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

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Brought up as an Evangelical in the USA, Fr. Dwight Longenecker earned a degree in Speech and English before studying theology at Oxford University. He served as a minister in the Church of England, and in 1995 was received into the Catholic Church with his wife and family. The author of over twenty books on Catholic faith and culture including his most recent title, Immortal Combat, Fr Longenecker is also an award winning blogger, podcaster and journalist. He is pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Ordained as a Catholic priest under the Pastoral Provision for married former Protestant ministers, Fr Longenecker and his wife Alison have four grown up children.

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