People typically think of sloth as simply “laziness,” a lack of a serious work ethic. But the Christian tradition has always seen something more here: St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, defined sloth as “sorrow at the difficulty of a spiritual good.”
Consider New Year’s Resolutions—how long do they last? We start off with great enthusiasm—and eventually the mountain starts to seem a bit too high to climb; we want to achieve great things; but we become overwhelmed with the immensity of the task (and our inadequacy), and so we roll over and give up—settling for a sad state of mediocrity. This is sloth: we are made for greatness, but sometimes the journey seems too difficult, and so we become sad. In our unfulfilled state we then often seek outlets to distract ourselves from our emptiness—television, scrolling endlessly through social media, or filling our minds with the latest gossip; and eventually, we wake up and find ourselves bored with life.
Only people can be bored—cows aren’t bored, they just look that way. If we are made for more and we fill ourselves with less, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves sad, restless, and bored—these are the typical traits of sloth.
So how does this relate to sin?
We’ve all heard of “comfort food,” haven’t we? If we are unfulfilled at our deepest spiritual levels, then it’s quite expected that we would turn to a physical pick-me-up. We’re feeling down, so we turn to a physical outlet to raise our spirits. Here is where addictions to pornography and sexual sin often begin, not to mention patterns of unhealthy relationships—turning to them in a down moment for emotional or physical affirmation and gratification.
In order to break this cycle, we need to engage the root of the problem—not just the symptom. In other words, especially with habitual patterns and sins of addiction, we can’t simply try to “stop” doing them. That void in our heart needs to be filled with something else—something deeper, something richer and more fulfilling.
What the Devil would love more than anything is for us to be trapped in sin and then try to lift ourselves out by sheer will power, only to end in despair when we come face to face with our own brokenness.
We are broken and in need of God’s grace. The trick to the spiritual life then is this: to recognize the two-fold truth that (1) we are broken and (2) God’s mercy is infinite. If we only think of God’s mercy, we may fall into presumption and complacency; but if we only think of our brokenness, we’ll fall into despair. Christian hope walks between these two poles, recognizing our brokenness, but always in the light of God’s infinite mercy.
So, if we feel like we just can’t break out of the cycle of sin, that’s ok—many have been there before. We are made for infinite happiness—this is the subtle way in which God draws us to himself. But if we don’t recognize this—if we leave the human heart void of its deepest longing—then we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves restless and unfulfilled. And this inner restlessness is often at the root cause of our physical addictions or unhealthy relationship patterns.
We usually feel the best when we give our best; whether it’s a sports practice, developing our musical skills, or trying to excel in theatre—we feel good when we give our all. And when we don’t—when we haven’t given our best effort, we leave with a sense of restlessness and decreased satisfaction. If that is true in sports and the like, how much more in the game of life? For true happiness will only come from giving our all to the things that really matter.
Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and an M.A. in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is author of John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again: A Christian Philosophy of Life and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World: Insights from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (forthcoming later this year). Andrew is a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and is a regular contributor to Ascension Press’ Bible blog at www.biblestudyforcatholics.com. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.