Sloth (Latin acedia) is the most misunderstood of the Seven Deadly Sins. It is far from being simple laziness. In recent years it has been identified with depression, but that misses the mark as well. The history of the concept is complex, but reviewing that history will help clarify the sin’s nature.
Acedia (literally, carelessness) was a term from secular Latin that was adopted by early monks to refer to a condition of spiritual exhaustion, sadness, and hopelessness that resulted in a lack of care in performing one’s spiritual duties. It could even lead to an aversion for monastic life.
Acedia is not laziness: it can manifest itself as nearly frantic but misdirected activity. In other words, to avoid doing what one should be doing, one finds all kinds of other things to do instead. These other activities may be good in themselves: in a monastery, a monk might spend time visiting the sick, for example. But they are not the activities that the monk should be doing, and thus they are a sinful avoidance of one’s proper duties motivated by a feeling that the disciplines of the monastery are onerous, oppressive, meaningless, or simply boring. The closest analogue we have to the concept embodied in this sin is spiritual burnout, though as we will see the recommended treatment is different.
The early monastic theologians who identified this sin called it the noonday demon and said it was the worst of all demons. The early monks only ate one meal a day, at 3:00 PM, and so by noon they were often hungry, grumpy, and unmotivated. These feelings and the accompanying temptation to neglect their work were not sin themselves; temptation is not the same as sin. But if a monk acted on the temptation by taking a nap or visiting other monks to avoid doing his work, or leaving for another, “better” monastery, or grumbling about the monastic life, he crossed the line into sin.
In its original definition, acedia was thus the most religiously-focused of the sins since it involved neglect of spiritual duties among monastics.
Over time, acedia became more associated with sadness and from there with despair and melancholy. Once outside of its monastic context, its original conception slipped away, and the term increasingly was used for laziness because of its connection to neglect of one’s duties, or for depression because of its association with sadness, melancholy, and despair. Particularly in the latter understanding of the term, it is inappropriate to see it as a sin, since it denotes a temperament or mental illness rather than as an attitude of heart that leads to disobedience to God.
A Secular Understanding of Sloth
Recovering the original idea of sloth and adapting it to secular life goes a long way toward helping us to see why this qualifies as sin and was viewed as deadly. Sloth as applied to non-monastic life includes all sins of omission, that is, things one should have done but did not do. We may commit these sins for a wide range of reasons, such as “I’m too busy,” “I have to get to a meeting,” “I’m tired,” “I don’t want to,” and “I know it looks like I should, but I really shouldn’t because of [some specious excuse].” Since we tend to think of sins as things we do, it is very easy to overlook the sin in not doing things we should.
Along with general sins of omission, acedia specifically points to distracting ourselves from things that we should be doing by finding something else to do. One example close to its original meaning is found in surveys of pastors that indicate that they frequently neglect the more contemplative aspects of their job, including Bible study and prayer, in favor of active tasks that have tangible results, such as visiting the sick. For the laity, the equivalent is being too busy to pray or to read the Bible or to attend church. A classic modern secular example would be spending the day surfing the internet, viewing online pornography, or reading social media rather than doing our job at work.
And when all else fails, when facing spiritual or emotional weariness, acedia will prompt you to leave the situation. For the monks, this meant leaving the monastery, whether for another, “better” monastery or leaving the monastic life altogether. For us, it means changing jobs, divorce, church hopping, or any other variety of quitting for greener pastures rather than staying where we are and working through the problem.
Why Sloth is Deadly
Sloth is particularly evil because it considers the good things we should do as evils. It leads us to avoid practicing the virtues we need to grow in character and integrity and in our relationship with God. Sloth thus occupies a unique place among the Seven Deadly Sins in that it undermines our efforts to deal with all the others.
Sloth is also a stealth sin: we generally think of sins as things we do; sins of omission frequently operate below the radar such that we do not even notice them. Since those things we do instead of our proper responsibilities may be good in themselves, we may even see ourselves as virtuous while engaging in slothful behavior. Our rationalizations for not acting similarly can encourage us to think we are being wise and responsible for dodging our duties.
Another way to look at it is that sloth is built on self-centeredness: we would rather do what we feel like doing rather than fulfill our responsibilities or obey God. All sins involve self-centeredness, but in few is that connection as clear, unambiguous, and direct as in sloth. While the others involve something else that we are looking for—food, sex, money, respect, etc.—in sloth, the only thing we are seeking is our own will, to do what we want to when we want to regardless of any other responsibilities that might get in the way.
Dealing with Sloth
Sloth is thus a serious sin and very different from laziness or depression despite some superficial similarities. It is often closer to spiritual burnout—exhaustion from spiritual work, struggle, and battle. However, in the case of acedia the remedy is almost the opposite of burnout. With burnout, encouragement from others, rest, time away from responsibilities, and activities that rejuvenate the soul are in order. With acedia and the sadness that often accompanies it, however, encouragement can be a trap: encouragers often do not try to stimulate us to do more and to persevere, instead affirming our feelings and encouraging us to follow them. That advice may be appropriate for the person suffering from burnout, but not for the slothful person.
Encouragement of the right kind is helpful, however. Hearing and sympathizing with another’s weakness and struggle is almost always appropriate, but with sloth we need to move from there toward the solution, which is found not in retreat from work but in diligence and steadfastness in our labor.
If you detect sloth in your heart, avoid those who either suffer from it themselves or who will encourage it in you. Instead, build friendships with those who will encourage you to fulfill your responsibilities and “stimulate you to love and good deeds.” (Heb. 10:24)
Another important element in dealing with acedia is stability. When we are attacked by this sin, the temptation is to run: find another job, find another spouse, find another church, assuming always that the grass will be greener elsewhere. It isn’t. When you run, you find the same problems you thought you left behind because you brought them with you.
Instead, we need to cultivate the biblical virtues of patience, perseverance, and steadfastness. In Nietzsche’s memorable phrase, we need “a long obedience in the same direction.” As Aristotle said, “We are what we habitually do.” We need to persevere through acedia, building a habit of diligence in our work despite our feelings until that habit shapes our hearts to find joy in fulfilling our responsibilities rather than seeking it in fleeing them. In this way the fruit of the Spirit of patience, faithfulness, and self-control are developed in our lives, ultimately overcoming the sin of acedia.