Sloth, part 3

From the Rosary Center:


Sloth, as understood in theology, is a sadness or dejection of the will about the divine good one possesses, and arises from a lack of esteem for that good, and for one’s last end and the means to attain it. It occasions an aversion or repugnance in the will to the output of energy – whether physical or intellectual – in the service of God, and a tendency to negligence, arising from a lack of desire for, and joy in the divine good. To clarify more precisely what is sloth and the sadness it occasions, it will be helpful to see what it is not.

The sadness of sloth is not the same as spiritual dryness, which, in divine trials, is accompanied by true contrition for one’s sins with a fear of offending God, fidelity to prayer, a desire for spiritual progress, and a generous fidelity to service of God. This is vastly different from the depressing sadness of sloth, the result of negligence, bringing a distaste for spiritual things.

Sadness, depression and melancholy that are due to physical or nervous causes, and are not deliberately embraced by the will, do not come under the definition of sloth.

Sloth differs from bodily weariness which is not a moral deficiency but a natural occurrence. However, that weariness disposes one to the passion of sadness, and this in turn may tempt the will to sloth when it concerns duties owed to God.

Whereas true devotion brings a promptness of the will in the service of God, spiritual sloth weighs down and oppresses the soul, bringing a voluntary distaste for spiritual things which become joyless burdens because of the abnegation and effort they demand, leading one to perform spiritual duties negligently, to shorten them, or eventually to omit them under vain pretexts. In spite of Our Lord’s words that “My yoke is easy, and My burden light,” the slothful person finds them unbearable, and closes his eyes to the light.

Sloth is not to be confused with inactivity, for at times inactivity is necessary, either because our nerves demand it, or because charity demands it. A certain amount of distraction and amusement is often necessary, but one has to be on guard lest what is meant to be a medicinal means becomes an end in itself – to the detriment of other more important ends.

Sloth is not mere laziness. It is not the drag that is felt getting up in the morning, nor the slowness with which one operates getting a job done. It is rather a perverted sorrow that moves one to neglect things of the spirit, and holds him back from the one important thing in life that will lead him to life’s goal.


St. Thomas defines a capital sin as “one which easily leads to other sins” (ibid. 35:4). The sin of sloth causes one to shun many things because of the sorrow or unpleasantness involved, and to seek many unlawful things as a means of escape from his depressing state; and because of this it begets many other sins. Thus sloth involves both a fleeing from God, and a pursuit of the world, for as St. Thomas explains, “those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures, have recourse to pleasures of the body” (ibid. 4, ad 2). In the light of this we will see some of the sins begotten of sloth as explained by the angelic doctor.

  1. A fleeing from God: The divine goods which the slothful man shuns are both an END and a MEANS. To forsake the divine good as one’s final end leads to the sin of despair. It is hoped that sloth will seldom go to this extreme, but when it does it is the sin of sloth that begets it. To forsake the divine good as a means to that end can give rise to:
  2. a) timidity or faintheartedness when it concerns the evangelical counsels, making one fearful of making a commitment; and
  3. b) apathy or indifference with regard to the commandments of God. This can give rise to an actual detestation of spiritual things.
  4. The pursuit of the world: This pursuit of objects of pleasure gives rise to a wandering after unlawful things – which may express itself in:
    1. an uneasiness of mind – when the mind is desirous of rushing after various things without rhyme or reason. Such a one is lured by the idea that the grass is greener elsewhere, and can experience a tendency to wander after unlawful things, i.e., persons or places that a true conscience would tell him are out of bounds.
    2. curiosity – when one’s mind is curious about what does not concern him, even about things that can open the door to countless temptations. It was St. Augustine who said, and no doubt he was speaking from personal experience, that many a grave sin against chastity had its first beginning in curiosity. The devil understands this far better than we do, and how well he makes use of it through the modern media. “Where your treasure is, there your heart also will be” (Mt. 6:21).

Sloth slows down spiritual progress, and can even bring it to a standstill, and when it does, as we have seen, one’s heart and attention are focused earthward. The reason is because one is saddened by the vigilance, effort and self-surrender that the Christian life entails. How is this inertia overcome?

Sloth has especially weakened three key virtues, and the vigor of the spiritual life will be restored in the measure that those three virtues are strengthened:

  1. The vigor of faith will be renewed if one focuses his vision on the heavenly beatitude that God has prepared for those who remain in His friendship. He should strive to be more conscious of God’s merciful love for us, and for the priceless gifts he has bestowed on us, and for which we will have to give an account. “The more we think of spiritual good,” says St. Thomas, “the more pleasing they become to us . . . and from this sloth is diminished” (ibid. 1, ad 4). Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. states that “to recover the spirit of faith, enthusiasm and generosity in the love of God, we must daily courageously impose little sacrifices on ourself in those matters in which we are weakest . . . . The first steps are costly, but after a bit the task becomes easier . . . even when sensible joy is lacking.”
    One fruitful way of focusing our mind and heart on spiritual things is by the daily recitation of the Rosary.
  2. Fortitude in the face of sadness and unpleasantness will be forthcoming when one overcomes the fear of embracing God’s will, and is constant in keeping his resolutions. One must actively continue to seek God even in the face of desolation, even when God seems distant, and not be discouraged by failure. There is no walk in life so continuously joyous that it is completely free of periods of depression. But it is one thing to feel depressed, and quite another thing to give way to that feeling and allow it to dominate one’s attitude and conduct. Our Lord Himself on the cross was not spared that desolation: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mt. 27:46) So He will be most understanding of our needs in times of sadness and depression.
  3. The activity of charity must be restored, for this is the chief virtue that has been weakened by sloth, bringing an aversion for spiritual things, and causing one to turn away from God and inward towards self. One weighed down by sloth, therefore, must counter his selfish tendencies and strive to be more conscious of the needs of others – seen as his brothers and sisters in Christ, and more self-giving through works of mercy. Yet, no one can restore the activity of the infused virtues by himself. He can never rise above his weaknesses unless God (through grace) gives him the inclination and strength to do so; and for those graces he should beg God ardently, trustingly and perseveringly.

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