In 1973 the famed American psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote Whatever Became of Sin? In that book he provocatively argued against psychology’s watering down the concept of sin to sickness. Add to this the corroding effects of the denial of objective norms by moral relativism, and it is no surprise that over forty years later opposition to a thoroughgoing concept of sin has escalated dramatically.

The force of the culture’s denial of sin has become so strong that the Christian church, even in its more orthodox branches, often is hesitant to describe humans and their deeds as sinful.  Christians don’t want to alienate people with negative language about sin.  They prefer to talk about God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness.  But, if there is no sin and its attendant guilt, why is there any need for forgiveness?  The church can’t have it both ways.  However unpopular it may be to speak of sin, the Scriptures state that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).   Christians can hardly be loving their neighbors, if they don’t warn them of sin’s fatal consequences.

Even when the church does speak about sin, it is often selective.  Depending on which type of church being considered, the sins may be sexual immorality and drunkenness or domestic violence and hate speech.  Far worse, in our politicized contemporary culture sin is identified increasingly with political policies and incredibly with certain political parties.

Furthermore, contemporary discussions of sin, when they happen at all, tend to be superficially focused on sinful deeds or acts.  Acts can be sinful, but their roots are deep within the person.  After listing several sins, Jesus states, “All these evil things come from within” (Mark 7:23). What is needed, then, is an analysis of sin that plumbs the depths of the human person.  Such an analysis can be found in the classical catalogue of the seven deadly sins.

All the seven deadly sins (vainglory, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust) relate to the inner life of a person and are rooted in pride.[1]  They are classified as sins “… not because they necessarily involve conscious and voluntary choices, but because they are basic tendencies toward evil, dangerous sources of sin, and habits of vice.  The list suggests a complex of emotions, attitudes, desires, and ways of acting which pervert good, useful impulses and which stand in the way of love for God, self, and others”[2] They are called deadly, not because some sins are not deadly but because these seven are understood as the cause of others.  For this reason, they are sometimes denominated capital sins.[3]  When people sin, they don’t just commit one. Instead, they enter a complex web of a multitude of sins and broken relationships that entrap them.  Both their interior and deadly nature can be found in the earliest discussions of them in Christian monasticism.  In order to help monks understand the process of temptation, evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and give them resources to overcome temptation, Evagrius of Pontus (345/6-399) wrote his Praktikos.  He details these tempting thoughts (logismoi in the Greek) that “contain within themselves every tempting thought” (Chapter 6).  They are so powerful and dangerous that he even calls them demons.

The interior and pivotal nature of the deadly sins also exposes another flaw in many discussions of sin.  Commonly sins are viewed as isolated acts.  The truth is that when we perform an action, we are molding our character.  An action repeated becomes a habit, and a habit formed becomes a character trait.  This reality of the consequences of our acts changes the questions we should ask of ourselves when we do sin.  The key moral question is not so much “What have I done?”  Rather there are a series of questions that are much more profound.  For example, we should look at the motive for our sinful action. “Why did I do this when I know that it is wrong?” We should ask ourselves, “What sort of person am I that I would do such a thing?” Or, considering that we are shaping our character by our actions, we should also ask, “What sort of person do I want to become when I do such a thing?”

Finally, sin is by nature a perversion of the good.  We can mistakenly identify some object as that good.  For example, someone wants to experience the good of intimate relationships.  He or she sees the close personal relationships of married couples, but wrongly assumes that the act of sexual intercourse is the good of intimacy that is desired.  The result is that they seek intimacy through sex without the marriage commitment and fail to experience the intimacy that they wanted.

We also sin by valuing some good either too much or too little.  The commitment of parents to their children’s success is a good, but it can lead to sin if overvalued.  Recently, some wealthy parents used their money to gain for their children admission into prestigious universities, harming both their own children and keeping others from being admitted who deserved to.  Parental commitment to their children needs to be balanced and ruled by the greater good of loving our neighbor.  On the other hand, parents who are so committed to the good of their careers that they neglect their children need to realize the greater value of the good of loving their children.

