Virtue in the Vice: Know when to act and when to wait, seek contentment

Virtue in the Vice: Know when to act and when to wait, seek contentment

November 30, 2005
Written by Daniel Hazard

A monthly feature about spirituality

This is my last installment in a series of spirituality columns for United Church News called "The Virtue in the Vice," drawn from the title of my most recent book. I have sought to uncover a lively virtue in each of the seven deadly sins. The last sin, "sloth," may be the most misunderstood of all.

Sloth sounds archaic, and its true meaning is lost on the modern ear. Fred Craddock said once that sloth sounds like a big furry creature hiding under a rock, or describes it as being sluggish or lazy — "like lying too long in the bathwater or sleeping through breakfast."

Compared to the other deadly sins, being a couch potato sounds rather harmless. But the church had something much more deadly in mind when they warned us about acadeia and tristitia. The former is a lack of caring and an aimless indifference toward one's responsibility to God, while the latter is a sadness or sorrow that settles into a kind of permanent stupor. Sloth really means: I don't care. When we define it this way, we are all too familiar with sloth. The government's response to hurricane Katrina was about as "slothful" as it gets. What's more, the hyper-individualism of American culture causes us to withdraw from collective responsibility, lest we "burn out."

But there is actually a virtue buried in the deadly sin of sloth. While some seem paralyzed by sloth, others seem to think that they can never do enough. They are the mad prophets decrying the hypocrisies of our time, the busybodies who are perpetually cranky and full of angst, the naysayers and town-criers of doom who never seem to notice the sky, pick flowers, or enjoy a good joke.

The opposite of sloth is not hyperactivity. Its redeemed form is contentment. We call it "the peace that passes all understanding."

As opposed to sloth, contentment is not a pretext for laziness, but a way of being in the world that knows when to act and when to wait. The contented person knows that there are times to expend energy and times to rest. Time to plant, and then, as in Mark's parable of the growing seed, time to let the seed grow (he does not know how). After all, nobody stands over a seed and shouts, "Come on now, grow!" A seed has its own future in its bosom.

One of the great secrets of life is to know when to do, and when to wait. But we can take our cue from the biblical ethic, because the order is not unimportant: first we do, and then we wait.

While the slothful does nothing but wait, and the hyper-vigilant feels guilty when not "multitasking," there is something in between: the contented. She is neither frozen by despair, nor unable to take a nap for fear that the world might fall apart as she sleeps. He is not lazy, but neither does he think for one minute that rest and pleasure are inappropriate responses to creation.

The contented among us can take off our watches, and not go back to the office at night. After all, the purpose and end of human existence is captured in the shorter Westminster catechism: "To love God, and enjoy God forever."

You can't do it all. Do what you can, and then be content.

The Rev. Robin Meyers is senior minister at Mayflower UCC in Oklahoma City. In the February/March 2006 issue The Rev. Lillian Daniel, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and a frequent contributor to The Christian Century, will begin a six-issue guest column. 

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