merely work hard; doesn’t merely work every waking minute; he’s driven to work all the time. As soon as he stops working, however briefly, he feels guilty, anxious, useless, distressed. Weekends, holidays, evenings; all are given over to compulsive work.   Never mind that his children are crying for him.  Never mind that his wife has given up expecting to kiss him.   Never mind that his health is breaking down.  He has a neurotic obsession.  There’s nothing in any manifestation of illness that healthy people want to emulate.

As a matter of fact, all of us need what I call “vacant time”. Vacant time isn’t the same as wasted time.  Vacant time is necessary. Vacant time is something like vacant space, such as a vacant lot.  A vacant lot isn’t a useless lot.         There are few things more useful, more needed, than a vacant lot.  A vacant lot gives youngsters a place to play.         It prevents a residential area from becoming too congested.  It provides visual relief in the midst of brown-brick sameness.

In the same way, vacant time gives us time to play. It decongests our lives. It provides relief from frenzy. Several years ago I learned that I simply had to have vacant time.  Previously I had felt guilty about vacant time. To be sure, I knew I couldn’t read Sixteenth Century Latin all the time.  I knew I couldn’t hammer out sermons all the time.         And so I decided to afford myself relief; that is, when I wasn’t working diligently I was determined to use my non-working time fruitfully. And so in my “down” time I decided I’d become thoroughly acquainted with Canadian literature, perhaps even acquiring expertise in it.  Soon, I discovered, reading Canadian literature wasn’t a leisure activity that refreshed me; instead it was one more effort where I was driven to excel amidst anxiety and weariness.         Soon I was forced to admit that vacant time had to be vacant.  I needed time where I wasn’t doing anything important or useful – unless you count my health and the freshness I need for work important and useful. As I re-read the gospels I was startled at how necessary Jesus deemed his vacant time to be; how unwilling he was to surrender it; how frequently he went away “to a solitary place”, we are told, away from the press of crowds and frustration at disciples and the misunderstanding his family foisted on him. We are never going to call our Lord’s vacant time sloth.

 

II: — Then what is sloth, and why did our Christian foreparents regard it as spiritually lethal? Sloth is the persistent state of being “tuned out”; of being unengaged; of relishing indifference. Sloth is the state of remaining uninvolved, uncommitted, uncaring.  Sloth is the state of being a spectator in life, even wilfully absent from life. There are many reasons for such sloth.

[a] One is the selfish desire to keep ourselves for ourselves, the “selfist” desire to keep our own life uncomplicated and unperturbed by ignoring people whose lives appear more difficult than ours, even endangered.

Several years ago I was purchasing candy in a variety store in Mississauga when an 18-year old “tough” began harassing the Egyptian storekeeper. The 18-year old had obviously been in the store before since the storekeeper recognized him instantly and became increasingly upset, almost hysterical: “You getta outta my store right now”, over and over.  The fellow refused to leave the store.  The storekeeper became near-frantic.

There was a customer in the store besides me, a big man who could have assisted the storekeeper in a moment.         But as soon as this big man saw trouble brewing he slipped out the door and disappeared, leaving the distraught, middle-aged storekeeper to handle this teenaged tough, with only a skinny preacher to help him. I had a word with the hooligan, and he left. Whereupon the storekeeper fell all over me in gratitude.

The man who sneaked out of the store exemplified sloth. He didn’t care if the storekeeper were robbed or beaten up or terrorized.  He wanted only to “avoid trouble”, as he would have put it.  In truth, he wanted to keep himself for himself.   He was willing to jeopardize a defenceless man whose predicament was obviously difficult and danger-ridden.

Think of the vocabulary we hear every day.   “Don’t get involved. Go with the flow. See where the wind’s blowing. Add up the room.” All of which means, “Stand for nothing. Stand up for nothing. Stand up with no one. Protect yourself by abandoning everyone except yourself.”   This is sloth.

[b] Another reason for this deadly sin is self-pampering. Self-pampering is evident in many areas of life today, and typically evident (to me, at least) in education. Certainly we don’t want education to be unrelieved misery for children.  Nevertheless, we harm children by giving them the impression that school is supposed to be fun all the time.  If they are faced with something that isn’t fun, they don’t have to do it. They fail an assignment? In some school-jurisdictions, the teacher is faulted if a student fails.  One of my friends, a supply-teacher in the high schools, emailed me this week, telling me that where he was supplying, students could pay two dollars and be marked “present” while they absented themselves from the school premises and cavorted downtown.  For two dollars they wouldn’t be marked truant, didn’t have to do any work, and could indulge themselves however they wished.  Isn’t education supposed to be preparation for life?   Don’t people flounder and founder in life if they lack discipline and diligence and persistence?

