A Lenten Devotion – “Sloth”

Last week’s deadly sin was “gluttony.” Tonight’s is sloth, or in the Latin, acedia. “Sloth” is really a misnomer, as the animal by the same name may be slow, but it is anything but lazy. Sloth is physical laziness, spiritual laziness, indifference, boredom, apathy, couch potato-ness. It is a sin of omission, a failure of vocation, a failure of duty and responsibility, a failure to exercise the gifts from God in service of God and neighbor.

Ironically, “work,” as in sweat of the brow, was the result of the Fall. God had given fruits and nuts freely. Just gather them off the ground. You don’t even have to climb trees. But cultivated plants call for hard labor and sweat. And so the devil in his craftiness, tricks Man into a life of hard labor. It is hard work to be “like God.” And then he takes the hard working Man and tempts him with laziness, idleness, boredom, sloth.

“Idle hands are the devil’s instruments,” goes the saying, and it’s true. The devil loves idleness. In idleness we conceive all sorts of sin not to mention great shame and vice. Where the devil tempted Eve to eat by way of the senses and pleasure, he tempts Man to idleness by way of boredom and apathy.

Every task is exciting at the beginning. The first day on the job. The first day on the line or in the office. But once you get a knack of things, boredom sets in. You used to come to work fifteen minutes early, eager to hit the ground running. Now you slink in ten minutes late. Twenty. An hour. “Thursday is the new Friday,” we hear, as the freeways are jammed with people taking a Friday “mental health day” from work to get to the ski slopes early. “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go. And when I no longer owe, or care, then to heck with work. Let’s play!”

Boredom is the devil’s trick that leads us slouching into sloth. Old Adam bored by the routine and repetitive. That’s why we crave endless variety in foods, in drink, in work, in play, in exercise routines, even in worship. Repetition dulls our desire for stimulation, variety, entertainment. Old Adam equates entertaining with meaningful, as though the whole world and God Himself existed for no other reason than to keep us amused.

And when we get bored, we get lazy. We can’t concentrate. Our minds wander. Our energy goes down. We can’t get started.

Sloth leads to poverty, decay, and ruin. If you don’t take care of your house, if you don’t sweat the little details of maintenance, the house will collapse. “Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks,” says Ecclesiastes. Solid truth, and not just in home maintenance. Laziness leads to decay. “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” Do we really need the Bible to tell us this?

The old Adam wants something for nothing. That’s the lazy man’s deal. The apostle Paul knew this well when he imposed this rule for the distribution of food in the church: “If anyone does not work, neither should he eat.” Even the apostle Paul himself refused a handout. He worked so as not to be a burden to anyone. He knew that when people aren’t busy with work they become busybodies, minding everyone else’s business because they have no business of their own.

Jesus told a parable about a slothful steward who didn’t do much of anything managing his master’s money until he caught wind that he was about to be fired. Then, in a fit of motivation, he calls in his master’s debtors one by one and does some creative bargaining and collects on some dead assets with some hasty discounts. And the master is pleased and commends the steward for his shrewdness. He finally did something! It took the desperation of being fired to get him off his lazy seat, but he actually did something.

And isn’t that the way it is, at times? We do our best work on the way out the door, wanting to leave on good terms or not wanting to leave a mess for the next person, and then realize how much we could have done all along? The sin of sloth is waste. Wasted time. Wasted energy. Wasted talent. Wasted gifts. Think of how much that steward could have saved his master if he would have been that busy with the books all along!

It’s even worse when we speak of spiritual matters. Slothfulness of the soul. Laziness in prayer, in devotion, in coming to God’s services. Oh, there are a multitude of excuses. Old Adam is very creative. But at the heart of it all is a spiritual heaviness. We are, in our flesh, spiritual couch potatoes, content to watch TV, even religious TV, and trick ourselves into thinking we are being “spiritual.”

Jesus came in the flesh not to be served but serve. He came to do our labor, Adam’s labor, wholeheartedly. He knew the callouses and splinters and long hours of Joseph’s trade. He knew the long hours of teaching, of being a rabbi. He knew the fatigue at the end of the day. He even tired of it all, wondering how long He’d have to put up with this adulterous and perverse generation. But He endured. And for the joy set before Him, He went the entire way of our life to the cross and grave. He was no idler, but He bore our idleness, our apathy, our sloth, our self-centered laziness to the cross and killed it.

He drowned that idler old Adam in Baptism water. And He pulled up from the water a sinless saint eager to serve. Yes, the old Adam clings to us. We carry him around, we have to work through him. He need to be compelled and coerced. He is our old couch potato. But he is not you. That’s you in Adam. You in Christ are zealous and diligent, serving others as though serving God. Serving like the rather dishonest steward who, with nothing to lose, dead to the world, finally is free to do the task that was given him.

You’re that free. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. You cannot fail except not to do. And when those moments of couch potato slothfulness threaten to take over, make the sign of the holy cross, trace that mark of your Baptism, remind yourself of who you are and Whom you serve. Remember that He has given you body and soul, eyes, ears, your members, your reason, your senses, your time, your talent, your treasure. Everything. You are a gifted child of God, gifted to serve, to do God’s goodness and mercy.

The article of justification, that we are justified in God’s sight by grace (His gift) through faith alone (apart from works) solely for Jesus’ sake is the center and heart of our faith. But it is NOT paraphrased as I once heard it from the mouth of a Lutheran, “I ain’t gotta do nothing.” The correct way of saying it is, “God has done all there is to do to save you because you can’t save yourself. Now go and do the work God has given you to do.”
The way to kill old Adam’s sloth is to get up off your couch and do. Little things. Needful things. Merciful and good things. Nothing kills sloth more than diligence to one’s calling and station in life. That is God’s gift, together with your reason, senses, and skills. That is your freedom in Christ. That is the Spirit’s fruit at work in you, a child of God.

In the Name of Jesus,