Picture a hairy long-toed sloth hanging from a branch, with a headset on, listening to “sloth motivational tapes”: “Relax; take your time; what’s the hurry? Life goes on whether you’re asleep or not.” So one of my favorite cartoons of sloth depicts this supposed vice. Supposed, because on first glance, hardly anyone would think of sloth as one of the infamous seven deadly sins.
Why is this? It’s mostly because, like the cartoonist, we typically think of sloth as laziness. Thus understood, should it rank with sins such as envy and lust in its evil and destructive power? Since when was sitting on the couch watching reruns of Friends with a bag of Doritos a moral failure worthy of such severe condemnation?
There are several answers we might give. First, we could conclude that it doesn’t, in fact, have a place:
Second, we could accept the same description of sloth and conclude that it does deserve a place on the list. For this answer, there is both a sacred and a secular version.
As for the sacred, one might think that sloth strikes at the heart of the great Christian virtue of diligence — that powerful sense of responsibility, dedication to hard work, and conscientious completion of one’s duties. What is hard work at its best, after all, but the ultimate expression of love and devotion? Communities that value diligence in this way point to recurring warnings to the “sluggard” in Proverbs and to Paul’s admonition to do useful work with one’s hands. Especially if our work is a divinely appointed vocation, as the Reformed like to think of it, sitting around isn’t just useless; it’s thumbing your nose at God’s call.
Even outside religious circles, however, the virtue of diligence is glorified, and “slacking off” is frowned upon. In the stirring words of Henry Ford, “Work is our sanity, our self-respect, our salvation. Through work and work alone may health, wealth, and happiness be secured.” Likewise, the Chronicle of Higher Education put diligence at the top of its list of the five top virtues necessary for success in graduate school. Diligence, or industry, now counts as a pragmatic virtue aimed at professional success. Even if our careers, then, replaced our religion as a source of purpose, worth, and identity, laziness still carries significant weight. The upshot is, you’d better get busy or you’ll be good for nothing.
A third option is to investigate whether our contemporary understanding of sloth has strayed from the original definition of sloth among the Desert Fathers and Christian medieval theologians. For them, sloth — or acedia, as they called it — had a central place in the moral life, and even rivaled pride as the vice with the deepest roots and most destructive power! What they meant by sloth does imply a failure of effort, but a kind of effort that our contemporary accounts miss.
Thomas Aquinas’ account of acedia stands at the crossroads between this ancient tradition and the modern conception of sloth in terms of a failure of effort in one’s work, Christian or not. His definition, moreover, answers the question of why acedia makes the traditional list of “great” vices. It also needs some unpacking, for he begins with the cryptic statement that sloth is “aversion to the divine good in us.” Huh?
Let me start with a story. Take a typical situation between a husband and wife. In general, theirs is a relationship of love and friendship. But when they quarrel at dinnertime and head off to opposite corners of the house for the rest of the evening, it is much easier to maintain that miserable distance and alienation from each other than it is to do the work of apology, forgiveness and reconciliation. Learning to live together and love each other well after a rift requires giving up their anger, their desire to have their own way, their insistence on seeing the world only from each of their own perspectives. Saying “I’m sorry” takes effort, but it is not simply the physical work of walking across the house and saying the words that each resists.
Do they want the relationship? Yes, they’re in it, and they’re in deep. But do they want to do what it takes to be in relationship; do they want to honor its claims on them? Do they want to learn genuine unselfishness in the ordinary daily task of living together? Maybe tomorrow. For now at least, each spouse wants the night off to wallow in his or her own selfish loneliness. Love takes effort.
Why do marriage and human friendships make good pictures of what goes wrong in acedia? For all its joys, any intense friendship or marriage has aspects that can seem burdensome. There is not only an investment of time, but an investment of self that is required for the relationship to exist, and further, to flourish. Even more difficult than the physical accommodations are the accommodations of identity: from the perspective of individual “freedom,” to be in this relationship will change me and cost me; it will require me to restructure my priorities; it may compromise my plans; it will demand sacrifice; it will alter the pattern of my thoughts and desires and transform my vision of the world. It’s not “my life” anymore; it’s “ours.” Thus it can seem as though stagnating and staying the same might be easier and safer, even if ultimately unhappier, than risking openness to love’s transforming power and answering its claims on us.
