A Massive Epidemic (that has nothing to do with COVID-19)

The American Church is suffering from an epidemic (no, not that one). I’ve been infected, and I would be willing to bet that you have too. I don’t know where exactly I picked up the bug, but it’s a strong one. It works its way into every part of my spiritual life, and the scariest thing is that most of the time I don’t even realize it’s there. In fact, often I rather enjoy having this little disease—and so do you. Before you start scratching uncontrollably or racking your brain to remember where your vaccination records are, let me tell you what I’m talking about: Laziness.

I’m sure you’re like me, and think that you’re not a lazy Christian. After all, you’re reading a Christian blog—surely that’s not something lazy Christians do! You’re right. I might be preaching to the choir. However, as I’ve spent time thinking about this, I’ve realized that I’m lazier than I thought. Maybe you are too.

If you’re going to be treated for an illness, it’s generally best if the doctor knows what he’s treating. I realize that’s not always how it works, but I think we’d all agree that it’s preferable that way. With that in mind, let’s do a little digging to come up with some symptoms of spiritual laziness to help you identify whether you’re suffering from it.

We’re not the first Christians to deal with this germ. The original audience of the book of Hebrews had their own bout of Sloth-itis, something that the author seeks to sort out. His words of exhortation will help us diagnose our own hearts.

  1. Always learning, never teaching (5:11-12)

In the latter verses of chapter five, the author of Hebrews introduces an obscure yet important figure from the Old Testament—Melchizedek. However, he knows that what he has to tell his readers about this priest-king is going to get a little complicated, and he’s not sure they’re ready. He feels like feeding them Melchizedekian theology will be like giving steak to a baby. However, they’re not neophytes to the faith—they should well be able to handle a little steak (which is probably why he is going to go ahead and feed it to them later on). This leads him to encourage them to grow up and press on to maturity.

As the author expresses his disappointment with his readers, he tells them that by this point in their walk with Christ they ought to be teachers. Instead they’re content consumers. The author is not saying that they should have learned all there is to learn and should therefore be teaching. Of course not! As long as we remain on this earth, we each will need to be discipled. That will look different for different people in different locations, circumstances, and seasons of life, but it should be true for every believer.

The author is also not saying that every believer in the churches he’s addressing ought to be up front teaching people. That obviously logistically can’t happen, and even if it could, some people are simply not “apt to teach” in an up-front sort of way. So…what does he mean?

Just as each of us should be being discipled, we should also reach a point of maturity where we’re investing in someone else as well. Not only did Paul model this as he mentored young men like Timothy, but he also encouraged his young protegee to pass it on:

“The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

This is hard, and I certainly don’t do it perfectly–not by a long shot! I guess that’s why neglecting it is a symptom of sluggishness.

2. Eating cookies only from the bottom shelf (5:13-6:2)
We all have areas of learning where we’re comfortable, and, frankly, learning new things is not much fun. I get it. I never learned calculus, and I’m not all that keen to try it. However, if we adopt that attitude toward spiritual things, we might just be suffering from the virus of idleness.

Let me ask you a few questions to see if maybe you fall into this category…

  • How receptive would you be if your pastor announced a preaching series or Bible study through a major prophet (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel)?
  • Would you be willing to study one of those books on your own?
  • What about a study on a branch of theology with an intimidating name like pneumatology, soteriology, eschatology, or hamartiology?
  • Do you study both testaments of the Bible (yes, there are two!)?
  • Do you read books besides the Bible to help you grow spiritually?
  • If you do, do you read any that need more than one read-through to fully digest?
  • What does your time in the Word look like? Do you tend to reach for a quick thought from a devotional thought and call it a day? Do you read a passage then read the study notes in your Bible and finish up? Do you do the dirty work of figuring it out for yourself before reaching for other tools?  

I realize that not all things are for all seasons, and answering no to some of these doesn’t automatically make you lazy. However, as you reflect on questions like these, I think you’ll be able to diagnose whether the spirit of laziness has gripped your heart.

3. Focusing on external things (6:1-2)
Maybe you passed the first two tests with flying colors. You love the hard stuff, and you love investing in less mature brothers and sisters. That’s great. Let’s move on to number three. The Hebrew Christians seemed to be hung up on external things—instructions about washing and laying on of hands, repentance from dead works. All of these things make sense when you realize that prior to accepting Christ they had adhered to the Jewish law. As followers of Christ, they knew that they didn’t need those externals anymore, but they wanted to know what they were now supposed to do and how they were supposed to do it.

This one is tough for me. I come from a background that focused heavily on externals, and I still tend to get a little too hung up here. I worry more about looking and sounding the part I’m supposed to play than really working on my heart. After all, it’s much simpler to just bite my tongue than to actually address the heart issues at the root of my sinful speech. It’s much easier to make a rule for myself than it is to deal with what’s going on in my heart, or (gasp!) ask someone else to help me wrestle with heart-level issues. However, simply putting a happy face on a sinful heart is straight-up laziness. So what about you? Do you, as Paul Tripp would say, staple fruit to the tree to avoid the problem with the roots? If so, you, like me, might be suffering from laziness.

4. Looking for gratification right now (6:11-12)

In our microwave, drive-through, express-lane, next-day delivery culture, we have fallen in love with instant gratification. Who among us wants to wait for more than a couple seconds for a web page to load? And if a YouTube video buffers more than once, forget it—I’ve got better things to do with my time! Red lights are the worst. And heaven help me if I actually have to get in line at the grocery store, and the checker isn’t as speedy as I think she should be. Let’s face it—we’re gratification junkies. And believe it or not, that’s a sign of laziness.

One of the things the writer of Hebrews desperately wants for his readers is that they press on to hope set before them. He wants them to be faithful wait-ers like Abraham was. But that’s hard. It requires diligence. Every day I must choose whether to put my hope in what I can’t see or whether to hook it to something that will satisfy me (or so I think) right now.

This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to microwave popcorn, drive through McDonald’s or use Wal-Mart’s pickup service. Not at all. The mark of laziness is one of hope, joy, and satisfaction. Are you content to find your joy in the right here and right now? Or are you looking to something—Someone—better?

So there they are: four symptoms of spiritual lethargy. Turns out I’ve been infected. How about you? If so, we need treatment. And we’ll learn about that next time.

**I’m using a metaphor of illness throughout this article, but in doing so I don’t mean to imply that laziness is somehow caused by something outside of us or that it’s not our fault. No, our hearts are corrupted by sin, and any spiritual lethargy comes from within.

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