Thus, when we consider our sins from the point of view of seeking the good and of character and its formation, we need something positive to strive toward, not just the negative to avoid.  The positive can be found in the biblical triad of faith, hope and love (I Cor 13:13; Col 1:3-4; 1 Th 1:3; 1 Pet 1:3-9), traditionally denominated the theological virtues.  Seen from this perspective every sin is a failure to trust in God (faith [Romans 14:23]), to wait expectantly for God to act on our behalf (hope [1 Peter 1:13]) and to obey the two great commandments to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves (love [Mark 12:28-30]).[4]

We’ll take up the root sin of pride in our next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] I have tentatively adopted this enumeration of the seven deadly sins which substitutes vainglory for pride and understands pride, not as one of the seven but as the head of all the rest.  I owe this insight to Rebecca Konyndyk DeYong in her excellent book Glittering Vices (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), pp. 36-37.    Having said this, I admit to its being a bit awkward because this listing is not at all common in this day and age, although it has strong traditional support.

[2] George P. Evans, “Deadly Sins,” New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality. Michael Downey, ed. (Collegeville, Md.: Liturgical Press, 1993), p. 248.

[3] DeYoung, a Protestant theologian, argues forcefully that the seven should be called “capital” because this shows that they are principal ones or the head from which flow others (Vices, p. 35).  I maintain the title “deadly sins” because it is the one best known, but in doing so, I do not mean to imply acceptance of the traditional Roman Catholic distinction between mortal sins that cut one off from the grace of God and venial sins which do not.

[4] For those who would like to read more on the seven deadly sins, besides DeYoung’s Glittering Vices, I would recommend Os Guinness, Steering Through Chaos (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2000). Solomon Schimmel’s The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: Oxford university Press, 1997) is a readable and insightful contribution from a Jewish psychotherapist who, apart from the typically modern error concerning sexual lust, is mostly respectful of traditional teaching.  Dorothy Sayers’s essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins” in Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1969), besides being delightfully written, is very insightful in exposing the social roots and consequences of the sins, as long as the reader is aware of its post-World War II English context. For the advanced Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Secunda Secundae (Second Part of the Second Part) is about as thorough of a treatment as you could want.

 

30 Responses to “The Seven Deadly Sins”

  • Hadley T.:

    Something interesting about this article is the theme of not isolating the sin from the person. Instead, it ties the sin to the person by saying that when repeated it affects the habits and, eventually, the character of said person. I also appreciate how it sheds light on the fact that sometimes sin is not a thought out choice, but often comes from the impulses of fallen nature. This does not deem that person innocent because they still disobeyed God. It seems to set faith, hope, and love as solutions to these seven main sins, but are there any more specific suggestions than to strive for these three large ideals?

    • Thank you, Hadley, for your very insightful comments and your important question. I’m glad to see that you grasped that sin is connected to the person and that even though we often act impulsively, almost without choosing, I’d say, this fact does not mean that we are not guilty. We’ll be discussing quite a bit more faith, hope, and love. With regard to specific suggestions, I would say that all three express an aspect of our relationship with God. Whatever we do to foster that relationship will lead us to trust in him, hope in him, and love him because of the beauty of his person. As we study more this subject, we’ll discuss ways to foster that relationship, but if you consider how you develop a good relationship with another human being, by analogy it should give you some ideas about deepening your relationship with God. This would be a good point to bring up in class.

  • Tess Ewing:

    I enjoyed getting to read the first “Overcoming the Seven Deadly Sins” blog! I had never really thought before about why these sins in particular were called the “7 deadly”, so I learned why, and was fascinated with the answer, because I noticed that all sins really do come from those 7. As well, I was intrigued when you wrote about how these sins will become a habit if we keep practicing them over and over, until they eventually become our character, because when you worded it the way you did, something clicked for me, and that just excited me to learn about how to guard against them even more! However, while reading the 4th paragraph, I did come up with a question. About the verse that you quoted that talks about all of these sins coming from within, does that mean that it is a sin just to think of something sinful, or is it not really sin until we act upon it?

    • Thank you, Tess. It is great to find you understanding these connections and especially learning of ways to guard against sin. When we study these seven sins in more detail, I think that you’ll see even more their links to other sins. Your question on Jesus’ statement that these sins come from within is a good and important one. To answer it I would need to clarify what you mean by “think of something sinful.” For example, right now as we discuss these sins we are thinking of or analyzing something sinful. That is not wrong. In fact, it is important. I assume, however, that you mean not only commit a sinful act but also have sinful thoughts or desires. These are clearly sinful according to the Bible. In the passage in Mark 7 Jesus calls evil thoughts “evil things.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that unjust anger (Matthew 5:22) and lustful thoughts (Matthew 5:28) are sinful; so a deed is sinful but so can thoughts and desires be sinful. This truth is a great challenge that should lead us to ask for God’s help. I look forward to hearing more of your ideas on this and other issues in class.

