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The sin of sloth

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Some questions are hard to answer: why do they sterilize the needle for lethal injections? If corn oil comes from corn, where does baby oil come from? How do they get the deer to cross at those yellow signs? Why is abbreviation such a long word? Why did Kamikazi pilots wear helmets? And why do they call it “rush hour” when no one moves?

It is “rush hour” all the time in America these days. Every day in this country 108,000 people move; the government issues 50 more pages of regulations; 40 Americans turn 100; we purchase 45,000 new cars and trucks, and wreck 87,000; 20,000 people write letters to the president; dogs bite 11,000 citizens, including 20 mail carriers; we eat 75 acres of pizza, 53 million hot dogs, 167 million eggs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 3,000 tons of candy. We then jog 17 million miles to get rid of it all. We are busy people.

You wouldn’t think we need to worry about the “deadly” sin of sloth. But you’d be wrong. We can be busy about the wrong things and slothful about the right ones. Let’s learn how to avoid both.

What is sloth?

The dictionary defines a “sloth”: a very slow-moving mammal of South and Central America that lives in trees. Sloths hang upside down from tree branches. There are two principal kinds in the sloth family. One kind has three toes on the forefeet and another has two.

Unfortunately, “sloths” don’t live only in trees. Here’s the dictionary’s second attempt: “unwillingness to work or exert oneself; laziness; idleness.”

It is not “sloth” to rest regularly: “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed” (Exodus 23:12). The Lord is serious about the Sabbath: “For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death” (Exodus 31:15).

Sabbath rest is required by God no matter the circumstances: “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest”(Exodus 34:21).

And it is commanded by Jesus: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place” (Mark 6:30-32).

But it is “sloth” to be lazy about the things that matter. That is the sin of sloth.

Why is sloth a “deadly” sin?

There are five reasons to avoid the sin of sloth.

First, it leads to hunger and poverty: “Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man goes hungry” (Prov. 19:15); “How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man” (Proverbs 6:9-11); “The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” (Proverbs 13:4); “A sluggard does not plow in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing” (Proverbs 20:4).

Second, it frustrates us: “The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway” (Proverbs 15:19). Third, it leads to self-deception: “The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who answer discreetly” (Proverbs 26:16).

Fourth, it leads to ruin: “I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins” (Proverbs 24:30-31); “If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks” (Ecclesiastes 10:18).

Last, it leads to judgment and destruction: when the man refused to multiply his talent, “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant!…Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents'” (Matthew 25:26, 28); “One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys” (Proverbs 18;9); “The sluggard’s craving will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work. All day long he craves for more” (Proverbs 21:25-26).

So sloth is forbidden by God: “We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies” (2 Thessalonians 3:11); “We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (Hebrews 6:12); “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11).

Proverbs: work hard

Proverbs, more than any other book in Scripture, is concerned with sloth, stress, and work. The book gives us one consistent lesson regarding our work: do it well. Work hard. Give yourself fully to your work.

Avoid all sloth: “How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man” (6:9-11); “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth” (10:4); “He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son” (10:5); “As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is a sluggard to those who send him” (10:26).

The writer continues: “The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway” (15:19); “One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys” (18:9); “Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man goes hungry” (19:15); “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he will not even bring it back to his mouth!” (19.24). “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth” (26:15); “A sluggard does not plow in season; so at harvest time he finds nothing” (20:4); “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed” (26:14).

Work diligently: “A wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down” (14:1); “Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house” (24:27).

Work while you can: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest” (6:6-8); “Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations. When the hay is removed and new growth appears and the grass from the hills is gathered in, the lambs will provide you with clothing, and the goats with the price of a field. You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed you and your family and to nourish your servant girls” (27:23-27).

Claim God’s blessing on your hard work: “He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment” (12:11); “Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor” (12:24); “The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” (13:4); “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (14:23); “Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare” (20:13).

The writer continues: “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty” (21:5). “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men” (22:29). “He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty” (28:19).

“Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise: Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer; coneys are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags; locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks; a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces” (30:24-28).

Work with God

How do we keep hard work from become damaging stress? By working hard, but working with God.

So surrender daily to God’s purpose for that day. Heed Romans 12.1-2: “I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his god, pleasing and perfect will.”

God has a will for our lives every day. We must seek it and surrender to it daily. How do we seek God’s will for each day? Listen to him, ask him to speak through circumstances and others, begin the day with him.

Said the poet:

I met God in the morning when my day was at its best,

and his presence came like sunrise, like a glory to my breast.

All day long his presence lingered. All day long he stayed with me.

And we sailed in perfect calmness o’er sometimes troubled sea.

Other ships were torn and battered. Other ships were sore distressed,

but the winds that seemed to drive them brought to us a peace and rest.

So I think I’ve learned the secret, learned from many a troubled way,

you must seek God in the morning if you want him through the day.

Ask God to empower you to fulfill his purpose for your life. Paul could testify, “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29). God’s will never leads where his power cannot sustain. Jesus told his followers, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 15:16).

How do we experience his power every day? Refuse self-sufficiency, believe by faith that he will empower us, and stay connected to him by abiding in him.

Are you surrendered to the power of God today? Pray to that end. Then work hard as God works. This is his word with regard to each of the deadly sins, and each opportunity of the day before you. Your Father is your partner, and your friend. Depend on him all day long.