This is the first in a series of postings I am planning on the virtues and vices. Definitions are in order. A good biblical definition of virtue is found in Philippians 4:8: â€œFinally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.â€ Another way to say it is this: a virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do good; specifically, to pursue good and choosing it in all concrete actions. The goal of the virtuous life, of course, is to become like God. A vice, then, is the opposite: doing what is bad instead of what is good, pursuing that which is against good and choosing to do it. The result of a vice, of course, is alienation from God.
First, I am going to look at the vice of sloth and the virtue of vigilance. By sloth, I do not simply mean physical laziness, though this may result in sloth. By sloth, I mean spiritual sloth, the lack of pursuing spiritual things. The opposite of sloth would be vigilance, namely, spiritual vigilance.
An early Christian theologian had this to say about sloth: â€œThe demon of acedia â€“ also called the noonday demon â€“ is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First, he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside of his cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [anyone else is ready to eat]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for this very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatredâ€ (Evagrius of Pontus, Praktikos 12). Does this sound familiar? I think King David knew the vice of sloth well when he cried out, â€œWhy are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. My soul is downcast within meâ€ (Psalm 42:5-6a). The essence of this vice is captured well by another early Christian theologian: â€œIn one verse blessed David beautifully expressed all the misfortunes of this disease, when he said: â€˜My soul slept from wearinessâ€™ [Psalm 119:28] â€“ that is, from acedia. Quite correctly did he say that not the body but the soul slept. For, indeed, the soul that has been wounded by the weapon of this disturbance is asleep with regard to any contemplation of virtue and any insight provided by the spiritual sensesâ€ (John Cassian, Institutes 10.4).
I believe that we are all familiar with the essence of the vice of sloth and have experienced it ourselves. I must admit that this is the vice to which I am most prone. When I become both physically and spiritually slothful then I fail to â€œtrain [myself] to be godlyâ€ (1 Timothy 4:7). The Bible mentions sloth often, and this is a frequent topic in the writings of Solomon. For example, in Proverbs 28:19 he writes, â€œHe who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty.â€ In older translations this often reads, â€œHe that tills his own land shall be satisfied with bread: but he that follows idleness shall have plenty of povertyâ€ (LXX). Poverty here is not only visible or material poverty but also invisible or spiritual poverty. Because of this spiritual poverty, the slothful person is inevitably caught up in different vices and often removed from pursuing the virtues. Again in Proverbs we read, â€œfor drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in ragsâ€ (23:21); or in another translation, â€œfor every drunkard and whoremonger shall be poor; and every sluggard shall clothe himself with tatters and ragged garmentsâ€ (LXX). The word â€œsluggardâ€ here carried both a material and a spiritual meaning. Those who are lazy often do lack the basics of life since they fail to earn enough to meet their needs; yet those who are spiritual sluggards fail to â€œPut onâ€¦ garments of splendorâ€ as the prophet Isaiah wrote (52:1).
Therefore, having named the vice of sloth and having revealed its essence; we are now in a position to discuss how to overcome this vice â€“ through vigilance. What do we do when we find ourselves either prone to spiritual sloth or already entrapped in its snare? 1 Peter 5:8 warns us, â€œBe self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.â€ The need for vigilance is even more pronounced in the Latin translation of this verse where the phrase â€œbeâ€¦ alertâ€ is vigilate: â€œbe vigilantâ€! This is also the reading of the King James Version. John Calvin had this to say about Peterâ€™s command to â€œbe vigilantâ€: â€œ[Overindulging] produces sloth and sleep; even so they who indulge in earthly cares and pleasures, think of nothing else, being under the power of spiritual lethargyâ€¦ We must, [the apostle] says, carry on a warfare in this world; and he reminds us that we have to do with no common enemy, but one who, like a lion, runs here and there, ready to devour. He hence concludes that we ought carefully to watchâ€¦ But we too often turn peace into sloth, and hence it comes that the enemy then circumvents and overwhelms us; for, as though placed beyond the reach of danger, we indulge ourselves according to the will of the flesh.â€ Yet given this reality, how do we cultivate the virtue of vigilance? In addition, how does becoming vigilant counteract the vice of sloth? Allow me to suggest that 1 Peter 5:9 teaches us how to cultivate vigilance.
