Centuries of Christian thinkers have combed through Scripture, human experience and shared life to come up with our seven greatest enemies: the spiritual assassins that war against our souls to the greatest effect.
These enemies don’t sleep, and they war against every Christian soul. They spread fastest and best when we ignore them or pretend they don’t exist. In other words, if we’re not actively fighting them, we are all but giving them permission to take over.
Do you even know what they are?
What would you guess?
Seriously, before you read any further, pause right now, and write out what you think the best thinkers of the Christian faith have described as the “seven deadly sins.”
Doing this in a group setting could be a great discussion starter. What sins, when they pop up on your radar, should you be most concerned about?
Many people today may not realize that the notion of what constitutes a sin — and which sins are worse than others — is historically fluid. There was great debate in the early centuries of the church about this. Since Scripture doesn’t provide a definitive list, various teachers sought to combine Scripture’s warnings into an easily identifiable group, which led to its own controversy. While today’s believers tend to argue about eschatology and The Shack, there was a time when monks debated the exact number of deadly sins.
Evagrius (345-399) was a popular Eastern preacher who fell in love, became appalled at the romantic passions that consumed him, and decided to join a group of monastics (known as the desert fathers) to be rid of those passions. He taught that there are eight deadly sins: gluttony, lust, avarice, dejection, anger, despondency (you may have heard the word “accidia,” which is a kind of spiritual apathy/sloth), vainglory, and pride.
Cassian, a monk one generation after Evagrius, exported this list to the west. Pope Gregory the Great took it and combined vainglory with pride (a natural thing to do), dejection with despondency (coming up with the modern notion of “sloth”), and then added envy to arrive at a list of seven.
This has become the list most westerners think of today when talking about the “seven deadly sins”:
Why This List Matters
Without being fully aware of the enemies that seek to destroy us, they are allowed to do their damage under the cover of stealth. Let me give a “middle age” example here, and then we’ll apply it to this generation.
Most Christians today define male holiness in terms of a man’s sexual and financial integrity. If he’s not “sleeping around” or stealing money, he’s considered a fairly decent guy.
John Climacus — a 7th century pioneer of Orthodox spirituality — saw the two worst sins as “a mania for gluttony and bad temper.” Climacus doesn’t refer nearly as often to lust, materialism or prejudice — the main focuses of today. Instead, he talks repeatedly about how we handle food, and how patient we are with others. In Climacus’ mind, those two arenas are the true test of piety.
Consider how startling a message this could be to the contemporary church. Picture, for instance, a man who doesn’t drink, doesn’t swear, doesn’t smoke, hasn’t seen a hard R-rated movie or visited a pornographic Web site in years, and would never even think about cheating on his wife, but who is 50 pounds overweight and occasionally yells at his kids.
He has done nothing that would discredit him if he ran for political office, nor would any church be likely to bring him up on charges of church discipline. But in Climacus’ view, such a man is steeped in sin; he has fallen prey to the most devastating of spiritual traps.
Worse, he doesn’t even know it, because sin in our day is defined so very differently from sin in Climacus’ day. Because this modern man has victory over lesser sins, he may even think himself spiritually superior, when in reality, his sins would have been considered in another day, another time or another church, the worst of all.
Using the List
How can moderns use this list to its full benefit?
To begin with, it can help us become more aware of the sin that may be sleeping in our souls. Avarice, for instance, is in essence a consumer mentality, wanting more, consuming more and then wanting still more. It speaks of the dangerous side of capitalism, the way that materialism can steal our hearts and drive our efforts. In this case, I think the younger generation of today’s believers is increasingly sensitive to avarice as a significant sin and temptation.
On the same spectrum is envy: a jealous spirit (“I want what my neighbors have”). In one sense, numerous modern political campaigns have been built on the back of envy: “We’re going to take what one class has, and give it to you, if you vote for us.” Rather than confronting our culture’s envy, many leaders actually inflame it — and are sometimes even called compassionate for doing so. If you’re not familiar with the spiritual danger of envy, you can unwittingly (or perhaps consciously and with full intent) spread it.
Sloth is greatly ignored and very dangerous. In essence, sloth is the great spiritual assassin of our time. It kills our bodies; it kills our bank accounts; it kills marriages; it kills parenting and child relationships. It kills businesses, and governments. It kills vocations, and businesses. It kills everything it touches.
