What is the first thing that comes to mind when you read the word? You probably thought of a lazy person, or the animal that shares the name. It's true that lazy people are slothful, but the true definition of the word is a bit more complicated.
Back during the 4th century AD, a monk by the name Evagrius Ponticus listed gluttony, prostitution, greed, hubris, sadness, wrath, boasting, and dejection as deadly sins. This event marked the beginning of the concept of deadly sins. It was later revised by Pope Gregory I, who made many changes, one of them being combining sorrow, despair, and despondency into sloth, or acedia. In this change, the focus shifted to the consequences of sloth rather than it's causes. By the 17th century, the sin of sloth was believed to be the failure to utilize one's talents and gifts.
Sloth can be defined as physical laziness. This is the definition most people have. However, sloth also means spiritual laziness. The Latin word for sloth is acedia, which means a state of spiritual inaction. Sloth's corresponding virtue is diligence.
Physical Sloth and Spiritual Sloth
Sloth can inhibit and even prevent virtuous conduct. It is considered to be sinful because inaction can be just as bad as wrong action. When we are physically or spiritually lazy, we are wasting precious time.
Physical sloth is easy to understand. Examples could be sleeping in too often, spending too much time playing games or watching television, or procrastinating our responsibilities. Physical laziness can manifest in many different, ridiculous, and even comical ways. We must remember though that sloth is no joke. If we forget this, we are in danger of falling further into sin without realizing it.
Spiritual sloth is a bit more complicated. Most religions view sloth as more than just laziness. Sloth is sadness, depression, apathy. It is ignoring or not making our spiritual journey a priority. When we transgress either the law of man or the law of God, and don't care, that is sloth.
Sloth and Diligence
To understand sloth it helps to think about diligence as well, since the two go hand in hand. The bible has many passages that tell us about sloth and diligence. Proverbs 13:4 says, "The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied." This is practical wisdom: those who work hard enjoy the fruits of their labor, but those who do not will desire and get nothing.
In 1 Corinthians 15:58, we are called to be steadfast in our spiritual journey, "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." This is greatly encouraging because in our spiritual journey we will encounter opposition and persecution. We will encounter those who, wielding the "knowledge" and "wisdom" of the world, will attempt to discredit or mock our beliefs. Some will even maliciously slander or attack us for our beliefs. "There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth." (Amos 5:10)
When we face trials like these and remain steadfast, we are blessed. As the bible says, "Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him" (James 1:12).
This is why sloth is sin. Understanding the importance of diligence in our relationship with God helps us understand why sloth is a deadly vice. Essentially, sloth is the rejection of the grace of God.
If you struggle with sloth, be it physical or spiritual, take heart! As we learned from Evagrius Ponticus, sadness, despair and despondency are ingredients with which sloth is formed in our hearts. Don't focus on your failings or shortcomings, but instead focus on the promise of our Lord: that those who endure temptation and trial are blessed, since they, who have been tested, shall receive the crown of life (James 1:12). Remember these words if you are weary in body or in mind. Do your best to be resolute, knowing that through the Lord, your struggles are never in vain.
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