One of the more misunderstood of the cardinal sins is sloth. Most see it merely as laziness, but there is more to it than that. Let’s take a moment and consider some aspects of this cardinal sin.
The Greek word we translate as sloth is ἀκηδία akedia (a = absence + kedos = care), meaning indifference or negligence. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of sloth as sorrow for spiritual good. By it, we shun spiritual good as too toilsome (cf Summa Theologica II-II 35,2).
Some modern commentators describe 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 difficult or as requiring the setting aside of currently enjoyed or sinful pleasures. Through 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 instead on the “trouble” or effort involved in walking in the Christian way.
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 responsibility to announce these truths to his wife and children. All of the duties of his vocation overwhelm and even scare him; the task seems too open-ended. He doesn’t want to reflect too much because it might summon him to ponder things he would like to avoid considering: moral questions, priorities, whether he is spending enough time with his family, whether his life is focused on the things that matter most. It’s all just too hard, too filled with uncertainty. Entering more deeply into the spiritual life is difficult. Work is easier and they call him “Sir” and do what he says.
So he buries himself in his work; 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 at 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 example, the man’s sorrow for spiritual good is manifested in avoidance and is rooted in fear. Through 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. We are overstimulated in the modern world. The frantic pace, the endless interruptions, the abundance of entertainment, the fast-paced movies and video games all contribute. 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 overstimulation means that when we come upon things like quiet prayer or adoration, when we are asked to listen for an extended period time, when the imagery is not changing quickly enough, we are easily bored.
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 those used to a breakneck pace. Sunday, once the highlight of the week for many (due to the beauty of the liturgy and 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. Thus, sloth is fueled by the boredom our culture feels at anything going at less than full speed.
In his book Back to Virtue, 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 [p. 154].
The “daughters” of Sloth are: malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, sluggishness in regard to the commandments, wandering of the mind after unlawful things. For indeed, sloth can make us hate and thus have malice and spite for the good things of God. Then too there are the obvious daughters listed here which proceed from a sort of oppressive sorrow at the good things of God.
Of the Virtues that are medicine for sloth: As with envy, joy and zeal are essential. So too are Magnanimity and magnificence whereby we think great things and do them. By faith we learn to appreciate the good things of God and by charity we learn to love them. By almsgiving we intentionally move outside our self. And, by justice we are motivated to render to God and others what is their due.
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, because 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. Because we cannot do and be everything, we need to understand 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, not in one giant leap. 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.