I remember my days when I was involved as a grad student with a student ministry at CU Boulder. Those were marvelous times filled with the growing discovery that Christianity was far more than a feeling or a social obligation. I began to understand that it provided a framework for how to see life, and to experience an internal anchoring in life and power to live life that I had frankly wondered if it even existed. Those were days of marked growth in my spiritual life!
Thirty years later, I think it’s safe to say that what felt easy gets harder. It’s not that I don’t desire to grow, it’s that growth at a deeper level (real character change) feels harder. I think most people truly want to grow. What gets harder is that character growth (Christ-likeness) is not like reading the Bible for the day and then you’re done. In reality, to grow in depth of character, the capacity to love, to hope in the midst of dystopia, to “put off” behaviors that won’t help us mature and to “put” on behaviors that will help us do well in life feels difficult, often painful. It seemed like no one taught me that if I’m going to be like Christ I am in for a long road ahead.
That said, it seems to me that the greatest temptation to oppose growth in our lives is what the ancients called “sloth”. Whether it’s through discouragement that I constantly fail and can’t hit God’s mark or whether it’s through presumption that I have grace so I can do what I want or numerous other rationalizations, “acedia” or “sloth” was real and dangerous to the ancient Christians… something we don’t talk about much today.
Gregory of Nyssa, one of the early church fathers, wrote in The Life of Moses,
“Just as the end of life is the beginning of death, so also stopping in the race of virtue marks the beginning of the race of evil.”
In this short section, Gregory is saying two things. First, we are aiming in this life for Christ-like character, which he previously called “perfection”. We understand this as the kind of character that God has demonstrated in Christ. The race of life is a long one but it has as its vision a depth of character or virtue, that is “like Christ”. However, the problem all of us experience in this race throughout life is we struggle with inconsistency. If the goal is the perfection (as God is perfect) of our character, the reality is we continually fall short. Rather than entering into despair or quickly concluding that it’s not attainable and that I am not progressing like I think I should, Gregory wants to assure us that even “baby steps” (remember What About Bob?) are appropriate. Why?
Gregory writes that progress in direction of character growth, even slowly, is good in and of itself. Gregory’s second point then is that it’s far better to progress slowly rather than stopping because in stopping that opens us to the start of the race of evil. How could putting growth on hold actually be the beginning of evil? This is where sloth comes in…
It might help to frame what Gregory is saying by thinking of what sloth is. It’s not merely being physically lazy. Actually, the ancient Christians thought of sloth as an emotional or spiritual laziness or negligence – something that can range from a willful, “I don’t want to do that” to an apathetic “whatever”. They thought of it as becoming careless or forming a habit of passivity or ceasing to care about something very important – skill in becoming the kind of person that “fits” with the life God has graced us with.
This is important because if growth is descriptive of physical living organisms, sloth is an indication that something is becoming numb on the inside. Indeed, some of the more ancient Christians thought of sloth as the doorway by which other bad habits took root in the heart. A very simple way to think of sloth would be to ask how many Christians do you know that are sort of in a sleepwalk through their life of faith? As they read Romans 1:17, it is not a progressive kind of faith in life. They go through some motions that look good but there is no vitality, no life, and certainly no intention in wanting to be transformed in their heart. Or how many Christians do you know that are reluctant to embrace some basic disciplines (what I think of as means of God’s grace) because they are waiting for pure motives before they act? Or worse, they have let everything crowd out the essentials in their lives so in reality the gospel falls on deaf ears?
In Ephesians 5:14, Paul quotes possibly an early Christian hymn and tells people to wake up. If you read what comes before and after, it’s clear that he’s not so much talking about salvation as he is about waking up from a kind of sleepwalk through life where a person is careless with how they live as a follower of Christ. The longer I am a Christian, the easier it becomes to sleepwalk through life and not be concerned with the depth of character growth that has to happen in my own heart. Sloth is real and easy to slip into over the course of life.
I think this is in part why people like Dallas Willard encourage people to do something in the Christian life and not wait for the “right” motivation. He has said that effort is not opposed to grace… earning is opposed to grace. While we are rightfully concerned about neglecting the Spirit’s role in causing growth (1 Cor. 3:5,6), our effort, however slow and progressive, is better than putting everything on hold waiting for the right motives. Tim Keller is correct in saying that we are such a mixed bag of motives that if we wait for pure motives (or “right” motives) or unselfish motives, we will be waiting to act for a long time.