As a child, I would sometimes complain to my dad, “I’m bored! Can I watch something?” Baked into my complaint was the idea that there wasn’t anything that could entertain me except for one thing: the T.V. My dad’s rebuttal was always the same: “There’s no such thing as boredom — just boring people.” This riposte was as effective as it was annoying. My boredom revealed something about my character. The problem wasn’t the world. It was me.
Although my dad did not know it, his response would be just as at home in a 3rd century monastery as it was in our suburban living room. As early Christians devoted themselves to the meditation of scripture, prayer, and service, they were often plagued by bouts of boredom. In fact, boredom was such a menace to Christian life that they had a special name for it: “the Noon-day Devil.”
At about noon, the Christian would often suffer from boredom, which manifested in dissatisfaction with one’s work, restlessness, and procrastination. The Christian would wish he were in some other place or in some other person’s life where things were more engaging and satisfying. If they had lived in our digital age, perhaps the Noon-day Devil would encourage them to scroll through curated images on Instagram or sink in the bottomless pit ofYouTube.
The church has long recognized boredom as the manifestation of particularly devastating sin—the sin of acedia, which in English has been rendered “sloth.” But the word “sloth” is misleading. Sloth doesn’t denote laziness as opposed to industriousness, hard work, and personal dedication. Sloth, traditionally understood, is the rejection of two things.
First, it is the rejection of our calling — God’s personal call to be who he has created us to be in Christ and to participate in his mission to bless all of creation. Jesus Christ bids us to love him and our neighbor in our work, our friendships, our families, in our place. Acedia resists engagement with what Jesus Christ has called us to do in this moment, in this task, in this place. Our sin is that we’d rather just be left alone to our own devices and amusements rather than be the person God has created and called us to be.
This may look like inactivity, but it may also look a lot like busyness. While we avoid our work by the art of procrastination, we find all sorts of ways to keep busy, including noble endeavors like catching up with a friend or re-arranging the sock drawer (In fact, I’m convinced that’s the only reason why we even have a sock drawer in the first place). Procrastination means I’m doing everything but that one thing I should be doing — the very thing to which Christ has called me to do.
Second, acedia is the rejection of the goodness of God’s created order. When we are bored, we deny the dazzling beauty and delightfulness of God’s creation. In the Book of Genesis, the seven days of creation teach us is that the goodness of this world lies in the fact that it is ordered by limits and boundaries that help us live as God intended. This is the world in which God delights on the seventh day of creation. When we find the world to be dull, we are in effect saying to God: “You’re wrong to delight in this world. I see it more clearly than you do — and it’s not worthy of my attention or joy.”
Taken together, the rejection of God’s calling and God’s creation spells the end of purpose, meaning, joy, and gratitude. It numbs the senses to the reality of Christ and to the reality of creation. This creates a crippling deficit of meaning, which induces boredom. Our default stance toward the world is that the world is not interesting, compelling, or meaningful.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that every moment of boredom is a deep spiritual sin. Some things can be quite boring and tedious, like makinga the bed or doing the dishes. Much of life is in fact ordinary and mundane. What really matters is how we engage the mundane. Our posture toward the monotonous and repetitive is often avoidance.
So, what can we do about boredom?
We must develop a counter posture to boredom. The opposite of boredom is gratitude. Thankfulness arises from acknowledgment of the overwhelming generosity of God towards us. When we contemplate God’s good creation of ordinary, everyday things, we become more and more thankfulness. Gratitude refines and focuses our attention. As we practice gratitude, we begin to see the world and our callings for what they truly are: gifts from God.