Protestant rejection of, or unfamiliarity with, certain traditional early medieval beliefs can sometimes cause us to lose sight of some of the deep spiritual truths that led to their formulation. The concept of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ is one example of this. We certainly do not have to buy into the whole package of Catholic penitential theology to appreciate the fact that awareness of the potential serious impacts of specific sins can be a good thing. Allow me to illustrate this with what at first glance may seem to be a strange inclusion in a list of ‘deadly sins’: Sloth.
When they hear the word ‘sloth’ most people would probably think of a rather comical and unenthusiastic member of the animal kingdom. Others will probably mentally translate it as ‘laziness’. There is, however, much more going on here. Allow me to introduce you to the concept of acedia.
The person who formulated the most widely accepted list of Seven Deadly Sins was John Cassian (AD 360–435) who adapted and translated (into Latin) an earlier list compiled by the Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus (AD 345–399). Evagrius’ list included the Greek word ‘akedia’. Instead of trying to find a Latin equivalent, Cassian left it more-or-less untranslated as acedia. There is probably no single English word that adequately captures the range of meanings in view here. In addition to sloth and laziness it has also been rendered as: Listlessness, torpor, negligence, despondency, apathy, and indifference.
John Cassian and Evagrius of Pontus operated in a monastic context and they associated acedia with the feeling that would overcome a monk at around midday when the heat of the day would make them sleepy and slow. As such they linked acedia with “… the destruction that wastes at noonday” (Psalm 91:6). It is for this reason that acedia is sometimes referred to as ‘The Noonday Devil’. We do not have to agree with Cassian’s exegesis of Psalm 91:6 to recognise the feeling that is being described. Someone afflicted by acedia will find very little joy and purpose in reading God’s word, praying, or anything else for that matter. The joy and purpose of serving God is replaced with an overwhelming sense of apathy. Both Cassian and Evagrius bemoaned the fact that not even strong exhortation could move listless and apathetic monks from this state. In their ongoing lethargy they resembled the people of Laodicea who were neither ‘hot nor cold’ (Revelation 3:15).
While the specific concept of acedia had its origins in a monastic context, Christian thinkers soon realised that it is a temptation that all Christians are prone to, as we seek to grow in our devotion to God. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1273) focussed on the fact that a despondent or apathetic state of mind will eventually translate into inaction that can be so severe that it is akin to paralysis. The afflicted person experiences “a profound withdrawal into self. Action is no longer perceived as a gift to oneself, as the response to a prior love that calls us, enables our action, and makes it possible.” For his part, Martin Luther (1483–1546) regularly wrote about the fact that believers will sometimes experience certain afflictions (Anfechtungen) that may impede our progress in the Christian life if we are not careful. Among these trials Luther included the pull towards apathy, where our religious life is reduced to joylessly going through the motions.
It should be clear from this brief overview that the concept of acedia refers to something much more serious than spending a bit too much time on the couch. Even if we do not totally buy into the concept of the seven deadly sins, we can all recognise the dangers of an attitude towards life and faith where someone simply does not care anymore. Down this road lies bitterness, despair and even depression. This leads us to the question of how we should respond when we are tempted in this way. I am sure that thick books can be written about this topic and it is hard to know where to begin. Allow me, however, to provide some very brief pointers.
Recognise the Warning Signs
Having a sense of joy, hope and purpose in serving God should be one of the hallmarks of the Christian life. Scripture, in fact, exhorts us to serve God with gladness (cf. Psalm 100:2, Philippians 4:4). Acedia can be described as an absence of joy, as ceasing to delight in God, the gospel and the many blessings bestowed upon us. This obviously does not mean that we ought to be ‘bright and bubbly’ all the time but we should recognise a lack of joy as a very significant warning sign that we might be on the slippery slope towards apathy. When we feel this happening, Paul’s prayer in Romans 15:13 should be ours as well: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
Turn to the Source of Hope
It is significant that Paul prays that the Christians in Rome will ‘abound in hope’ in the verse above. Those who succumb to acedia often turn their back on hope itself. The teaching of Scripture on how to respond to such a state of despondency is consistent. We need to turn back to God. For example: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 43:5). To someone stuck in the depths of despondency this may seem like an easy answer, but we must confess that it is profoundly true that hoping in God is the way out of despair. This will, in fact, not be an easy road for many but knowing where the answer is to be found can steel us against succumbing to the temptations of acedia and against looking for answers in all the wrong places.
In addition to seeking hope and joy in God, we should also seek to be active in serving Him and others when we are tempted by acedia. Giving in to passivity can lead us down a vicious spiral that could end in the paralysis that Aquinas described above. One way out of this trap is to constantly remember who we are serving. As the author of Hebrews says: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3). I believe that in Christ we have both a model (through his perseverance all the way to the cross) and a motivation (having been entrusted with the best news ever) to leave behind any temptation to spiritual slothfulness in order to serve the Lord with all our hearts.
I fully recognise that I have barely scratched the surface of what might be said about this topic, but I trust that these thoughts will help you to recognise the temptations associated with acedia and that it provided some basic insights into how we can overcome the ‘noonday devil’. May the Lord bless you on this journey and, if this is a particular temptation for you, I trust that the truth of Jeremiah 31:25 will be very real to you: “For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.”