The Eight Patterns: Acedia

... a desire for something less.

A desire
for something less

It is difficult to adequately translate the Greek word "acedia" into English. Sloth, implying simple laziness, is too narrow, but it is much more acceptable than many of the cryptic alternatives offered in the dictionary (such as ennui, torpor, languor or hebetude).

As the most religious of the patterns, it is better described as a spiritual sluggishness. It is a creeping, spreading apathy that saps strength and motivation. The resulting weariness leads to lower standards and a willingness to settle for less. Faith appears increasingly futile as one falls into a downward, ever-widening spiral of spiritual emptiness.
with zeal
Commonly understood
as sloth, laziness
Not to confused
with relaxation, rest
Other forms:
laziness, indolence, apathy, lethargy, despair, joylessness, indifference, willful ignorance, pettiness, listlessness

Are you as godly as you can be? Are you as generous as possible? Do you pray as much as you should? Have you learned everything you can from God's Word? Could you be more encouraging to your Christian brothers and sisters? Can you do more than you are doing right now? If you are humble and honest, then you must answer these questions negatively. There is always room to improve.

What about those who do not want to improve? Is it wrong to have no desire to grow spiritually? Is it a sin to be satisfied with the status quo?

It is not at all sinful to need improvement. Yet you are treading in dangerous territory when the idea of progress causes you to feel discouraged or overwhelmed. Acedia is "a weariness or distress of the heart" that is the primary source of burnout and backsliding.

Acedia is quite similar to, yet quite different from, sadness. Sadness despairs of having the ability to change, while acedia lacks the very desire for change. Sadness cripples with unwarranted discontentment, whereas acedia cripples with unwarranted contentment.

Acedia is not at all a source pattern, but a terminal point. Most of the other patterns significantly contribute to sadness or anger, which in turn are the two primary sources for acedia. In a roundabout way, every temptation eventually leads to acedia.

Acedia begins as an internal challenge to a person's standards and expectations. It encourages one to do less, then tries to justify unfinished business by labeling it as unimportant or unnecessary. Eventually, standards are compromised to be made compatible with the new level of (in)activity. As standards are lowered, previously unacceptable behavior gradually becomes acceptable. So, while acedia is not a source pattern per se, it permits the other patterns to further develop without directly fueling them.

Most patterns are generally limited to a specific area, such as gluttony, which is largely focused on food-related issues. Lust is mostly about sex, greed is mostly about wealth, etc. These temptations can spill into other areas, but most often stay within their own domain. Acedia knows no such boundaries and touches every facet of life.

When coupled with another pattern, acedia is deadly. For example, lust causes shame, which might eventually prompt one to seek help and victory; however, acedia works against this by sabotaging both the desire to change and the standards for personal conduct. As lustful appetites increase, behavior will become more depraved and perverse. Whatever barriers might impede this downward slide are eroded by acedia.

Acedia strikes like a battering ram, forcefully and persistently. Each successful blow deals greater damage, which structurally weakens you for the next blow. Acedia is also like a shark. Once it sniffs blood, it becomes relentless. Failure in this struggle invites greater temptation and increases the likelihood of greater injury.

Byproducts of acedia include dislike (with regard to where you are), disgust (with regard to what you have), and disdain (with regard to who you know).

Acedia results in two types of behavior: idleness and flight.

Idleness causes its victims to be distracted as they become increasingly entangled with the things of the world. They are more likely to have difficulty concentrating on specific tasks and are easily sidetracked by their immediate circumstances. For instance, they might blame their sluggishness on the temperature ("It's too hot!"), minor physical discomfort ("I have a headache."), the time of day, etc. Their inability to stick with a task makes them unreliable and undisciplined. They are prone to be "clock watchers" who are difficult to instruct or predict. They generally avoid conflict in an effort to avoid work, not because they desire peace. They are also strangers to longsuffering. Their flight response causes more problems than it solves (or avoids) and leads to awkwardness, cowardice, and fear.

Flight causes its victims to be restless, rebellious, and undisciplined. They are prone to be "clock watchers" who are difficult to instruct or predict. They generally avoid conflict in an effort to avoid work, not because they desire peace. They are also strangers to longsuffering. Their flight response causes more problems than it solves (or avoids) and leads to awkwardness, cowardice, and fear.

ASPIRE. Focus on prayer and Scripture.

Be prepared for a long struggle. Victory over acedia is a process. There are no legitimate "get rich quick" schemes to spiritual success, especially with regard to acedia.

Want it. This is one of the most difficult patterns to defeat because acedia attacks your godly desires. You will never unintentionally or accidentally score a victory on this battlefield.