  • Kylie Cleverdon:

    I found it very interesting how the church tends to disregard sin as a whole, and focuses more on the fact that God loves us unconditionally. It is a valid point to say that if there is no sin, then there is no need for forgiveness. Unfortunately, we, as humans, sin quite frequently and dig a deeper hole for ourselves every time we do so. As the article stated, when we commit one sin, we are then trapped in a web of many other sins and broken relationships. I am very curious to learn how one might prevent themselves from committing more sins identical ,or relatively similar, to the one they just committed. Is there any way we can steer clear from making the same mistakes over and over again?

    • Thank you for your comment, Kylie. Your question is a very important one. My hope is that as we allow God to teach us about these sins and to examine our hearts, we will be able to recognize what we’re doing and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, stop. In particular, the emphasis on forming a Christian character should help us see that our sins are not just isolated acts but actually begin to misshape us as persons. The challenge is that a sinful act is rarely, if ever, one dimensional. When we sin, we often sin against God, ourselves, and other people. The wonderful truth is that God’s grace is even greater than our sin.

  • Halle Pavlik:

    Wow,this article was packed full of different thoughts on the “Seven Deadly Sins”, which I cannot wait to unpack in class. Every sentence made me go deeper and deeper into thought but, there were few things that really stood out to me. The first being,how these sins lead to others. This statement is very true. The thought that I had was,that these deadly sins cause a kind of chain reaction, resulting in more and more sin. The other point that jumped out at me was that the sin is rooted deep within us. I completely agree that this is true, but I can’t come up with an answer to the question of why? Why is this sin within us? Is this something we were born with? And lastly Why is this human nature? I can’t wait to explore these questions as we go deeper into our study of the Seven Deadly Sins.

    • I’m glad that you found the article helpful, Halle. Your questions are excellent, very important, and not easy to answer. All orthodox Christians admit that we are born with at the very least a sinful inclination that leads us to sin. This sinfulness is a perversion of human nature. Although it is rightly said that we have a sinful nature, we need to recognize that God did not create us to be this way and that even in our sinfulness we are still his image. I look forward as well to discussing these issues more with you all. Thank you.

  • Jude Borchers:

    Coming back to the idea of sin being part of and shaping our character, I thought it was interesting how today, if something is a part of you, you’re often told that you don’t need to do anything about it. With sin for example, its easy to ask for forgiveness, but not make any real changes to try to avoid it going forward. The first paragraph referred to sin being looked at as a sickness. A problem with sin being a sickness is that it gives the illusion that sin is not our fault, and so its not our job to overcome it. But even the title of this class points out that we should work to overcome our sin, regardless of how much it has become part of our character.

    • These are good insights, Jude. Thank you. Your point about forgiveness is important. Christianity is certainly about being forgiven, but it is also about being transformed by God’s Spirit. With regard to the idea of sin as a sickness, even when a person has become “addicted” to a sin, the first steps to recovery are to recognize this and to accept one’s responsibility.

  • Kassidy Napier:

    I definitely relate when you say people tends to show God’s love and acceptance. It just seems easier to me to explain God as a loving father who watches over us. We forget that He is jealous, powerful, and will eventually exact justice on all of us. I think this issue may be attributed to the common goal we have to “not offend anyone”. Every human being seems to have different religious and political views that, when attacked, they feel personally hurt. With the rise in popularity of the LGBT community or the whole “Trump” issue, this mentality has only become worse. There does not seem to be a solution.

