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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Aggravated Sorrow: Some Theological and Pastoral Reflections on Acedia

Published Monday, March 1, 2021 By Phillip Hussey

Every semester at some point or another, I gaze out at my students and tell them this: Sloth is the sin of your generation. Then, of course, I ask them what sloth means. The usual retort is “laziness.” But the sin of acedia—or, in its most common idiom, sloth—is not, as we commonly hear, merely laziness. I don’t believe the students in my classroom are lazy. In fact, I believe their lives are marked by hyperactivity, a grueling pace that prohibits them from focusing on what’s most important. This sort of description gets closer to the truth of acedia than the notion of the proverbial couch potato. Josef Pieper recognized well this feature of society at large:

Not only can acedia and ordinary diligence exist very well together; it is even true that the senselessly exaggerated workaholism of our age is directly traceable to acedia, which is a basic characteristic of the spiritual countenance of precisely this age in which we live. [1]

For Pieper, acedia stands in contrast to leisure—a mental and spiritual attitude, a contemplative apprehension of reality, which finds proper expression in celebration and worship. The vice of acedia indicates that “beneath the dynamic of his existence, [the human being] is still not at one with himself.” [2] Theologically, human creatures suffer cataclysmic disintegration as they reject the summons and reality of divine love. So Augustine: “I turned away from Your unity to be dispersed into multiplicity.” [3] This is acedia’s true form.

“The Demon of Acedia”

Etymologically, acedia in English is derived from the Latin word of the same spelling, which in turn comes from the Greek, ακηδιa (a-kedia). Most technically, the word means “lack of care.” Before the Christian era, the word was used to describe the lack of care one exhibited in failing to bury the dead (i.e., in Cicero). To fail to dispose of the dead properly was an act of dehumanization in the ancient world. The term entered Christian discourse for the first time in the writing of the desert fathers, in particular Evagrius of Pontus (345–399). Evagrius loosely employed the term to express the lack of care for the soul, or a lack of spiritual energy. As a desert monk committed to a life of prayer and asceticism in solitude, lack of care for the soul was a fairly serious malformation.

The demon of acedia, also known as the noonday demon, is the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk about the fourth hour [10:00 a.m.] and besieges his soul until the eighth hour [2:00 p.m.]. [4]

The demon of acedia (as witnessed in Evagrius’s descriptions of the monk’s life) manifested itself in both temporal and spatial dimensions. Among other things, there was an interior instability, exaggerated concern for physical health, neglect in observing the monastic rule, and discouragement. Laziness or idleness, at least in terms of an aversion to work, was a manifestation of a deeper spiritual malady.

Over the next few centuries, the demon of acedia would prove to be a mainstay of monastic writings and became popularized (if that’s the right word) because of John Cassian, Gregory the Great, and Hugh of St. Victor. It was Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141) who transformed the list of vices found in Gregory the Great and Cassian into seven peccata capitalia (the seven deadly sins). They are capital not because of their seriousness (although they are serious) but because they stand as headwaters. These sins, according to Hugh, engender other sins as being their final cause, therein making them particularly deadly or formidable.

Knowledge of Sin

A dogmatic account of acedia begins with a dogmatic account of sin. Sin is known as God is known and as our created nature is known. All true knowledge and wisdom begin, as Calvin noted, from this double derivation. Materially, the latter knowledge derives from the former, its depths plumbed only by careful attention to the Christian doctrine of God. Just so, the knowledge of sin is gained proximately from Holy Scripture, especially the path of God’s commandments (cf. Ps. 119:35). Because the law is God’s law, the holy precepts derive their instructive force from the moral character of the instructor. Sin is set in relief against the law because the law is “good, pleasing, and perfect . . . not in itself but in relation to God.” [5]

In its stricter relation to God, knowledge of sin arises most magnificently from contemplation of the full compass of the being and works of God. God possesses the fullness of life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and from this life gives life. The loving willing of creation and the ordering of its nature and history therein originates entirely within the uncreated, inexhaustible, and perfect life of the Godhead. In bringing human creatures into existence as God’s express image bearers, God grants and orders their life such that its fulfillment consists entirely in God’s calling humans to enact their nature in fellowship with God over time. Only in this way do human beings come to life. The end of this fellowship is the blessed joy springing from the visio dei, the vision of God, wherein our intellect, will, and desire find their ultimate rest in the unsearchable plentitude of the Triune God, who makes known to us the path of life, in whose presence there is fullness of joy, and at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore (cf. Ps. 16:11).

