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My first job was short-term employment. I suppose you could say I was a day laborer. A neighbor hired me to weed her lawn. She provided me with a two-pronged weeding fork and promised to pay me five dollars when I finished. At the time, it sounded like a fortune. I said yes eagerly, carried away by visions of all the comic books I intended to purchase with the money I earned. Plus, this was work that I could do in a more or less recumbent position. On my hands and knees in the hot sun, my enthusiasm soon diminished. The lawn looked much larger from that angle than I had first imagined. There were more weeds than I had thought. As the sweat trickled down the back of my neck, I poked them half-heartedly with the weeding fork, pausing every few minutes to scan the yard and see what kind of progress I was making. The view was not encouraging. The number of weeds appeared to be growing, not shrinking.
After a while, I persuaded myself that I had worked long enough. There was still a weed or two left, but surely my employer didn’t expect me to pull every single weed? She did. “You’re done already?” she asked in a skeptical tone when I went to the door to collect my money. Then she walked the lawn with me, pointing out the weeds that remained and grumbling about my work ethic. There were more than I thought. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed them. Probably because they were the same color as the grass, I reasoned. With a sigh, I knelt down again and went back to work, this time with even less enthusiasm than before. Eventually, my employer paid me and sent me on my way, by now more eager to be rid of me than of the weeds. “A sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth,” Proverbs 26:15 observes. I suppose my unhappy employer would have said that a sluggard buries his hand in the lawn, too lazy to pluck out the weeds.
Os Guinness has said, “Sloth is so much the climate of the modern age that it is hard to recognize as a deadly sin.” Guinness calls sloth “the underlying condition of a secular era.” In fact, in our leisure-oriented age, we kind of admire sloth. We smile at the person who has learned to game the system and can get others to do their work for them. It seems humorous, until we are being waited upon by a slothful person, or must depend upon that person for an important task. When we work with a slothful person and find that we must do their job as well as our own, it suddenly doesn’t seem so cool.
These days, we have abandoned the archaic language of sloth. We call it leisure instead. Leisure is the ideal state for most of us. The ancients considered sloth to be a sin. We wonder what all the fuss is about. Labor unions lobby for a shorter work week. Commercials for money management firms entice potential customers with the promise of retiring early. We call it the good life. Neither the weekend nor retirement are necessarily bad. But we may be putting too much stock in both. Those who live for the weekend run the risk of squandering the blessings the other five days of the week. Some who expect retirement to be magical will discover that they have set their expectations too high. They will carry many of the concerns they had when they worked with them into retirement. Because they have never learned how to rest, their retirement may turn into a succession of empty hours. Or unexpected health or financial problems may suddenly intervene and rob them of the retirement dream altogether.
The sin of sloth has many features and manifests itself in many forms. At times it looks like what we call ennui, an immobilizing lethargy that leeches away our interest in those things that ought to concern us. When we are overcome by sloth, we may also squander our time and energy on meaningless trifles at the expense of other obligations. The stereotype of sloth is the person who won’t get off the couch or doesn’t want to get out of bed for work. But the problem is much larger. The way of sloth is a path full of ill-conceived shortcuts and ignored responsibilities. Sloth practices neglect under the guise of simplicity. It mistakes apathy for ease. Sloth is a sin of omission, but that does not necessarily mean that the slothful are inactive. Sloth is also a sin of rationalization. Those who ignore responsibility always have an excuse for not doing what they are supposed to do. A slothful person exerts the minimum required effort and would prefer to exert no effort at all. When they do make an effort, it is often under duress and is listless and half-hearted. Imagine the worst stereotype of the sort of service we receive at a bureaucratic hub like the division of motor vehicles, and you have a picture of sloth.
Anxiety can also be a feature of sloth. Anxious sloth plays on our helplessness without pointing us in the direction of God’s loving care or powerful support. Anxiety whispers in our ear each night but not in reassuring tones. Its counsels are counsels of despair. We think that the solution to our problems is more power or a change in our circumstances. But Jesus points us in a different direction. He urges us to view our powerlessness through the lens of faith. “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Jesus asks in Matthew 6:26–27. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
In 2 Thessalonians 3:11, the apostle Paul focuses on another form of sloth: “We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies.” Paul’s criticism is proof that sloth can be active. Those he condemns were idle and disruptive at the same time. They were meddlers who did not tend to their own business but inserted themselves into affairs that did not concern them.
The digital world of social media and the internet has increased our capacity for sloth. It has made it easy to squander time and energy that we could invest elsewhere more productively with a click or a swipe. The world of social media presents itself as a medium for social connection and communication. In reality, it is socially detached and given to simplistic thinking and sloganizing. The digital world gives us almost unlimited opportunity to be voyeurs and critics. We spend hours watching and reading intimate details about people we hardly know and affairs that have little to do with us. These are often matters that we would probably be better off not knowing, but we not only greedily consume the information but also share it with others. An earlier age would have called this gossip. Paul would have considered it meddling and considered us busybodies. We call it connecting and call ourselves friends.
Sloth isn’t just a sin of the workplace; it insinuates itself into every sphere of life where effort is required. Sloth can attach itself to the way we think, love, and play. It is that state of lethargy that always opts for the easy path. Sloth is the enemy of perseverance because it leaches away our capacity to persist in effort. Sloth is the handmaid of the hopeless. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the antidote for sloth is work. Work that has been detached from our larger calling in Christ can be as destructive as sloth. The antidote for sloth is not effort but rest. Jesus offers rest as a gift to all who have worn themselves out in fruitless effort. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus promises in Matthew 11:28.
Another word for this rest is grace. By this definition, rest is as important to our work as it is to our play. Rest as God defines it is a state granted to all those who have ceased from their own efforts to be right with God (Heb. 4:10). Rest is not the end of all effort but the end of self-empowered attempts to earn God’s favor. It is also the end of living for self alone. In the ancient world, the yoke was a symbol of slavery, and those who accept the yoke of Christ also accept their new status as His slaves (Eph. 6:6). Slavery to Christ is not indentured servitude. We are not working our way out of our obligation to Him. The Christian life is not a contractual arrangement by which we seek to earn God’s grace and forgiveness after it has been given to us. The yoke places us, and all that concerns us, under the authority and control of the Savior. Our work, our play, our home life, and everything else is offered to Him as an act of worship (see Rom. 12:1–2). Jesus, in turn, exercises His gentle but absolute authority in those spheres, showing us what it means to live for Him in each of those spaces. We act as His stewards, representing His interests.
True rest is marked by an attitude of confidence and peace. It is grounded in trust and particularly in trust that rests in God. The essence of rest is expressed in Psalm 138:8: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your love, O LORD, endures forever—do not abandon the works of your hands.” It is the confidence that comes from knowing, “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).