Do something. Anything! Zeal is the virtue that opposes acedia. Do something that requires passion.

Eliminate the word "tomorrow" from your vocabulary. Those suffering from acedia often enjoy planning and dreaming, but consistently fail to implement their plans. They are great intenders.

Sluggards are not opposed to activity, but their timetable for action is pushed back from "today" to "some day." They will habitually complain about their (in)ability to contribute, but justify it by blaming something outside of their control. Thus, they "want" to do more, but they cannot do anything until fictional and impossible criteria are met.

Discard double standards. Christians afflicted with acedia are known by their persistent complaints about fellow Christians. They hold their brothers and sisters in faith to unreasonably high standards. This is ironic, because as they raise the bar for others, they simultaneously lower it for themselves.

Sweat. In relation to manual labor, acedia equals laziness and lethargy. Sluggards are slow to start, quick to tire, and unlikely to finish a given task. They fail to see physical exertion as a valuable opportunity to experience a sense of accomplishment. Work is not dirty, sinful or wrong.

Even "pointless" manual labor is better than idleness. It would be better to dig a hole then immediately refill it than to do nothing at all. Obviously, it would be better to do manual labor that has a more lasting benefit, but anything that stimulates the sweat glands will combat acedia.

If you are trying to find some meaningful work to do, then pray and/or read the Bible for a full, uninterrupted hour. It will be very hard work, and you will face many distractions, but every victory won in this arena will make you stronger and more alert for the future.

Be encouraged by being an encouragement. Whenever you sharpen someone else, you will be sharpened as well, so take responsibility for someone else's burden. This will place it on your own shoulders, but somebody has to bear it, and whoever does so will benefit from it.

Adjust your expectations. Acedia hints that someone else will always pick up the slack. A sure sign that you have inappropriate expectations is if you routinely feel that "everything always seems to work out regardless of what I do."

Study others. Read the biographies of those who have accomplished much. Good stories are inspiring, and being inspired is a step in the right direction. A great place to start is the Apostle Paul. Not only is he a great example and worthy of imitation (see 1 Corinthians 11:1), but you will also be studying the Bible in the process. The experienced sluggard will notice that this is a great way to implement two remedy suggestions at the same time! :)

Be careful not to choose a bad example. If your standards are too low (a common symptom of acedia), then someone might incorrectly appear to be a good example. Bad examples almost always teach new ways to justify acedia, thus doing more harm than good.

Note: An accountability partner can be helpful in this struggle, but only if they are free from acedia. Like gluttons, sluggards love company, tend to negatively impact those around them, and are incapable of providing reliable spiritual direction. With regards to this pattern, a weak accountability partner is actually a liability partner.

Remember. Acedia causes you to forget the past, particularly positive experiences, spiritual victories, truths learned and understood, etc. "Use it or lose it" definitely applies to spiritual knowledge. To combat this, keep a journal or record milestones on the inside cover of your Bible, and regularly reread what you write.

Sidebar: Apathy and Erosion
Acedia does not begin as an issue of "not caring at all." More correctly, it starts as a problem of "not caring enough." Eventually, it will lead to complete apathy, but not without following a fairly predictable process of erosion.

As Christians age, they should mature. They must press forward and upward.1 The initial temptation with acedia is a simple willingness to make less progress than one is capable of making.2 From there, it is quite easy to become satisfied with the current situation3 and growth slows down considerably or stops altogether.4 This leads to an unwillingness to seek the former degree of progress, and introduces a willingness to "temporarily" regress.5 To make this transition palatable, personal standards must be adjusted downwards to accommodate the new level of what is now deemed appropriate.6 The erosion process enters its most advanced stage once it develops into an unwillingness to stop the downward slide.7

Indeed, acedia is one of the leading causes of spiritual immaturity. It is quite impossible to become spiritually mature while enslaved to it. Fortunately, as Christians grow spiritually and experience the benefits of maturity, they will become more unwilling to settle for less. This pattern loses some of its appeal with every upward step.

Acedia decreases usefulness, diminishes fruitfulness, destroys reputations, deepens shame and discourages others from offering assistance.

"Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest -- and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man." – Proverbs 6:6-11

"As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is a sluggard to those who send him." – Proverbs 10:26

"Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor." – Proverbs 12:24

"The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway." – Proverbs 15:19

"One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys." – Proverbs 18:9

"Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man goes hungry." – Proverbs 19:15

"A sluggard does not plow in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing." – Proverbs 20:4

"The sluggard says, 'There is a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!' As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth. The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who answer discreetly." – Proverbs 26:13-16

"He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty." – Proverbs 28:19

"In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. ... For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'If a man will not work , he shall not eat.' We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. ... If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed." – 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 10-11, 14

Early Church Fathers identified acedia as "the noonday devil" (following an early Latin translation of the Bible). Midday sluggishness is a well-known phenomenon.