    • Thank you, Kassidy. Your comment certainly addresses a very difficult issue. I think that solution is to preserve the biblical balance. A message that only speaks of God’s judgment on sin leaves people without hope and certainly does not represent the biblical God who is one who has sacrificed himself for the sinner. On the other hand, a message that neglects judgment fails to accept the biblical understanding of God’s love, which is a merciful love that forgives those who repent of their sins. The culture of our age wants to redefine love as mere tolerance or acceptance. Previous ages have presented God as avenging and wrathful God almost to the exclusion of God’s love. In both cases, we must maintain in the face of opposition the biblical balance. Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

  • Sophie Cather:

    The connection of a series of repeated actions and their affect on a person’s character was well done in my opinion. As repetition is essential to develop muscle memory, so also are actions a cultivation of character. The difficulty is to not consider the one sin, but instead consider how the decision will affect you in the future. Also, I think the fact that sin is a perversion of the good is why 1) people struggle with accepting their sins despite the fallen nature of mankind and 2) why we continually succumb to the trap of sinning. When I think of sin, I think of temptation, wicked motives, or an intentional disobedience of God. I never had considered valuing good too much or too little to be a sin, but it does make sense if I apply the idea to Aristotle’s golden mean theory. This warped mentality can be a slippery slope for those when they believe they have risen above their nature and can do no wrong (which is therefore pride), when in fact they are being hypocritical. You said that, “we need something positive to strive toward, not just the negative to avoid” (par. 9). Therefore, my question is how would one combat their sin if they are already idolizing good?

    • Thank you for your very well-thought comment. Your mentioning of Aristotle’s golden mean is helpful and to the point. Be sure to bring it up at the appropriate time in the class. Since God is the creator, all things are good in their essential created nature but have been perverted by sin. What we need to have is a scale of value of goods so that we love them in the right degree. Also, all goods derive their goodness from God who is good. A key point then in not idolizing any good is to value it in relation to God. Of course, we often resist this since we want to have it our way. Ecclesiastes shows the disastrous results of loving goods without reference to God. Thanks again, Sophie, for your stimulating insights.

  • Skylar Ball:

    I thought this article on “The Seven Deadly Sins” was very interesting, but i was confused why the church does not like to even focus on sin at all. I mean I understand that sin is evil and they would not really want to focus on that. But wouldn’t it be better for the church to focus on it and show how you can overcome it and become closer to God.

    • I agree with you, Skylar. I think that we are hesitant today because our culture teaches us to be “tolerant” of others and thus we don’t want to appear “judgmental.” You are absolutely right that if we don’t discuss sin, people won’t be shown how to overcome it and become closer to God. Thank you for your comment.

  • Taryn Durbin:

    Something I found interesting in this article is how sin is perceived in our society and how people try to hide it instead of accepting its existence in our world. The seven deadly sins lead down a dark path that leads to our death.

    • Thank you, Taryn. You’re right about the danger of the seven deadly sins. This is all the more reason to warn people in today’s culture of the danger of downplaying sin.

  • Lauren Drum:

    The very first thing caught my attention was the fact that the church deliberately chooses not to focus on sin and instead chooses to spend more time looking at all the good that comes from being a Christian. Instead you would think that they would at least give some time preaching on all the challenges we will face just because we are Christians. It’s almost like they are trying to sell us some type of product and are exceling greatly at covering all the good and helpful things we gain from the product, but like most advertisements, purposely leave out the scary or sometimes dangerous part that could possibly drive away buyers. In this case the “scary” side is sin. Now I’m not comparing the advertising of products to churches “advertising” God and Christianity, but I just thought it was like the church was leaving a major piece of the equation out by not telling you the “side effects” and challenges that will come with becoming a Christian, like how most do during the advertising of their products.

    • Thank you, Lauren, for your reflection. I think that you are right to point out the danger of a Christian “marketing strategy” that does not mention the challenges of being a Christian. If we don’t speak about the challenges, they will all too often disillusion the person who has become a Christian and was not prepared for those challenges.

  • Chandler Vincent:

    I completely agree with the statement that churches and people as a whole have begun belittling sins. I have asked a few preachers why they will not speak on the subject of sins, i.e: homosexuality, racism, abortion, and more controversial topics which the Bible hits on and have never really been given a clear and full answer to my query. I have been upset at the fact that churches/pastors, who have been set as the leader to guide us in our spiritual lives, stray away from the harder (and what I feel more important topics for our spiritual growth) in fear that they might lose Congregational followers. And as a society I feel as if we are all beginning to not see the full effect of our sins, meaning we are normalizing them. I see more and more Christians fall away into a more “accepted” lifestyle because they fear retribution from non-followers for not agreeing with their way of life. Now with that being said I do not believe we should put those who live different lifestyles down, but instead let them know we do not agree but still showing them the “love of Christ”.
    The love of Christ also is a topic I am not sure how to approach. For we often make reference to Christ loving the sinners and sitting with them and being with them, in excuse for our actions we do with the sinners and why we “agree” with the sinners. For if we disagree with them, we are not showing the love of Christ? right? But Christ would also show the sinners the correct way to live, he would not agree with what they were doing, but showed mercy to them. For God is a merciful but just God.