Think of your relationship to God like that, and we’re on our way to grasping Aquinas’ definition of acedia. “The divine good in us” refers to the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts. Paul says we are “to be made new in the attitude of our minds, and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:23). Unfortunately, God doesn’t jump in and create a new self in us overnight. The project of transforming our nature requires a lifetime — and a lifetime of cooperation on our part: it’s called sanctification. Being a Christian is like being married; a man and woman take their vows on their wedding day and thus are married, but being married, living out those vows and making them a living reality will take all of their efforts for the rest of their lives. Love has a “now and not yet” character; it is both a gift and life-transforming work. It’s just this transformation by God’s love in us that acedia resists.
This explains how acedia could be a really serious vice. After all, it resists my identity in Christ and chafes at his presence in my heart. If that’s not a description of a significant vice, it’s hard to see what else could count. At the same time, this very explanation raises a hard question: How could I possibly feel aversion to God’s presence in me?
Aquinas answers by drawing on Paul’s words in Galatians 5: Acedia’s aversion is caused by the opposition of the spirit to the flesh.
It is tempting to draw the conclusion from his answer that acedia strikes when the pursuit of our religious duties or spiritual good (things of “the spirit”) takes too much effort, sacrifices bodily comfort, or is physically difficult (thereby opposing the desire of “the flesh”). Is sloth laziness after all?
Aquinas emphatically denies that acedia is a vice focused on bodily goods such as comfort and ease. Instead, we get to the heart of acedia by considering what the apostle Paul usually means by contrasting the “flesh” and “spirit” — namely, the contrast between the old sinful nature and our new redeemed nature in Christ. The battle here is not between body and soul, between the physical and the spiritual, but between the “old self” and the “new self.” Spiritual battles take place on many fronts, but in the worst cases, acedia describes a heart loving and clinging to the wrong things, so that we are divided against ourselves.
Essentially, then, acedia [sloth] is resistance to the demands of God’s love. Why? Because a love relationship marks an identity change and a corresponding call to transformation. Think back to the marriage example with which we began. The claims of the other that require a thousand little deaths of our old individual selfish nature — this is the work that acedia objects to, not merely the bodily effort it may or may not involve. In fact, the person with acedia may pour significant bodily effort and emotional energy into the difficult task of constant distraction and denial of her condition, so the aversion cannot be to effort itself. Yet in a sense, those with acedia do want the easy life, for they find detachment from the old selfish nature too painful and burdensome, and so they neglect acts of love that will maintain and deepen the relationship. Acedia wants the security of Christianity without the sacrifice and struggle to be made anew.
We like the comforting thought of being saved by love, of being God’s own, but not the discomfort of transformation and the work of discipline — even the death of the old sinful nature — that God’s love requires of us.
At its core, acedia is aversion to our relationship to God because of the transforming demands of his love. God wants to kick the whole door to our hearts down and flood us with his life; we want to keep the door partway shut so that a few lingering treasures remain untouched, hidden in the shadows. In one of her autobiographical novels, Anne Lamott recounts the words of a wise old woman at her church who told her, “The secret is that God loves us exactly the way we are and that he loves us too much to let us stay like this.” Those with acedia object to not being able to stay the way they are. Something must die in order for the new self to be born, and it might be an old self to which we are very attached.
Here we can finally sort out our initial thoughts on sloth. We are right to think of acedia as resistance to effort — but not only, or even primarily, in the sense of being physically lazy or lazy about our work. Rather, it is resistance to any effort to change demanded by our new identity as God’s beloved. We like the comforting thought of being saved by love, of being God’s own, but not the discomfort of transformation and the work of discipline — even the death of the old sinful nature — that God’s love requires of us. We’re like that married couple, who want the dream of being unconditionally loved but don’t want to condition their own selfish desires in return.
Because it’s about love — accepting God’s love for us and the cost of loving him back — acedia earns its place among the top seven vices. We’re made for love. To resist it is to deny who we are. In her reluctance to die to her old self, the person with acedia chooses slow spiritual suffocation over the birth pains of new life. She can’t fully accept the only thing that would ultimately bring her joy. She refuses the thing she most desires, and she turns away from the only thing that can bring her life.
As a result of its resistance to love’s demands, acedia takes two forms: despairing resignation or desperate escapism. It can show itself in the total inertia of the couch potato or in the restless distractions of endless activity. Somewhere in between the two is a holy Sabbath rest for the heart that has given itself utterly to God — a heart that can say with joy, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my self, my life, my all.”
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung is a professor of philosophy at Calvin. This article is part of a research project that includes a forthcoming book on the Seven Deadly Sins and a curriculum for high school and college students, co-authored by Rebecca DeYoung and Calvin student Nathan Brink. She recently received an Alumni Association faculty grant for work on publishing the curriculum materials.
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