The Seven Deadly Sins
Over the past 50 years when attending conferences of Church leaders I hear the invited guests talking about things regarding which I am quite inept. I have planted no churches, I do not lead a rapidly growing congregation, I am not an expert in homiletics, or church administration. I am not an expert in Post-modernism and I have been unable to solve the worship wars that rage across the face of the church.
I should tell you, however, that I am not a complete failure. May I defend my rather fragile ego? I am a bit of an expert in the intertestamental literature that was written between the Old and New Testaments. I can teach courses on the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha and in Apocalyptic Literature. But I would be remiss if I told you that the church of Jesus Christ will never thrive until we have mastered that body of esoteric literature. I think any of us can go through 50 years of successful ministry and never once quote the apocrypha!
But there is one other area about which I am an expert. SIN. I have been a practitioner of that vice for over 70 years. There were times that I was an eager participant and other times I was a most unwilling perpetrator. I say this without any rejoicing in my sinnership. I have never “sinned boldly” as Luther has exhorted. I sinned covertly and ashamedly. In my first 20 years I sinned without repentance. In the past 50+ years I have sinned followed by penitence and self-flagellation. But I am not trying to rewrite the confessions of St. Augustine. I do, however, want to write to you about the mystery of iniquity.
Over the centuries, the theologians have argued over what constitutes a sin and how sin is to be defined. Two and a half centuries ago, during the Great Evangelical Awakening in England and in America, there was constant debate. Two sides came to the fore.
- The Religious Definition.
There were those who held to the religious definition of sin. The Religious definition is often called the “Reformed view”. But actually it is the definition held by most Christians today. Sin is the lack of conformity to the perfect will of God. This includes every error of judgment, every mistake, every intentional wrong and every unintentional wrong. It is my failure to be perfect.
With this definition it becomes impossible not to sin. And so the formula was used “We sin in thought, word and deed every day.” And, as Luther admits, “We are simultaneously justified while remaining a sinner.” – Simul justus, simul peccatore.
Sins, however, are forgivable. The Apostle’s creed declares, “I believe in the forgiveness of sin”, and that is marvelous news. But to cease from sinning is not possible. It continues to be the Christian’s humiliation. We sin inevitable and of necessity.
Through the centuries that definition, of course, has caused problems. Sensitive souls abhor sin. They have read the scriptures that condemn all sin and those that do them. Here are the proof texts for those that feel guilt, and shame, and fear – “The soul that sins shall die.” “He that sins is of the devil.” “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God.” This definition has caused great confusion and often a life of continued remorse over the inescapableness of sin.
This definition has its problems, but be careful, do not entirely throw away this definition of sin.
- The Moral definition
There was a second definition proposed. It was called the Moral view. The moral view is often called the “Arminian position”. This definition reads, “Sin is a willful violation of the known law of God.”
In this definition, intention was crucial. For wrong doing to be called sin, it must be willful and intentional. So if I do something wrong, but did not intend it, such as an accident, I carry no guilt for it was not sin. It would be an unfortunate event, to say the least, but it is no sin.
Using this definition, the deed must also be against the known law of God. If I did something that was wrong in the eyes of God or the Christian community, even if I did it intentionally, but did not know it was wrong, then it is not sin. I should feel no guilt. Whereas to other persons, who know a thing to be wrong, if they do it, then it is sin. “He that knows to do good, and does it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17)
Christians then do not sin in thought, word and deed every day. In fact, the new norm for life is not to be sinning. There is to be no willful disobedience against God. No rebellion against his will.
We will all be tempted. We shall all make mistakes, we shall all do wrong by accident, but Christians are not to sin. If we do sin, we have every right to feel guilt and shame. But, there is good news for those that do sin as John says, “If any one does sin, we have an advocate with God.”
But sin is to be the exception in our behaviour, not the norm. To the non-Christian, sin comes naturally; to the Christian, sin comes unnaturally, righteous is the new norm and sin becomes the abnormal activity.
But I must confess that I do not like either the religious or the moral definitions. We need a better definition. But in the meantime let us take a different tack on this matter of sin.