    • Thank you, Chandler. You do highlight a very real difficulty today in speaking about certain controversial topics and also about the challenge of showing love to those who are not living as they should yet without accepting their wrong choices and ideas. The fact that Jesus spent time with the “sinners” of his day does not mean that he agreed with what they had done but rather that he loved them and that they had realized their own sinfulness. The problem with the so-called “righteous” was that they did not recognize that they too needed God’s forgiveness. Thanks again.

  • AD Ghoston:

    I had never thought of the idea of a sin never being just one sin and being a complex web of sins. I also want to ask your opinion of why the church is so hesitant to address an issue as important as sin?

    • I’m glad that you found the idea of sin involves us in a web of sins. Keep reflecting on that during the semester. Whenever we begin to consider sin, it is helpful to think of its consequences for others and how it can lead us into other sins. Your question about the church is a good one. Our contemporary society has made a false understanding of tolerance an absolute. We are not uninfluenced by this notion of tolerance and so, I think, we are hesitant to talk about sin. We do need to remember that in earlier times the church may have been unforgiving and so neglected to emphasize the centrality of God’s loving mercy. Thank you for your comment and question, AD.

  • Jaley Barkley:

    This article was very interesting and it had a lot of things written about sin that I had never thought about. This article has given me a great introduction to our “Seven Deadly Sins” class and I am very excited for it. One thing I had never really thought about was how in church we don’t really talk about the sins that we commit but about the repentance and faith in God we need once we commit those sins. I was also very interested in how you said all of our actions and sins mold our character throughout our lives. I really liked that statement because it makes me want to know more about the seven deadly sins so I can know how to avoid those sins and mold my character well. I did have a question about committing more than one sin at once. You said that when we sin we commit multiple, is that true in every situation?

    • Thank you, Jaley. I’m glad that you enjoyed the article. Your question is a good one. I’m always hesitant to say “every,” but I’ll take a chance and answer in the affirmative. For example, let’s say that you copy someone else’s answer on a test. That is a kind of theft. It is also is lying because you have presented to the teacher someone else’s work as if it were your own. It also affects you because now it is easier to sin in this way. You have then damaged yourself and your relationship with God. I hope that this example helps you see how our sins do multiply themselves. I’m sure that this issue will come up again as we discuss the seven deadly sins throughout the semester.

  • Melissa:

    I’ve loved reading these comments of these bright young minds! After reading this again, I feel the most exciting (although challenging) aspect of the 7 Deadly Sins beyond Gods grace and gift of forgiveness, is the overcoming of these sins as we are transformed in our relationship with Christ. I personally feel in my time as a and adult Christian there has been too much focus on simply the sins (important) and not enough focus on the overcoming. Many times the Christian is left wondering how life should be different once they have been saved and are left with little insight to the redeeming and transforming that Jesus wants to do in all of us. Here’s to a great semester of transformation.

  • Drew Sullivan:

    I have a lot of questions. Why/ how do you think that Pride is the root of the other deadly sins? Is pride required to commit one? Does Gluttony include more than just eating to much because that makes it seem less deadly than the others because it only affect you instead of others. Do you think our generation only is afraid of commitment or has it been a trend since the fall? Why do you think our culture is quick to tolerate and try not to offend people? What do you think about total depravity? Is it possible to sin by having the wrong intentions when doing a good deed? Sorry i missed the time deadline.

    • That is a lot of questions, Drew! Several of them will be discussed as we go on in the class. I’ll just respond briefly to a couple of them. I think that the moral relativism of our culture leads us not to criticize sinful actions. It also pushes us to tolerate differences, even when it shouldn’t. These attitudes do affect Christians and the church, unfortunately. With regard to the issue of intentions, you should think of those who do a good deed like praying but because they do it to be seen by others and thought well of by them, Jesus criticizes them strongly as hypocrites. I’ll deduct for the lateness the usual 11% on this assignment. In the long run, it will have hardly any affect on your grade. Thanks for your submission.

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