Before I begin my lesson, I need to get a little help from all of the children here this morning. How many of you children like to go to the zoo? Raise your hands. What is your favorite animal to see at the zoo? Lions? Elephants? Monkeys? Giraffes?
I love all of those animals, too, but I’m a little disappointed that none of you mentioned the sloth. I mean, what’s not to love about the sloth? Here’s an animal that sleeps from 15-18 hours a day. Sloths are among the slowest moving mammals in the world. In fact, they move so slowly that algae grows on their fur.
And that means that nobody enjoys watching the sloth at the zoo. People will crowd around the cages to watch a restless tiger pacing back and forth. They’ll enjoy the monkeys jumping and swinging through their cages. Playful penguins are always fun to watch. But not the sloth. It’s too slow, too lazy, and just doesn’t do much of anything.
In fact, about the only time watching a sloth is fun is if you’re watching the movie “Zootopia.” The scene of the sloth behind the counter at the DMV office has got to be one of the funniest movie scenes of all time.
Well, this morning, we come to the fifth of the seven deadly sins, which is sloth – not the animal but the character trait. And I hesitate to even use that word because I don’t think we use the word “sloth” much anymore, unless we’re talking about the animal. But the word “sloth” simply means “laziness”, and that’s what we’re going to be talking about this morning.
When I first started working on this sermon, I figured this was a good time to blast all the young people for wanting to stay in bed until noon. I can remember when Sueanne and I were in college, all the students wanted to take morning classes, so that we would be free in the afternoon to do whatever we wanted to do. But about the time our kids started going to college, that shifted. And now, college students want to schedule all their classes in the afternoon so they can sleep all morning.
But, the truth is, sloth is not just about how long you sleep in the morning or how hard it is for you to get out of bed. About ten years ago, Regina Barreca wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune on the subject of sloth, and she wrote,
“Sloth is insidious. It whispers that you might as well do it tomorrow, that nobody will know if you cut corners here and there to save yourself some trouble, that the world will be the same in a hundred years no matter what you do, so why do anything? Sloth says, “Don’t strain yourself”, “What’s the big hurry?” and “Just give me five more minutes.”
“Sloth hits the snooze alarm, hits the remote control and hits the road when the going gets tough . . . Sloth cheats on exams, drinks straight from the milk carton and leaves exactly two sheets on the toilet roll so that it will have to be replaced by the next poor soul who finds out too late that the remaining paper is nothing more than a mirage.
“Sloth does slightly less than the right thing. It doesn’t bother returning something to the lost-and-found, but pockets it instead; it doesn’t tell the clerk he has undercharged. Sloth has never written a thank-you note, sent a birthday card on time or entertained angels. All of this simply takes too much effort.”
At first glance, it may seem like sloth shouldn’t be regarded as a serious sin, much less one of the seven deadly sins! I mean, let’s be honest. Does laziness really belong in a category with sins like envy and lust and anger? Since when is sitting on the couch watching reruns of “The Office” and munching on a bag of chips a moral and spiritual failure of the worst kind?
In fact, you may have thought to yourself, “I didn’t even know laziness was a sin.” Because we don’t take laziness seriously. In fact, we tend to joke about it. Here are just a few examples: “If there was an award for laziness, I’d probably have somebody else pick it up for me.” “You know you’re lazy when you get excited about canceled plans.” “Lazy rule #52: If it’s more than five feet away, it becomes unnecessary.” “I feel like I should clean the house, so I’m going to lay down and nap until that feeling passes.”
We joke about being lazy, and while we may admit it’s a problem in our lives, we wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a sin. And it certainly seems strange that, for centuries, Christians have included sloth, or laziness, as one of the seven deadly sins.
But maybe the best way for us to understand why it’s such a serious sin is to think about the opposite of sloth, because the opposite of sloth is diligence. Diligence is a powerful sense of responsibility, it’s a dedication to hard work, and conscientious completion of one’s duties. Over and over again, in both the Old and New Testaments, God repeatedly says, “Be diligent to do what I’ve told you to do.”
Deuteronomy 6:17, “You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God.”
2 Peter 3:14, “Be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish.”
But sloth is the opposite of diligence, which means that a lazy person isn’t diligent, and a diligent person isn’t lazy.
