Brother to a Great Waster
By slothfulness the building decays; and through
lowering of the hands
In the parable of the talents the Lord admonishes his disciples by describing a terrible punishment for an unprofitable servant. Knowing this judgment of the Lord toward someone who is basically lazy, we should define with some precision the sin that leads to such an end and, of course, define sloth in general. When we consider the severity of the punishment of this servant, we know there are good reasons why the Lord taught this lesson.
Sloth is always easier to recognize in others than in ourselves. It is a subjective sin. We can say a person is slothful (lazy) if we have known the person a long time and can compare his or her activity with prior activity in the past, or when compared to others.
Although each of us is able to think, to work, or to suffer, there are great differences among us. Some have greater physical capability to perform a task, others less. Some can tolerate considerable pain, others not. There is a tendency to judge the “strength” or “weakness” of another in terms of ourselves.
Thus it is with what can be observed. In the parable the Lord gave five talents, two talents, and one talent to his servants based on his knowledge of their capabilities. So the limit of our zeal is something only God can appreciate in comparison with our capacities. We need to consider how sloth appears to God when we attempt to “do our duty” as Christians.
Sloth can result from many causes, one of which is physical. An illness affects our ability to work and serve. Here’s one example from the apostle Paul whose prayer to God is well known: “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, my grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
Many explanations have been suggested for Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” but it is unimportant to know what it was. Paul considered that infirmity, whatever it was, as preventing him from serving the Lord as he wanted. Because God did not remove this “thorn,” we know he did not want Paul serving him without it.
So was Paul slothful? Certainly not! Paul may have thought his service for the Lord was not what he thought it could be because of that infirmity, and so from one point of view, he may have considered himself guilty of sloth. Others around him might notice if he stopped working when they wanted to continue.
We might feel the same if we planned a special work, then found we did not have the energy to carry it out. Instead of anticipating that task with pleasure, it instead became something tiring or painful.
Sloth can be the result of mental processes that reduce our zeal. Generally the lack of a goal produces discouragement in anyone. Suppose our job requires us to produce a report which must be submitted next week. We must write a few pages describing a manufacturing process and how to improve it. Some parts of the report we find easy to write. Other parts may be less so because the process is complicated, and we are unable to organize the ideas clearly or find good answers to the problem.
If we consider this assignment as tiring and which we think might not even be well-received by our boss, we will, when we encounter the first difficulty, find reasons to do something else. If discouragement is allowed to possess us, we will soon become “unprofitable.” But if we are motivated to do a good job, we will keep at the task we are expected to accomplish.
Some people appear to be lazy when that is not their problem. Fear may keep them from doing something even though they know others may judge them as lazy. That, in their minds, is preferable to being judged incompetent. They do this because they suppose sloth is less disgraceful than incompetence. Presumably sloth can be overcome while incompetence is permanent. Voluntary sloth can also be exhibited by someone who is able to do the work, but just doesn’t want to do it. He willingly accepts the risk of being considered lazy because he finds it preferable to actually doing work.
Whether we avoid work
because of this reason or some other, God, who knows all our abilities and
shortcomings, will make the final judgment about the service we render to him
when the time comes.
Motivation Is Key
If a task is to be correctly done, we need to be motivated. Money is considered an effective motivator by many. We can imagine some as excessively busy every waking hour to accumulate the most money possible. This perspective can be so attractive that it overcomes fatigue and discouragement.
Students may find some of their subjects boring. At the end of the semester, with the prospect of a pass/fail examination, such students must suddenly find the motivation. It could be the realization that whether they like the subject or not, graduation is a necessary first step to a future career.
More commonly, most recognize that to survive, they need money for the necessities of life, and so, although sloth may appear to have its allurements, good sense triumphs as work is done to acquire money.
The stronger the motivation, the more zeal will be exhibited in comparison with the difficulties of the work. Employers can use this phenomenon to increase the production efficiency of a factory. This works better than threatening some punishment, because positive incentives are usually better than negative threats for both employee and employer. There are exceptions, of course. There are those who will not change their behavior no matter what kind of incentive is used, even punishment. But for most, good motivation usually overcomes sloth.
