Just before Christmas 1975, a novelty gift item hit the market and became an instant success. For a mere $3.95, you could buy your very own “Pet Rock.” It came in a cardboard box with straw, breathing holes, a leash, and a 32-page instruction manual. The fad started as a joke between friends when Gary Dahl, its creator, boasted he had the perfect low-maintenance pet—no walks, no messes, no food, and no expectations. And more than 1.5 million consumers snapped up the gag gift. When Dahl died in March 2015, his New York Times obituary noted that “the concept of a ‘pet’ that required no actual work and no real commitment resonated with the self-indulgent ’70s, and before long a cultural phenomenon was born.”
YOUR PET ROCK SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
Unfortunately, the same can be said about our spiritual lives. According to ancient and medieval Christians, a low-maintenance, “no real commitment” approach to following Jesus has been around for a long time. They called it acedia, or as it’s more commonly known, the sin of sloth. It had a nickname—“the noonday demon”—because it felt like the unrelenting, oppressive midday desert sun baking the earth, wilting every living thing in its path.
Acedia isn’t laziness. It literally means “a lack of care,” or more specifically a lack of concern for one’s salvation and growth as a Christian. In contrast to the sin of pride, which raises a defiant fist in God’s face, sloth is more like a shoulder shrug followed by a weary snivel: “Yeah, whatever, Jesus. I want to follow You, but that looks like a long dusty road, and I’m pretty cozy right now sitting in my recliner, channel-surfing my way through life.”
Real discipleship will change me. It will cause me to restructure my priorities, care about people I don’t like, call for sacrifices I don’t want to make, and reorder what and how I love. Unlike a relationship with a Pet Rock, the Christian life requires commitment, inconvenience, and a lifelong journey of small and large changes that will make me more like Jesus. As Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung writes, “God wants to kick down the whole door to our hearts and flood us with his life; we want to keep the door part-way shut so that a few lingering treasures remain untouched, hidden in the shadows.” Or to put it more simply, someone in the grip of acedia makes a sad, quiet bargain with God: I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me.
Think of Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3-4). He had a decent life—a cushy outpost in the desert with his wife, a supportive father-in-law, and a few sheep—until God interrupted with His “you’re My man to deliver My people” speech. It’s a glorious moment, charged with wonder, excitement, and adventure. But after meeting the awesome “I Am Who I Am,” Moses begs God to send someone else, presumably so he can slink back into his safe, adventure-gutted hovel in the desert.
Or think of the third guy in Jesus’ famous “parable of the talents” (Matt. 25:24-30). Despite having only one talent, he was called by his master to a life of greatness and adventure. We can imagine the master (God) exuberantly ordering, “Risk, weep, work, love, and die if necessary, but use that talent!” Instead, the guy responds, “You expect a lot, so I just took that wee little talent called ‘my life’ and buried it in the ground. But, look, here it is: sterile but untarnished.” Like everyone in the grip of sloth, he has a simple, unspoken credo: “I believe in not too much. I believe in not doing anything uncomfortable. I believe in avoiding risky battles.”
DIAGNOSIS: A BAD CASE OF SLOTH
When acedia gets into your spiritual bloodstream, there are two predictable symptoms: not doing what’s required, or pouring ourselves into something else. An early Christian thinker named Evagrius of Pontus observed that acedia “instills in [a believer] a dislike for the place [where he lives] and for his state of life itself.” According to him, this leads the slothful believer on a wild goose chase “for other places where he can easily find the wherewithal to meet his needs and pursue a [life] that is easier and more productive.”
In other words, the “acediaholic” constantly thinks, Ugh! I can’t follow Jesus under these subpar conditions or with these flawed people. If I just had a different ____________ (job, church, spouse, house, body, circle of friends, set of problems), then I could obey Jesus. He burns up most of his spiritual energy fantasizing about such greener grass.