- Subconscious sinfulness.
When the debaters of this theological issue were fussing at one another, they were speaking about what constituted “a sin.” They were speaking about acts of sin, or sins, plural.
But the church universal has recognized that not only are there acts of sin, but there appears to be something sinister within human personality that is the actual motivator to sinning.
It has gone under many titles. Original sin, inbred sin, inward sin, subconscious sin, unconscious sin, the carnal mind, the carnal nature, the lower nature, the flesh, the old man, and so on and so on. It does not matter at this moment what we call it, except that there is something sub-surface within human personality and within humanity as a whole that affects our behaviour. Psychologists have long recognized this. Our aberrant behaviour is often the acting out of unconscious and subconscious desires.
The Church of the Early Medieval age spoke often of sins and the need for the forgiveness of sins. But it too knew that “below the surface of the stream” of our awareness. there was a current deeper than deed and feeling. This is how the poet Matthew Arnold describes it:
“below the surface stream, shallow and light,
of what we say we feel
below the stream, of what we think we feel,
there flows with noiseless current,
strong, obscure and deep
the central stream of what we feel indeed.”
Beneath the rippled sunlight-sparkled surface of our tranquil lives, there are depths that the sunlight only dimly penetrates. But below those depths are ever deeper depths where sunlight never penetrates, and where monsters find their dens. There strong currents flow that effect entire oceans and continents. These ancient authorities knew that within a person there are layers of being from the conscious level, to the unconscious level, to the sub-conscious layers to something even more elemental at the very base of our existence.
- The sins of Omission.
There is another facet of sin that must be looked at too. A sin might not be anything a person does, but may lie in what a person does not do. The Book of Common Prayer reads in the general confession: “We have done the things we should not have done and have left undone those things we ought to have done.”
Any discussion of the human problem must take into account that sin might reside as much in the things we do not do, as in the things we do.
- The Seven Deadly Sins
All of which brings me to the matter of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins.
When those early medieval theologians, when they began to plumb the depth of this subterranean stream, began to realize that this current has 7 branches. They gave them the title, The Seven Deadly Sins, The Seven Mortal sins, The Seven Capital Sins, the Seven Sinister Sins. And they noted that these seven were parent to every other act of sin. All other sins are merely sub-sets of this seven-headed hydra.
What is intriguing about the 7 deadly sins is that they find their classification being framed in the cloisters of the monasteries of Eastern Christianity in the 4th Century. The 4th century church saw hundreds of thousands of instant converts due to Constantine’s adoption of the Christian faith. It had become politically wise to become a Christian. Very soon the church had become as worldly as the culture of that day.
Many of the godly retreated to the wilderness and to the deserts to get away from the corruptions within the church. But sin cannot be escaped geographically, and they found within the walls of the cloister that sin was present still. They discovered that vice continued to beset the monk in his search for holiness.
These early seekers after heart purity “plumbed the depths of the human heart” in the solitude of their cells. As monks and nuns began to search their own hearts, they began to discover that sinfulness had followed them in their retreat. The more scholarly explored this tendency and thought that they had discerned 7 branches to the taproot of sin in their own lives and the lives of the world for which they prayed.
Lest we have forgotten this catalogue of “Minister’s Sins”, “The Sins of the Clergy” let me list them to you.
They went under some great sounding Latin names.
Superbia – Pride,
invidia – Envy,
ira – Anger,
acedia – Sloth,
avaritia – Avarice,
luxuria – Lust,
gula – Gluttony.
This list of sins so gripped the attention of the medieval theologians that the list began to resound through the literature of those centuries. Chaucer in the Parson’s Tale, Dante in the Divine Comedy, and Spenser in the Fairie Queen delineate in their own way the seven sins. Archbishop Peckham of England in the 1200’s ordered every priest who had the cure of souls to expound “the 7 deadly sins and their branches four times a year in the common tongue.” Some think that the 7 times of prayer that were practiced during the daily rotation of prayers may have been selected to be the antidotes to the seven deadly sins.