Knowledge of sin is derived secondarily from the knowledge of created human nature as it traces its origin from God. Sin, in this sense, is a corruption of our original nature, its derangement and disorder. Spurning life with God, human creatures pursue paths of destruction leading to death. In denying God, they deny themselves, shrinking from fullness of life and suffering from an incurvature. Human creatures set off to make their own lives in whatever capacity they see fit. This entire self-making project is, of course, both mad and illusory, having the appearance of life but stinking of death.

Post fall, we do not and cannot recognize the proper order of life and goodness: that, in fact, we are “creatures.” Sin—precisely because we are dead in sin—remains opaque.

No man of himself and by himself can declare what sin is, precisely because he is in sin; all his talk about sin is basically a glossing over sin, an excuse, a sinful watering down. . . . [M]an has to learn what sin is by a revelation from God; sin is not a matter of a person’s not having understood what is right but of his unwilling to understand it. [6]

In the condition of sin, the immediate transformation of our intelligence, will, and desire back to God is only possible by means of God’s revelation and regeneration; further re-formation occurs only as we sit patiently under the tutelage of the gospel of Jesus Christ, all the while gaining energy of motion from the inner workings of the Holy Spirit.

Sin as Unbelief and Pride

Prescinding from the proper order of knowing, we may now attend to the realities that such knowledge affords for understanding the sin of acedia. In the history of Christian theological reflection—from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to C. S. Lewis—the sin of pride has often been categorized as the primordial sin of Adam and every human creature. The theological instinct is easily recognizable: pride emphasizes how the human creature “wishes not to be subject to God” and, as a result, “desires inordinately his own excellence in temporal things.” [7] Karl Barth refers to pride as the “heroic” form of sin. [8] Despite the long history of such an interpretation and the phenomenological pull of it, this judgment is hasty, quickly passing over the reality that enables humankind to exercise such contempt for God in the first place. Much better to pursue Calvin’s course and root the fall in unfaithfulness, which thereafter gives rise to pride, ambition, and ungratefulness. For Calvin, faithfulness is linked to God’s word: “For Adam would never have dared oppose God’s authority unless he had disbelieved in God’s Word.” [9]

Calvin directs us to the most penetrating definition of sin: unbelief. Sin, to be sure, is lawlessness (cf. 1 John 3:4), though never of a general sort. Lawlessness always occurs before God as the human creature refuses to believe that God is the source of all goodness, love, and wisdom. Such infidelity disorders the entire creaturely mode of being, with our intellect, will, and desires suffering permanent derangement apart from God’s life-giving grace.

One advantage of locating the root of the fall in unbelief and, by extension, defining sin most properly as unbelief, is that the reality of sin remains inextricably linked to the inherent ordering of human creatures to the Triune God as their greatest good and joy. To employ the language of creature—as I have throughout—is already to say something theological. To be a creature is to exist before God and to receive the gift of life only from God’s hand, such that one comes to be fully who one is only in graced fellowship with God. Tragically, this is what sinners will not believe; and even those in the regenerate state continue to resist this fact as they enact their natures over time.

Another advantage of defining sin primarily as unbelief is that such a definition resists facile reduction to ethical categories divorced from the order of being. In this way, sin’s antithesis, as Søren Kierkegaard astutely notes, is not virtue but faith (cf. Rom. 14:23). Faith remains the fundamental human activity in the pilgrim state. Only when human creatures believe God’s pronouncements about their existence can humans enact their being rightly. In believing God about who they are, human creatures then virtuously enact their nature in loving freedom as those natures rest secure in God. [10]

Although his account is existentially lush, Kierkegaard’s reflection on sin as a form of despair before God continues to be instructive here. Applicable to both the regenerate and unregenerate state, sin is “before God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to will to be oneself.” Of course, in the unregenerate state, the “before God” is both severely deformed and denied, even as despair remains and intensifies. Perceptively, Kierkegaard speaks of “not willing to be oneself” as “intensified weakness” and “willing to be oneself” as “intensified defiance.” [11] These are but other words for acedia and pride. Both movements are intensified mis-relations based on a prior moment of unbelief, a disavowal of the reality that we become ourselves only by and with God.

