“A sluggard looks upon himself, and thinks that he is wise – Exceeding seven counselors, who sensibly advise.” (Proverbs 26:16)
This is the twenty-sixth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 26, preceded by a brief reflection.
The seven deadly sins – pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth – is a core grouping of sins found in Catholic and certain mainline Protestant theologies. They emerged from traditions of the Desert Fathers in around the year 400, and were formalized in the teachings of the church a couple of centuries later. It is not a list that is found anywhere in the Bible, although all are Scripturally based. In my experience, the ‘seven deadly sins’ is not a construct that is used within Evangelical circles, although they certainly will be recognized by most churchgoers.
From time to time, you will hear a sermon on one of the first five: pride, greed, wrath, envy, or lust. On the other hand, solid teachings are few and far between on gluttony and sloth. The reluctance to speak about gluttony, particularly as it relates to overeating, is understandable because obesity is epidemic in our country and it would be perceived as too damning on those who are overweight. Can you imagine the squirming in the pews from the 40% who are overweight? Not very good for long term growth of a congregation, to be sure. That said, the similar lack of teaching about sloth is puzzling because its tentacles can reach deep into a soul with grievous spiritual consequences.
So why does sloth receive scant attention? It could be because sloth, like gluttony, seems to be a national pastime. We live in a culture that idolizes ‘downtime,’ and even in the church we don’t want to be disturbed or otherwise prodded into action beyond our own otherwise hectic (or not) schedules. It could also be because sloth is not mentioned a lot in the Bible. In fact, almost all direct references to sloth are found in a dozen or so verses in Proverbs, four of which are in Proverbs 26. But I think the most likely reason is because sloth doesn’t somehow seem so bad in comparison to various other ‘deadly sins,’ such as pride, wrath, and lust. But whatever the reason, it is unfortunate, because sloth can indeed have deadly consequences for our spiritual journeys.
The predecessor of the sin of sloth, was known as ‘acedia’ by the Desert Fathers. Acedia was a spiritual affliction, frequently brought on by the heat of midday, that in an extreme case could cause a monk to give up and leave the religious life. It is a condition that in some instances can be seen as a manifestation of clinical depression; in which case, sloth is not a sin but an illness that requires appropriate medical attention. Depression aside, the key insight of the Desert Fathers is that this condition has deep spiritual implications. These we can observe in the way that sloth runs counter to our life in the kingdom of God, and the command to love God and others with all of our faculties – strength, heart, mind, and soul. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind;’ and, love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) Sloth can affect each of these aspects of our being.
Sloth is most frequently pictured as a lack of movement or strength. The term used in Proverbs is, ‘sluggards,’ which on the surface suggests physical laziness. For example, “A sluggard turns upon his bed like hinges turn a door; He slowly pivots side to side, displaying his languor.” (Proverbs 26:14) To accomplish things for God and others takes physical effort. Whether it is running errands, talking, or simply spending time with another person, we must physically move beyond our bed (or recliner) to love and serve others. Similarly, to accomplish things for ourselves takes physical effort. In ancient times, life was based around physicality, which fit well with God’s design for our bodies. In today’s sedentary world, physical exercise is needed to compensate. And while there is a need for rest, even a command from God for Sabbath rest, we suffer for physical sloth.
But while sloth is often identified with laziness and lack of physical action, this is not the essence of sloth. If someone is unable to act due to physical limitations, they are not being slothful. It is when one has the ability to act, but chooses not to, which is at the heart of sloth. And so, it is the heart that is literally at the heart of the matter.
For the most part, sloth is a condition of the heart or will, which shows itself whenever a spiritual imperative is delayed on avoided altogether. For example, “A sluggard says, ‘I can’t go out – A lion’s roaming there; A fearsome lion in the streets, that’s prowling everywhere.’” (Proverbs 26:13) Sloth rationalizes and justifies a lack of action. Ronald Rolheiser puts it this way, “Sloth takes the form of postponing and evading our true responsibilities. For instance, … putting off having to deal with a moral or relational issue in our lives. … We are also slothful when we distance ourselves from the more radical demands of adult responsibility and Christian discipleship and settle in for second best rather than striving for the higher bar. Ironically, we often hide our sloth by working hard so as not to have to face the more challenging task of doing our inner work.” (Sacred Fire, 89)
There is something deeply human about wanting to take the easy way out. Perhaps there is someone I need to forgive, but instead I let the hurt brew. Or perhaps there is someone I need to apologize to, but I avoid them. Or perhaps I have an addiction or relational issue that I keep kicking down the road. Unfortunately, the easy way out often leads to greater problems. We have all no doubt witnessed the effect of unexamined sins in others that after many years have metastasized into their soul like a sort of cancer. At that point, it is next to impossible to reverse the effects – perpetual bitterness, anger, despair and the like.
