Those images aren’t necessarily wrong, but they’re not the full picture.
Sloth isn’t a denial of work, it’s a denial of love. Sloth doesn’t choose the couch instead of the to-do list. It chooses anything (perhaps the couch, perhaps the to-do list) to avoid the hard work that loving relationships require.
Sloth as a denial of “Love your neighbor” and maybe of “love yourself,” too
You know you need to have a hard conversation with someone––to apologize, to confront, or to bring up a topic that might create conflict. You don’t want to do it. Who likes these? So you put it off. Maybe you hide behind your work. Maybe you hide behind laziness.
You have some pain in your past that you know you’re still dragging around with you. You keep pushing it down and avoiding it. Easier than the hard work of resolution.
You avoid reading a certain book or watching a certain movie because you know you’ll be convicted about something. “I know that movie will make me feel like I should ______, and I’m just not ready for that right now.” If the movie is a wrong-headed or unnecessary guilt trip, that’s one thing. If you know it’s right, and you just don’t want to be confronted with the facts, that’s another…
You ignore any injustice in society or say the issue is too big for you to do anything about.
You avoid any stand on an issue that might cause you to change what you buy or where you buy it.
You don’t do serious romantic relationships––perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. The initial rush of a new relationship is fun, but once things get serious, you prefer to move on rather than fight through the tough parts.
In all of these, you see the denial of love toward others (and ourselves). Love is hard. This is why those supposed “love at first sight” relationships are so fun… and so fleeting. Because growth requires energy and effort, and usually some hardship along the way.
Sloth as a denial of “Love the Lord your God”
If you’re a Protestant, you may be most at risk of a certain slothful mentality. In fact, I’ll single out my Reformed friends for a moment. I’ve seen this line of thinking come out of the Reformed wing of the Church most often. Calvin’s brilliant theology didn’t require this. It’s a distortion of his theology, not a continuation of it. [i.e. This isn’t an attack on Reformed theology. It’s an attack on bad Reformed theology.]
Protestants celebrate that we’re saved by grace alone. We don’t earn salvation, we receive it. But many Protestants have jumped so hard on that side of the ship that they’ve tipped it nearly over. They’ve confused earning with effort.1 In their zeal to emphasize that we don’t earn salvation, they scorn any talk about human effort in our faith. At the beginning of Lent, I watched Twitter and Facebook light up with comments about not giving up anything for Lent from people who “don’t have to earn God’s favor.”
God’s favor isn’t earned. But along with receiving and celebrating God’s unmerited favor, we’re told to love God.
We can’t love God without following Jesus––without becoming his disciples. And discipleship inherently suggests discipline. Sloth happily accepts God’s saving grace without making the costly effort of discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called this “cheap grace”:
Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ […]
[God’s grace] is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. [Discipleship, Fortress Press, pp. 44–45]
Two questions that sloth hates
For the past several years, I’ve had to regularly answer two questions that force me to recognize my own slothfulness.
1 — “Have you done all the good you could this week?”
That question doesn’t expect a laundry-list response of all the things I did, or should have done. It doesn’t suggest that I should forsake all leisure since there’s always some other good act I could do.
The question expects me to share whether there’s any good thing I knew I should do, and whether I did it. Sometimes it makes me realize I’ve been avoiding something––apologizing to someone and requesting forgiveness, or forgiving someone and not continuing to think and act toward them with anger.
Sometimes it makes me realize I’ve been too apathetic. I can’t think of anything good I did during the week. Not because I avoided it, but because I just didn’t notice anything. In a world with so much pain and injustice, if I can go a whole week without recognizing something good I can do––some act of compassion or advocacy––I don’t care enough.
If we’re avoiding good things we know we need to do, or we’re too apathetic to notice them in the first place, sloth may be at root. Our first step should be to ask God to change our hearts. To help us to see people with his love. To have enough love for people that we overcome slothful avoidance and apathy and commit ourselves to the effort of loving others.
2 — “What Christian practices have you kept this week?” or “How have you availed yourself of the means of grace this week?”
God has commanded us to keep certain practices––things like fasting, reading Scripture, praying, and receiving the sacraments. These aren’t just things we do to say we’ve done them. These are spiritual disciplines that transform us into better lovers of God.
I prefer to talk about these as “means of grace.” It’s not simply that we grow through these disciplines. We grow because these disciplines are means of receiving God’s grace. When we do these things, we avail ourselves of the ways that God transforms us by his grace.
Are you availing yourself of these means of grace?
Some people say they only want to do these if their “heart is in it.” I understand the desire for authenticity that may produce that thought, but I disagree with it. If you’re an athlete, do you show up for practice only when your heart is in it? No! I’d expect that you progress faster when your heart is in it, but the discipline of continuing to show up is important. A baseball player may not have his “heart into” a particular batting practice, but he shows up because he wants to get better.
Sometimes we need to keep showing up in these spiritual disciplines––keep availing ourselves of God’s means of grace––even when it’s difficult. We do this because we want to grow in our love of God, even if we don’t want to fast this Friday.
Others avoid these disciplines. The problem isn’t an apathy toward God but a fear of what might happen. A friend told me recently that he doesn’t want to fast because he thinks his “true self” gets exposed too much when he’s hungry. Sloth doesn’t like to have these areas exposed. It prefers a shallower, as-you-were relationship with God over something deeper that would demand transformation.
We’re saved by the grace of God––praise be to God! His grace, gift, and favor are free and unmerited. May God’s free grace not become cheap grace to you, leading you to sloth and complacency. Instead, may God’s grace empower you for full obedience to his command: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [… and] Love your neighbor as yourself.“2