Sorrow and Despair instead of Joy and Hope

Thomas Aquinas tells us that acedia is sorrow over the divine good. [12] Post fall, God becomes the object of sorrow instead of the object of utter joy. Acedia “causes a sadness, a negative reaction to what ought to be our greatest happiness, participation in the life of God.” [13] Acedia is an aversion to God; a rejection of the joy of God’s presence; a rejection of the movement and bliss of divine love; a refusal to

trust in the One who demonstrates and maintains His faithfulness in this overwhelming way, not claiming [the creatures’] obedience with the severity and coldness of an alien tyrant but as the source of his life, in the majesty and freedom of the love with which He has loved him from all eternity. [14]

The sin of acedia is “the childish destruction of the dignity of our human nature” as we exist in a “graceless being for ourselves.” [15]

Because the sin of acedia actively opposes joy of union with God, it also improperly mobilizes and denigrates our nature. For this reason, Thomas also defines acedia as taedium operandi: disgust with activity. Disgust is not the cessation of activity but disordered activity. This is why, for example, both laziness and workaholism follow naturally from acedia. The sin of acedia disorders and disintegrates human “working” from “being,” such that creaturely activity becomes a form of anguish, disgust, resentment, and listlessness. Acedia proves formidable precisely because this break and the ensuing paralysis occurs, not by an exterior obstacle (i.e., an exterior pain) but by an interior one. No longer content (joyful) in being made by God in loving communion, creatures sink into the despair of “nothingness” as they seek to make themselves—to work, strive, and toil—apart from God.

It is easy to recognize the dangerous allure of nihilism within acedia, the seductive force of a totalizing unbelief that seeks a return to the void of nothingness. And when the meaning of life disappears into nothingness—evacuated from the right order of creation as it corresponds to God’s ordering—then the most phenomenologically vivid emotion takes over: despair. Despair is both born of acedia and perpetuated by it. For Thomas, despair sets in because either (1) one believes there are no arduous goods, or (2) one believes these goods are found impossible to obtain (for them). [16] Stripped of both goodness and hope in the world, despair throws the human creature violently back onto itself in a project of self-making. Given such loss of all meaning and orientation, Nietzsche’s French epigones recognized (and embraced) the tragic conclusion: the only real question left is suicide. Acedia drives this ennui, which is an all-too-common outlook in our disenchanted age, an age stripped of hope, grace, and love. Ratzinger was quite right about the flirtation with death in our milieu:

The deepest root of this sorrow is the lack of any great hope and the unattainability of any great love: everything one can hope for is known, and all love becomes the disappointment of finiteness in a world whose monstrous surrogates are only a pitiful disguise for profound despair. And in this way the truth becomes ever more tangible that the sorrow of the world leads to death: it is only flirting with death, the ghastly business of playing with power and violence, that is still exciting enough to create an appearance of satisfaction. “If you eat, you must die”—for a long time this has no longer been just a saying from mythology (Gen. 3:17). [17]

Godly Sorrow

Sorrow, it must be said, is not itself wicked. “Sorrow for evil is good.” [18] For Thomas, sorrow is a passion of the soul, wherein humans respond with a manner of interior attraction (pleasure) or repulsion (sorrow) to an outside object precisely because human beings have their being in conjunction with other things. This, of course, betrays a fundamental theological point already mentioned: unlike God, human creatures do not exist a se; we become who we are only in relation to another—most fundamentally, God. Before the fall, human conjunction was with God and God’s good gifts; this incited pleasurable passions from the soul, the highest of which is joy (gaudium). Gaudium is the true joy arising from loving communion with God. After the fall, there is a need to recoil from that which endangers us (sin and evil) and to uncoil from ourselves (given our nature’s radical incurvature). To enact ourselves in the post-fall world, therefore, entails sorrow on the road to the healing of all afflictions in beatitude.

After our Edenic expulsion, sorrow suffers aggravation, as the proper object of sorrow (evil) is substituted for an improper one (a created good). Slothful sorrow entails extreme aggravation because the object of sorrow becomes not simply any created good but the divine good—God. But this need not be. Properly construed, sorrow should entail a “flight from present evil which harms or threatens to harm us.” [19] It is a movement away, an aversion to that which opposes our good. Sorrow should not resist the demands and order of divine love, but should follow it as God turns us away from death and destruction. Sorrow “goes wrong when . . . it breaks free” from the order of God and the gospel, from “well-ordered love and governance by truthful apprehension of our nature and calling and our regenerate condition.” Joyful consent to the divine order of things remains fragile as “sorrow gets caught up in the war between the law of the mind and the law of sin.” [20] Only in the light and domain of the gospel can human creatures gain insight into godly sorrow, for godly grief leads to repentance, worldly grief only to death (cf. 2 Cor. 7:10).

