This is sloth:
– To grow weary in doing good
– To surrender your responsibilities.
– To give in to discouragement and despair.
– To lose heart for obedience to God and service to others.
– To wimp out and quit following the Lord Jesus.
In our workaholic culture, sloth is probably the least understood of the seven deadly sins. Even the word may be unfamiliar to you. The dictionary says we can pronounce it either “slawth” or “sloath.” I sometimes prefer the latter pronunciation because it reminds me of the word’s meaning. “Sloth” is related to “slow”; it means indolence, laziness, idleness, physical or mental inactivity. There is a certain sleepy, slow-moving, three-toed South American animal which seems to do nothing but hang upside down from trees all day and is called – you guessed it, the sloth.
But when we speak about the deadly sin of sloth we do not mean simple idleness or laziness. Every couch potato is not necessarily being slothful. Idleness can be both necessary and good; we all need leisure in our lives, times when we can kick back, relax and drain off some of the tensions of daily life. That’s why holidays, weekends and vacations are all so important. Indeed, God himself made this point by building the rhythm of a sabbath, a weekly day of rest, into our world.
When we speak of the sin of sloth, we’re talking about a particular sort of idleness, one that is caused by apathy or indifference. Sloth is the lack of feeling for or caring about anything worthwhile. The person caught in the grip of this sin doesn’t care about God; he doesn’t care about the world or other people; he doesn’t even care about himself. The sin of sloth asks, “What’s the use?” and responds, “Nothing matters. Effort is pointless. Life is meaningless.”
You’ve probably heard the distinction made between sins of commission and sins of omission. A sin of commission is a wrong act that we do; a sin of omission is a right act that we fail to do. While the other six deadly sins lead to every kind of wrong action, sloth is the primary producer of the sins of omission. It’s a kind of spiritual poison. Sloth paralyzes our will the way some deadly toxic agent paralyzes our nervous system. The Christian writer Dorothy Sayers described sloth this way:
It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.
If left untreated, sloth slides into the despair that is its ultimate expression. I think it is important to take note of the fact that according to Christian tradition, hopelessness is not just a condition that happens to us; it is a sin, and a deadly one to boot.
“LET US NOT GROW WEARY IN WELL-DOING”
But thankfully, there is a cure for the deadly sin of sloth. Through a dramatic instruction in the closing verses of his letter to the Galatians the apostle Paul shows us how to combat sloth:
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Paul’s message here is simple: we must persevere in doing good in every possible way at every possible opportunity. As Eugene Peterson translates, “Let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. . . . Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.” This is an exhortation to continue in the faith, obedience and good works that mark the life of every true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The exhortation is needed because the Christian life is tough. It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to quit and give it up. If you’ve ever seriously tried to live for Jesus Christ, you don’t need me to tell you that there are major obstacles and frustrations involved. Those we seek to serve and for whom we may be trying to do some good can prove to be ungrateful. Our work in Christian ministry might appear to have few or little or no results at all. It can seem as though all our words and efforts aren’t making any difference. The enormity of the needs that confront us can make the little bit we do hardly seem to matter. We might struggle for years to be obedient and to overcome a particularly stubborn sin with no apparent progress. “So what’s the use?” we’re tempted to ask; “What difference does it make?” Discouragement sets in, and we slide slowly into sloth.
Two words that Paul uses in verse 9 here in Galatians 6 point out the problem. He talks about “becoming weary in doing good,” not so much weary in the physical as in the emotional sense. To grow weary in the Christian life – or in any hard struggle, for that matter – means to gradually lose your courage and resolve. It’s what we’re getting at when we say that a person is “psyched-out” by what’s confronting them, demoralized by the feeling that whatever it is, it’s just too much for them to overcome. The second expression Paul uses here is to “give up.” Literally, the word in Greek means to “loosen your belt.” Because of the type of clothing worn in the ancient world, the first thing a man needed to do for any activity was to tuck the folds of his robes into his belt and cinch it tight in order to free up his arms and legs to work. So loosening your belt meant the opposite; it meant you were getting ready to give up and quit. The equivalent in our day, I suppose, would be to imagine a football team going into the locker room at halftime and instead of rekindling its spirit for the rest of the game, taking off its equipment and slinking home in shame before the game is even finished.
“WE WILL REAP A HARVEST”
This is sloth. It is to grow weary in doing good, to surrender your responsibilities, to give in to discouragement and despair, to lose heart for obedience to God and service to others, and finally to wimp out and quit following the Lord Jesus.
