This morning our topic is the sin of Sloth. I have to admit, before the last couple of weeks I've never spent much time thinking about Sloth. When I first saw it on the list of the seven deadly sins I kind of wondered what it was doing there… is sloth really all that deadly?
I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in that. I don't know how many of you watch the One Show on BBC – they've been investigating the seven deadly sins and they got to sloth on Friday. How did they investigate sloth? They looked at the effects of lazing in front of the TV after a big Sunday lunch. Not exactly the most deadly sin that is it?
And is that what you're thinking this morning: 'What's the big deal?' 'Who cares?' 'We could all use a bit of rest now and then…'
But this list of sins was very carefully crated to teach us the dangers that we all face. The medieval theologians who came up with it thought that sloth was deadly – actually they though it was in the top two deadly sins – sloth and pride were the deadliest of the deadly! Perhaps there's more to it than just a Sunday afternoon snooze…
So with that in mind let's do a little more work in unpacking this sin of sloth. To that end I want to make just two points this morning: First: Sloth is sin and it shouldn't be overlooked or indulged; and Second: Sloth, like Pride, is a sin that leads to many other sins.
So let's begin with the first point – Sloth is sin and it shouldn't be overlooked or indulged.
If we get past the Sunday afternoon snooze we might think of sloth in terms of the teenager who can't be bothered to get out of bed for a whole weekend, or the student who spends all her time partying and hanging out with friends, or the slob who never leaves the sofa except to get a new can of beer… And this is getting a bit closer to what sloth was intended to describe.
In proverbs The Sloth, or The Sluggard, is an idle person who lacks the motivation, the energy, the ambition to do anything with their days, and ultimately, with their lives. Proverbs 24.30 is a good example:
[NIB Proverbs 24:30] I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgement; 31 thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins. 32 I applied my heart to what I observed and leaned a lesson from what I saw: 33 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – 34and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.
The Sluggard is too lazy, too idle, too unmotivated to provide for himself and his family. The Sluggard will not work. The Sluggard doesn't plan for the future – he doesn't plough in season, so he had no crop at the harvest time. The Sluggard ends up destitute and in need.
Now in a society based on agriculture there are direct consequences for those who don't work or who won't put in the hours when they're needed – like in sowing and harvesting. No seed in – no food out.
But today the connection between work and food has been more or less broken – even farmers get subsidies from the government now. If someone refuses to work, they'll probably still do OK through benefits or charity…
But the point is wider than just the need to work to provide. Proverbs argues that there is a profound foolishness about being lazy like that. Laziness robs us of productivity and reduces us to reliance on others for our daily needs. It's a rejection of God's wisdom that says we're created for work – that's why the sluggard is called a fool. We're created in God's image for work – so laziness warps the image of God and degrades those who indulge it.
And the New Testament makes it clear that idleness remains something to avoid…
[NIB 1 Thessalonians 4:11] Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
And even more strikingly:
[NIB 2 Thessalonians 3:6] In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us…
10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." 11 We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.
See, God takes idleness seriously. We should make it our goal, our aim, to earn our living so that we won't be dependant on anyone else. We're commanded not to be idle but to earn the bread that we eat.
Now some of us face circumstances that mean that we can't find work – perhaps you're looking for work but can't find a job, perhaps you can't work through incapacity, through responsibility to raise children, or whatever else. I guess that's why it says 'make it your ambition' to do this – it might not be possible for all of us.
But, if we're able to work and we're not willing to do it – then we need to listen very carefully to these words and take them to heart. People made in God's image are made to work, and Christians of all people should take that seriously. Laziness is disrespecting the purpose for which we are made and defacing God's image within us. On top of that we give a poor impression of God to others. So Christians have a double duty not to be lazy – so that we will give due honour to God, and so that we won't give others reason to dishonour Him.
So let's listen to this challenge to our laziness. If you've been indulging yourself and relying on others when you could be working, the Bible says you're dishonouring God and acting like a fool. The command is to Stop being lazy and Start working. If you can't find a paying joy, find another way to serve others, if you're a willing worker you'll likely find a job comes your way sooner or later.
Of course there's a much wider application isn't there? Because it's possible to hold down a job and still avoid work isn't it? In some jobs it's easy to keep your head down and look busy without actually doing any work. I suspect that's worse than not have a job at all. Paul commands us in the Lord Jesus Christ to earn the bread we eat. If we're taking a wage without diligently working, without earning it, well, you're a hypocrite and a thief as well as a sluggard.
