Sloth – Slothfulness about Leisure, Spiritual Sloth, How to Overcome Sloth

‘S’ by Lorraine Loots

Last week we looked at Bodily, Intellectual and Moral Sloth. Now, moving ahead…

Slothfulness regarding Leisure.

This sounds like a contradiction. It is not.

Fifty five years ago one of my professors predicted that the big problem by the end of the twentieth century would be finding something for people to do with all their spare time. I don’t think so! at least not in America. After Sunday Liturgy not long ago someone said to me, “I’m so tired. I’m working almost seventy hours a week.” This is not atypical. 

When I grew up in small town Ohio, retail stores were open weekdays, Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings – and that was it. This meant employees (and employers, I think) got most evenings and weekends off. Fifty years ago the issue in Milwaukee was whether stores should now be allowed to open on Sundays and at night. After much controversy, the answer was Yes. I think money had something to do with it.

American workers who once fought and obtained a forty-hour work week have now lost it. During supposed “time off”, many now keep working by computer or phone. Many of the poor now have to work two jobs. Americans get little vacation time compared to most of the rest of the world, and many don’t take all of it for fear someone will get ahead of them.

How different it is (or at least appears to be) in Europe, and indeed much of the world. Germany presently has a 28-hour work week. In France it’s 35 (though I read that it’s now slowly decreasing), and all are required to take five weeks vacation annually! See:       and   

People eating out in the harbour of Fiskardo in a summer evening. Kefalonia, Greek Islands, Greece

On my trips to Greece, I have sat many times watching Greek people spending a leisurely evening eating, drinking and socializing unhurried at outdoor restaurants and tavernas. But here…? Not so much. 

I’ve gone on and on about this because, regarding the balance of labor and leisure, in my lifetime I have seen our society change greatly for the worse. I remember Milwaukee when we moved here fifty years ago: an industrial city where management and workers (who belonged to unions) usually “got along”. Young men often went to work for a company right out of high school, were trained, then had a life-long forty-hour-a-week job with wages high enough to support a family, were generally well treated by employers, and then retired with a respectable guaranteed pension for the rest of their lives. There was plenty of time for leisure. But now…

“All work and no play makes Jack” not only a “dull boy” but spiritually and mentally unhealthy. It’s also counter-productive. We have forgotten the “Coffee Break Principle”: Statistics show that workers who take a break, whether for coffee and conversation or for weekends or vacation, come back rested and refreshed, with a new perspective, and they are better at their work, more creative. 

Actually this the ancient Fourth Commandment Principle

The Jews 3000 years ago knew what we have forgotten – that people need time off work. Really, God took a day off work, and we can’t?! And this applied not only to masters but also to their servants. (Employers, take note.) People need time off for recreation, to be “re-created”  through worship (though the Commandment does mention that) and prayer, spending time with our spouse or kids or grandchildren or friends, reading, or working in the garden or in the shop or whatever, maybe just sitting around for while doing nothing and giving God a little time to get at us. It obviously need not be on the Seventh Day, which is Saturday. (Look at your calendar.) The Christian “day off” for worship has always been on the First Day. Time off can be scattered through the week if we wish – just so we stop working for a while. And then, to use Christian symbolism, on the “eighth day” we will be re-created, “resurrected”.

Once some years ago church work had been heavy and I was just exhausted, and my wife had an evening meeting, so I went to the Cedarburg Rivoli to see a totally pointless movie with no moral or intellectual value whatsoever. (“Pirates of the Caribbean”, I’m almost embarrassed to tell you, the first of which was not bad but the others were… well, don’t watch.)  I came out of it relaxed and re-created again. That silly movie was a gift of God. God made us so we need leisure time.  

And to get back to the main point: the fact that we are busy all the time does not we are not slothful. It is because we are too busy with some things that we get slothful about others. The rich man in the parable Luke 12:16-21 had worked hard and taken care of material things, but had been entirely slothful about more important ones...

