This is from verses 6-9
9 How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.
Interestingly I've been thinking a lot about productivity in the past week since I read this, and in the midst of that ruminating came a piece that blends well with this topic.
This article by John Ortberg that someone sent my wife is more lengthy than anything I've posted in The Adventures in Proverbs, but it's very easy to read and incredibly insightful. If you've never read anything by Ortberg, he is a very engaging communicator. It's called "Confessions of a Lazy Pastor."
This is taken from the Book: Dangers, Toils, and Snares: Resisting the Temptation of Ministry by Richard Exley, Mark Galli, John Ortberg)
Confessions of a Lazy Pastor
Sloth is the failure to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.
The sloth is a tropical mammal that lives much of its life hanging upside-down from tree branches. When obliged to descend to the ground, sloths crawl along a level surface at the rate of ten feet a minute (meaning their top sprint is one-ninth of a mile per hour).
Sloths are generally sluggish and inactive; they build no nests and seek no shelter even for their young. They sleep fifteen to twenty-two hours a day, rising in the late afternoon to eat whatever leaves may be close at hand. Being so passive, they are virtually untrainable, although occasionally you’ll find one working as a denominational official or on a roadside construction crew. From time to time, a sloth hangs around my home and office, a discovery that has surprised me. I’m familiar with lots of my faults but never suspected this one. Up to now, I’ve been careful to whom I admit it.
I’m careful because sloth is our society’s unforgivable sin. It is almost never mentioned. I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone confess it. Think of job interviews. When someone is asked, “What’s your biggest weakness?” 90 percent of the answers are variations of “I work too hard,” and “I tend to be too perfectionistic.” When have you heard someone say, “I’m just too darn lazy”? But I’ve discovered that I have to quit playing this game. Psychiatrist and best-selling author Scott Peck says that ultimately there is one great impediment to spiritual growth “and that is laziness. If we overcome laziness, all the other impediments will be overcome. If we do not overcome laziness, none of the others will be hurdled… Spiritual growth is effortful, as we have been reminded again and again.”
Here are some ways I’ve tried to make that effort and so deal with sloth.
Not Doing What Needs to Be Done
Sloth is deceptive and destructive. One reason people don’t admit sloth is they don’t recognize it.
In the past I would have considered anything but sloth to be one of my of my problems because I seem to be so busy. Sloth doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing nothing. Sloth is the failure to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done—like the kamikaze pilot who flew seventeen missions. I came gradually to the realization that this was a temptation. I would have a task I didn’t look forward to—say, setting up an appointment to confront someone about a broken relationship. Suddenly, a myriad of other tasks leapt up and begged to be done. I would clean my desk, call a staff meeting, write two articles for a newsletter we didn’t even publish.
I did a lot. But over time I discovered that all too often I didn’t do what needed to be done when it needed to be done. Just as most alcoholics don’t live on skid row, most sloth-aholics don’t spend their days eating bon-bons and watching The Young and the Restless.
That’s why Scott Peck notes that even workaholics can be lazy. They may work furiously but only because they are trying to avoid doing something truly needful.
Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking, put it this way:
“A slothful man … may be a very busy man. He is a man who goes through the motions, who flies on automatic pilot. Like a man with a bad head cold, he has mostly lost his sense of taste and smell. He knows something’s wrong with him, but not wrong enough to do anything about. Other people come and go, but through glazed eyes he hardly notices them. He is letting things run their course. He is getting through his life.”
Unfortunately, too often that’s been a description of me.
Signs of Sloth
When I have confessed my struggles in this area with a few carefully chosen confidants, their response—without exception—has been: “What? You, too? I thought I was the only one.” Apparently we all struggle with our own secret forms of sloth. (I know only one person who I’m certain never struggles with laziness. He’s four years old. We’re hoping it hits him soon.)
Max De Pree, author of Leadership Jazz, wrote that one of the most difficult tasks of leadership is intercepting entropy, which he defined loosely as “everything has a tendency to deteriorate.”
He listed signals of deterioration:
—relationships become superficial
—there is little time for celebration and ritual
—leaders try to control rather than liberate people
—day-to-day pressures push aside our need to envision and plan goals
—there is a noticeable loss of grace, style, and civility in our conversations and lifestyles.
Typically the entropy I most need to intercept is my own. Sloth is like gravity; you have to deal with it every day. So I have learned to watch for six tell-tale signs that help me diagnose its presence:
1. My desk top and office get messier.
2. I run late.
3. I stop doing things my wife appreciates, say keeping the grass under three feet high. I’ve agreed to do it but find myself not doing it.
