When was the last time you used the term sloth? It doesn’t count if you talked to one of your children about a minor character in Ice Age or Zootopia. A quick Google Ngram search, which allows users to chart the frequency of words and phrases in literature, shows that the use of the word sloth peaked in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and nineteenth centuries. Now, let’s go one step further. When was the last time you repented of sloth as a sin? Maybe never. Should sloth even be a sin on your radar as something for which Jesus died, something for which we should repent?
What Is Sloth?
Sloth is one of the seven deadly sins in Dante’s famous work The Divine Comedy, and Dante considers sloth from the perspective of love. He puts three of the seven deadly sins under the theme of love distorted: pride, envy, and anger. He puts another three sins under the theme of love excessive: avarice, gluttony, and lust. In between the first three and the last three, Dante places a single sin, sloth, calling it “love defective.”1
With this theme of sloth as “love defective,” Dante comes close to a biblical definition of sloth. Sloth isn’t just laziness. There is a deeper inner motivation to sin that, at its core, is a defective love. Biblically speaking, sloth is laziness that comes from carelessness about the commands and priorities of God, a lack of love for God and His ways that undermines a biblical doctrine of vocation (Judg. 18:9; Eccl. 10:18; Matt. 25:26, KJV). For a working model of sloth, we can consider two different types of sloth—theological and proverbial.
The Christians at Thessalonica had what we might call an over-realized eschatology. It seems that someone had sent a Pauline forgery to the church at Thessalonica, teaching that the day of the Lord had already come (2 Thess. 2:2). And in the soil of false theology, sinful idleness had sprung up (2 Thess. 3:6). Whether the idleness, or sloth, sprung directly from a distorted view of eschatology or from a twisting of the “tradition that [the Thessalonians] received from [Paul],” we do not know. Either way, this is a theologically motivated sloth. Their theology of work did not encompass all of life; they denied that work was a necessary good for humanity. Their distorted theology affirmed their sinful laziness. Paul rebukes them sharply and reminds them of his own diligent, theologically-driven labor (2 Thess. 3:7–12).
This same type of theological sloth is also preserved in the Decalogue. The fourth commandment of the Decalogue governs our use of time. God has very clearly called us to six days of work and one day of rest. We typically read the fourth commandment as “rest on Sunday.” But that is only half the commandment. The other half commands diligent work the other six days (Ex. 20:8–11). Under ordinary circumstances, a failure to dedicate six consecutive days to our work—which includes our primary vocation, our household tasks, and so on—is the sin of sloth, a disregard for God’s good command for us in the fourth commandment, a command summarized as the love of God (Matt. 22:34–40).
Theological sloth can still manifest itself in different ways. Christians today can adopt a worldly mindset around work and view it as a necessary evil for earning a wage. If you reach financial independence earlier than age sixty-three, would you be tempted to “retire” early and live every day like a vacation? If you do reach sixty-three and can retire, would you be tempted to spend your day in personal pursuits without supporting your church or leveraging your time for God-honoring pursuits? Do you harbor a false theological view that sees the Lord’s Day as unimportant, and neglect the observance of the Lord’s Day? Or do you see youth sports and yard work as just as good? Theological sloth is a continuing challenge for the church.
The Proverbs speak often about honest work and the importance of guarding against laziness and sloth (Prov. 12:24, 27; 15:19; 18:9; 19:24, 21:25; 22:13, 24:30; 26:13–15, KJV). And this is the type of sloth that most people think of when they think of sloth. Where the theologically slothful are misapplying doctrine, the proverbially slothful are choosing sinful foolishness over God’s way of godly wisdom. A man who doesn’t even work to take care of his basic needs is foolish and slothful. Paul uses this line of thinking when he commends the biblical husband (Eph. 5:28–29). Paul extends this same reasoning to one’s extended family as well (1 Tim. 5:8), condemning this expression of proverbial sloth with the strongest language, calling it worse than unbelief. It won’t take you much searching to find that this type of sloth is very much alive today.
The Good News
The bad news is that we’re likely more slothful than we know. The good news is that Christ came to honor God’s Word and worked diligently in applying it. Jesus died to atone for the sin of sloth and lived a life of godly work to provide for His people a record of sinless labor. When we commit the sin of sloth, we can repent and walk in the newness of life purchased for us by Christ.
This article is part of the Virtues and Vices collection.
- Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer, The Divine Comedy; Troilus and Criseyde; The Canterbury Tales, ed. Mortimer J. Adler and Philip W. Goetz, trans. Charles Singleton and Nevill Coghill, Second Edition, vol. 19, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago; Auckland; Geneva; London; Madrid; Manila; Paris; Rome; Seoul; Sydney; Tokyo; Toronto: Robert P. Gwinn; Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 169.↩