Another way to recognize the seriousness of laziness is to consider the relationship between sloth and love. Because sloth is not just a lack of activity, it is the result of apathy — the reason I don’t want to do anything is because I really don’t care enough to do anything. And so, my lack of activity is the result of a lack of concern regarding my responsibilities which results in a neglect of other people’s needs.
And so, it’s important for us to recognize that sloth is a sin not because it makes us sleep late in the morning. Rather, it is a sin because it keeps us from being a loving people. In order to love people, we have to actually do something. And so when I’m not doing anything, I’m not demonstrating love.
So, there are a lot of warnings in the Bible about laziness. Romans 12:11, for example, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.”
But most of what the Bible has to say about sloth is found in the book of Proverbs because Solomon had a lot to say about lazy people. And so, this morning, I want us to take a look at some of the Proverbs that deal with the subject of laziness or sloth. Solomon mentions four things that are true about a lazy person.
- A Lazy Person Has Trouble Getting Started
“As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed.” (Proverbs 26:14). Or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “As a door swings back and forth on its hinges, so the lazy person turns over in bed.”
I love this image. It’s like a lazy man is attached to his bed. You can’t get him out of it. He’s like a door on hinges. If Solomon was living today, he would probably say that a lazy person is like a screen door — you know, the kind with one of those air pumps on it that keeps it closed. You can push it open, but as soon as you let go, it swings shut again.
And Solomon says that’s what a lazy person is like. You can push him for a while, but when you let go, he swings back into bed. It’s hard to get him going, it’s hard to get him motivated.
In Proverbs 6:9-11 Solomon said, “How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber.”
Solomon said, if you ask a lazy man to do something, his response is, “Let me sleep just a little longer! I’ll get around to it eventually, but don’t bother me right now.”
Now I realize that this doesn’t sound a bit familiar, but there are actually some homes in this country where this kind of conversation takes place. A parent says to his child, “I want you to clean up your room” and the child says, “In a minute. Let me finish watching this TV show first. Let me finish this video game first. Just wait a little bit and I’ll get around to it.”
I believe the inventor of the snooze button on alarm clocks must have used this verse from Proverbs as his inspiration. The snooze button is great. That alarm goes off and it says, “Get up now!” and you hit that snooze button which basically says to the alarm clock, “Just a little more sleep, just a few more minutes”. It’s hard to get a lazy person to get started doing something. He’d rather take it easy.
As one fellow put it, “The lazier a man is, the more he is going to do tomorrow.” Or, “A procrastinator is one who puts off until tomorrow the things he has already put off until today.”
We get comfortable and we think to ourselves, what difference will it make if I don’t write that letter today or make that phone call today? I’ll get around to it someday. But, of course, someday never comes, and we never seem to get around to doing what we know we ought to do.
James Albery wrote the following epitaph for himself:
He slept beneath the moon, He basked beneath the sun;
He lived a life of going-to-do, and died with nothing done.
Is there anything in your life that you keep telling yourself, “Someday I’m going to get around to it”? A lazy person has trouble getting started.
- A Lazy Person Has Trouble Finishing What He Starts
“Whoever is slothful will not roast his game.” (Proverbs 12:27). Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “Lazy people don’t even cook the game they catch.”
Assuming that you can somehow get a lazy fellow out of his house and into the woods to go hunting for food, and assuming that he somehow manages to kill an animal, you’ll never get him to dress his game and cook it. That’s too much trouble. He doesn’t finish what he starts.
And far too many of us can see examples of things in our lives that we’ve given up on. Maybe it’s that six-week diet that only lasted one week. Maybe it’s a book on your shelf that you meant to read, but only made it half-way through. Maybe it’s a garden that got tilled but never got planted. Our laziness shows up in our lack of completing the things that we start.
“The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.” (Proverbs 26:15).
Talk about lazy! Imagine a man so lazy that once he gets food loaded up on his fork, he’s too tired to raise the fork to his mouth.
You say, “That’s ridiculous! Nobody is that lazy.” And you’re right, I think. But Solomon is trying to paint an absurd picture here to try and make the point that a lazy man won’t finish what he starts out to do. He just doesn’t have the discipline necessary to see a task through to the end. He’s a quitter.
- A Lazy Person Makes Excuses For Not Doing Things
“The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!'” (Proverbs 22:13).
