The Slough of Despond

In John Bunyan’s famous allegoryPilgrim’s Progress the hero stumbles into the Slough of Despond, otherwise known as the Swamp of Despair. Bunyan describes it as, “This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond.”

The deadly sin of sloth is often thought of as slouching on the sofa bored out of your mind channel hopping for hours on end. That sort of behavior is certainly a symptom of the deadly sin of sloth, but the real problem is much deeper. Sloth is not just laziness, but a deep conviction that nothing is worth doing. If you are just chilling out and relaxing you are not guilty of sloth. Sloth is the deep feeling that one doesn’t want to get up and do anything worthwhile because, at the deepest level, life is hateful, there is no future and worst of all, we despise ourselves. In other words, at the root of sloth is the sin of despair.

What causes despair—that deep feeling of hatefulness and lack of hope? Bunyan nails it when he connects despondency with feelings of guilt and worthlessness. Sloth is often, therefore, a secondary sin which rides in on the back of gluttony, lust, greed and wrath. These other sins drag us down and make us feel bad about ourselves, our world and even the possibility that God can forgive us.

Sloth is also the reluctance or refusal to use our gifts and abilities in a positive way which leads to a prosperous, generous and abundant life. Bogged down in despair, the slothful person drifts into a morose attitude that does not consider anything worth doing. Thomas Aquinas identifies this as a lack of trust and reliance on the goodness of God. The slothful person wastes time, wastes his gifts, wastes his life and worst of all, wastes God’s grace.

Is sloth “deadly”? You bet. It kills accomplishment. It kills joy. It kills the love of life. It kills productivity. It kills fruitfulness. It kills happiness. It kills hope and trust in God. It kills love, and in the end without a remedy it can lead to suicide. Does sloth kill? Without a doubt.

We must be careful to distinguish between the sin of sloth and the illness of depression. Clinical depression is a treatable mental illness of which a person cannot be blamed or held guilty. Sloth, on the other hand, like all sin, has an element of choice about it. The person who is guilty of sloth refuses to pull himself out of the slough of despond. He or she prefers to wallow in the depths rather than ask God for the divine grace and strength to repent of their sins, and get up to serve God and others as they are called to do.

The positive virtue that counters sloth, therefore, is diligence. It is no mistake that the great spiritual writers always recommend steady, cheerful and regular hard work. St Benedict calls his monks to “ora et labor” —prayer and work. The Benedictine writers affirm that in the spiritual life work and prayer merge together so that one cannot pray aright without working and conversely, work without prayer is pointless. God created man to enjoy the dignity of work. Through work we grow as persons. Through work we grow in God’s grace. Through work we grow closer to God and grow closer to our destiny of perfection in Christ.

Stuck in the slough of despond—the swamp of despair? Trapped in the sin of sloth? Repent on your knees then get up on your feet. God is good! Put a smile on your face and get to work building the kingdom of God’s love, power and joy.

Editor’s note: This is the sixth part in an eight part series exploring the Seven Deadly Sins. Check back each Wednesday and read previous articles here

Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion—Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. He blogs at Standing on My Head. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at www.dwightlongenecker.com

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  • Elijah

    Thank you, Father, for this slice of spiritual bread.

  • mollysdad

    Another thing that’s deadly is studying for a degree when the market’s glutted with graduates. It kills accomplishment. It kills joy. It
    kills the love of life. It kills productivity. It kills fruitfulness. It
    kills happiness. It kills hope. It makes you wish that you’d learned a useful trade instead.

  • JohnE_o

    A person in that state might also do well to get checked out by a doctor to see if there are any physical issues that might be contributing to that emotional state after praying and putting a smile on his face.

  • Catholic pilgrim

    Well, did you go embark on an Education for the sake of loving knowledge & learning or simply to get a job that pays well? If the first, you’ll end up happy & satisfied (even if you struggle finding job & making money). If the latter, you’ll end up miserable. The ancient Greek philosophers (“lovers of wisdom” in Greek) knew something that we’ve forgotten: Learning for learning’s sake, because it’s good. The American way: only learn if you can make money off it (of course this leads to misery & despair).

  • kirk

    Growing up Protestant carried the strict admonition that, next to the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress was almost a requirement. However, I read it vigorously a couple times and I think it helped make me an overly scrupulous teenager for a few years. Back then, I too thought i’d committed the unpardonable sin because I occasionally sassed my mother. Luckily, I grew out of that immature belief as I came to know the love of God, but I still remember the allegorical nature of the book, and credit it for keeping me focused on the Christian pathway. As a Catholic now, I often recommend the book to people as a reminder that all of us struggle with doubts and feelings of despair, but God’s grace lifts us up out of that “Slough of Despond” into many times of joy and peace.

  • Antonia

    Sorry but the word ‘slough’ is not a synonym for the word ‘sloth’.

    Bunyan’s slough is literally a place of mud or mire or a state of moral degradation.

    How does his slough equal sloth?

    Just asking.

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