Posts Tagged ‘Evagrius of Pontus’

Anger is universally recognized as an extremely dangerous emotion.  Two thousand years ago the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger lamented, “No plague has cost the human race so dear” (“On Anger,” 1.2).  The Jewish psychiatrist Solomon Schimmel wrote, “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is the most pervasive, injurious to self and others, and responsible for unhappiness and psychopathological behavior. … As a psychotherapist I spend more time helping clients deal with their anger than with any other emotions.”[1] Read the rest of this entry »


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.