But what is the antidote to sloth? How can we find the strength to persevere? Paul encourages us here with a great promise, expressed by means of a wonderful metaphor. He’s drawing an analogy from the task of farming. Paul begins by formulating a fundamental spiritual law: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (v. 7). The basic principle here is a simple and obvious truth: the product of the harvest is determined by the quality of the planting. It’s the sowing of the seed that decides what kind of crop you get, not the reaping. Only a fool would plant weeds in his field and expect to harvest wheat.
Paul’s point, of course, is spiritual, not agricultural. He means that the way we live will determine our eternal destiny: “The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (v. 8). Now that would seem to be an obvious truth, but how many people ignore it! The world is full of those who think they can sow wild oats and reap salvation. They plant godlessness and somehow expect to harvest eternal life. But it doesn’t work that way. “Don’t be deceived,” Paul says, “God can’t be mocked.” Don’t kid yourself; God can’t be fooled with in this way. This is an unbreakable law. The Bible says that “Those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:8). A life given over to sin results in disaster and ruin, just as surely as one devoted to the Lord leads to the everlasting joy of heaven and the satisfaction of having lived well.
But now here’s the key lesson for Christian believers. Precisely because this law of sowing and reaping is an inviolable principle of the universe, it’s also a powerful encouragement to us to go on living for God and to keep on planting as the Spirit directs. So, urges the apostle, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” The point is that obedience to Christ is never wasted. The good that we try to do in his name cannot be thrown away or lost. Just imagine a farmer coming into his house after spring planting, shaking his head sadly, and announcing to his family, “Well, I’ve just lost a thousand bushels of seed. It’s out there buried in the field, and I can’t see any sign of it.” How absurd! But it’s just as absurd to think that our efforts to serve the Lord, to fight against sin, to witness for the gospel, will come to nothing. The crucial thing is to keep on keeping on, and to have patience to wait for the Lord’s timing. So fix your eye on the coming harvest, and keep working, knowing that “in the Lord your labor is never in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
What might this mean for us in practical terms of daily living? I’d like to suggest two points in closing by way of fleshing out the apostle Paul’s exhortation against sloth. The first point applies to us collectively as the church of Jesus Christ, and the second is an individual application. Think first about our calling as the church of Jesus Christ. Sloth is one of the most effective weapons the devil uses to try to get the church to abandon its mission to the world. We look at the enormity of the task confronting us: four billion non-Christians in the world, many of whom have still never even heard of Jesus Christ; stubborn hatred and endless strife in so many places; seemingly insoluble problems of hunger, poverty, ignorance and disease. “What’s the use?” we ask, “It’s hopeless. What difference can our little bit of mission effort make? Week after week we preach the gospel, and what change do we see in the world? We contribute every year to fight against world hunger, yet every year there’s a new disaster, another urgent appeal for help.” Or we try to assist some needy family in our own community, and discover that the demands upon us just go on and on, with no end in sight. So we’re tempted to back off, turn inward, give up. “I’m tired,” we think, “let someone else take over and shoulder the load.”
Or think, secondly, about our own personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. The Christian life, as you know, is a call to obedience and the pursuit of a Christ-like character. It’s relatively easy to begin this life with enthusiasm, but it’s hard to continue year-in and year-out. We try to develop the daily disciplines of prayer and Bible study, but we often falter. We struggle against stubborn habits and character flaws, sometimes for years, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. And then sloth begins to whisper, “Don’t worry about it, you’re good enough as you are, take it easy. Go ahead and sleep instead of getting up to pray . . . let yourself go when you want to indulge those sexual fantasies . . . don’t worry about your foul mouth or your bad temper. It doesn’t matter anyway. You’re never going to change. Why don’t you just quit?”
But it does matter. We are called to fight the good fight of faith, to run the race, and to endure. We will reap the harvest of godliness and grace, provided we don’t give up. One of my favorite verses is the opening verse of Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” Without the Lord, all our efforts are in vain. But, you see, the reverse is equally true. With the Lord, none of our efforts are in vain. Nothing we do is lost, or useless. Every word we speak, whether of witness or encouragement, every cup of cold water we give in Jesus’ name, every time we repent and turn away from our sin – each simple act, each tiny effort is a good seed, sown in the promise that the Lord will bring out of these things a harvest of glory for himself and salvation for us.
Never quit. Never give up. Someday we will see just how great the harvest is.