In the first post of this series, I highlighted some of the strong denunciations of laziness in the Scriptures. God’s Word instructs us to see the evil of idleness especially by helping us consider sins of omission, which a lazy person’s life is necessarily full of. In this next blog post, I intend to explore how laziness becomes a breeding ground for other sins, and can be associated with several common counseling issues.
Laziness Is a Breeding Ground for Other Sins
In Richard Baxter’s “Directions Against Idleness and Sloth,” he teaches, “Idleness is the mother and nurse of many heinous sins… They that do not what they should, will be doing what they should not…Idleness is the season of temptation; it is Satan’s seedtime. It is then that he has opportunity to tempt men to malice, revenge, and all other villainy that is committed.”1 Scripture, along with virtually every Christian’s personal experience, offers abundant confirmation for these conclusions.
Paul exhorted the Ephesian church to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:13-16). The idle man, by definition, does not make the best use of the time, and so “walks unwise” in the midst of evil days. Consequently, he will be unable to withstand the evil around him, and he will stoke the fires of the evil passions remaining within his own heart. The Proverbs agree that the sluggard lacks wisdom and sense (Prov. 6:6, 24:30), though he proudly thinks himself wise (Prov. 26:16). In fact, the sluggard’s proud, delusional lack of wisdom actually makes him worse off than a fool (Prov. 26:12, cf. 26:16). In Proverbs, foolishness and wisdom are matters of righteousness, not intellect (Prov. 1:7, 2:6-15, 4:11, 13:19, 14:16, etc.). If the idle man lives in what the Proverbs call “folly” and not “wisdom,” then laziness is indeed a breeding ground for other sins. A constant theme throughout Proverbs is how “foolishness” spawns all manner of evil.
Consider also the important “put off/put on” principle, a foundational insight for biblical counseling (e.g. Eph. 4:22-24). We cannot merely teach people about various self-centered evils to “put off”; we must also teach them to “put on” Godward virtues. The man who makes no effort putting on righteousness will see little success putting off (or keeping off) unrighteousness. Only if we walk by the Spirit will we avoid gratifying the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). It’s no wonder that Scripture explicitly casts slothfulness as the “put off” that stands over and against serving the Lord (Rom. 12:11).
We can offer examples in Scripture of times when specific instances of idleness led to other sins. Paul warns in 1 Timothy 5:13 how young widows in Ephesus could “learn to be idlers” and so end up gossips and meddlesome busybodies (vices, no doubt, that also will breed even further sins). Many have pointed out how David’s horrendous transgressions concerning Uriah and Bathsheba sprouted from the soil of idleness (see 2 Sam. 11:1). Commenting on this verse, Dr. Jim Newheiser says, “Idleness and boredom lead to temptation. David’s lack of attention to his calling put him in a situation in which he was vulnerable to the temptation which resulted in his wicked liaison with Bathsheba… A man in mid-life may be able to put much of his life on autopilot and coast, but with the idleness and the resulting boredom will come temptation to sinful diversions such as immorality and covetousness.” Newheiser also relays the corroborating wisdom of our theological forefathers: “Calvin warns, ‘David did not carry out his duty. By thus sparing himself and staying in his house in order to be at his ease, he threw himself into the net of Satan.’ Spurgeon reminds us that idleness is the mother of mischief, and that David was safer in the midst of raging battles than inside his own palace when he was being lazy.”2
Finally, while considering the role of idleness in breeding other sins, it’s worth pointing out the connection of idleness to other “root” sins. We’ve already mentioned the way that idleness cultivates pride (Prov. 26:16), which is commonly (and rightly) identified as the root of other sins. The Scriptures also make this important observation about the sluggard: “All day long he craves and craves” (Prov. 21:26). I take this to mean more than just suffering physical hunger, but rather the proliferation of greed, discontentment, and covetousness, which is idolatry (Eph. 5:5, Col. 3:5). This craving is more than mere hunger pains; it refers to lust and desire (Prov. 13:4, 21:25). His hands are not busy at work, but his heart is busy desiring. He has no task on which to focus, so he focuses on his various lusts. Here, then, is further proof of how laziness leads to other transgressions, for covetousness, like pride, is a biblical “root” sin.
Laziness and Common Counseling Issues
Given what we’ve already discussed above, it probably goes without saying that idleness can be associated with many common issues we see as biblical counselors. But, it’s worth pointing out in greater detail the potential connection to two very common ones: depression and fear/anxiety.