But sloth is also a condition of the mind that manifests itself in the avoidance of new ideas and thoughts, which becomes toxic when coupled with the idea of its own superiority. For example, “A sluggard looks upon himself, and thinks that he is wise – Exceeding seven counselors, who sensibly advise.” (Proverbs 26:16) When we stop learning, we stop growing. This happens when don’t read and/or listen to others. It is a theme that is emphasized throughout Proverbs. “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15) Much of the division in our country today stems from people who have shut their minds to any view other than their own. Being open to hear other voices doesn’t mean sacrificing core beliefs, but rather, learning that opposing positions are not necessarily evil, just different. Seeking to understand different viewpoints takes effort, but it’s the only way our compassion for others will grow. And compassion in ever increasing measure is the way of the Kingdom – the only way. The way of the sluggard in matters of the mind is perhaps the most dangerous of all the manifestations of sloth.
Left unchecked, sloth eventually affects the soul as it overwhelms all aspects of one’s life. For example, “The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway.” (Proverbs 15:19) And this leads to a place where Christian hope gives in to despair and emptiness. In the words of Dorothy Sayers, “The sin of our times is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.” In this then we see that the ancients had it right – sloth is deadly.
1 Like summer snow or harvest rain,
that strangely doesn’t quit;
So honor given to a fool,
just does not seem to fit.
2 Like swallows darting here and there,
or sparrows flitting round;
So curses given without cause,
will never come aground.
3 A whip for smacking on a horse,
a bridle for a mule;
A rod for laying on the back,
to discipline a fool.
4 Don’t give an answer to a fool,
that validates his whim;
For if you think the way he does,
then you’ll become like him.
5 But give an answer to a fool,
that’s just as crazed as he;
Or else the thought that he is wise,
is what the fool will see.
6 Like cutting off one’s own two feet,
or drinking violence;
Is one who sends a message by,
a fool who has no sense.
7 Like legs of one who’s paralyzed,
that cannot hold their weight;
Is any proverb that a fool,
is trying to restate.
8 Like one who binds a stone to sling,
so it cannot be thrown;
Is one who seeks to honor fools,
despite how they are known.
9 Like thorns that pierce a drunkard’s hand,
that make him flail about;
So is a proverb that a fool,
is trying to speak out.
10 Like archers wounding randomly,
by letting arrows fly;
Are those who seek to hire fools,
or any passerby.
11 Like dogs that retch return again,
to where they made their mess;
So also fools who make mistakes,
repeat their foolishness.
12 Do you see people who believe,
they’re wise in their own eyes?
There’s greater hope for fools than them,
despite what they surmise.
13 A sluggard says, “I can’t go out –
A lion’s roaming there;
A fearsome lion in the streets,
that’s prowling everywhere.”
14 A sluggard turns upon his bed,
like hinges turn a door;
He slowly pivots side to side,
displaying his languor.
15 A sluggard reaches out his hand,
and drops it on a plate;
Too hard to lift it to his mouth –
an effort far too great.
16 A sluggard looks upon himself,
and thinks that he is wise –
Exceeding seven counselors,
who sensibly advise.
17 Like one who grabs a passing dog,
and holds its ears too tight;
Is anyone who meddles in,
another person’s fight.
18-19 Like one who madly shoots his darts,
with flaming tips that smoke;
Is one who tricks a neighbor then,
says, “It was just a joke.”
20 Without some wood to stoke the flames,
a fire will not burn;
Without a gossip fueling it,
a quarrel will not churn.
21 As charcoal makes the embers glow,
and wood makes fires roar;
So one who’s quarrelsome takes strife,
and stokes it all the more.
22 The words of gossiping are like,
the daintiest of fare;
They slide on down into our soul,
and then they settle there.
23 Like shiny glaze upon a pot,
that’s made of mud and clay;
Are fervent words that mask a heart,
where evil has its way.
24 Whoever hates, disguises it,
through words that they impart;
While all of their deceitfulness,
is stored within their heart.
25 Whoever hates, may speak with grace,
but don’t believe the hype;
For there are seven evil things,
that fill their heart with spite.
26 Whoever hates, may use deceit,
so that their hate’s concealed;
But all the wickedness inside,
is sure to be revealed.
27 Whoever’s first to dig a pit,
will fall into the hole;
And too, a stone will turn and crush,
the one who starts its roll.
28 A tongue that lies hates those it hurts –
its victims one and all;
A mouth that flatters with deceit,
brings ruin and a fall.