The most subtle of the seven deadly sins

Six of the seven deadly sins are easy to define, but one is more subtle. The seven deadly sins are

  1. lust
  2. gluttony
  3. greed
  4. sloth
  5. wrath
  6. envy
  7. pride.

Sloth is the subtle one.

I discovered recently that I didn’t know what sloth meant. When I first heard of the seven deadly sins, I thought it was odd that sloth was on the list. How would you know whether you’re sufficiently active to avoid sloth? It turns out that the original idea of sloth was only indirectly related to activity.

The idea of a list of deadly sins started in the 4th century and has changed over time. The word in the middle of the list was “acedia” before it became “sloth,” and the word “sloth” has taken on a different meaning since then. So what is acedia? According to Wikipedia,

Acedia is a word from ancient Greek describing a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world. It can lead to a state of being unable to perform one’s duties in life. Its spiritual overtones make it related to but distinct from depression.

In short, “sloth” did not mean inactivity but rather a state of apathy. As Os Guinness says in his book The Call

… sloth must be distinguished from idling, a state of carefree living that can be admirable, as in friends lingering over a meal … [Sloth] can reveal itself in frenetic activism as easily as in lethargy … It is a condition of explicitly spiritual dejection … inner despair at the worthwhileness of the worthwhile …

Sloth and rest could look the same externally while proceeding from opposite motivations. One person could be idle because he lacked the faith to do anything, while another person could be idle because he had faith that his needs would be met even if he rested a while. The key to avoiding sloth is not the proper level of activity but the proper attitude of the heart.

10 thoughts on “The most subtle of the seven deadly sins

  1. As a ‘work of art’, there’s a big neon sign on the campus of UCSD that flashes these 7 words. I really didn’t like it, for lots of reasons.

    Maybe the artist intended that people question them, but flashing them like that just adds to their imprint on people’s psyches, without necessarily encouraging questioning. It added to the hegemony of Judeo-Christian ideas.

    But more to your point, I didn’t feel that they were all ‘sins’. I can see how taking any of them to extremes is problematic, but many of them can be delightful if approached respectfully. Lust can be great, just realize you’re not exactly in your right mind, and respect the person you’re lusting after.

    If a soldier kills, in obedience to his commanders, without feeling any lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy or pride, has he not committed a deadly sin?

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  2. Good post, and I agree that you have presented a correct definition of sloth in contrast to the usual connotation of this term.

    So, with that proviso, I can’t help but relaying the very curious observation, which unfortunately uses the wrong definition of sloth, to remember the list:

    The Skipper — gluttony
    The Professor — pride
    Ginger — lust
    MaryAnn — envy
    Mr. Howell — greed
    Mrs. Howell — anger
    Gilligan — sloth

    I saw this on the internet a long time ago and it has stuck with me ever since!

  3. Thanks! I just stumbled on your blog and what you wrote about sloth has really challenged me. I appreciate you taking the time to share those thoughts. I’m printing them out now to keep chewing on them…!!!

  4. I am speaking on “Sloth”/Apathy at my small group for High Schoolers, and the way you put this is PERFECT for what I was trying to get across! Great post.

  5. Malishious Intent

    This is sure news to me. It certainly makes more senses because if you do fall into sloth it is very hard to come out or to improve your lot in life. I am getting close to falling into ‘sloth’ and I need to be careful, but how can you blame me with the people in office and the state of the world eh?

  6. Pingback: Cody Boyte » Blog Archive » On Writing
  7. So a Catholic recently told me that the 7 deadly sins are not canonical. (And—wow, I’m for once using that word in its original sense.)

    Wikipedia confirms that they are neither mortal nor venial.

    Thoughts?

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