The connection between depression and idleness is so profound that a lot of the biblical counseling literature on depression actually defines depression as an all-consuming kind of sadness that is immobilizing (i.e. idleness-inducing).3 They suggest that if you’re “down,” that’s not depression. If you’re “down and out” (i.e. walking in idleness because of how down you are), that’s what is rightly called depression. It is when we are afflicted and therefore crushed, perplexed and therefore driven to despair (cf. 2 Cor. 4:8).
Hardships and profound sadness can weaken our desire to move and do things. If we give in to these temptations and embrace idleness, we become caught in a downward spiral; depression and idleness are mutually reinforcing. We feel sad and unmotivated, and so we are idle, which makes us feel more sad and unmotivated (now also in part because of the negative consequences of idleness), which tempts us to further idleness, and so on. Even if laziness is not part of the equation concerning what initially sends a counselee into depression, it most certainly threatens to keep them there longer, and to make the pit of despair and/or emotional numbness deeper and darker and more disorienting.
Proverbs 13:12 is important in explaining many cases of depression: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” If we keep this maxim in mind, we find just a few verses earlier a description of the sluggard that shows he is a prime candidate for this depression / heart-sickness: “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing” (Proverbs 13:4; note that it is his soul’s craving, not just his belly’s). The idleness of a sluggard causes him to gather up more and more deferred hopes and unfulfilled desires (Proverbs 20:4, 13, 21:25, 14:23). To make matters worse, because he lies around doing nothing, he has too much time to mull over these disappointments and frustrated longings (Proverbs 6:9, 26:14). Furthermore, the sluggard’s desires not only go unfulfilled, they also multiply and/or intensify as the sluggard craves and craves all day long (Proverbs 21:26). And so the sluggard is all the more susceptible to the experience described in the first part of Proverbs 13:12.
Idleness, likewise, can have a strong connection to anxiety and fear. In one of the classic passages on anxiety in the New Testament, Jesus concludes by saying, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). An idle man is by definition not focusing on the sufficient trouble of today, not faithfully carrying out the responsibilities of the present. As a result, he is free instead to be anxious about tomorrow. Interestingly, the text we’ve used to address the sluggard’s ongoing sin of omission makes a similar connection. James 4:17 is an inference: “So (or therefore) whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” Doing the right thing now, contra idleness, is the concluding directive after several verses warning against focusing on “tomorrow” (James 4:13-16). Idleness and sinful, future-focused anxiety go hand-and-hand.
If, in idleness, you will not focus on doing what is your present responsibility before God, you will instead focus on things you can’t do anything about, like the future (see above), or even someone else’s responsibilities. Paul commands the Thessalonians to “work with your hands” and “mind your own affairs” in the same breath (1 Thess. 4:11). Along those same lines, Paul alerts us that idle people naturally become busybodies (2 Thess. 3:11) and gossips (1 Tim. 5:13). Focusing the bulk of your concerns (i.e. worries) on things that aren’t your personal responsibility (e.g. the future, your brother’s responsibilities, etc.) is a recipe for the kind of anxiety one might frequently see in the counseling room.
Jay Adams taught me to see the connection between fear and sloth in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. I invite you to learn the same from him now:
Did you know that the Scriptures indicate that many worrying people are lazy? Well, that is what Jesus Himself said concerning the one worrier who was afraid of the future and sought to be excused from his present responsibilities on the basis of worry: Jesus called him lazy instead… The slave worried about the possible consequences of investing the money. He worried and worried and worried and became paralyzed. He worried and did not work. But his master answers, “You wicked [note: it is sinful to worry], lazy servant…you ought to have put my money in the bank and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest.” i.e., “At least you should have done the minimal thing you could, but you didn’t; you are a lazy slave.”4
Many of the heart dynamics that explain the connection between idleness and depression are also useful for explaining the connection between idleness and anxiety. As the sluggard craves and craves (21:26), his desires naturally lead to concerns and anxieties that he won’t get what he’s craving. When some of his many desires actually go unfulfilled, he can become depressed. When he considers how some of his many desires might go unfulfilled in the future, he can become anxious. So in one way or another, “The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor” (Proverbs 21:25).
