My therapist wife tells me how the pandemic has challenged the mental health of her clients. Her waiting list has lengthened as depression, drug abuse, and other ills have mounted. But I’m seeing another force emanating from the pandemic at work in individuals and churches, and it needs a name. We could call it spiritual inertia, but let’s use the traditional name: sloth.
It’s surprising how few people take sloth seriously. Probably because it’s so cozy. Reinhold Messner, one of the world’s greatest mountain climbers, has an interesting metaphor about that. He describes how in a high climb one of the great dangers is hypoxia â€“ not getting enough oxygen due to the thin atmosphere. The symptoms of hypoxia are hard to notice. Mountain climbers expect the shortness of breath they experience, but what they typically don’t expect or even notice is how their wills become listless. They slowly stop caring. Amid their light-headedness they become hard to arouse and vacant even when their lives are in danger. “Death by hypoxia,” writes Messner, “is a pleasant one.”
That’s what’s happening to some of us during this pandemic. Staying home from worship or bible study is a pleasant death. Yes, sometimes staying home is a wise precaution against contracting the virus. But let’s be honest; some of us stay home because it’s easier. Our spirits have sunken into the couch and muscling ourselves out isn’t something we’ve got the oomph for. “And after all,” sloth whispers, “what’s it matter if I don’t go?” That’s a virus in our spirit.
Sloth isn’t new for Americans. Our wealth and obsession with entertainment has made us a pretty flabby bunch. Our addiction to screens has immobilized us even further. Now comes the pandemic â€“ the perfect excuse to not rouse ourselves. (By the way, note how our government enabled our torpor by sending us extra unemployment benefits and rent subsidies. And we wonder why it’s been hard to find workers!)
At its deepest level, sloth isn’t merely having a poor work ethic; it’s an inability to rouse oneself for the duties of a love relationship. I’ll personalize. This week I had Covid and, though my symptoms were mild, I watched three hours of TV each night. That was helpful at first, but as my lethargy continued, I found myself waking late and missing morning prayer several days in a row. “What’s it matter if I don’t pray?”
I’ll tell you why it matters: because love matters. If you want to understand how sloth affects individuals, look at someone who has a vibrant love relationship with God. They’re energetic, optimistic, and resilient. They’re living an inspired life. And if you want to understand how sloth affects churches, look at a church with a vibrant worship life. People at such a church literally run into the service (I’ve seen this) because they’re so eager to be in the Spirit worshipping God. How this delights God!
What’s the cure for sloth? The threshold of hell. See, sloth weakens our resolve to fight until we no longer resist our bad habits or our bad moods. We become our bad habits and our bad moods. And gradually the vibrant life of the kingdom seemsâ€¦. too draining, tooâ€¦ unrewarding. But it is a great grace when Jesus speaks His offensive word into that warm haze of deception: Narrow is the gate and hard the road that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Mt. 7:14).
Fight your sloth while you still have the energy to do so.