Which is ridiculous, because even in Bible days, lions didn’t come into the city — they stayed up in the hills. But the lazy man’s excuse for why he doesn’t get out and do something is that he might get eaten by a lion.
Laziness creates some of the most ridiculous excuses you can imagine. Every year, the job listing site CareerBuilder contacts mangers around the country and puts out a list it calls “The Most Unbelievable Excuses for Calling in Sick.”
Last year, one employee said he couldn’t come in because his false teeth flew out the window while he was driving down the highway. Another claimed that someone had glued her windows and doors shut so she couldn’t get out of her house. Then there was the employee who said she couldn’t come in because she had woken up in a good mood and didn’t want to ruin it.
But it’s not just going to work where people make excuses. I heard about one lady who said the reason why she didn’t go to church was that “it is too close for me to get into my car and drive, but it’s too far to walk.” How do you deal with people like that?
The sad thing is that a lazy person actually believes his own excuses. They sound ridiculous to us, but he has told them so many times, he actually believes them to be true. He doesn’t realize how ridiculous they sound. But, for a lazy person, excuses come easy.
- A Lazy Person Will Never Succeed
“The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.” (Proverbs 12:24). The Living Bible translates this verse, “Work hard and become a leader; be lazy and never succeed.”
You see, a lazy man will never be a success. It doesn’t matter what his goal is, whether it’s to make a lot of money or to be a good athlete or to be a good Christian. A lazy person just doesn’t have the drive and the discipline necessary to succeed at anything.
There are a lot of young people who may want to become a doctor or a scientist, but they don’t want to buckle down to years of hard study. Many people would like to achieve greatness in music but they never will because of the long hours of practice required year after year.
I believe that most marriages that fail do so because people don’t work hard enough. Love requires commitment and work, and those who are lazy are seldom willing to expend that kind of energy. Many people know what the problems are in their marriage, but they’re not willing to work hard enough to restore the relationship.
For example, I heard about one husband who became preoccupied with sports, and so his wife left him for another man. He went to see a counselor and asked if there was anything he could do to get her back. The counselor said there certainly was. He could change his priorities, and start giving more time to the Lord and to his wife. The man said, “I’ve thought about that, but to tell you the truth, I don’t think it’s worth the effort. I want her back, but not that much.”
We sometimes see the same thing in the church. The church is filled with people who would love to be mature Christians with a tremendous knowledge of God’s Word. But they’re not willing to pay the price to achieve it. One of my favorite stories involving the late Gus Nichols tells about a Christian who spoke with him and said, “I’d give my life to know the Bible like you do.” To which Gus Nichols replied, “That’s what it took.” A lifetime of study and dedication.
This world is full of naturally brilliant people who will never be anything more than ordinary because they aren’t willing to make the sacrifice necessary to become great. And the same thing is true in the church.
It may not be for lack of desire. A lazy person may want the same things that everyone else enjoys. He may want to be a rich man. He may want to be the star quarterback. He may want to be a great musician. He may want a fantastic marriage. But he’ll never achieve it, because he’s not willing to put forth the effort.
“The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor.” (Proverbs 21:25)
Laziness in the Life of a Christian
All four of these qualities of a slothful person affect us in our Christian lives.
1) We sometimes have trouble getting started. We mean to; we really do. We fully intend to do more Bible study, more praying, more teaching the lost, more fellowship with other Christians, but we keep putting it off and putting it off, and we never seem to get started.
2) We sometimes have trouble finishing what we start. We have a great project in mind and we get started with a bang, but we lack the discipline necessary to stay with it to the end. Our attempt to read through the Bible in a year ends sometime around the end of January several chapters into Exodus. We’re excited about getting started; it’s the staying with it that we have trouble with.
3) We’re good at making excuses for things that we don’t want to do. We have excuses for not attending worship, excuses for not teaching a Bible class, excuses for not doing all the things we ought to be doing.
4) The result is that we often feel unfulfilled, like something is missing from our lives. We want to be stronger Christians, we really do. We just can’t seem to find the discipline necessary to accomplish that task in our lives, and we end up feeling frustrated and unhappy.
And so, it is important that we develop the quality of diligence, because as I said earlier, diligence is the opposite of sloth. That’s why we’re told so often in the New Testament to “be diligent”: Be diligent to add your faith, virtue and the other Christian graces (2 Peter 1:5). Be even more diligent to make your calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). Be diligent to be found without spot or blemish when Christ returns (2 Peter 3:14).