Furthermore, as Scripture and common sense teach us, the lazy person has plenty of time to lie around and worry. Indeed, his love of ease and habits of idleness mean that he is more inclined to simply worry about whatever concerns him instead of actually trying to do something about it (see again the Proverbs quoted above).
Allow me to comment on one final set of Proverbs that address the sluggard, further highlighting how a lazy man is often a fearful and anxious man. With comical and piercing insight, the Proverbs teach, “The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!” (22:13) and “The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets!” (26:13). A lazy man can be controlled by fear (sometimes irrational fear), and it is difficult to know whether this fear is the fruit or root of his idleness. The likely truth is some of both. Just as we saw with depression, idleness both stems from and leads to anxiety and fear.
Because of the way our hearts work, what we choose, what we desire/love, and what we believe/think mutually influence each other.5 So, an aversion to work, love of ease, or choosing of idleness will all help shape how we view the world around us. Of course, the sluggard could just be making outlandish excuses in Proverbs 22:13 and 26:13. In that case, his idleness has become a breeding ground for the evil of deceit. But that isn’t the only good interpretive option; perhaps the sluggard really has embraced this fear. Or, maybe there is a sense in which both dishonest rationalizations and irrational fears are in view; often one comes to actually believe the things he insists upon (deceiving others, he ends up deceiving himself too).6 Ultimately, we won’t need to try and untangle exactly when and how a particular fear/anxiety or habit of idleness developed. It’s sufficient simply to remember that a connection between the two is very possible, and thus consider that turning from fear/anxiety and turning from idleness often needs to happen together.
Good News for the Lazy
When we encourage this turning from idleness, we must concurrently encourage a turning toward Jesus and his saving grace. In Christ, the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation even for lazy people who want to repent of their laziness (Titus 2:11). His grace will train them to renounce laziness and their passions for excessive leisure, comfort, and ease, to the end that they can actually live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:12). Jesus gave himself to redeem his people from all sinful idleness, to purify for himself a people for his own possession, who are zealous, not slothful, for good works (Titus 2:14). This is the hope we must hold forth to our counselees. We must insist upon the free grace and great power of the gospel of Jesus, so that those who have believed may be careful to devote themselves to good works (Titus 3:8; cf. 3:4-7).
- Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996), 380.
- Jim Newheiser, “Learning from King David’s Failures.” Accessed at https://ibcd.org/learning-from-king-davids-mid-life-failure/ on October 8, 2018.
- Consider, for example, Jay Adams’s well-known pamphlet on depression: “All of us, with Paul, get down, we are all blue from time to time; we all become discouraged. But that is not depression. Depression comes when we fail to handle the blues, the disappointment, the perplexity, the guilt, or the physical affliction God’s way. It comes whenever we allow the bad feelings that are associated with these problems to hinder us from carrying out our duties.” Adams, What to Do When You Become Depressed? (Timeless – pamphlet) Emphasis mine.Similarly, consider Dr. Robert Smith’s description: “Depression is a debilitating mood, feeling, or attitude of hopelessness, which becomes a person’s reason for not handling the most important issues of life.” Later, “Depression occurs when a person uses feelings as an excuse to stop functioning…You must be careful to distinguish between depression and discouragement. What separates the two is that in depression the person ceases handling life or some area of life, and becomes immobile….The key factor in depression is immobility.” Jones, The Christian Counselor’s Medical Desk Reference (Timeless, 2000), 205, 207. Emphasis mine.
- Jay Adams, What to Do When You Worry All the Time (Timeless – pamphlet).
- See, for example, Jeremy Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2016).
- Cf. Bruce Waltke: “Both proverbs represent the sluggard as suffering from irrational fear. He fantasizes lions threatening existence in the market place keeping him from work!” Waltke. The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15–31 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 356. Also, Derek Kidner: “He comes to believe his own excuses (perhaps there is a lion out there, 22:13), and to rationalize his laziness; for he is ‘wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason.’” Kidner, Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1964), 39. Also, John Piper: “Laziness produces paranoia, irrationality, folly; laziness produces dishonesty and lying. So lying takes away a man’s integrity, and it takes away a man’s reason. Either he’s lying about there being a lion outside, or he’s in the grip of a great lack of reason.” Piper, “How to Milk a Text Through Meditation: Proverbs 22:13,” Accessed at https://www.desiringgod.org/labs/how-to-milk-a-text-through-meditation on October 8, 2018.
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