Sloth or Sabbath?

I have found that the spirit of sloth has been oppressing me for quite some time.

It’s the fear of not doing enough and therefore, not being good enough.

It’s interesting how everything in our daily lives can, in some ways, be drawn back to how we view ourselves in light of our life and work. We’re filling every day with activity and come away with a sense of if that activity was fulfilling or unfulfilling.

The interesting thing about sloth, though, is while it’s easy to think of sloth as not doing anything, it’s not that simple. Our sense of meaning, fulfillment, and motivation behind what we do does not start with what we do. One person can find profound fulfillment in a task that sucks the life out of another. Being motivated to work, maintaining a sense of meaning and fulfillment with work, all starts with who we are.

Who we are is defined by relationship, and in any relationship some of the most fulfilling times are when you seem to not be “doing” anything. Intimacy in the stillness and silence might be some of the most intimate times we’ve experienced with friends and significant others. So it is with God. Relationship with God often appears as if we aren’t “doing” anything, but being still before God is often the most fulfilling thing we can do. Jesus didn’t do much of anything for about thirty years of His life. But it was in the stillness He was able to secure His confidence in His identity as Messiah and Son to the Father enough to “do” what was most important for Him to do: maintain that identity through constant resistance and, ultimately, crucifixion.

So addressing sloth is much deeper than just “doing something” instead of “doing nothing.” You have to get to slothfulness’ root as a general unwillingness to do anything of substance. This is a sad place to be. Being unwilling to do anything meaningful comes from a sense of defeat. And feeling defeated goes far deeper than whether or not someone wants to work. It gets to whether or not they want to continue living; when activity is burdensome life is burdensome. Life becomes one giant sense of oppression until getting off the couch or away from Netflix or out of a meeting schedule that never takes a break or completing projects full of easy praise and avoiding the substantial ones that may expose our insecurities, all becomes too crippling to escape. So we continue tired, oppressed, and unfulfilled. The spirit of slothfulness steadily sucks the energy out of life until we either give up on it altogether, or how most probably handle it, we concede to the chronic heaviness of an unfulfilled life. This happens when we do nothing fulfilling for long enough. It’s the oppressive tiredness that comes from the sense that no matter how much we do it won’t be enough. No amount of activity counteracts burdensome activity. It’s a vicious cycle.

This is sloth. The creeping reminder in the back of our minds that our idleness is repulsive, so try harder. Then comes the reminder that our activity isn’t good enough. So we try even harder, until eventually it all becomes too much and we cave to the burden in the form of constant activity or meaningless activity only long enough for the voice to come back “you’re being idle, you’re not working hard enough, you failure, get up, work harder, be better.” On and on it goes.

The more we identify this, the more, thank God, Christ is able to liberate us from it.

The antithesis of sloth is Sabbath, and Christ came to free us all to enter into His eternal Sabbath, His eternal rest.

For some it’s odd to hear sloth as the opposite of Sabbath because Sabbath means rest and we think of being slothful as resting too much. But that isn’t how it works.

We have to look to the broader Spiritual truth that as the Hebrews writer explains, through Christ we now enter into the eternal rest of God (Heb. 4:1-11). The Sabbath in the Old Testament may have been framed around the minimizing of activity, but like many of the Old Testament practices, it was a physical activity for the purpose of spiritual encounter with God. This was the function of the laws and sacrificial system in the Mosaic law. God gave practical, though insufficient, physical means of embracing spiritual realities. But in Christ all those physical means are surpassed by His ultimately sufficient sacrifice. We no longer look on God through a veil but face to face (2 Cor. 3:7-18). So it is with Sabbath. We no longer need to physically stop in hopes of embracing the spiritual reality of His nearness. He is now infinitely near through Christ. Sabbath, then, is not reduced to working or not working. It is fundamentally about connecting with Christ, and that can now be done through any activity whether overtly work-related or not.

To be clear, this doesn’t undermine the practical importance of physically resting. We are still spiritual and physical creatures. Physical rest, then, will often naturally connect to the Sabbath’s intention of connecting with God. For example, we can’t pray well when we can’t stay awake.

The larger truth, though, is through Christ all activity has the potential to help us embrace Sabbath. This is because the curse Christ redeemed on creation directly connects to the curse on work in the Garden. The spiritual reality is the curse of the ground, the curse of toilsome labor, is overcome through Christ. Of course this doesn’t mean all burdens we feel while working go away because the consummation of creation is still yet to come. But what Christ has already accomplished enables us to invite the joy and fulfillment of His Sabbath into all of work in a way previously unobtainable.

Christ Himself, then, is the remedy we lean on for freedom from the oppression of sloth. It can seem overly simplistic to say, in so many words, “Jesus is the answer,” but, well, He is. We come to a point where we either believe that or not in the way we approach our sense of purpose and meaning through life and work. Instead of condemning ourselves for not reaching the bar with our work, inundating ourselves with tasks or avoiding tasks altogether, there is a world of purpose for us to embrace when we give the pressure to Christ and let all work be a meager offering.

Finally, when we look at our work as an offering we undermine slothfulness’ lie that we should work too hard or give up working. When we see our work as a small blip – an important, distinctive, blip – in God’s redemptive plan, the pressure is off of us and given to God. Then the liberating Voice of Sabbath can speak more loudly while the condemnation of slothfulness fades into the background.