I know how easy it is to hide at your desk and waste your time. Before I trained to become a minister I was a student and then I worked in local government and on the railways. Between those three I got a master class in time wasting. At the railway there was a legendary work crew who were based on the end of a disused spur line who had to travel up to an hour before they could actually get to any work. So they made sure they took so long packing their lorry that they had to stop for a break before they actually started doing anything. What with lunch and the need to pack up and drive home again, they probably averaged only two or three hours work in any given day.
There was a bloke in my office who spent most of his time running a dodgy business re-wiring Sony Play Stations. There was a crew from West Wyalong who spent their work hours going hunting in work vehicles – apparently wild goats were redeemable for cash!? And there was the boss' son who regularly left work at 11 am and didn't come back till the next day.
Almost everybody falsified their time sheets, even if just a little bit, and even the diligent ones would add up all the times they were five minutes early in the morning to justify taking off early on Friday afternoon.
Those are fairly extreme examples, but there were plenty more.
There was a lady who spent most of her days reading the paper online, updating her face book page (well the 1999 equivalent – chatting?) and calling friends… Some of the blokes kept the cricket on in the background (I have to admit I got in on that one, I still find the cricket hard to resist).
And there were plenty of people whose heart just wasn't in it, who said they'd double checked their work, when actually they'd just been chatting, or took something interesting to read to team meetings, or took long lunches or promised to get things done but somehow never got around to doing them…
In my experience these are daily temptations for all of us at work. If you're doing those things, or things like them, then it's probably fair to say you're not earning the bread you eat. So, with me, listen to this wake up call and Stop Pretending to work and settle down to Earn the bread you eat.
Paul commands us in Christ Jesus; Paul urges us – Sloth is sin and it shouldn't be overlooked and it shouldn't be indulged. And that's the first point. Sloth isn't just the urge to slob out occasionally. For most of us it means short cuts and shoddiness, resistance to an honest days work, resistance to discipline and responsibility. It's easy to overlook it but the Bible takes it very seriously and say's don't indulge yourself – earn the bread you eat.
And sloth is bad enough when we think in terms of our work, but what about when we thing about how sloth affects our relationship with God? That's my second point – sloth towards God leads to all manner of sin.
So Point Two: Sloth, like Pride, is a sin that leads to other sins.
One of the topics that fascinated the medieval mind was classifying everything into categories. And when it came to classification the medieval theologians were right up there with the best of them. The theologians who classified the seven deadly sins were interested to work out what were the fundamental sins that gave rise to all the other sins – there's partly where the seven came from.
It might surprise you to hear that many argued that the primary sins were pride and sloth! Almost all sin could be traced to one or the other. Pride was responsible for sin because it was pride that made us reach out and claim that which belongs to God, as if it belonged to us. And sloth was responsible for sin because it left us too idle to make the effort required to please God. If you think of sin as missing the mark, as failing to reach God's standards, then you can see how sloth play's it's part in all sin.
To show how this worked the medieval theologians liked to draw attention to the contrast between Adam and Eve's sin in Genesis three and Jesus' triumph in Philippians two (the two passages we heard earlier). They looked at Genesis three as a paradigm or a pattern for all subsequent sin – and it makes sense to see it that way because all sin is following in Adam and Eve's footsteps. And it seems that Philippians two deliberately contrasts Jesus' obedience with Adam and Eve's – and therefore our – Disobedience.
Remember Genesis 3:6 – Adam and Eve were attracted to the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because it would make them like God. By reaching out and taking the fruit they were grasping at God's position, God's glory. Contrast Jesus in Philippians 2:6 – Jesus was 'in very nature God', but did not consider equality with God something to be grasped; instead he 'made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.'
See the contrast in terms of pride and humility – Jesus was so humble that he refused to grasp the glory that belonged to him and instead gave his life in service of others; but Adam and Eve were so proud that they reached out and grasped at no less than equality with God. Jesus' way is the way of humility and service, but Adam and Eve's way – our way – is the way of pride and grasping.
And that contrast can also be seen in terms of diligent obedience and slothful disobedience. Jesus is obedient to death, even death on a cross. That sort of obedience takes a deliberate, conscious effort. It takes determination to resist sin and temptation. Sometimes we talk about sin as a moment of weakness, or a lapse in discipline. Well Jesus never allowed himself even a single lapse, even a single moment of weakness. He resisted every single temptation.
Contrast Adam and Eve. Instead of doing the work of resisting temptation they took what looked like the easy option – the short cut. They gave into the slothful desire to get it now, without any effort; they reached out and grasped at the blessings of relationship with God without the hard work of obedience to God.
