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