What is Sloth? It is More Subtle and Devilish Than Mere Laziness
One 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 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:
- 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.”
- 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.
© 2015 Archdiocese of Washington
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