The Danger of Disordered Sorrow

Thomas notes the difference between godly and ungodly despair, for not “everyone who despairs is an unbeliever.” [21] Unbelievers lack both hope and faith, while the despairing believer has faith, though perhaps little or waning hope. Caught in the struggle between the old life and the new life in Christ, acedia proves to be pernicious and self-replicating, because at its heart it refuses the very thing that brings healing and hope; the slothful person suffers an aversion to God, resisting the summons, demands, and solace of divine love offered in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In such an aggravated state, acedia begets many so-called daughters along the road of disordered sorrow. Thomas categorized these daughters in terms of sins of flight and sins of compensation. Sins of flight entail either avoidance or struggle, which express themselves as sluggishness with regard to God’s law, lack of courage in the face of divine calling (pusillanimity of the soul), rancor, and malice. Sins of compensation involve uneasiness of mind, curiosity, instability in temporal and spatial dimensions as to distract from purpose, restlessness of the body, and loquacity.

What bearing does this have on the Christian life in its concrete realities? Although each of these daughters present themselves at one point or another in the Christian life and are individually worthy of comment, one particular—sadly all too pervasive—compensatory sin deserves extended focus here: pornography. At first blush, pornography seems to fit in quite naturally with the vice of lust as an autonomous seeking of sexual pleasure outside of the confines of marital love in an ever-increasing onslaught of perversity and violence. This, to be sure, is true, especially as lust follows the sin of pride in its intensified defiance. But the allure of pornography also follows from the rather unheroic and slothful form of sin. When the human creature turns away from the plentitude and demands of divine love—either from God directly or in our neighbor (spouse) indirectly—the mind and body flee to increasingly novel distractions and compensations in order to fill the void. In the age of the Internet and increased technological isolation, easily accessible pornography promises temporary relief from our sorrows, an escape from the demands of the moment in an ecstasy of sexual release. But a surrogate it is and always will be. Pornography becomes a self-made and perpetuating prison of despair.

Distraction through Busyness

Within the pastoral vocation, acedia easily camouflages itself among the demands of caring not only for one’s own soul but the souls of others. The strain of this double demand easily leads to the proliferation of acedia’s daughters among Christ’s under-shepherds. This includes not only hidden and compensatory sins like pornography (an all-too-common occurrence among pastors) but also highly visible—and often lauded—compensations such as activism.

Activism stands in juxtaposition to contemplation. Pithily we hear it said that the pastor’s study has become an “office.” The truth inherent in this remark is that sustained contemplation has been evacuated from the pastor’s day-to-day life. When essential and contemplative acts like prayer or meditation are abandoned at first for practical pastoral “necessities” and “activities,” these acts soon become impossible and intolerable. It becomes easier and easier, for example, to answer and send emails than to pray. Eventually, God’s very presence becomes altogether loathsome.

The pastor then enters into ceaseless activity in order to fill the void with culturally appropriate forms of effectiveness, pouring “great physical effort and emotional energy into the difficult task of distracting themselves from the unhappiness of their real condition.” [22] No longer able to offer spiritual nourishment to the souls under their care, because they are no longer refreshed by the healing light of God’s presence, pastoring is reduced to professional profitability. The sheep become a means for nourishing the shepherd’s deep disillusionment. Activism compensates and distracts for the true object of sorrow: God.

Rest and the Communion of Saints

Acedia is chiefly assuaged “by contemplating God and his goodness which embraces us and gives us a share in his benefits.” [23] Through contemplation of God as given to us in Jesus Christ, despair is transformed into gospel consolation. Contemplation is neither withdrawal nor passivity, but patient and affectionate attentiveness to the mouth of Christ. [24] Until Christ is sweet, sin will never become bitter.

But contemplation of gospel sweetness requires perseverance and discipline, because our sinful flesh resists the totality of resurrected life. In the wake of the fall, contemplative exercises prove extremely laborious, especially under the strain of aggravated sorrow. We are tempted to believe they can be self-sustained and self-governed. This is incorrect. Contemplative labors rely on the awakening, continued illumination, and guidance of the Holy Spirit, which chasten the intellect, will, and desire, in order to place them under the tutelage of divine instruction. Sustained contemplation, as Saint Augustine tells us, “subjects the mind itself to God, that he may rule and aid it, and the passions . . . to the mind, to moderate and bridle them, and turn them to righteous uses.” [25] The slothful heart resists such subjection, because it either thinks itself unworthy of God’s love or finds it altogether repulsive. Stability is required.