“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6). These words strongly imply that God wants us to be busy, that he considers sloth a sin. After our first parents disobeyed the direct command of God in the garden, he spoke to them and said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19). God considered hard work to obtain one’s daily food as the expected behavior for everyone.
Throughout Old Testament history we see that work, even hard work, was the normal state for mankind. God promised that he would reward hard work with blessings if that work was accompanied with obedience to him. Otherwise, there would be punishment, including meager results from the work done.
In the New Testament we see Jesus who gave so much of his time and strength, and who finally gave his life for us and all mankind! Due to his personal experience and his motivation he was in a position to speak about punishment for inactivity in the parable of the talents.
The apostle Paul, who was concerned about how his infirmity limited his service, writes: “Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:8-10). Paul considered sloth as unacceptable for Christians and used his own experience as an example.
This text speaks especially of the work Paul had to do to live; he needed money to provide his food and shelter. The implication is that some did not do this. In the first Christian community in Jerusalem money was gathered among the brethren for those who were in need: “[They] sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (Acts 2:45). Such community life might have tempted some to accept the assistance of others without the need for them to work at all.
We do not know if that was the case in Thessalonica. Paul seems to have chosen an independent course rather than to rely on the largesse of others. In any event he condemns sloth on the part of those who refuse to provide for themselves through their own labor. Concerning his own motivation, he says simply that he did not want to “be chargeable to any of you.”
What about spiritual sloth? We already know what Jesus thought about this subject in the parable of the talents, and the work or lack of it done by the servants during the absence of their lord. When that lord reckoned with his servants, their efforts affected the outcome. At the beginning of the parable the lord did not say to the servants, “Work hard and you will get a percent of what I have entrusted to you.” He did not say, “If you do not work hard, you will be punished.” We know only that the parable ends with both reward and punishment for the servants depending upon how well they served. Jesus in this example given just before his crucifixion, gives us motivation in his call to serve him.
The apostle Paul explains the need to work for God and to be motivated by how he wrote his letters. He used phrases like “fight of faith” or “run the race” which include constant effort and dedication for the work that must be done. He refers to a “crown of glory” as the great reward that soldiers and athletes expected at the conclusion of their hard work. And so it must be for every Christian who has made the decision to serve the Lord.
One danger concerning zeal can be temporary relaxation. When we have worked hard for the Lord and his service, and when our efforts have been appreciated by others, we may feel we are entitled to a little rest. The famous general Hannibal of Carthage successfully attacked the Roman empire in 218 B.C.; he defeated the Roman legions in three different battles. When he was in position to take Rome, he instead “rested on his laurels” in Capua, Italy. That allowed Rome to gather new legions and finally defeat him.
“Resting on our laurels” can
also be a trap for us. If our zeal has been allowed to flag, if we have stopped
to rest as we run this race to attain the prize of the high calling, we are in
great danger. The moments of relaxation provide a good opportunity for the
adversary to tell us about all the other interesting things there are for us,
in addition to activity in the Lord’s service.
Sloth differs from the sin of murder or robbery which might be done just once then regretted immediately after, though whose consequences may be great through a Christian’s life. Sloth is insidious: it can start small, be just a slight tendency at the beginning, not even visible to others. Then, if persisted in, it gradually takes over one’s life to the point where inactivity is considered normal, even something good.
Let each of us ask ourselves these questions: “Could I do more for the Lord and the brethren, and less for myself?” “When, at the end of my life, I look at what I did for God, will I be satisfied or will I regret all my missed opportunities?” If we feel our life could be judged as unprofitable to God, that thought should provide the motivation we need to increase our zeal in the Master’s service. Let us take as our role models those who are continuously active in serving the Lord, who never relax their efforts to please God.
The level of our zeal is something God himself will someday recognize. Let us renew each day our efforts to serve him, knowing how greatly he will reward those who truly love and serve him.