Since that day, contemporary writers have returned again and again to this ancient catalogue of subterranean sins — these include Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Psychologist Karl Menninger, Sociologist Stanford Lyman, Preachers like Billy Graham and Tony Campolo and Christian Novelist Elva McAlister in her novel Strettam. No longer are these 7 sins only the concern of the church. Even secular novelists and moviemakers have returned again and again to the Seven. Newspaper and magazines are increasingly aware that there is something rotten in Denmark and in humanity, and find themselves paying attention to the seven sins that permeate humanity and all its works.
- The Nature of the Seven Sins
But I need to add a few words of caution.
This thing of Sin is not a thing at all. These 7 are not 7 monsters that have a mind of their own, that lurk beneath the tranquil surface of our lives. There are not 7 demons within human personality that pull the strings and make us do things we ought not do. We do not possess a higher nature and a lower nature (in spite of the NIV’s bad translation of the word “flesh”) that cause aberrant behaviour or good deeds. Sin is a way of me relating to my universe that is wrong. It is my misuse of my skills and energies.
There is another intriguing thing about these 7 deadly sins. Every one of them finds its root in basic human nature as created by God. Look with me at the list of 7.
- To have sleep and rest and recreation is built into our createdness,
but Sloth is a great perversion of that legitimate need in us.
- Woe betide the human race when the saints of God do not vent their anger at sin and corruption, but that same Anger can be a terrifying passion when misused.
- Self-esteem is vital. We all need to feel valued and needed.
But there is nothing uglier than an over weaning Pride.
- Because our bodies need energy to keep on running, the consumption of food is crucial, And because God gave us finely developed taste buds, the enjoyment of food is one of his great gifts. Yet, Gluttony is a thing repulsive.
- The gift of human sexuality is given not only as a means of procreation for the extension of the human race, but it is also given with its attendant pleasure for the purpose of bonding two very dissimilar persons in a life-long relationship. But there are few things more damaging than the perversion of sexual intimacy into lust alone.
- The need to protect our bodies from the elements necessitates the procurement of shelter, clothing, food, transportation and other material supports. In our culture it takes money to procure these things. The earning of money and the stewardship of it is a built-in necessity. To secure ourselves against damage of any kind is a god given instinct. Nonetheless, Avarice is a great evil and causes global damage to the people and environment of our world.
- To strive to better ourselves, to grow, to develop, to be all we can be, is built into our very nature. All of us are reachers for goals beyond our present attainment. But when that good drive is perverted it becomes Envy, the green sickness.
- What is so wrong about these 7 sins?
All sin, and the 7 big ones in particular, are deviations from love.
We looked at two definitions of sin earlier. The Religious view and the Moral view. But let me give you a third definition. In recent years there has arisen a definition of sin as “misdirected love”.
Pride, Envy and Anger — all are love distorted or perverted. Martin Luther noted that sin was “love curved inwards upon ourselves.” Love of self is narcissism, the wrong goal for our ultimate affection. It is an ingrained self-ish-ness.
Sloth — love defective. Love does not have enough energy to escape the gravity of its own self.
Avarice, Gluttony & Lust — Love excessive, love out of balance; too much love given to trivialities and too little given to essentials. Love in the wrong proportion.
- But why do I raise the issue of human sinfulness to those who give leadership in local churches?
It is my understanding that each of us is vulnerable to one of the seven. One of these seven may be the Achilles’ heel whereby temptation finds an entry point into our lives. And it is my conviction that only as a person has learned to respond rightly to their “besetting sin”, that is, their “upsetting sin”, will they find themselves growing in the grace of Christ our Lord
And so, I intend to rush in where angels fear to tread, and wise men never go, and I intend to write about each of the 7 deadly sins and how they may hinder our lives. I would like you to pay attention to your own soul as well as to what I say, that you might discover which one of these seven is that disposition that is at the root of your disappointment with yourself.
- Let the tendency to Sloth not be dealt with and that alone will limit your ministry.
- Let avarice get away on you, and it will place a low ceiling on your life’s work.
- Let lust go unarrested in you, and it will vitiate all the good you might do.
So you may want to ask yourself, which one of these is the killer in my life?