Essay / Misc.

On Sloth and Vigilance

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: “Finally, 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.” 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: “The demon of acedia — also called the noonday demon — 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 hatred” (Evagrius of Pontus, Praktikos 12).

Does this sound familiar? I think King David knew the vice of sloth well when he cried out, “Why 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 me” (Psalm 42:5-6a). The essence of this vice is captured well by another early Christian theologian: “In one verse blessed David beautifully expressed all the misfortunes of this disease, when he said: ‘My soul slept from weariness’ [Psalm 119:28] — 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 senses” (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 “train [myself] to be godly” (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, “He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty.” In older translations this often reads, “He that tills his own land shall be satisfied with bread: but he that follows idleness shall have plenty of poverty” (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, “for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags” (23:21); or in another translation, “for every drunkard and whoremonger shall be poor; and every sluggard shall clothe himself with tatters and ragged garments” (LXX). The word “sluggard” 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 “Put on… garments of splendor” 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 — 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, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” The need for vigilance is even more pronounced in the Latin translation of this verse where the phrase “be… alert” is vigilate: “be vigilant”! This is also the reading of the King James Version.

John Calvin had this to say about Peter’s command to “be vigilant”: “[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 lethargy… 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 watch… 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.” 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 “firm in the faith” (1 Peter 5:9). Two additional passages from God’s Word elaborate on what it means to stand “firm in the faith.” Ephesians 6:11-14a is connected grammatically with 1 Peter 5:9 because both use the same Greek word for “resist.” Ephesians 6: 11-14a says,

Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’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  your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then….

Thus, to stand “firm in the faith” means to “put on the full armor of God.” 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 God’s Word and prayer. James 4:7-10 is also connected to 1 Peter 5:9 grammatically:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist 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.

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 Arles’ comment on these verses: “Let us fight as hard as we can, with the Lord’s help, against the most harsh captivity of the soul [which is the devil’s ability to divert our thoughts away from spiritual concerns]” (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 “standing firm in the faith.” In turn, “standing firm in the faith” 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. “submit yourselves… to God” — to “submit” here means “to place or arrange under”; thus, we need to place ourselves under God, indicating that he controls us and we do that which is pleasing to him
  2. “resist the devil” — “resist” is a strong word meaning “to set against”; thus, we need to set ourselves against the devil; we must not be “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:1-2)
  3. “Come near to God” — this is an assurance that God’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. “Wash your hands” — the call to “wash [our] hands” is a command to make our conduct pure
  5. “purify your hearts” — 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.

  1. “Grieve” — this is another strong word that means “to be miserable,” “to be wretched”; in contrast to desiring worldly pleasures, we must desire deep repentance
  2. “mourn” — this verb usually depicts passionate grief that cannot be hidden
  3. “wail” — this verb also denotes outward grief
  4. “Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom” — for the original readers of the book of James pleasure was the preoccupation resulting in their lives being marked by “laughter” and “joy”; but now they are to change their “laughter to mourning” and their “joy to gloom”; 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
  5. “Humble yourselves before the Lord” — 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 God’s Holy Spirit as he transforms us through the renewing of our minds. For as a great medieval writer reminds us: “Just 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 creature” (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 2.4). Be vigilant!

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