The Subtle Way to Waste Your Life

Confessions of a Sophisticated Sloth

If you were told you had five years to live, would you live more in those five years than in the decades you might have had left?

By “live” I cannot mean “lifespan,” or the question isn’t worth asking. I mean to live wide awake, live purposefully, live undistracted by empty pleasures. Could you imagine the quality of those five years becoming preferable? Could five years more alive to God, his world, and the faces around us outshine decades of business and bluster with little fullness?

Oh, to sail under the stars awake to life, feeling the breeze upon your face and hearing the music of waves crashing. How different from the dreary drift from one meal to the next, one episode to the next, one year to the next.

Do you feel the preciousness of time? Are you truly living? A hand hold with a spouse or a wait in line at the store can take on new significance when we consider it occurs within this shooting star we call “life.”

Good I Could Have Done

I perplex myself, then, to consider how many golden moments I let pass, wasted. Hours upon hours, gone without notice, lost without grief. So many silver coins squandered; exchanged for pebbles and bubbles.

While not leaving the good news behind — namely that this neglect will not have the last word, but his grace will — the healthy sting is still felt. And if we let it: still instructive. When I awake to the value of time, the sheer possibility held in any given span, I sigh at how many moments have fallen irretrievably between the cracks — and this sends me to God for more mercy and help to better steward the time I have left.

This is especially true when I consider time lost while at work — how much good that might have outlasted me has been forfeit by my laziness and inattention?

What hid this realization from me for so long is that I never thought of myself as slothful. I get things done. At times, I’ve worked very hard. No one would have looked at me and said I sleep too much, or that I neglected my studies, or that I put off difficult things indefinitely. But looking back, I have realized in my work life that I have lived too often as a sophisticated sloth. Here are a few characteristics.

1. Slow to Begin

The traditional sluggard does not begin tasks at all. We hear his voice crying out from his bed, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!” (Proverbs 22:13; 26:13). He would go to the work like the rest of us, he assures us, but for those killer cats.

He says they prevent him from traveling to work,

There is a lion stalking the square.
Travel to work? — I couldn’t dare.
I shall stay in and feast
— Oh that irksome beast —
This confinement is too much to bare!

He says they prevent him from going to church,

There is a lion purring the pews.
Upon good men’s bones it chews.
Surely none could find fault
In avoiding assault;
I’ll wait till next week to hear the good news!

And while I do not make such foolish excuses, as a sophisticated sloth, I start my tasks, eventually. The lions roaring in the street do not indefinitely detain, but they do delay me. When I gaze ahead and see duties sloping uphill, I decide I need some stretching before the activity — maybe some social media, or checking email, or a quick snack. How many hours have I wasted “getting in the mood” to start something difficult?

2. Quick to Break

We are told the traditional sluggard “buries his hand in the dish and will not even bring it back to his mouth” (Proverbs 19:24). This image is his profile picture.

The sluggard started his task. His hand, as a crane maneuvering a construction site, lifts, steers sideways, and drops on the full bowl. Upon impact, some Cheese Puffs jump overboard. As we continue to watch him, anticipating the triumphant return, we wait, and we wait — and we wait. Gravity assisted him on the way down, but has now betrayed him. The way up proves too much for him.

He is again made to seem ridiculous. As activity swirls about him, he sits immobilized, his hand in a dish. His eyes are open, but in such a way as to be shut. His fingers plop into the dish and remain, reluctant to return at the half-hearted bidding of their master. He is alive, but not alive. A man, but not a man. John Foster gives him a sobering epitaph, “Here lies a person who has lost nothing by being buried; for he is just as good a man underground as he was above” (An Essay on the Improvement of Time, 189).

“The sloth is alive, but not alive. A man, but not a man.”

By God’s grace, I am not such a creature. My hand does return, just not right away. I have been quick to indulge breaks as a reward for doing what was only my duty to begin with. That’s good enough for now, I think, don’t want to overdo it. A harder working man could have completed the same task without interruptions in a fraction of the time. A harder working man might have accomplished another life’s work by simply redeeming the intervals.

3. Open to Interruptions

I have contributed my attention to the notable businesses that profit on the distracted. Every text message and Youtube video seems so much more interesting when I am in the middle of my labor. The path of each workday has offered me multiple rest stops.

The traditional sloth also knows the power of a minor detour from the path.

A little sleep, a little slumber,
     a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
     and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 24:33–34)

The thief of time today is a tiny man. He specializes in little. Just a little sleep, a little slumber — just a little surfing the Internet, a little text-message conversation, a little checking of Facebook or ESPN.

He sells distractions during the workday, and though he will take large checks if he must, he prefers coins and small bills — ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes — you know, harmless folding-of-the-hands kind of costs.

I, as the sophisticated sloth, have started and stopped, started and stopped, as a teenager learning to drive a stick shift for the first time. And while the classic sloth may not wake until he is robbed of everything, I return home every day just missing a few dollars here and there. The total sum I cannot estimate.

4. Puts Off Harder Work

This is one the cleverest tricks of the sophisticated sloth: He works — to avoid doing harder work. He is the kid who sees dad coming and rushes to take out the trash so his brother is left to shovel instead. He chooses to work when he must — to spare himself more difficult work later.

The end result looks like the typical sloth:

I passed by the field of a sluggard,
     by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,
and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns;
     the ground was covered with nettles,
     and its stone wall was broken down. (Proverbs 24:30–31)

But the text doesn’t tell us about the sophisticated sloth inside his house, pointing to his mostly clean dishes, washed clothes, and bed with a comforter folded over bundled sheets. Too often, I have done the easier work indoors and left the harder work unattempted.

Missing Servant

Time is far too precious to let it so subtly slip away. Those pressed up against the grave more rightly estimate its value; blessed are we if we can waken before we near closer to that slumber. Jesus seeks to help us awake to the stewardship of our lives in the parable of the talents.

To the hardworking servant who trusts his Master, believes him, loves him, and knows the privilege of his service and thus invests and turns his five talents into five more, his master says to him,

Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master. (Matthew 25:21)

The slothful servant, afraid of his Master and otherwise suspicious of his motives, buries his talent in the ground. He doesn’t lose it; but doesn’t improve it either. To this man, the Master says,

You wicked and slothful servant! . . . You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. . . . [C]ast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. (Matthew 25:26–27, 30)

“Time is precious. Now is the time to live and work and love.”

I, however, have been describing the man who did not make the parable. He is the servant to whom the Master gives five talents, and yet brings back just two more instead of the full five. He could have brought more — but he wasted so much time on lesser things.

Whether we have five years left or fifty, life is a most terrible thing to waste. To other such servants, consider with me what glory lies ahead for the faithful Christian servant. “Well done, my good and faithful servant” — the eternal commendation. “I will set you over much” — the everlasting stewardship. “Enter into the joy of your Master” — the undying bliss of life with our God.

Might this not help us toward faithful living in total reliance upon our Savior?