Seven Vices & Virtues: Sloth and Diligence

Think of Gilligan's Island as a parable based on the Seven Deadly Sins. Many folks think the creators based the series on these classical vices. (Here's one example.) A three-hour cruise turned into a seeming eternity. They were hopelessly marooned on a deserted island. 

One of the most common story lines across the show's 99 episodes is a potential rescue. And in almost every case, one character unwittingly or incompetently destroys any hope of leaving the island. It's Gilligan, the figure who most readily represents this week's vice: sloth.

Many in our contemporary world equate sloth with laziness. But the ancient vice of sloth, as brought to us via John Cassian from the desert fathers, comes from the Greek work acedia. This word is best translated as apathy or avoidance. This is what Cassian wrote about a theoretical monk faced with the danger of sloth (acedia): "He must also contend on both sides against this most wicked spirit of acedia in such a way as neither to be cut down by the sword of sleep and collapse nor to be driven out from the bulwark of the monastery and depart in flight, even for a seemingly pious reason."

The dangers of sloth are clear from his words. A slothful person finds a way to avoid pressing responsibilities. Some practice avoidance by running away. Instead of working through challenges in a relationship, a sloth just packs up and moves on. Instead of learning how to be a better employee or how to navigate difficult tasks, a sloth quits and finds a new job.

Sloths also practice avoidance by shutting themselves off. Some shut down by getting sick. Others find a way to emotionally disassociate themselves from their surroundings. Many people do one other unexpected thing: they get busy. No matter the means, sloths find ways to cloak their lethargy in excuses that look legitimate.

Eugene Peterson once said, "Pastors are highly susceptible to the sin of sloth." He continued, "Sloth is most evidenced in busyness . . . in frantic running around, trying to be everywhere for everyone, and then having no time to listen or pray, no time to become the person who is doing these things." Thomas Aquinas wrote that the sin of acedia is about failure to keep the Sabbath. Busyness can all too often be a form of avoidance that prohibits us from being focused on the task at hand.

This is why diligence is the opposing virtue to the vice of sloth. Some prefer to speak of magnanimity or the ability to take joy in the tasks God has given you to do. You might call it the bloom-where-you're-planted virtue. I like the word grit or the ability to focus on what needs to get done even if it isn't easy.

People find all kinds of ways to avoid doing the most meaningful things in life. That's a form of sloth. But for those who have the courage, stamina and vision to focus on what's before them and to respond appropriately to the task at hand, they demonstrate the virtue of diligence. 

Join me this Sunday as we discuss the vice of sloth and the virtue of diligence.

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