Love flourishes in a context of daily action and lasting commitment (spiritual stabilitas), and sloth flourishes in a context of conveniently easy escape. . . . Sloth prefers the easy way out. [26]

The easiest escape, of course, is always from the highest, simplest, and most privileged of contemplative activities: prayer.

Perseverance of this sort functions hand in hand with gospel memory. The call to remember radiates out from the biblical text, particularly in Deuteronomy. The Sabbath day is commanded by God as the day of memory. Memory, in the strictest theological sense, is not primarily a turn inward but outward, to the God of all comfort in whom humans find their rest. Thomas recognized how acedia “is opposed to the precept about hallowing the Sabbath. For this precept . . . implicitly commands the mind to rest in God.” [27] To rest in God is the creature’s proper work, because the Sabbath entails the repose of worship. The Sabbath is time set apart where we flee to God, sorrow over our sin, and rejoice in the fount of grace that brings us healing.

The proper home for Sabbath observance is the ecclesial community. Acedia is not only a sin against memory, but it isolates by nature. The worshipful communion of saints enables gospel perseverance, because fellow pilgrims help bear our burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (cf. Gal. 6:2). Taken further, the “companionship of believers assuages sorrow by love, and moves us to seek out and take pleasure in the divine solace.” [28]

For the pastor, such Sabbath companionship requires diligent effort. Always shepherding and rarely shepherded, the Lord’s Day might prove doubly disheartening for the pastor, both restless and isolating, leading to an increased aggravation of sorrow. Under the strain of acedia, the shepherd sinks into mediocrity, bitterness, spitefulness, and finally despondence. In such a condition, pastors have a “chronic need for forgiveness and encouragement” in order to care for their own soul. [29] In straightforward terms, pastors also need pastors and consistent sabbaticals for friendly encouragement, godly rebuke, gospel consolation, and restorative worship in the fellowship of the saints.

Thomas Aquinas would persuade everyone not to forget the simple bodily remedies too: get some sleep, take a hot bath, go for a walk. [30] Bodily training is, we should call to mind, of some value (cf. 1 Tim. 4:8).

Conclusion

By way of conclusion, we will end with Paul’s encouragement:

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

(Col. 1:9–14 ESV)

Phillip Hussey (PhD candidate in historical theology, Saint Louis University) is visiting instructor in church history and systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary. 

  • Phillip Hussey


1. Josef Pieper, On Hope, trans. Sister Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 55.
2. Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 44.
3. Augustine, Confessions, II.1.(1): …dum ab uno te aversus in multa evanui.
4. Evagrius, Praktikos 12, in Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek and Ascetic Corpus, trans. with introduction and commentary by Robert E. Sinkewicz, Oxford Early Christian Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 99.
5. Christopher Holmes, The Lord Is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018), 135.
6. Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, ed. and trans. Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 95.
7. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I–II, q. 84, a. 2, ad 2.
8. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.2, 403.
9. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.1.4.
10. Much more could be said, especially with regard to how the Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone resonates with the protological picture offered here. In particular, it is always the case theologically that operari sequitor esse, working follows being, soteriologically or otherwise.
11. Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, 77.
12. Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae., II–II, q. 35, a. 2.
13. Jean-Charles Nault, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times, trans. Michael Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), 72.
14. Barth, CD IV.2, 405.
15. Barth, CD IV.2, 458.
16. Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II–II, q. 20, a. 4, resp.
17. Joseph Ratzinger, To Look on Christ: Exercises in Faith, Hope, and Love, trans. Robert Nowell (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 69–70.
18. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I–II, q. 39, a. 1, sed contra.
19. John Webster, “Dolent gaudentque,” in God Without Measure, Volume II: Virtue and Intellect (New York: T&T Clark, 2016), 78.
20. Webster, “Dolent gaudentque,” 79.
21. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I–II, q. 20, a. 2, sed contra.
22. Rebecca DeYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009), 90.
23. Webster, “Dolent gaudentque,” 83.
24. Cf. R. J. Snell, Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (Kettering, OH: Angelica Press, 2015), 98.
25. Augustine, De civitate Dei IX.5, as quoted in Webster, “Dolent gaudentque,” 83.
26. DeYoung, Glittering Vices, 98.
27. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, q. 35, a. 3, ad 1.
28. Webster, “Dolent gaudentque,” 83.
29. Harold Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 240.
30. Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I–II, q. 38, a. 5.
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