A few years ago, a Mennonite church offered a Lenten worship series on the Seven Deadly Sins. For each of the six Sundays of Lent, the preacher’s sermon focused on one of the traditional offences, like pride or wrath or envy. Given that there were more sins than Sundays, sloth was eliminated from the list. The reasoning was that, of the many possibilities, sloth was the one least likely to afflict Mennonites.
Speaking in broad strokes, Mennonites are do-ers, known for their hard work, earnest dedication to meaningful labour and sturdy commitment to helping others. These qualities are something we may quietly admire, possibly even with an edge of self-righteousness. Perhaps more than one of us have been known to whisper in the secret depths of our hearts, “I’m not one of those lazy bums,” even as we recognize how God’s grace has shaped our circumstances, opportunities and abilities.
Still, enough people apparently have struggled with the sin of sloth that it has earned a place as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The word is synonymous with laziness and apathy, spiritual or emotional. A sloth has little interest in life and shows little capacity to care about that lack of interest. In spiritual terms, a sloth is not tuned into God’s voice or is neglecting what God has spoken.
Sloth can also be expressed as dull cynicism. Some of us may know it as a sneaky, life-sucking voice that distracts us with messages of pessimism and hopelessness. Such a voice might murmur, “What you do doesn’t matter. Your efforts are useless, so you might us well roll over and go back to sleep. Avoid taking a stand for justice and righteousness. Ignore the troubles and just slide into a torpor of indifference.” Possibly, we are tempted by a sense that, “in the end, really, evil does triumph.”
Whatever form sloth takes, Scripture warns against such laziness and indo-lence. Proverbs has more than a dozen references, declaring that a sluggard is “stupid” (24:30) and a “close kin to a vandal” (18:9). Another verse describes the slacker at the dinner table: “The lazy person buries a hand in the dish, and is too tired to bring it back to the mouth” (26:15).
There are likely a number of reasons that sloth is seen as such a deadly sin. Such inactivity creates space for harmful pursuits to move in and take over. In the words of hymn-writer Isaac Watts, “For Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.”
Sloth also hurts the community, deadening the life that comes from shared labour and mutual effort. Parents who have struggled to get a teenager or young adult out of bed, or off the couch, or employed, know something of which I speak. (I was probably one of those teenagers back in the day.) Primarily, sloth is a sin because it is a waste—of gifts and skills, of time and potential, of life itself.
Like other sins, sloth has a contrasting virtue: diligence. Scripture probably says more about diligence than it does about sloth. Consider the lengthy description of the superwoman in Proverbs 31. Or the counsel of II Timothy 2:15: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed . . . .”
Likely we’ve known and admired many such workers, who show up day after day, year by year, to do what needs to be done. They model the opposite of slothfulness. With their virtues of diligence, integrity and willing labour, they put their shoulders to making God’s world a better place, and we are the better for them.
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Winnipeg. She is wrapped in the family ties of daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend and pastor.
See Melissa’s other columns in her series on the deadly sins:
The deadly sin of gluttony
The deadly sin of wrath
The deadly sin of lust
The deadly sin of envy
The deadly sin of greed
The deadly sin of pride
Talk of sin should start with forgiveness