Can you see how sloth works in a similar way to lead us into sin? We live in a world that is hostile to God and actively encourages sin. We ourselves are naturally bent by our sinful nature to desire sin and chafe against obedience to God. And Satan puts temptation before us, encourages us to fall into sin. In an environment like that, to avoid falling into sin we need to be actively fighting on all three fronts – against sin, the world and the devil.
If we approach that fight with anything less than absolute diligence, even zeal, we'll fail and we'll fall into sin. To stand against the tide, to swim upstream against a great flood of sin and temptation, that takes enormous energy. And when we're tired or anxious or fearful sin looks like the easy option, the short cut, and it becomes all the more tempting.
Let's put that in concrete terms. Stealing is a short cut to providing for needs. We're tempted to take the blessings of work without the effort of working for it. Gambling is another way to short cut through earning the bread that we eat.
And again, if the truth might be painful, lying looks like an easy way out. If everyone else is cheating the boss out of work – it's easier to join in that to stand out as the only one who does the right thing.
So often we find that justifying sin is easier than resisting it.
And if we keep thinking about it we can begin to see the profound effect that sloth has on our whole society. Let's just think about our relationships. Maintaining a relationship is hard work, we need to think about someone else's needs as much as our own, and often we'll have to give up on what we want to accommodate them. Sometimes we'll need to make hard choices for their sakes, sometimes we'll have to forgive and forget. If we're committed to that relationship and want to make it work, it'll require hard work, constant, unrelenting, hard work.
But look around and we can see that it's too much hard work for many. Marriage is at an all time low and divorce an all time high.
See, I think this is one of the things that our society really struggles with. We know deep down that things ought to be different, but we struggle to break out of slothful sin.
I think Nick Hornby illustrates it beautifully. He's the guy who wrote About a Boy, and Hi Fidelity and Fever Pitch – all of which have been made into movies. It seems to me that all of his books are about this struggle – about the struggle to take responsibility, to leave behind selfish indulgences that drag us down and to learn to serve others. All of his hero's seem to struggle with some obsession that comes between them and the people they love – whether it's football fanaticism (Fever Pitch) or music fanaticism (Hi Fidelity) or simply chronic idleness and irresponsibility (About a Boy). They all struggle with a selfishness that puts their own interests and their own concerns ahead of other people and they lack the motivation or energy to break out of it.
And I think Nick Hornby has hit on something that rings true for all of us on some level – that's why his books are so popular, why they keep making them into movies. Deep down we all know that we're not the people we want to be, that we ought to resist the urge to indulge ourselves, we ought to put other people before our selves. But some sort of inertia keeps dragging us back into selfishness so that we say mean and hurtful things, we let people down, we retreat into our interests instead of serving others. Our slothful disobedience to God leads to all kinds of other sin.
And what's true generally, is true of the church too. Christian growth and growing the church take constant effort too. When it comes to growing as a Christian we're told to be tirelessly active in doing good, never letting our guard down for a moment, never resting on our laurels, but always looking forward and working towards the goal of becoming more and more like Jesus.
Sloth says take it easy, have a little break from resisting sin, just this once. Sloth encourages us to indulge the very things that are set to destroy us.
The point is this: our sloth leads us to sin. We do the things we shouldn't do and we fail to do the things we ought to do because we let our guard down and choose to take the short cut, the easy option, the path of least resistance.
The irony is, of course, that it never works. Instead of blessings we find brokenness and ultimately God's anger at our slothful rebellion against his perfect law.
The opposite of sloth is diligent obedience to God, striving to please him, living to honour him. So let's encourage each other never to tire of doing what is good, but to pour out our lives in service of one another.
So as I finish I want to leave you all with a challenge. In March we're going to try and open our church to more people by starting a second morning service. Where are those people going to come from? We'll advertise, we'll put flyers through people's doors – we'll try and be as creative and visible as we can; and we'll get some people that way. But most people come to church for the first time because a friend invites them – and keeps inviting them until they come.
And if we do get a crow – who's going to welcome them at the door, who's going to teach their children in Sunday School, serve them tea and coffee, play in the music group, lead Christianity Explored, meet them in home groups… And above all, who's going to pray for all those things to be done in a way that honours God? Evangelism and growing the church takes effort, hard work. And it's well and truly worth it, because it brings glory to God and it rescues sinners from hell.
So this is the challenge: Get involved – get busy, find a way to serve, invite your friends and above all pray for this church, and pray for this town. Ask God to do something amazing and overcome the slothful inertia that keeps people from coming to him and he fill this church and turn this town upside down with the gospel.