The book of Hebrews is filled with exhortations to be diligent and not lazy, because it is written to a group of Christians who were becoming lazy in their spiritual lives.
“We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” (Hebrews 6:11-12, NIV).
The problem with laziness in our spiritual lives is that it happens without our even realizing it. Little by little, we sink into laziness. We make excuses, we procrastinate, we ignore opportunities, and gradually we find ourselves more and more apathetic. When we’re spiritually lazy, it’s not that we have rebelled against the truth. Rather, we’ve drifted. And we need to be diligent as we strive to put our faith into practice.
“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.” (Proverbs 6:6-8).
Have you ever watched a colony of ants at work? They’re always on the move, carrying objects many times their weight. If you tear down their anthill, they will begin rebuilding it right away. God tells us to “consider her ways and be wise”.
Because this is our challenge. An ant doesn’t have an overseer, there’s nobody telling that ant what he needs to do. He just sees what needs to be done and he gets busy doing it.
And that’s an important example for us to imitate, because, as Christians, we don’t have someone standing over us and telling us what we have to do to live the Christian life. I don’t have anyone:
- telling me how many hours a week I have to read my Bible.
- making me attend all the worship services.
- telling me how many hours a week I ought to pray.
- telling me I have to invite so many neighbors to church with me.
- telling me how much I have to give to the Lord.
- telling me I can’t watch a certain TV show or movie or go certain places.
The only thing that will make me do all these things is my own self-discipline as a Christian. And it takes a lot more character to have the self-discipline to do something on your own than it does to have to be told what to do, when to do it and how to do it.
Self-discipline is that ability to control what we do by principle and judgment rather than by impulse and desire. In other words, your body says, “It feels good to stay in bed.” Self-discipline says, “I need to get up.” Your body says, “I don’t enjoy running or walking every morning. It’s not fun.” Self-discipline says, “I need to be in better shape.” Self-discipline is the ability to control what you do by what is best rather than by what feels good and gives you the most pleasure.
But the problem for us is that our American way of life puts so much emphasis on relaxation and recreation. The motto of our country seems to be “Live it up. Have a good time.” And unfortunately, that has greatly influenced those of us in the church. So, we’re not willing to take one night a week to go visiting or to attend a devotional because it cuts into our enjoyment, our fun time.
We like being comfortable, and maybe that’s the best way to identify sloth in our lives. How important is it for us to be comfortable, and how often does that desire for comfort keep us from demonstrating love to those around us?
Before I leave the subject of sloth, I want to make on more point. Don’t assume that just because you’re a busy person, you’re not guilty of sloth. The truth is that both the apathetic inertia of a lazy person and the perpetual motion of a busy person can both come out of a heart of sloth.
Frederick Buechner wrote this: “Sloth is not to be confused with laziness. A slothful man may be a very busy man. He is a man who goes through the motions, who flies on automatic pilot.”
Someone has described this as a zombie. A slothful zombie may live a very busy life, but he does just enough to get things done, so that he can get back to enjoying his comforts. His duties are what he performs, but comfort is what he really craves. And so, he may have a full schedule, but he doesn’t want his busy schedule interrupted by people who are in need. He just wants to get things done so that he can get back to living a life of comfort.
You see, the ancient fathers would have said that sloth is not so much about being lazy about our work as it is in being lazy about love. So again, I think we need to ask the question — How important is it for us to be comfortable, and how often does that desire for comfort keep us from demonstrating love to those around us?
People often say, “I don’t seem to have the time…” But I’m a firm believer that we make time for the things that are really important to us. And the way we spend our time tells us in fact what is most important to us. The real question is, “How important is serving God? How important is showing love to others?”
And the answer to that question will determine whether we are diligent or whether we are lazy. If we struggle with the sin of sloth, we’ll find it hard to get started doing things we ought to do. We’ll find that we often don’t finish the things that we do start. We’ll make all kinds of excuses for why we’re not doing more. And, all the while we’ll feel very frustrated, because deep down, we know that there’s a part of us that’s more concerned with being comfortable than it is with showing love to others.
“Search me, O Lord, and see if there is any sloth in my heart.”