“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” (Romans 12:11, ESV)
In studying a passage I often look at a few different translations and possibly an amplified version or a paraphrase along with some other study tools, including looking up the original word used and its meaning. In looking at Romans 12:11 in the English Standard Version I saw the words do not be slothful in zeal, and immediately I thought, “Why ‘slothful’?”
The New American Standard reads, “not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” (Romans 12:11, NASB95) The word in question, ‘okneros’ translated these different ways (slothful and lagging behind) has the meaning of laziness or a lack of enthusiasm and effort. In the parable of the talents told by Jesus in Matthew 25, Jesus told of a master’s response to a slave who did not invest what he had been given but buried it instead. “But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed.” (Matthew 25:26, NASB95) That word ‘lazy’ used in Matthew is the same Greek word used in Romans 12:11.
In our culture we speak of “not dragging our feet,” which is an idiom for not doing something promptly and whole-heartedly. So, what is it about the sloth that makes him the poster child for extreme slowness or even laziness? Using the internet to my full advantage I went to the Animal Planet website and found the following:
“[Sloths] move slower than any other mammal on Earth. The arboreal animals are known for taking their sweet time getting around, usually trekking no farther than 125 feet (38 meters) in a day. On the rare occasions when they're on the ground, sloths crawl at a glacial pace of about 1 foot (30 centimeters) per minute. This sluggishness has earned sloths a negative reputation in the human world -- even one of the seven deadly sins shares their name. … Sloths have little energy at their disposal for darting around at fast speeds because of their herbivorous diet. Native to the Americas, sloths spend most of their lives nestled between or hanging upside down from tree branches in tropical rain forests in Central and South America. … When hunger strikes, sloths simply reach out to the nearest available branch, pull it close and tear the leaves off with their lips. You probably wouldn't move around too quickly either if you had a permanently stocked minifridge within arm's length. But imagine if you ate nothing but salad greens for a week without taking in any fats or protein. You probably wouldn't have a ton of excess energy to, say, sprint around the block. Likewise, sloths' diets, which may also include fruits, flower buds and branches, don't provide much nutrition.”
So, the reason sloths are so slow is that they don’t have much energy and they don’t have much energy because what they eat is right in front of them and even then it gives them just what they need to keep the lights on, but that’s just about it. Sloths are slow because that’s who they are.
Romans 12:11 tells us not to be slothful, or lazy, or lagging behind in diligence, but rather to be fervent in spirit serving the Lord. Our identity in Christ is not that of a sloth and we are not to live like one. When we trusted Christ for our salvation we were given new life and that life was intended to be fruitful.
“I [Christ] am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NASB95)
Unlike the sloth who eats the easy stuff right in front of him and rarely ventures out unless his food source dries up, we have been given a reason to step out. We have also been given a new source of food in the Word of God, and we have been given a power source unlike anything we ever knew before, which is the indwelling of God’s Spirit.
“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:13, NASB95)
“Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” (John 6:35, NASB95)
“How sweet are Your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth! From Your precepts I get understanding….” (Psalm 119:103–104, NASB95)
As we need to pay attention to the food and drink that makes it into our bodies, we also need to pay attention to what we feed our hearts and minds. If we are going to be servants of God as He has called us to be, then it is incumbent upon us to look to Him, trust Him, hide His Word in our hearts, talk with Him (pray) and listen to the leading of His Spirit. With this we step out as we also put aside anything which is contrary to His Word, confessing our sins, and thanking Him for the forgiveness fully granted in His Son.
“that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” (Ephesians 4:22–24, NASB95)
Romans 12:11 is another one of those verses that not only tells us what we should not be doing (putting off), but it also gives us instruction (renewing the mind) on what we are to do (putting on)—being fervent in our spirit we are to serve the Lord.