Choosing Thankful Courage
By: Julie Barrios
Sloths are the cuddly, tree hugging, slow moving, dopey faced animal that took the world by storm when Kristen Bell cried with excitement at the thought of being with one. It hardly needs mentioning that it is quite rare for a human sluggard to elicit such a response. We tend to reserve the description “sloth” for the 30-year-old who lives at home with the parents, wears band t-shirts, and has Cheeto crumbs in his bed. While such an individual may well be struggling with the vice of sloth, we would be amiss to let ourselves off the hook too quickly.
In the first few centuries of the church, early monastics began to notice a particular vice they referred to as acedia. We have generally translated the word acedia as sloth, but its full meaning is much more than our cheeto-eating archetype would suggest. More than laziness, acedia springs from deep-seated attitudes of the heart. Sloth, at its deepest level, is the vice of the existential crisis unresolved. It is the atrophy of the body, mind, and spirit under the weight of what Solomon described in Ecclesiastes as, “Meaningless, meaningless, always meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). For me, this crisis manifested in a general preference for non-existence and small choices to live less fully alive.
As a full time grad student with good grades and healthy social life, I struggled with wondering if anything was worth anything. Was it really worth persevering in a class? Would extra study effort really result in a better grade. Did it matter if I followed up with that friend or followed up on that job or asked that question? Was life really worth living? By my mid-twenties acedia ran deep in me. I wasn’t seeing the results I longed for in my job which resulted in a general sense of powerlessness about me. Powerlessness then produced a severe lack of passion, which was all the more depressing on my idealistic heart. I’m pained to think of what affect my resigned spirit would have had on my life if God had not intervened.
God broke in to my story in an interesting way. Hiking deep in the rainforests of Hawaii, I was struck by the changing light as the clouds moved across the sky. The sky would turn dark as the clouds rolled in, but then slowly gave way to a light that broke across the shadows. The light would penetrate the forest, and the trees and streams and sky would erupt with life and sound. Then the clouds would come again, a soothing shadow that muted the greens, and hushed the jungle. I felt like God was pulling back the curtain to let me see something true about life I had not noticed before. He showed me that even though life has a fleeting nature, its vapor is still filled with beauty and delight, life and energy. The jungle goes dark, as all things do. And one day my life too would go dark. But for the moment that I am alive, I have to choose to not be powerless.
And then shortly thereafter, I lost my job. All of a sudden, I was in a position where I had to choose my life. Choosing is the foundational spiritual discipline for the slothfully tempted. I owned a condo and had a mortgage to pay. Would I choose a new 9-5 job or not? How would I choose to spend these unscripted days? My responses to my new situation mattered in a way that was more apparent than I had ever seen.
My bills were the pack of hungry jackals that God released on me that made me jump into action. I found creative ways to make money; you might not believe the jobs I held during those three and a half years. Part blogger, part wardrobe consultant, I was hired by people in Orange County to simplify their closets. I taught part-time at seminary and in my free time painted and studied art history and psychology of technology. God taught me that all my time was well-spent when I engaged wholly with Him, and that outcomes were not worth my time to measure. The meaninglessness I had felt previously melted away because suddenly each moment, each and every present moment, mattered.
When I first learned about perseverance, the corresponding virtue to sloth, my professor described it as something best translated as thankful courage. As Paul describes it in his letter to the Colossians it requires, “being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:11-12). I couldn’t understand it at the time, but it took my experience of daily surviving the jackal pack to finally get it. I had to say yes to my circumstances and trust with faith that they were indeed good. Thankful courage isn’t about getting someone who is lazy to work harder, it is about helping them realize that work matters. Thankful courage helps us engage in life with all our hearts even if we cannot clearly see exactly what it is for.
Today I am certainly still tempted toward acedia, however I am more aware than ever that my actions and my life matter because all of life is a gift, even the trials I would prefer to avoid. I fight to live a life of gratitude and courage and I’m seeing the fruit. I know that it is only through this kind of faithful and hopeful perseverance that not only I, but we all can live the life of love that God created us for. It is my hope for all of us sloths to accept the responsibility of our power to be active participants in God’s good work. The same power that raised Christ from the dead can certainly move a sloth to action, as long as he or she is willing to be brought back to life. May we now go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
As you think about your life, in what ways are you moved to gratitude?
Are there experiences in your life that are difficult to be grateful for?
In what ways do you need the Lord to bring healing and care to your disappointments?
In what ways is God inviting you to risk, acting in thankful courage?
This blog is a part of our Live Into Who You Are series where we share personal reflections of how the Holy Spirit redeems a heart. Traditional vice and virtue pairings are used to help share and structure these reflections. Read more posts here.