The Deadly Sins: Bodily Sloth, Intellectual Sloth, Moral Sloth

‘Dolce Far Niente’ by John William Godward

“I went by the field of the lazy man, and by the vineyard of the man devoid of understanding; and there it was, all overgrown with thorns; its surface was covered with nettles; its stone wall was broken down. When I saw it, I considered it well; I looked on it and received instruction: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest. So shall poverty come like a prowler, and need like an armed man.” Proverbs 24: 30-34.

In my usual sources, the Bible, the Fathers and C.S. Lewis, I found surprisingly little about Sloth. Maybe I didn’t look in the right places. The best analysis I discovered was in an early 20th century Anglican book Elements of the Spiritual Life by F.P. Harton, Dean of Wells, who drew much from French and Italian Roman Catholic sources. There is also good advice in a 16th century book Unseen Warfare which quotes several authors, both Eastern and  Western. But much (too much) of the following is my own thinking, so take it only for what it’s worth.  

The Antiochian Archdiocese Pocket Prayer Book defines Sloth as “laziness that keeps us from doing our duty to God and man.” A sloth also is a tropical animal that moves ever so slowly.

What is our duty to God? To love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. We have no right to “kill time”, because it is God’s time, not ours. Our duty to our neighbors is to love them as we love ourselves – as much as ourselves, as if they were ourselves. But this means we should also truly love ourselves, seek what is best for us. So let’s consider our duties, the good works that God wants us to do, to see what we might be slothful about. 

Harton lists four varieties of sloth: Bodily sloth, Intellectual sloth, Moral sloth and Spiritual sloth. To these I am going to add Slothfulness about leisure. 

Before we look at these, first a warning: We live in an ever-busier society. We have many duties and obligations. People often feel guilty because they do not have time to do everything: to work long hours, to worship and pray, then devote much time to family, friends, Church and charities, and read good books, and watch informative and edifying television – PBS, History Channel and the like. Are we feeling exhausted already? 

Our society today often expects more of us than we can do – and often we place that same demand upon ourselves. God does not expect all that of us. We all need to learn that when we’ve gone as far as we can reasonably go, he can fill in the gaps. For he knows that we are limited human beings. He made us that way. There is only One who can do it all, and it’s not you, and it’s not me.

So my purpose here is not to lay guilt on you. What we need to do, with our limited time and resources and energy, is to find a good balance of our various duties, avoiding sloth in all of them, as best we can. And then we need to “let go and let God”.

So here we go…

1.  Bodily sloth

This means just hanging around a lot, not doing much of anything. I once was in a Greek village and saw the women out picking olives every day, while the men sat in the kafenion playing cards, drinking coffee and chatting (probably solving the problems of the world) and not much else. I wanted to cry: “Guys, get off your tails and go out there and help them!” (I didn’t.) 

Saint Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “We hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all… such we command and exhort …that they work quietly and eat their own bread. If anyone will not work, neither should he eat.”  2 Thessalonians 3:10-12 That seems clear enough. The fact is if we do not work, most of us cannot eat or provide for ourselves and our families, nor can we give what we should to Church and charity. 

It is said “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”. Not doing useful work demoralizes and debilitates people spiritually. One of the first responsibilities of a civilized society is to make it possible for people to find work. People with nothing good to do often find something evil to do, as current events clearly demonstrate. (See the “inner cities” or Central America.) Right: What lack of work has created in Honduras, and what migrants are trying to escape from.

However, I do not think bodily sloth is a big problem for most Americans. Most people here today seem overworked – whether the middle classes whose jobs require ever more of them and who seem forever trying to keep up with their responsibilities, or the poor who often have to work two jobs or more just to survive. I see people – fathers, and especially many mothers – working more than is spiritually and emotionally healthy. We’ll look at that next week when we discuss Slothfulness about Leisure

In some circles there has long been much concern about people who just won’t work and are dependent on society – “welfare queens” and immigrants and the like. I don’t think so. Maybe I’ve lived an isolated life, but in my 80 years – living in a village, then towns, cities and suburbs – I’ve known some people who can’t work (at least not steadily) because of disability or other issues. But how many people have I known who just didn’t care to work? One definitely (I could tell you some stories about him!), maybe two, make it three – no, I take it back; that’s what he looked like from the outside, but he had mental problems that he was able to keep well hidden. 

I believe almost everybody wants to work and be responsible and “get ahead”. Am I wrong?

2. Intellectual Sloth

Q.What is the difference between ignorance and apathy?” A.“I don’t know and I don’t care!”

