How many times have you set a goal for yourself that fizzled out and amounted to nothing? We often start with the best of intentions, but over time our fervor begins to wane and our dedication slides. Eventually we look back and realize we've made little (or maybe no) progress.
What is it that prevents us from following through on our good intentions? It's a sinister, insidious thing that the early Christians listed as one of the seven deadly sins. It doesn't attract as much attention as sins like lust or anger, but many early church leaders considered it to be the breeding ground for all sorts of sinful behaviors. It's the dreaded sin of sloth.
What is sloth? Sloth is the avoidance of physical or spiritual work. It's knowing what to do and choosing not to do it. It's the desire for ease even at the expense of obeying the will of God. Sloth says to us, Don't strain yourself. What's the big hurry? Sloth hits the snooze alarm, the remote control, and the road when the going gets tough.
Sloth is often associated with laziness, indolence, or lethargy, but it's also closely connected to more common habits and attitudes like indifference, complacency, and procrastination. Sloth is the reason that 50 percent of heart attack victims who intend to follow their doctor's recommendations for diet and exercise don't. It's the reason that 92 percent of enthusiastic weight-loss program participants drop out before they reach their goal. But sloth doesn't only hurt us as individuals; marriages, families, communities, churches, and even nations are in deep trouble when people choose not to follow through with their good intentions.
The Bible has a lot to say about sloth, especially in the Book of Proverbs where the slothful are called "sluggards." Solomon described a sluggard in Proverbs 24:30-34: "I went past the field of a sluggard, past the vineyard of someone who has no sense; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins. I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man" (NIV).
A sluggard lacks good judgment or, as other translations describe, has "no common sense" (NLT) and is "void of understanding" (NKJV). The sluggard described in Proverbs 24 had good intentions to run a productive vineyard, but he chose comfort over the necessity of exerting himself and soon the weeds took over. Like this sluggard, we similarly have a natural desire to dodge discomfort or pain. Sometimes we desire it even more than we want to obey God.
Seeing Beyond the Myths
One reason we're so susceptible to sloth is that we misunderstand it and are often unable to recognize its presence in our lives and habits. Consider these four myths that often cloud our thinking about the sin of sloth.
Myth 1: Busy people can't be slothful. We assume that if our lives are filled with activity, then we can't possibly be slothful. But sloth can disguise itself in the form of misdirected activities. Some of the laziest people are busy doing many things and yet evading that which is most important.
Myth 2: Successful people can't be slothful. This depends on how one defines success. If we look primarily only at a person's portfolio or career accomplishments, we're misunderstanding how God views success. Someone's outer world may look great because all their effort and attention is paid to the areas of life that others see—while their private world gets cheated.
Myth 3: Neat people can't be slothful. Just because a person has her kitchen spices alphabetized and really sharp pencils on her naked desk doesn't mean that person isn't slothful in other areas. In fact, it might mean that she's an obsessive, hyper-organized person who is avoiding much-needed emotional, relational, or spiritual growth.
Myth 4: Non-slothful people never rest. There is a place for rest in a God-honoring life. That's why keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. Rest itself isn't an indicator of slothfulness; the problem is that slothful people don't make good choices about when to rest and when to be diligent.
Facing Our Complacency
Most of us aren't complete and total sluggards. Instead, we're selectively slothful. We're diligent in a few areas of our lives while we procrastinate terribly in others.
Experts on procrastination describe two different types of procrastination. The first kind is called maintenance procrastination. This is putting off activities that are necessary to your day-to-day life, including things like household chores, paying your bills on time, diet and exercise, avoiding clutter. The other category is called developmental procrastination, and this involves needless delays in dealing with personal problems or growth issues, such as improving your relationships, career, intellect, and, certainly, your spiritual growth.
We're all complacent in some of these arenas. So what are we sluggards to do?
This isn't a hopeless situation; we aren't doomed to live in sloth for the rest of our days. But there are also no quick fixes for overcoming sloth. Battling the lure of sloth in our lives requires effort and intention.
Admit your sin. We cannot end laziness in our lives until we acknowledge that it exists. People who are the most slothful are often the least aware that they have trouble in this area (read Proverbs 26:16: "Lazy people consider themselves smarter than seven wise counselors). Don't make the mistake of assuming that because you're busy, successful, or organized, sloth doesn't lurk in some pocket of your life.
Change your thinking. We have to radically alter the messages we allow to control our minds. For example, how often do you think:
- I'm too tired right now.
- I've got plenty of time to do it later.
- I've already eaten one cookie, so I'll have six more and start my diet tomorrow.
- I've been working so hard I deserve a break.
- I'll sleep just 20 more minutes and catch God later in the day.
- I'll wait until I'm inspired.
Second Corinthians 10:5 tells us to take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ. We must take control of our self-talk and replace our excuses with positive, truthful words.
Decide what matters. Many of us have far more good intentions than we could possibly carry out, and we need to focus on just a few areas of growth and improvement. If we don't prioritize and focus our efforts, we'll inevitably become discouraged.
Declare your plan. Experts agree that people are far more likely to get things done when they make an agreement with someone else to do so. Tell trusted friends or family members about your efforts. We all need help and accountability in our slothful areas.
Create consequences. Do you ever hear of a teacher who tells her students to go ahead and study whenever they feel inspired? Of course not! All of us need consequences to get us to do what we say we want to do. Implementing compelling reasons to follow-through on your plan (such as a positive reward or even a punishment you'll give yourself) will help move you to action.
Pray for strength and discipline. We can look to God for help when the inevitable obstacles come our way. God wants to help us defeat the sin of sloth and he will strengthen us to do so, but we must do our part and not simply wait for God to do all the work.
An Enthusiastic Life
Do you know what the opposite of sloth is? It's not work—it's enthusiasm. That word comes from the Latin entheos and means "one with the energy of the divine." God never does anything with mediocrity. And as his children we are told by the apostle Paul, "Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically" (Romans 12:11).
The battle against sloth is going to be fought every single day of our lives. I've come to learn that this sin has the power to shipwreck my soul, maybe more than anything else. I don't want to get to the end of my life regretting not only things that I did, but things I didn't do because they required some discomfort!
We all have choices about how we're going to live, and ultimately our choices determine who we are. They determine the quality of our relationships, what we can contribute to this world, and how much we're becoming like Jesus Christ. We're going to have to move out of our comfort zones. But if we do that with God's strength, at the end of the day we're going to have few regrets and deep joy.
Nancy Beach is a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago and the executive vice president for the Arts at the Willow Creek Association. She is the author of Gifted to Lead: The Art of Leading as a Woman in the Church.