That leads to the second symptom of acedia—pouring oneself into something other than surrender to Christ’s lordship here and now. This is the trickiest aspect of acedia. We assume if we’re busy—really busy—we can’t be soul-sick with sloth. But those ancient Christians believed that it often hides under a flurry of activities and distractions—work, entertainment, celebrity gossip, sports, and mindless web or TV surfing. The activities aren’t always bad, until they become an unconscious strategy to avoid the transforming demands of God’s love.
Here’s my confession about sloth: I know a lot about it from personal experience. I am a recovering acediaholic. About six years ago, I started acting much more like a spectator than a participant in God’s great plan to woo the world to Himself. I noticed that spectators don’t sweat or bleed or twist their ankle on the field of play. I just wanted to sit on the sidelines and watch the action for a “short season”—one that dragged on for about four years. Without consulting God, I had made that sad, quiet bargain: I won’t ask much of You, so return the favor by not asking much of me. And it’s truly a sad arrangement because sloth always leads to spiritual tedium. The things that should fill us with delight—honoring God, sharing Jesus with others, growing in Christlikeness, freeing the oppressed, and even suffering for Christ’s sake—now feel flat, unappetizing, dull, and oh so tiring.
THE RX FOR WELLNESS
My recovery from sloth started with a simple spiritual reality—repentance, a turn from sin back towards the living God. As people say in Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous, I admitted I was powerless over acedia and my life had become unmanageable. I didn’t just have wounds or bad habits (which was partially true); I was also in the grip of sin. Like the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ story, sloth had taken me into a “far country,” and I had to start praying, “Lord Jesus, ‘restore to me the joy of Your salvation’” (Ps. 51:12).
It also meant humbling myself before a few other human beings and confessing my sin of sloth. During the worship service at our church, we offer prayer ministry. So nearly every week I would go to Stan or Steven, two Christlike older men, and ask for prayer. Sometimes I didn’t even know how they should pray, but they joyfully laid hands on my shoulders and in one way or another asked Jesus to restore my shriveled, acedia-laced heart. Steven and Stan helped me to once again start asking much from God.
But those ancient Christians had another basic prescription for sloth—stabilitas, a Latin word that means “firmness” or “stability.” The implication is that we should stay put, persevere, stick to our posts, and bloom where we’re planted. Of course, we need to change our geography sometimes to start a new job or to care for family. But the primary posture of a disciple is to work through conflict and difficulties rather than flit around them. In other words, we usually get somewhere as a Christian by giving up our fantasies and putting down roots—right here, right now, with this group of people, in this marriage or single state, with this set of responsibilities and challenges.
In his novel Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry describes a character named Roy Overhold, a quiet, smiling man who was never on the attack or on the defense “but merely not present.” Berry writes: “As a rule when the pressure was on, Roy eased away. He was not by nature a man who was very much in evidence.” The call to stabilitas says: When the pressure’s on, don’t ease away into one of a thousand distractions or evasions. Be present. Be very much in evidence—at work, with your children or your spouse, with your friends and Christian community, but especially with the God who “rejoice[s] over you with singing” (Zeph. 3:17 NIV).
If someone asked me, “So how did you start to overcome acedia?” I would say, “I didn’t. I was okay with my sloth; God wasn’t. I didn’t even know I had a problem, but God noticed and found it unacceptable. Like Moses, I was perfectly content with my cozy, uninvolved life off the spiritual grid. But God didn’t let either of us stay there.”
That’s how God responds to sloth: He won’t let you wallow in it. God isn’t a Pet Rock. Biblically speaking, He’s more like a “refiner and purifier of silver” (Mal. 3:3), or a lion poised and waiting to pounce (Hos. 13:6-8), or a dogged woman flipping the house upside down to find a precious gold coin—and that gold coin is you (Luke 15:7-10).
He won’t let you go without a fight. He will hunt you down, He will find you, He will jolt or draw or woo you out of your sloth and into real life, and then He will lavish you with grace.
Illustrations by Peter Oumanski