[Image: Resting Place, 2013, JA Van Devender]
Location: Millersville, MD (info: Eagle Project, Josh Keating)
Romans 12:11 (ESV)
11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
The most recent issue of Christian Reflection, published by Baylor University is concerned with "acedia" - often translated "sloth" or "slothfulness" and is specfically intended for "religious concerns" (Webster's Unabridged Dictionary). This is one of the "seven deadly sins" listed by the Roman Communion. (note: we protestants are inclined to think they are all deadly, just in proportion.) In an interesting introduction to the various essays contained in this volume, Robert Kruschwitz (ed.) commented that there are two broad categories under which Christians fall prey to religious acedia: laziness or hyper-activity .
That caught my attention. It is possible to be slothful in our spiritual life by being hyper-active in all the other areas. That could very well describe much of my life at times and quite possibly most of everyone else's life that I know.
The motto for our church is "Come, Rest Under the Tree" - a reference to Abraham's hospitality shown to the Christ in Genesis 18:4. We understand true rest for our souls is to be found at the foot of the cross as we, entering into loving communion with other brothers and sisters, discover the true hospitality found only in God's House (e.g. Family). One of our members here once asked me if our motto might lead people to think "Come, sleep under the tree!". He was wondering if "resting" was understood, especially in our couch potato culture, as meaning inactivity and passivity/ taking more than giving. It's a question to ponder.
Yet, the most common complaint I hear from folks, is that they are "too tired" or "too busy" to add any (more?) spiritually oriented activities to their lives. Can these two observations, that which the brother made and this latter one, be both true?
A totally passive approach to the Christian life, whether deriving from a misplaced notion of "grace" or because of spiritual despair, facilitates lethargy. Just as "depression" sometimes immobilizes a person, stripping them of their desire to do anything, so we can fall into a state of spiritual flatness that very closely approximates depression. Life becomes narrow and bounded by "stuff." We begin to doubt that there can be anything "better" available to us and our goals, aspirations and desires may all appear as wishful thinking that is best put away.
Sometimes this leads to a near frenzied dive into other "activities." Walker Percy described this, once upon a time, in his classic work Lost in the Cosmos. This headlong pursuit of activities is a form of escapism... we hope to find some meaning and purpose in those things... anything to stave off the inevitable reckoning when we have to face ourselves in the mirror and admit, perhaps with grief, that nothing satisfies. There is a "manic/depressive" cycle here that can have some pretty dramatic ups and downs. What I found interesting in Krushwitz's analysis is that both states are symptoms of "acedia." Whether too much or too little... misdirected wordly activity in search of spiritual sanity is counter-productive of that end.
So, if "acedia" is manifested as spiritual slothfulness in both cases, inactivity and activity, it appears to me that spiritual "rest" has both characteristics also: there is inactivity and activity associated with it.
Paul tells us to not be "slothful in zeal" but to "be fervent in spirit", serving the Lord. I don't think these things can be "put on"... to be "fervent in spirit" is somewhat of a on/off switch situation. We either are or we are not. Zeal is the goal to which activity is to be directed and is not identical with that activity. Zeal is not something we passively receive. It is from God and is gracious in every case, but it is that which is "stirred up" in us through religious exercise. As energy is restored to our physical bodies by an appropriate regimen of physical exercise and nutrition, so religious energy, zeal, becomes part of our lives through a similar spiritual program. We cannot expect to overcome "acedia" when we approach our devotional life in the same way we approach our "chores" around the house. When they become just one more "x" in the block as something we just have to do, then our mind, spirit and heart disengage while we are doing them. As the body has to be fully participating in physical exercise and nutrition to benefit from them, though the mind may be thinking other things, so is it with spiritual exercises. The "body" may not be fully involved but the spirit must be.
Worship, prayer, Christian fellowship and Scripture are the "means of grace" God has given us as our spiritual gymnasium. We have to expect spiritual fruit from these things even as we expect physical fruit from time in the local gym. Each of these spheres are necessary for balanced growth in zeal and spiritual energy. Each requires time just as physical exercise requires it. But the benefits of spiritual health and growth far outweigh whatever sacrifice of time is required. And as with all such things, the neglect of these means of grace is sinful, for our Lord died to empower them to the progressive sanctification of His people.
When I am "too tired" to take my daily walk then I know, down deep, that it is that daily walk that I most need. I will be energized by it... I will no longer feel the heaviness afterwards. The same holds true of "acedia." It is renewing of our spiritual walk that we need when spiritual "tiredness" has threatened to strip us of zeal.