To be vigilant so that we avoid the vices, including sloth, we need to stand â€œfirm in the faithâ€ (1 Peter 5:9). Two additional passages from Godâ€™s Word elaborate on what it means to stand â€œfirm in the faith.â€ Ephesians 6:11-14a is connected grammatically with 1 Peter 5:9 because both use the same Greek word for â€œresist.â€ Ephesians 6: 11-14a says, â€œPut on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand (stÄ“nai) against the devilâ€™s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand (antistÄ“nai) your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand (stÄ“nai). Stand firm (stÄ“te) thenâ€¦.â€ Thus, to stand â€œfirm in the faithâ€ means to â€œput on the full armor of God.â€ Of course, a description of the armor is found in verses 14-18 and consists of standing for truth, pursuing righteousness, a readiness to share about Christ, trusting in faith, thinking upon our own salvation, reading and relying upon Godâ€™s Word and prayer. James 4:7-10 is also connected to 1 Peter 5:9 grammatically: â€œSubmit yourselves, then, to God. Resist (antistÄ“te) the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.â€ There are ten commands in these verses (submit, resist, come near, wash, purify, grieve, mourn, wail, change, humble) calling for an immediate response (i.e., aorist imperative). I agree with Caesarius of Arlesâ€™ comment on these verses: â€œLet us fight as hard as we can, with the Lordâ€™s help, against the most harsh captivity of the soul [which is the devilâ€™s ability to divert our thoughts away from spiritual concerns]â€ (Sermons 77.7). Is this not what we are talking about? To ward off sloth we need to be vigilant and vigilance, according to 1 Peter 5:9, consists of â€œstanding firm in the faith.â€ In turn, â€œstanding firm in the faithâ€ is comprised of putting on the whole armor of God and following the commands of James 4:7-10.
Expositions of Ephesians 6:11-13 on each piece of the armor of God are common, so I will not comment in any detail on that passage. Rather, I will spend time looking briefly at each of the ten commands listed in James 4:7-10.
(1) â€œsubmit yourselvesâ€¦ to Godâ€ â€“ to â€œsubmitâ€ here means â€œto place or arrange underâ€; thus, we need to place ourselves under God, indicating that he controls us and we do that which is pleasing to him
(2) â€œresist the devilâ€ â€“ â€œresistâ€ is a strong word meaning â€œto set againstâ€; thus, we need to set ourselves against the devil; we must not be â€œconformed to this worldâ€ (Romans 12:1-2)
(3) â€œCome near to Godâ€ â€“ this is an assurance that Godâ€™s assistance is never far away, provided we give place to him; when we come near to God then we know also that he is near to us; we are never alienated from God unless we alienate ourselves from him
(4) â€œWash your handsâ€ â€“ the call to â€œwash [our] handsâ€ is a command to make our conduct pure
(5) â€œpurify your heartsâ€ â€“ not only is our outward conduct to be pure but we must also have pure thoughts and motives
The next four commands are calls to repentance for not keeping our outward and inner conduct pure.
(6) â€œGrieveâ€ â€“ this is another strong word that means â€œto be miserable,â€ â€œto be wretchedâ€; in contrast to desiring worldly pleasures, we must desire deep repentance
(7) â€œmournâ€ â€“ this verb usually depicts passionate grief that cannot be hidden
(8) â€œwailâ€ â€“ this verb also denotes outward grief
(9) â€œChange your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloomâ€ â€“ for the original readers of the book of James pleasure was the preoccupation resulting in their lives being marked by â€œlaughterâ€ and â€œjoyâ€; but now they are to change their â€œlaughter to mourningâ€ and their â€œjoy to gloomâ€; being inebriated in their minds by the pleasures of the world, these Christians flattered themselves in their vices; just as they were instructed to turn from this in repentance, we are too
(10) â€œHumble yourselves before the Lordâ€ â€“ here the specific form of humbling is that of repentance for the sin of transferring affections from God to pleasures of the world
Thus, let us yield to Godâ€™s Holy Spirit as he transforms us through the renewing of our minds. For as a great medieval writer reminds us: â€œJust as iron, when plunged into fire, loses its rust and becomes bright and glowing, so the man who turns himself wholly to God loses his sloth and becomes transformed into a new creatureâ€ (Thomas Ã Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 2.4). Be vigilant!