When someone is slothful with their physical body, they become out of shape and lose the inclination and ability to enjoy much of life because physical activity becomes too taxing. They want to sleep more, eat more and just lie around. Sloth in relationships means that intimacy gradually cools, fades and then dies; relationships take work to thrive and grow. Sloth in business means that I will start to cut corners, disappoint my customers and gradually see profits erode. Sloth in my faith means that I will begin to rely on past religious experiences; instead of actively growing and maturing, I will backslide, eventually becoming a mere shadow of my formerly worshiping self.
Sloth kills the best things in life, but when is the last time you’ve heard a pastor preach about it?
Most modern churches actively denounce lust. But lust’s foundation is built on the prior sin of pride, which we characteristically ignore. If I’m not acting arrogantly, I won’t reduce another person to a sexual object, because that would demean the person I’m objectifying. If I’m humble, I won’t act in a way that dishonors my spouse or hurts another family, because I’ll want to put others’ welfare above my own.
A humble boyfriend or girlfriend would never put sexual pressure on their significant other, because the last thing a humble person wants to do is risk someone else’s spiritual integrity for the sake of their own immediate pleasure. Nor would a humble person want to take what rightfully belongs to a future spouse.
Pride is essentially self-worship: If I want it, that’s all that matters, regardless of the consequences. Combine this spirit with sexual desire, and you have a recipe for abominable behavior. A humble heart is always going to be a chaste heart. That’s why sexual sin is best fought not just by attacking lust, but also the pride that makes lust so hurtful to others.
Pride also supports envy, because envy is based on a sense of entitlement: “Because my neighbor has a big house with three full bathrooms, I should have a big house with three full bathrooms.” “Because my boss can get superior medical care, I should too, even if I can’t afford to pay the doctor myself.” Humility makes no such assumptions.
In fact, pride supports virtually every sin, which is why humility is justly called “the queen of the virtues.” Would that today’s church began to take pride more seriously. We often seem self-righteous to our culture, and even to our fellow believers.
Here’s the thing: The only way we can support self-righteousness is to reduce the list of sins we’re aware of.
If we embrace the full list of the seven deadliest sins, every one of us is going to become aware of how frequently and how imperfectly we struggle against at least a couple of them. Think about it: Do you know anyone who is never proud, never gluttonous, never envious, never slothful, never lets their temper get the best of them? Recognizing the breadth of sin and how it affects us spawns humility, which in turn assaults our pride.
Since pride is the foundation of the other sins, letting sin-struggles humble us (instead of ignoring them, or downplaying them, or pretending they’re not really “serious” sins) is, ironically, one of the best ways to fight future sin.
Let’s use the list to admit how deeply we are steeped in sin: My anger is usually based in pride, comfort, self-love and a sense of entitlement rather than godly wrath. Envy of all sorts (success, possessions, respect, natural talents, family, vocation) is an endless assault on one’s sense of satisfaction, purpose and contentment. Food and sex — two good realities for most adults — are always just one step away from becoming doorways to sin and even addiction. Sloth is such a broad but stealthy attack on our short lives that it may be the second most deadly — and least explored — sin of our generation. And avarice is never satisfied; it keeps pushing me to get more, more, more.
Knowing this list, and being humiliated by my feeble attempts to withstand the seven deadly sins’ daily assault on my spiritual health, is actually a productive exercise, because it reminds me of my need for God’s grace. That, in turn, grows humility, and humility builds up and fortifies every other virtue.
On the contrary, if I reduce this list to a couple that I’m able to avoid, I’ll likely grow arrogant, and adopting a prideful spirit is tantamount to pouring Miracle Grow on every other sin.
With the hope generated by Christ’s victory on the cross, and the assurance of God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace, we can honestly and without flinching look sin full in the face, recognize its reality, admit its occasional victory, and then apply God’s remedy.
Let’s re-familiarize ourselves with all seven deadly sins, if for no other reason than to be humiliated by them.
When we see how steeped we are in sin, we become ever more grateful to God for the victories He does grant us, making us more enthusiastic worshippers. It will also help us to be ever gentler toward others who sin, for while they may sin differently than we do, we will recognize how fighting sin, and being enslaved to sin, is a universal human experience.
And it will remind us that there is but one remedy: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So knowing and reviewing the seven deadly sins can foster worship, fellowship and evangelism; all-in-all, a pretty good reward for the effort.
Copyright 2009 Gary Thomas. All rights reserved.