My psychiatrist-friend tells me that people complain to him that life has cheated them, because they aren’t having a good time 24 hours per day without interruption.   He tells me that advertising has fostered utterly unrealistic expectations in people. Advertising has led people to believe that life is, or can be, or at least is meant to be, something like an endless beach holiday in the Bahamas : uninterrupted pleasure, no demands, no setbacks, no grief, everyone dancing and skipping in the company of “winners” with gorgeous bodies and fashionable clothes, no frustration or anxiety or pain.  The problem, my psychiatrist-friend tells me, is that no one’s life is like this, and no one’s is ever going to be, even though too many people have been led to believe that what’s advertised is normal.         To expect all this is to want sloth.

The banality of many TV shows intensifies self-pampering. Husband and wife (or husband and someone else’s wife) jointly answer a trite question. Their answer qualifies them for the wheel of fortune.  The wheel spins, clicking dramatically as it slows down.  The last click is heard as the wheel stops at the first letter of their name. They have just won a motorized golf cart and a self-propelled leaf-rake.  People who have been saturated in such shallowness aren’t going to immerse themselves in life, especially in someone else’s life, with its tides and turbulence, its summons to stand up, stand for, and stand with. Self-pampering fosters sloth.
[c] There’s a third reason for sloth, a profoundly different reason.  This time the reason isn’t shallow self-indulgence.         This time the reason is despair; heartbreaking, mind-numbing, immobilizing despair. Sometimes we sweat blood for something we hold to be true, right, good.  For this we have made greater sacrifices than anyone will ever guess. We have given our utmost. And then we have watched it all dribble away to nothing, apparently.  We have seen it all evaporate, it would seem. Our attitude never was “I couldn’t care less”.  On the contrary our attitude was “I cared so much – and what difference did it make? I don’t have it in me to care any longer.”

Elijah, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, contended bravely with Jezebel , Israel ’s wicked and venomous queen. He got nowhere with her, he felt. He knew that she was going to skewer him first chance.  Elijah sat down and spluttered “Lord, take away my life”.   Then he stumbled into a cave where he could detach himself from the turbulence and treachery around him.  He wanted to “tune out”, detach himself, isolate himself – for ever.

Sloth born of despair isn’t like sloth born of pampered self-indulgence.  Sloth born of despair has a history: someone has been wounded; the spear-wound is either haemorrhaging still or it has become infected or both. Wounded and weakened now, she’s become too jaded to endure any more grief or frustration or pain. She has decided to “opt out”.

Sloth born of despair isn’t contemptible.  Its victims don’t merit scorn.  They do merit concern, however, because sloth is sloth regardless of its genesis; sloth is deadly however much we think we can excuse the sloth born of despair. Sloth is lethal in that detachment from life is lethal regardless of the reason for the detachment.

 

III: — Having probed several reasons for sloth, we must yet grasp precisely why our foreparents called it sin, deadly sin.

[a] It’s deadly, obviously, because it’s a breeding ground for trivia.  People who detach themselves from life with all of life’s tides and turbulence; people who want no part of challenge and struggle; these people invariably have large tracts of time on their hands.  What do they do with vast stretches of unfilled time?   They fill them up with trivia.         They watch TV by the hour. They sleep. They become self-absorbed. Their self-absorption can appear harmless (they have huge stamp collections); it can appear eccentric (they become experts in the history of dental floss); it can be silly; it can be dangerous (since ever-greater thrills are needed to stave off the boredom of the under-occupied).         In any case the self-absorption is selfist, even when it appears virtuous. (What else can be said of the 50-year old woman who spends three hours per day shaping her body? We won’t say “She has a remarkable body.” We won’t say it because the truth is, her remarkable body has been gained at the price of shrivelled heart and mind and spirit.)         Where sloth abounds, time fills up with trivia as surely as motionless water fills up with algae.

But is this deadly sin? Yes.  Time, after all, is the theatre of God’s incursion into human history and human affairs. Time is the theatre of God’s incursion into any one person’s heart.   Time, therefore, is also the theatre of our spiritual discernment and the theatre of our obedience to God.

[b] Sloth is deadly, in the second place, in that it withers human relationships.  To step aside from life is necessarily to step aside from people.  It’s to step aside from people to whom our help can mean the world; it’s to step aside from people who can mean the world to us.  How many times in scripture are we told that the person we help renders us “Christ” to that person, as it were, while the person whom we allow to help us renders her the mirror-image of Christ to         us?

