From the May, 2004 issue of Touchstone

Nothing Is Sinful by Thomas S. Buchanan

Nothing Is Sinful

“So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
—Revelation 3:16

The “Harp of the Holy Spirit” was the nickname given to the fourth-century poet-saint Ephrem the Syrian. Gregory of Nyssa compared him to the River Euphrates because he “irrigated by his waters the Christian community to bring forth fruits of faith a hundred-fold.” Ephrem was declared a doctor of the church by Pope Benedict XV and is especially known by all Orthodox Christians for a prayer he wrote that is recited often during the season of Lent:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. . . .

Of the sins Ephrem asked God to take away from him, the first is the spirit of sloth. While sloth brings up the rear of the classical list of the seven deadly sins, it probably would not even appear on a modern list. We don’t think of it as a sin like lust and avarice. There is rarely a public scandal involving sloth.

Nevertheless, C. S. Lewis recognized the power of this sin and wrote of it profoundly in The Screwtape Letters. There, the senior demon Screwtape, instructing his demon nephew Wormwood how to draw his “patient” away from God, notes that encouraging small sins can be more effective than encouraging great ones if they draw the Christian away from meaningful engagement with “the enemy” (i.e., God) without his realizing it.

As things progress, he wrote to Wormwood, “you will no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers . . . a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do.” After a while, he wrote,

You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return. . . . The Christians describe the enemy as one “without whom Nothing is strong.” And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years, not in sweet sins but in dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what. . . . It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.”

Sloth is turning away from the Light and embracing Nothing. It is spending our time with the emptiness of Hell. By not doing that which is profitable, we do that which is unprofitable. As John heard our Lord say in a vision, “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Perhaps this is why Ephrem began his prayer of repentance with a rejection of the spirit of sloth. To repent is to turn away, and to turn to God you must turn away from the nothingness of the evil one. You cannot be slothful in repentance. A healthy Christian life cannot be slothful.

Ephrem was known for his rigorous life in Christ, and especially for his many hours spent in prayer. The poem written on his deathbed is a testament to his victory in his fight against the spirit of sloth:

I, Ephrem, am dying and writing my Testament,
To be a witness for the pupils who come after me:
Be constantly praying, day and night;
As a ploughman who ploughs again and again,
Whose work is admirable.
Do not be like the lazy ones in whose fields thorns grow.
Be constantly praying, for he who adores prayer
Will find help in both worlds.


Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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