[W]e ought to define what sloth is. Let’s begin by listing a few things that are not slothfulness:
Stillness isn’t always slothfulness. In a noisy, hurry-sick world, regular silence and stillness is a necessity. Jesus himself “often withdrew to deserted places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Times of peaceful, un-busy, prayerful meditation on God’s Word are not laziness. God commands us to take the appropriate time to be still and know He is God.
Sabbath isn’t slothful. God commands regular rest from our work. We’re supposed to work more than we rest, but there is nothing sinful about resting and there’s nothing honorable about not resting. It is both unwise, irresponsible, and disobedient not to rest.
Recreation isn’t sloth. As part of God’s command to rest and his freedom in the gospel to enjoy the good gifts he gives us, there is nothing wrong with having fun via hobbies (like collecting shells!), vacations, games and sports, arts and entertainment, good meals, and just plain being silly. In the appropriate measure, recreation is good for us and reflective of the joyous heart God gives us.
Retirement from a job is not sloth. John Piper has famously criticised the retired couple who are spending their twilight years collecting seashells. But while Piper and I may disagree on this point, retirement from a career in itself is not greedy or lazy or otherwise sinful, only what you do with that retirement. Quitting a career to go on a years-long vacation is slothful. But those who retire from a paying job to devote their time to productive, industrious, kingdom-minded pursuits are to be commended.
Ecclesiastes 9:10 reminds us that, relatively speaking, our time before death is short, so therefore “Whatever your hands find to do, do with [all] your strength.” So, then, we see that sloth isn’t just about work per se but about putting our whole selves into every aspect of life. When it comes right down to it, it is possible to be lazy about resting! I know men who never use their vacation days at work. They imagine this makes them look hard-working to their boss—and it probably does—but it makes them foolish to the Lord. They are dragging their feet in addressing their disobedience to the Sabbath, their dishonoring of their family’s need for their presence in retreat and recreation. Ironically, they are being lazy!
Romans 10:31 says, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for God's glory.” The un-slothful soul is one that glorifies God in work and play, effort and leisure.
Sloth is essentially apathy. This can be a mental or emotional quality as well as a physical. In this sense, sloth isn’t just laziness of body, but laziness of thought or feeling as well. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas is on to something when he writes, “Sloth is a kind of sadness, whereby a man becomes sluggish . . ." As fun as it can be to be lazy, sloth begins from a downcast disposition or attitude, a sort of “sadness” we can call apathy or ambivalence. The word sloth comes from the Greek for “carelessness,” and that is exactly what sloth is -- not caring.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming Bible study Seven Daily Sins, releasing from Threads Media in Spring 2012.