Of course other people are inconvenient.  Then was Jean Paul Sartre correct when he wrote “Hell is other people”? Other people can be hellish; they can as readily be heavenly.  Their arms embracing us, our arms embracing them, can as readily be those “everlasting arms” that are always and everywhere “underneath” us, even as the everlasting arms of God are most readily recognized in the arms of his human servants.

If we detach ourselves from life we attempt to be entirely self-sufficient. No one can be, of course; but the desire for self-sufficiency and the attempt at it means that are trying to live in an ever-shrinking universe. Sloth is deadly just because it deadens.

[c] Sloth is deadly, in the third place, in that it’s so very subtle. It’s like a hot cedar tub. Hot tubs can be enjoyable, even helpful — if we need a hassle-free “time-out”. But there’s something wrong with the person who wants a “time-out” that goes on and on and on. Everyone knows what can happen in a hot tub.  We luxuriate in the water. After a while it starts to feel cool (even though the water temperature hasn’t changed.) We make the water a little warmer. The process is repeated, several times over.  Next morning the newspaper carries our obituary, and readers are told that our heart stopped beating.  Sloth is just like this.

 

IV: — Enough about the deadliness of sloth. Let’s look now at life and liveliness. The key to life and liveliness in this context, as in any context, is faith.  Greater faith; resolute faith; resilient faith.  Elijah went to the cave to “get away from it all”, overwhelmed as he was at the spiritual declension of his people and the isolation it had brought to him. The cave provided him needed respite, the hassle-free “time-out”.   Had he stayed in the cave, however, he would have succumbed to sloth; had he stayed in the cave he would have gone under in the hot cedar tub. But God wouldn’t leave him in the cave. However overwhelmed Elijah might be at the clamour of his people, bent as they were on their shallow self-absorption; however deafened he might be at their superficial noisiness, he could yet hear the much quieter sound of “the still, small voice” of God.  And this voice asked him, “Elijah, what are doing there?   What are you doing in the cave?”  Rather lamely Elijah replied, “I’m here because I’m licked.   I’m here because I’m tired of standing up for You all by myself.”

“What do you mean, all by yourself?” retorted God; “there are 7000 who haven’t bowed the knee to Baal or kissed him.” Elijah, heartened once more, left the cave.  To be sure, he was thankful for the rest he’d had.  Yet in view of the fact that he had 7000 allies, it would have been be silly, fruitless and inexcusable to remain in the cave.

Jesus calls men and women to be disciples.  They respond with an initial surge of enthusiasm.  Then the onerous aspect of discipleship’s collision with a hostile world, added to the normal wear-and-tear of life, gets them down. Easter morning finds Peter speaking for the rest: “What’s the point of it all?   We did our best and it all boiled dry.         Let’s go back to fishing.”   Peter and his friends have plainly gone to the cave.  Whereupon the risen Lord appears before them and pulls them out of the cave as he enlarges their faith and lends them resilience.  Once more they step ahead in the task he has given them.

As enlarged faith and greater faithfulness overturn our sloth we are going to find ourselves viewed as odd.  A society bent on ease and drowsiness and self-gratification can’t understand why anyone would ever step out in a commitment that doesn’t promote ease and drowsiness and self-gratification.  Still, we who are Christ’s people march to the beat of a different drummer.

In the city of Lystra Paul was treated roughly. He didn’t take refuge in sloth, however, mumbling that he’d never return, never put himself out again for ungrateful people.  Instead he said quietly to the Christians at Lystra, “It is through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God .”

 

There are two aspects to the resolute faith and resilient faith that overcome sloth. One is vision.   With the eye of faith we have to see the importance of the work to which God has summoned us.  If few others can see it, too bad; we have to see it. We have to see what is right and righteous and why.

The second aspect to our resilience is courage. Courage is distinguished from foolhardiness by one thing: the importance of what we are doing. The person who walks through fire as a stunt in order to impress onlookers is a fool, while the person who enters a burning house to rescued trapped children we reward for his courage. Any person who came to the assistance of the beleaguered Egyptian storekeeper – would that person have been foolhardy or courageous?   Is assisting a defenceless storekeeper something that God deems important?

When we are called to take the stand that will always be unpopular; when we are summoned to make the sacrifice for the person who will never thank us; when we are called to do what’s right in an environment that rewards two-faced palm-greasers – in all these situations others are going to tell us we’re foolhardy.  We, however, are going to be sustained by our vision of what’s right, as well as by a courage that rises in proportion to our vision.  Vision and courage will reinforce each other.  The temptation of sloth will recede.

There are always people we must care for, even as there is evil we must resist, truth we must uphold, and a Lord whom we must obey. He, after all, has promised never to fail us or forsake us.

 

                                                                                            Rev. Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      March 2006