Harton wrote in 1920 that intellectual sloth “is extremely common in these days, when most folk are not trained to think and when they commonly prefer not to do so.” (!) I wish (no, I don’t wish) Harton could see things a hundred years later. We are now into what is called a “fact-free” society, where many people seem not to care about truth, to check out whether what they think is accurate, and where I fear many take advantage of peoples’ ignorance. Much politics and religion now seem to consist largely of slogans, not reasoned argument or thought.

Let me give an example regarding one of the few topics I actually know something about: I have a degree in meteorology and even though my life got turned from “prediction” to “prophecy”, as I say, I’ve followed the subject closely for almost seventy years. A large group of professional meteorologists recently presented an authorized, authoritative, well-documented study about the great dangers of global warming, and the response to it was simply: “I don’t believe it.” I don’t know and I don’t care.

Are people just too lazy to learn and seek facts? Are people just confused by all the information now thrown at us? Or is it that many today are just too busy with other things to take time to learn, listen, think. Sometimes I wonder if we are becoming a society of drones, ants who rush around madly, who never seem to ask: Why are we so busy? What is the point of this? Isn’t there more meaning to life than this? 

Two pleasant young women came to our door one time to tell us about Mormonism. (Have I told you this story?) Obviously they were deeply devoted to their religion, so I asked them (nicely – I really wanted to find out) why they were Mormons. Why did they believe that God finally revealed the truth to Joseph Smith in New York in the 1820s? Their answer was, “We just do”.  I said, “But please, give me some reasons to explain why you believe this.” They responded, “We just believe it.” Then they turned around quickly and left. That is intellectual sloth. I know many young people that age who have thought far more deeply than that.

And it leads to trouble. If, forty years ago, our national leaders had bothered to learn and think about Iran – its people, its religion and politics, its 3000 year history (what neophytes we must seem to them), and about human psychology, how Iranians might feel about our overthrowing their newly-elected government – things might be different today. It was intellectual laziness. 

God gave us minds for our own good. It is slothful not to use them.

3. Moral sloth

This means being lazy to do what is right. I think this kind of sloth has two aspects:

1) Laziness in our personal life. “I ought to give up drinking. For my family’s sake, not to mention my own, I should get help”…but I  never get around to it. “I ought to try to get to church on time” (I wonder who I could be thinking about?)… but I don’t. “I ought to go to Confession and try to improve my life”.. but I just don’t.  “I ought to do more to help the needy”… but I just never get around to it. “I ought to apologize”, “I ought to try to make peace with that guy.”, “I ought to be nicer to my wife’s relatives”… but I don’t. “I should cut out the gossiping and ‘idol talk”‘,  “I ought to object to that malicious gossip when I hear it”… but I don’t. “I ought to get involved”… but I don’t. “I should do something worthwhile with my life instead of just sitting here night after night watching TV”… but I just… don’t. 

A personal story: A man I was acquainted with and liked, but who lived a distance away and was not online, sent me a nice note and asked me to keep in touch. I put off writing and put it off,,, and then he was dead. I was remorseful. I went to Confession. I pray for him daily and tell him I’m sorry and keep his note on my dresser to remind me I’m a sinner. I still feel guilty. I hope he’s forgiven me. But I wish…

2) Social laziness, our duty towards people outside our immediate families – the Church, the poor, the country. Our duty to vote. (Khouria Dianna and I just got back from voting, and hardly anybody was there. Really, people, do you want democracy to survive?) Or giving to International Orthodox Christian Charities, or working in a food kitchen, or serving on Parish Council, or perhaps getting involved in pollitics or organizations working for the good of society. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

However, be careful here. I’ve known people who get all involved saving the world and neglect their families, their loved ones. Many years ago, when I was a young Episcopal priest, my parish was growing, and I was getting ever more involved with diocesan and even national church affairs. I was very busy. (Looking back, this was partly well-intentioned and partly an ego trip. “Oh, they want me to do something!”) One night I went to the retirement party of an old priest, and I asked him, “What would you have done differently?”- thinking, I guess, that he might tell me how to organize the parish council better or something like that. Instead he said, “My children were only young once. I wish I had spent more time with them.” He had been slothful regarding his family. 

I was startled. I went home and immediately cancelled a bunch of parish meetings (but not worship services) and pulled back on extra-parish involvements, and told my people why, and that I hoped they would do the same thing. They loved it. They also had taken on too many outside activities. And you know what? The parish and the diocese and the national church got along ok. And the time I spent with my family has “paid off”, as they say. I have known too many priest’s kids who…. uh, let’s not go there.

But on the other hand… What’s the proper balance? I don’t know. You’ve got to figure it out for yourself.

Avatar photo

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Know everything about Orthodoxy? We can tell you a bit more!

Subscribe for our weekly newsletter not to miss the most interesting articles on our blog.

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: