Featured image from: Sloth (Desidia), from the series the Seven Deadly Sins, print, Pieter van der Heyden, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Wikimedia Commons.
The March 2022 issue of The Lutheran Witness has an article titled, “Consider the Ant: Overcoming sloth with zeal,” written by Rev. Jason Braaten. In the article, he notes the sloth of our culture and even Lutherans. The etymology of the word “sloth” is helpful to our understanding of what the word means, “The root of the word comes from the East Anglian noun slothe, a derivative of slough, a swamp, a muddy and miry place. The image begins to take shape: Sloth is the dwelling and domain of swine, the place where things get bogged down, mired in muck and begin to sink. It is whatever hinders one from doing the things he ought to be doing” (p. 9). So, sloth is more than just laziness and boredom.
Why is sloth such a problem? Why should we worry about it, especially in our churches? Braaten writes, “It deludes us into thinking that suffering and discomfort—and potentially death—await us if we continue zealously on the course God has appointed for us. Sloth falsely promises life and comfort, relief and joy by encouraging us to avoid pain and suffering. It reveals and cultivates the innate self-indulgent spirit within us, and it trains us to revolt against discipline… Sloth is the antithesis of the cross. It promises life but leads to death. The cross demands death but gives life” (p. 9).
Sloth as Distraction
According to Braaten, sloth manifests itself in two ways: distraction or indifference. By distraction, “We attempt to evade suffering and discomfort by distracting ourselves with other things” (p. 9). Are you stressed out? Take a few minutes (that ends up being a couple hours) scrolling through social media on your smartphone. Are you experiencing anxiety? Grab a snack, even though you’re not hungry, and binge watch a TV show on Netflix. Watch pornography and masturbate. Smoke weed. Go to the bar and get drunk; after all, it’s the weekend! The lie is that such distraction will bring us happiness.
Drawing from Peter Kreeft, who himself is drawing from Blaise Paschal (1623-1662), Braaten calls this “the if-only syndrome: If only I do or get or have X, then I can rest and be happy.” Quoting from Kreeft, “the if-only syndrome ‘is the world’s most universally failed experiment—and the world’s most universally repeated one. It is stupid, self-deluding, wasteful and self-destructive'” (p. 9). Experience and even research tell us that people with the most distractions end up being the most miserable and depressed people. The sloth of distraction promises happiness, but you end up feeling worse than before you got distracted.
Jesus Christ is the “‘solid means of escape,'” says Braaten. I hesitate to think of Jesus as a means of escape, even if He is solid. Thinking of Jesus as “a means of escape” is language used to describe distraction, and Jesus is anything but a distraction. I’m a gamer, and my gaming buddies often describe video gaming as “a means of escape”—a means of getting away from the harsh demands of reality like work and home life (which even Braaten criticises). As such, video games often make us guilty of sloth. It’s not just video games, however. The same is done with reading, sports, and as mentioned already, social media, all of which are not inherently bad or sinful things. It is also done with clearly sinful and detrimental things such as pornography, drunkenness, and drugs.
So, I caution readers not to think of Jesus as “a ‘solid means of escape'” because Jesus has not called us to escape from the world, even when things are difficult. Praying for His disciples (and you and me) in His Passion, Jesus said, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world… As You sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:16, 18). Jesus is not our means of escaping the world; He sends us into the world to announce the Good News. Jesus warns His disciples that they will have tribulation, but He has overcome the world (John 16:33).
Jesus is not our escape, but He is our refuge. “Come to Me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Many of the Psalms speak of God as our refuge as well, such as Psalm 46, which inspired the beloved hymn Luther wrote in the midst of the Black Plague pandemic, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. But a refuge is not an escape; it is a shelter. And refuge is also temporary, for after receiving strength from our refuge, we go back out there and fight the hard battles. There is plenty of room, then, for rest, but rest is not sloth. Rest is what it means to be human; it’s why God rested on the 7th day of creation. Sloth, however, is antithetical to being human.
Sloth as Indifference
Braaten hits this second manifestation of sloth right on the nose, which is indifference. There are two parts of indifference as well. First, “A hard-hearted indifference ‘believes in nothing… [and] only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for'” (pp. 9-10). However, Braaten doesn’t give any concrete examples of what “hard-hearted indifference” is, as he does really well with “soft indifference.” So, I will do my best to provide some examples that came to mind as I read this.
The definition of hard-hearted indifference he used from Dorothy Sayers gave me the image of the 30- to 40-year-old living in his mother’s basement. Think about it. This person does not believe in hard work (or doing anything else, really) other than becoming Type II diabetic as he plays video games and watches movies in his mother’s basement, mooching off his parents like a Cheetos-covered parasite. He “only remains alive because there is nothing [he] would die for.” Not to himself and his sins (Luke 9:23), not to the neighbours in his community, and not even for his parents. It is a miracle that such a person is alive because his parents have the mercy to keep him alive, and maybe even some sloth (“soft indifference”) on their part in refraining from disciplining their son to be a man.
A second part of sloth as indifference that Braaten spends much more time on is what he calls “soft indifference. It is not that we believe in nothing, but that we believe in merely some things. This indifference cannot be bothered to care about everything the Lord has laid upon us. It looks at the tasks that lie ahead, then it shrugs and says under its breath: ‘Whatever'” (p. 10). As the sloth of distraction is the kind that plagues our culture, the sloth of “soft indifference” plagues the current and younger generations.
For current generations, Braaten uses fathers as an example. “Fathers indulge this indifference if they think they have fulfilled God’s vocational commands merely by going to work to provide food and clothing, house and home for those placed under their care. They come home, kick back, and relax, while there remains more ‘adulting’ to do… They are indifferent toward all the other things—family devotions, catechizing children, conversing with family, helping with homework, completing home repairs and teaching others to do the same” (p. 10).
But Braaten hits it right on the nose. There are many contributing factours for decreased church attendance in our synod, but I cannot help but think that this is one of the most contributing factours, which is that fathers (and mothers) are not catechising their children at home. Truthfully, it is the father’s responsibility, hence why the top of each chief part in the Small Catechism has written, “As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.”
The father has a punch card mentality, “I’ve done all the work I need to do for the day at my job. Now that I’m home, I get to relax [be slothful] and do my own thing.” It is the same punch card mentality applied to church. Parents treat church as something secondary to everything else, especially things like sports. You go to church, punch in, do your socialising with the brethren for the week, and return home and not talk about Jesus for another week. Thus, they teach their children that church is secondary, which is why the youth are leaving the church in droves. Zeal for the Lord—and zeal for what He has given you to do in each of your vocations—is severely lacking among all generations.
Such Christians use “our rich doctrine of vocation to justify slothful indifference” (p. 10). Braaten is getting at something I’ve been saying for years: That too many Lutherans are using our chief doctrine of justification by faith to be lazy couch potatoes in their sanctification. The prevailing thought is, “I’m justified; I don’t have to do anything.” True, you don’t have to do anything, but because you’re justified you get to do stuff! Like love your neighbour, be a present father, teach your children about Jesus, help them with their homework, paint your daughter’s nails, and so on. Such indifference is not the freedom of the Gospel; it is licentiousness.
As hinted at already, the indifference of parents infects the young. As Braaten puts it, “If you listen to the prophets of despair in the news, our youth inhabit a world of doom and gloom—rising debts and sea levels, seemingly no prospects for jobs or families. Our youth no longer ask how they can have it all (career, marriage, children), but whether it is worth doing any of it. Instead of trying, they opt for hedonism: ‘Let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die'” (p. 10). With such “soft indifference,” our youth are on the brink of nihilism, often manifesting itself in hedonism: Since nothing is worth doing anymore, why not just enjoy things in excess like weed, sex, and alcohol? After all, there is no guarantee for tomorrow.
In the face of such hedonism, rather than teaching her people to eat, drink, and be merry since there is no guarantee for tomorrow, the church instead teaches, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Whether manifested in distraction or indifference, sloth is really just a theology of glory—glorifying myself and my desires because in the end, nothing matters, rather than glorifying God because He has “promised to bless all that He gives” (p. 10).
Consider the Ant
We finally come to the article’s namesake, from Proverbs 6:6-8, “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.” Braaten summarises this proverb well rather succinctly, “What does the ant do? She acts in accordance with how God created her. She does what needs to be done… No one stands over her shoulder telling her what to do. The ant just does” (p. 10). Thus, by parallel, we do what God has created us to do according to each of our vocations. No one stands over our shoulder, micro-managing what we are supposed to do. Not even God. Rather, we simply do what God has called us to do in the vocations He has given us.
This reminded me of something one of my Drill Sergeants always said in basic combat training, “False motivation is still motivation.” Civilians might say, “Fake it till you make it.” But this “fake it till you make it” concept still contains the sloth of indifference. Conversely, when the Drill Sergeant said, “False motivation is still motivation,” we realised this was simply his way of saying, “Just do your duty,” in other words, “Just do what you’re supposed to do.” And we found that in time, by just doing our duty according to our vocation as soldier (and the individual vocations according to our MOS [military occupational specialty]), we soon had real motivation to do our jobs.
The same applies to our vocations. God has called you to be a sibling, spouse, parent, whatever your job is, and more importantly a baptised Christian. Therefore, do what is expected of you. Just do your duty according to each of these vocations. This is, of course, the Law, specifically the 3rd use of the Law (the Law as guide for the Christian, because they have been reborn in Baptism, in how they are to “orient and conduct their entire life” [FC Ep VI, 1]).
Zeal Over Sloth
Thankfully, however, Braaten’s solution is not Law-focused but rather centred on the Gospel. Doing what you are supposed to do is the 3rd use of the Law properly applied, but at the same time we are not zealous for the Law but zealous for the Gospel. As Braaten puts it, “Be zealous in believing God’s promises” (p. 11). Remember what the word “Gospel” means. It comes from the same Greek word we use for “Good News.” And what do you do with good news? You share it! The Good News of Jesus Christ is so awesome that you cannot help but share it, even that you cannot help but do what you’re supposed to do as a baptised Christian! We do what is expected of us not because we are slaves to the Law (see Galatians 5:1-6) or out of pure obedience to a Rule Maker (that’s Islam), but purely because the Christian life is a joyous life! As I often tell my youth and college students, “Just as we cannot help but breathe because we are human, so we cannot help but do good works because we are Christians.”
Braaten gives some advice on how to practice zeal over sloth, and they are good. After giving some specific examples, he writes simply, “Find the Bible passages that fit your situation. Print them out. Memorize them” (p. 11). In other words, stay rooted in the Word. Don’t be like that servant with the one talent who said to his master, “I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, have what is yours,” to whom the master responded, “You wicked and slothful servant!” (Matthew 25:24-26).
However, remember that this zeal from the Lord comes purely from the Word of God, not from within yourself. Attempting to muster within you some powerful zeal is indicative of the enthusiasm, or mysticism, of Evangelicalism. Rather, it is the power of the Word that gives you zeal, which is why Braaten strongly encourages the reader to keep coming back to the Word. This is why attending the Divine Service in the liturgy is so important, because it is absolutely rich with God’s Word, and also why listening to your pastor’s sermon is important, going to Bible study, doing devotions at home with your family, and catechising your children—because it is the Word of the Word made flesh that instills the zeal within us to do what He has created us to do.