"His truth shall compass thee with a shield: thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night, of the arrow that flieth in the day, of the business that walketh about in the dark: of invasion, or of the noonday devil." – Psalms 90:5-6, Douay-Rheims Bible

Acedia is closely related to sadness. Notice that the soul, and not the body, is wearied.

"My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word." – Psalm 119:28

Sluggards are easily offended, and once offended, they become difficult to instruct. The Apostle Paul counseled those with acedia by initially stating something positive before correcting them.

"Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more." – 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10

Sluggards would do well to remember that everyone is responsible for their actions. Service will be rewarded, and dereliction of duty will not.

"The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied." – Proverbs 13:4

"The sluggard's craving will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work." – Proverbs 21:25

"For drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags." – Proverbs 23:21

"I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins. I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest -- and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man." – Proverbs 24:30-34

"If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks." – Ecclesiastes 10:18

"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad." – 2 Corinthians 5:10

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." – Galatians 6:9

Those afflicted with "a spirit of stupor" tend to be cynical, hypercritical, and insensitive.

"What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened, as it is written: 'God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear, to this very day.' And David says: 'May their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.'" – Romans 11:7-10

"Set your slave to work, and you will find rest; leave his hands idle, and he will seek liberty. Yoke and thong will bow the neck, and for a wicked servant there are racks and tortures. Put him to work, that he may not be idle, for idleness teaches much evil. Set him to work, as is fitting for him, and if he does not obey, make his fetters heavy." – Sirach 33:25-28

"The monk afflicted with acedia is lazy in prayer and will not even say the words of a prayer. As a sick person cannot carry about a heavy burden, so the person afflicted by acedia will not perform a work of God with diligence. The former has lost the strength of his body and the latter has dissipated the exertions of his soul." – Evagrius Ponticus, Eight Thoughts, VI.16.

"A friend according to God flows with milk and honey in his true words, but the lazy soul will not have such a one as a friend." – Evagrius Ponticus, Maxims III.22-23.

"A fit of accidie should not be evaded by running away from it, but overcome by resisting it." – Attributed to Abbot Moses by John Cassian, Institute X.25.

"Approach the sluggard with the severity of a judge and the affection of a father. May your words be delivered with sternness and authority while tempered with kindness and gentleness." – adapted from John Cassian, Institute X.16.

"The soul overcome by listlessness is manifestly also possessed by lack of faith. It is on account of this that it lets day after day go by without heeding the Gospels. Not paying attention to the inner warfare, it is taken captive by conceit and frequently elated by dreams. Conceit blinds the soul, not letting it perceive its own weakness." – Macarius the Great of Egypt, Paraphrase of the Homilies of St. Makarios of Egypt by Symeon Metaphrastis, III.49.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, it is pronounced "ah-see-dee-uh." An older, alternate spelling is accidie.

In A Letter to Nicholas the Solitary, Mark the Ascetic (early fifth century) asserts that there are "three powerful and mighty giants" among the vices: ignorance, forgetfulness, and laziness. They support and strengthen the patterns of impure thought, and are regarded as the chief leaders of Satan's army. All three of these giants are forms of acedia.

In addition to the forms mentioned in the above capsule, the spirit of acedia is also found in unimaginativeness, sleepiness, rudeness, restlessness, wanderings, instability, chattiness, inquisitiveness, and a desire for novelty.

Acedia was often confused with sadness, and even combined with it in the most popular revision of the list (the Seven Deadly Sins). The resulting "deadly sin" was sloth, which is quite unfortunate.

Sloth covers only a portion of the territory of acedia, and to combine it with sadness results in an even bigger reduction. It would be like combining the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and naming it "The Great Salt Lake." Many things previously accounted for by Evagrius in two separate patterns are no longer contained within the later list of deadly sins.

Among monks, acedia was regarded as a more serious threat to those in solitary settings (such as hermits) as opposed to those who lived in a communal environment (such as a monastery).

Idle and useless prayer, a key symptom of acedia, indicates that lust and/or anger (patterns of distraction) are also at work.

Acedia is not all compatible with righteous indignation.

Acedia has been called the most religious of the patterns, which raises an interesting question: can unbelievers be tempted by it? After all, how can someone be spiritually sluggish if they are not even spiritually alive? Unbelievers may be susceptible to certain forms of it, but Christians are exposed to every possible variety of acedia.

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