The problem is not energy. For example, after several marathon days—up before dawn, running non-stop until late—I may come home to a free evening but only have enough energy to drag myself down the hall and collapse in the chair. I’d like to help around the house, but I’ve given everything for the ministry. Then the phone rings. I summon my last reserves to pick up the receiver. It’s a good friend: several guys have gotten hold of a gym, and a basketball game starts in forty-five minutes. What happens next is a miracle. Energy, strength, and vitality swarm back into my body like the swallows returning to Capistrano.
4. I find telephone messages I haven’t returned since the Carter administration.
5. I experience an odd combination of hurry and wastefulness. I rush in the morning, telling my wife I have no time for breakfast, no time to see the kids off to school; too much to do. Later in the morning, I read the sports section or make an unnecessary phone call.
6. I have a sense of dis-ease at the end of the day: I just don’t feel right about what I’ve done or been that day. When God created the world, he spent time at the end of each day reflecting on what he had done and finding a sense of rightness to it. “It was good,” he said. Restedness flows out of a sense that what needed to be done is what got done. God never hit the weekend and said, “Thank me, it’s Friday.”
The Spiritual Dynamics
For a long time, I didn’t understand the spiritual significance of sloth. I thought it was simply a matter of developing better work habits, becoming more motivated, of working harder, or perhaps just working smarter.
A billion-dollar cottage industry—the motivational market—has emerged precisely because we no longer understand the true significance of sloth and hence don’t know how to respond to it. We go from motivational speaker to seminar to book to tape, as if we were basketballs with slow leaks trying to find someone or something to pump us up, to counteract our tendency to deflate. We pay money for people to quote platitudes and cite bad social science research and tell exciting stories that psyche us up to run a little faster, work a little harder, stay a little later.
Not that motivation is bad. I’d rather be motivated than demotivated. But isn’t there something deeper?
The Bible doesn’t really call us to be more motivated or more productive workers. The relevant image in Scripture is fruitfulness. Not busyness. Not even productivity. Fruitfulness.
A godly person, the Bible says, is like a tree planted by rivers of living waters. Trees are not frenzied or frantic. They do not attend seminars on “releasing the redwood within them.” They do not chant slogans: “What the sap can conceive, the branch can achieve.” They do not consume vast amounts of caffeine to keep up their adrenaline. Trees are unhurried. They are full of activity, though most of it is unseen. Mostly, a tree knows where its nourishment comes from. It is deeply rooted. It does not wander from its source. It is not easily distracted. A tree has learned to abide.
“If you abide in me,” Jesus says, “you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5).
Abiding in Christ is the great antithesis to sloth. Sloth demands no effort but gives no rest. Abiding is effort-filled but is the place of nourishment and renewal. “Take my yoke upon you …” Jesus says (a surprising offer to make to tired people) “and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29).
One year in the middle of the Easter season, I found myself lacking the energy to minister effectively or even pray well. I talked about this with my spiritual director, and she suggested that I get up for an hour at night to reflect on the crucifixion and pray. (She had two techniques for waking up at 1:00 a.m. One was to set my alarm clock. The other—designed to let my spouse sleep undisturbed—was to drink three glasses of water before going to bed.)
I had never done anything like that before, and frankly the thought of losing sleep was not appealing. But I was amazed by the uniqueness of praying at night. There was a stillness that is never available during the day. Somehow the reality of another world was much more accessible at an hour when my usual world was so quiet and remote. In the darkness and the eerie silence, I felt as if I was actually “keeping watch” with Jesus. And in keeping watch with him, I found rest for my soul.
The irony of sloth, of course, is that it isn’t even refreshing. You never talk to someone who says, “I vegged out in front of the tv last night from dinner to bedtime, from Dan Rather to David Letterman, and it was such a life-enhancing experience. Today I feel so full of vigor and energy; it’s good to be alive!”
Our society teaches us to oscillate between frenzy and collapse. We commute and cocoon. We have lost the rhythm that develops between abiding and fruitfulness.
Abiding consists of all those activities of body and mind that put me in the place where I can receive life from God, including such things as prayer, sleep, solitude, eating, hobbies, and long conversations. Of course, none of these activities in and of themselves guarantee that I will be abiding. They become abiding when I learn how to meet God in them.
Giving Sloth the Second Degree
To keep sloth at bay, I have learned to ask myself four questions periodically (assuming I’ve made room in my schedule to do this).
1. Has sloth shown up in my life with my family?
For me this is sloth’s first likely hiding place. Sometimes I operate under the delusion that I can get away with channeling my best time and energy to ministry and giving my family what is left over. But I get little warning signs:
A married couple sits in my office. She grew up a PK; she pours out her anguish over how her father spoke so movingly about family life and attending to feelings and right priorities, while life at home was another story. She is still trying to pick up the pieces. I struggle to keep listening. Inside I am asking myself, Is that me? I think I’m on the right track with my kids, but how do I know? Will one of my little girls be in somebody’s office in fifteen years? What will she say about her daddy?