So now we come to the most dangerous kind of sloth:

Spiritual Sloth

Prayer and worship and Scripture reading and doing whatever we need to do to be with God – this is our most important work. To neglect this is to be spiritually slothful, and it can have eternal consequences, not to mention “pre-eternal” ones.

Worship is intended to be work, not entertainment. Saint Benedict called his daily monastic services the Opus Dei, the “work of God”.  Liturgy (λειτουργία/ leitourgeia) means literally “public work“, sometimes translated “the peoples’ work“.

‘Acedia’ by Hieronymus Wierx

Spiritual interior sloth is so distinctive that it has its own word in ancient Greek (ἀκηδία/Akhdia) and in Latin (accidie). This is spiritual lethargy which comes over us – despite what we believe, despite what we intend, despite even what we really want – and if we give in to it, it keeps us away from God and what he can do for us. I’m sure you’ve experienced this: I know I ought to pray, need to pray, have time to pray. I know that morning prayers take only a few minutes. I know that once I start praying and stand before God, I will love it, and it will empower and guide my day.” Yet something keeps me from it. 

I told you this story back in Blog Post 90: Years ago during Lent I decided to keep fifteen minutes of silent meditative prayer in church each day, just being with God. Now, fifteen minutes is not a lot of time. I spend more time than that just trying to figure out what the TV schedule is. But I would head for the church and find myself checking out the bulletin board, straightening things on my desk, staring out the window, anything other than praying. I had to fight to get through that door into the church. Sometimes I lost. 

What was holding me back? It’s not “what”. It’s “who”. The devil wants above all things to keep us away from direct contact with God, so he throws a kind of spell over us leaving us spiritually lazy, a haze over our minds and souls so that for the moment God and faith seem unreal and pointless. If we give in we slowly, ever so gradually fall away, until we’re almost out of touch with God – and then he’s got us and we’re gone, spiritually dry as a bone. and we scarcely stop to wonder how it happened, or maybe don’t even notice that it happened. And then Satan wins. And if we don’t fight back we can lose forever. It is vital that we remember that, so we will wake up and fight back.

This is why for 50 years in two parishes, Episcopalian and Orthodox, I scheduled frequent regular weekday worship services, a tradition which my successor Father David continues, thank God. Some parishioners have come, but this was chiefly for my own spiritual benefit. It forced me to be in church and ready for the service on my lazier days, and so there I was and we prayed.

Regular prayer, morning and evening, however we do it, is wonderful – there’s no other word for it. Please don’t be slothful about this. You’ll miss so much. (I offered suggestions and resources as to how to go out daily prayer in Post 90. If you’re not in the habit, check it out.) 

“But I don’t have time to pray”, you say? I’ve discovered over the years that “Prayer doesn’t take time. Prayer makes time”. Prayer lets God’s wisdom and power and creativity into our lives, so that we get more accomplished.

But most important, discipline yourself to get to Divine Liturgy regularly. We all need to gather ourselves as the Church and worship God together, and hear the Gospel and receive the Eucharist and be strengthened and uplifted by the community.

Let me add something here by which I intend to offend about 75% of Orthodox people: One of most distressing things in the Orthodox Church is how our people drag into church late – sometimes not till almost the end of Liturgy. Really, people, we get to work, to school, to the movies, to ball games on time –  but not to this most important thing in our life, the Divine Liturgy? Orthodox people are appallingly slothful about this. This should not be.

What are signs that we are spiritually slothful? If we find ourselves occasionally, then ever more frequently skipping church on Sundays. If we know more about the Packers than we do about the Faith, more about celebrities than about Jesus. If we watch silly TV shows instead of praying. If we watch God knows what (and he does!) on the internet, when on the same screen we could be reading the Epistle and Gospel and saints’ stories of the day. If we find ourselves walking up to receive Communion without thought, as if we were getting a cheeseburger at McDonalds. If we don’t bother to fast. If we refuse even to think about going to Confession. And most important, if we refuse to love, to apologize, to forgive, to do good.

The Results of Sloth

Sloth of all sorts demoralizes us, and our true life begins to shut down.

If we are lazy bodily, we soon begin to find all effort distasteful and avoid anything that might be productive – and we old guys wind up just sitting in our lazy boy recliners being lazy boys. If we are slothful intellectually and don’t care about seeking truth, we begin to feel that nothing is really true (like many Americans today), and our minds go fuzzy. Moral sloth causes us to feel it makes little difference how we behave. Laziness in personal relationships makes us suspect that other people aren’t important, that they don’t care about us anyway. Spiritual laziness makes us feel that God and his Kingdom are not real, so why bother? Sloth progressively eats away at us in every way, and our souls wind up hopeless, then despairing and we can’t think why. This is a literal foretaste of hell. Therefore avoiding sloth and laziness is our duty not only towards God and our neighbors, but certainly towards ourselves – if we don’t want to go dead.

The cure for Sloth

Hard work. Get at it. Exert your willpower. Fight back against the devil. We Orthodox believe that salvation requires work on our part, cooperation (“synergy”) with God. Saint Paul says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Philippians 2:12  

Prioritize. Organize your life. Plan. Schedule. Discipline yourself so that none of your duties goes ignored and every minute is lived for God. But remember again, never-ending busy-ness is not the goal. Schedule leisure time for re-creation. Balance out your various duties according to your present situation. For example, a mother of small children needs to give much more time to her external duties; those, offered up to God, are her “prayer”. When her children are older, she will have more time for quiet more formal prayer. Since there is never enough time to do everything, do what you can now and offer the rest up to God. He can fill in our gaps and accomplish which we cannot. He managed to keep the world going before we got here.

Some excellent advice from the book Unseen Warfare, chapter 20: “Never delay in undertaking any work you have to do, for the first brief delay will lead to a second, more prolonged one, and the second to a third, still longer, and so on. Thus work [may be] abandoned as being too burdensome.”  [Had the author been watching me (not) do my office work?] “Sometimes your tasks may seem to be too many; you become flustered and ready to give them up. But refrain from thinking of their great number; instead force yourself [to] take up the most immediate task and do it with diligence, as though the others did not exist; and you will do it without trouble. Then do the same in…other tasks and you will finish them all calmly without fuss or bother. [Otherwise you] will have no rest and you will feel yourself overburdened with work, even while doing nothing.”

My wife suggests: “Turn off the television, that great waster of time.” And put down that smartphone occasionally. And if your work isn’t on the computer (as mine is at the moment, but otherwise often not} close the lid and get on with something important. During Lent, cut back to prove you can do it. At this period in history when the world seems to be going crazy with 24-hours-a-day news, don’t go crazy with it. When I was a young boy (said the old man, again) the news was available on radio only three times a day, morning noon and evening. Somehow we survived.

 I advise: If you are busy, find the easiest, quickest way to do your work. There is no virtue in making things more complex and time-consuming than they need to be. Sometimes we can even do two things at once. I meditate (using the Jesus Prayer, “Holy God…”, “Holy Theotokos, save us” and the like) while swimming laps at the Y. The two work together beautifully, neither detracting from the other.

Finally, think often about your mortality. (Wait till you’re 80. You won’t have to remind yourself of this, I guarantee you.) Again from Unseen Warfare: “Remind yourself every day that now is in our hands, but tomorrow is in the hands of God, and that he who gave you this morning has not bound himself with the promise to give you the evening too. Refuse to listen to the devil when he whispers to you: give me now and you may give tomorrow to God. No, no! Spend all the hours of your life in a way pleasing to God; keep in your mind the thought that after the present hour you will not be given another and that you will have to render a strict account for every minute of this present hour…  the time you have in your hands is priceless and if you waste it uselessly, the hour will come when you will seek it and not find it.”

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