The Common Good

Sloth: When Working Isn’t Enough

As preoccupied as I get with working, I love the deadly sin of sloth.

Man overworking, mast3r / Shutterstock.com
Man overworking, mast3r / Shutterstock.com

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Rather, I love to think that I’m above it. I value hard work and I work hard. I judge my days by my to-do lists and the number of items crossed off at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter if my lists are for work during the day, relaxing in the evenings, or even my time off.

On Saturdays I have a list of friends I need to email and get-togethers I want to plan for the coming week. Usually reading at least one chapter of a book makes the list. So do the normal chores of tidying my room and doing the week’s laundry. Not to mention the long list of news articles or theological blog posts I have constantly open on my computer for reading at any resting moment.

And that’s what my rest looks like.

Now that I’ve made myself look like an industrious and hardworking person, let me be the first to say these lists don’t get done. Note I didn’t say they sometimes don’t get finished. I never finish them.

Much of that has to do overscheduling, but it also has to do with how I think about my lists.

It’s all about production. It’s all about output. I get caught up in the trap of valuing myself through the lens of prestige, through how I imagine others value me. When I can show my massive FINISHED list, my life has meaning. This is where sloth takes over my life.

This whole time, I’ve been talking about physical accomplishment, things I can measure to show improvement.

But sloth doesn’t only apply to physical labor. The spiritual sin of sloth shows its face when I’m inattentive to my spiritual needs, when I know the spiritual good that can come from a certain decision and I determine not to follow through. Like when I decide to check my Twitter feed one last time before bed, instead of dwelling in God’s word.

In the writing of Thomas Aquinas, sloth “denotes sorrow for spiritual good, [and] it is evil on two counts, both in itself and in point of its effect.”

In Aquinas’ words, I hear not just a cry against my own decision to choose “productivity” over spirituality, but also the harsh reality that I think resentfully about filling my spiritual tank. It becomes another item on my to-do list. Sloth shows itself as an evil in my life both through my hesitancy to do what is spiritually good for me, and through the way that my lack of spiritual grounding exposes my life to hurting myself and those around me.

My unwillingness to rest in God blocks me from entering into any glimpse of the reign of God. My vision into the hope God offers is obstructed by my spiritual sloth. That I know needs to be done doesn’t mean I follow through spiritually. When I don’t commit to the path in which God is working in my life, my outlook on life worsens.

When I rely on my own ability to do work and to see myself accomplish what needs to be done, I no longer think I have any need for God or God’s grace. But, of course, I do need grace. I can’t, by myself, get done what needs to get done. I need Sabbath; I need to rest in God and to understand my lack of control over my own life.

Fortunately, God freely offers that grace. Avoiding and overcoming sloth isn’t an act of willpower. It’s the transformative power of God’s grace that gives us that foretaste of the future perfect reign of God.

Ben Sutter is Online Assistant for Sojourners.

Image: Man overworking, mast3r / Shutterstock.com

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