Though the pastoral schedule constantly hammers away at my goal, I want at least half of my best energy to go for my family.
2. Am I spending too much time on urgent tasks?
Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, offers a helpful distinction. He notes that work can be placed in one of four quadrants, depending on its degree of urgency and its degree of importance.
Quadrant I is work that is both urgent and important, for instance, sermon preparation: important because it’s one of my critical contributions, urgent because Sunday’s coming!
Quadrant II is work that is important but not urgent, for instance, developing leaders: the church will be crippled if this doesn’t happen, but this task has no natural deadlines as does preaching.
Quadrant III involves tasks that feel urgent but lack importance; answering the telephone usually falls in this category.
Quadrant IV tasks are neither urgent nor important: reading the cartoons in Leadership, unless you find one you can use in the sermon.
One of the keys to effectiveness is finding which tasks lie in quadrant II, because unless I am intentional in my approach to them, they’re likely to go undone. The real danger, Covey points out, is that the human machine is only wired to be able to cope with a certain amount of urgency. If I spend too much time in quadrant I, I’m likely to spend most of the rest of my time in quadrant-IV activities as a way of recovering. I become vulnerable to sloth. Once I’ve identified my primary quadrant-II tasks, I can realign my schedule.
This has helped me eliminate some quadrant-IV activities. I’m currently on a year-long “TV fast.” It started accidentally; I decided during a time of repentance-focused praying to give up tv for a week. I found myself spending more time with my children at night, having leisurely talks with my wife, going to bed earlier and waking up more refreshed. I said to myself, “Why is this penance? This should be celebration; watching tv should be an act of penance!”
3. Am I serving in areas where my giftedness and sense of fulfillment lie?
I want and need to be giving a good portion of my time to tasks that use my gifts—preaching and leadership, for example. These tend to energize me, and they tend to be tasks that are in fact needful. On the other hand, counseling drains counseling drains me in a hurry. Too much of that, and I find I don’t have the energy or will to give myself in areas where I could really contribute to the kingdom.
You can only push this question so far, though. “That’s not my area of giftedness” can easily become a cop-out for refusing a Spirit-prompted call to servanthood. I’m not sure any of the disciples would have said taking a basin and washing everybody else’s dirty feet fell in their area of giftedness.
And it provides a dangerously spiritual-sounding reason for not working in the nursery: “Sorry, I took the ‘Wagner-Houts Modified Spiritual Gift Inventory’; ‘nursery’ is not in my area of giftedness.” (I keep hoping one of the more radical paraphrases of the New Testament will translate Ephesians4:11, “And God has appointed some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be nursery workers.…” It would become the pew Bible of choice in every church in America.)
Nonetheless, if I find myself working consistently outside of my giftedness, I need to rearrange my activities.
4. Am I living too much in the future?
Sometimes I get overwhelmed because I look too far ahead. In my first year of preaching regularly I was badly afflicted with pms (premessage syndrome). I was cranky, irritable, and suffered mood swings that became more extreme as Sunday approached. This was compounded by a crowded schedule—in addition to virtually fulltime ministry I had a 25-hour-a-week internship in clinical psychology, and I had to write a dissertation. For an entire year, except for those weeks when I did not preach, I didn’t take a day off.
I found something odd. The more hours I put in, the less productive I became. I would spend hours staring at a blank sheet of paper, thinking of all the sermons I would have to write that year, wondering where all the ideas would come from.
I finally realized that my busy calendar was a bad mistake. I was paralyzed from doing the few things I needed to do today by the many things I needed to do tomorrow.
Psychologist David Burns talks about how irrational this is. Imagine, he writes, that every time you sat down to eat, you thought about all the food you would have to eat during your lifetime. Imagine a huge room with tons of meat, vegetables, Twinkies and Fritos, and thousands of gallons of ice cream—and before you die you’ve got to consume every bite.
“Just the sight of it all makes me sick,” we would say. “This one little meal is a drop in the bucket. There’s no point in eating it.”
The secret is, of course, we eat only one meal at a time. It’s amazing how much we can consume in a lifetime if we eat it one meal at a time.
“Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has trouble enough of its own.”
Scott Peck says, “Those who are in the relatively more advanced stages of spiritual growth are the very ones most aware of their own laziness. It is the least lazy who know themselves to be sluggish… The fight against entropy never ends.”
I’m hardly in the advanced stages of spiritual growth, but becoming aware of my sloth has advanced my spiritual growth. I’ve seen sloth for what it is, even in its subtle disguises. And I’ve learned, as Peck notes, that life is a constant choice between comfort and growth.
As for me and my ministry, I’ve chosen growth. And I’ll start on that tomorrow, right after I get through typing that newsletter article.