The Seven Deadly Sins, Part 1 (of 4)

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Fall is upon us, and with that brings pumpkin spice lattes, the turning of leaves, and the ever-tricky topic of Halloween. RTB editor Sandra Dimas joins me to discuss something far scarier than haunted houses and bubbling cauldrons. Join us for this month-long series on the seven deadly sins.

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Ken, can you name the seven deadly sins off the top of your head?

I can. In fact, I’ve memorized them alphabetically. They are anger, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, and sloth. Sometimes old English words are used. For example, I would say greed but some would say avarice.

Where did this grouping of sins originate?

That’s a great question because that collection of sins doesn’t appear anywhere together in Scripture. Scripture addresses all of those sins in various places, but the list itself doesn’t have a direct biblical origin.

So if there is no biblical origin, then how was this list created and by whom?

The seven deadly sins were initially talked a lot about in medieval Catholic monasteries and nunneries. These were people in the religious orders who took holiness very seriously and they wanted to avoid those sins that would potentially damn them.

How did the medieval Catholic Church determine which sins were “deadly”?

Having a Catholic background, you’ll remember the distinction in the Catholic Church between venial sins and mortal sins. Venial sins are lesser, “forgivable” sins that do not destroy one’s state of grace.

A mortal or deadly sin—sometimes called a capital sin—is what medieval theologians believed to be those sins that were so serious, so injurious, if you will, that they would destroy the state of sanctifying grace within the soul. At that point if you were to die you would go to hell. So you would need to go to the sacrament of reconciliation or confession in order to get that state of sanctifying grace back.

Considering this list of seven deadly sins was intended to help guide those in monasteries and nunneries to lead holy lives, how did the list’s reach eventually extend beyond its point of origin?

Slowly and gradually, the awareness that these are sins that everybody struggles with grew. Protestants don’t differentiate sin the way Catholics do, but that doesn’t mean that Protestants don’t appreciate that some sins may be more serious or more consequential than others. We just don’t typically talk about them as “deadly sins.”

We might recognize that certain sins are foundational. That is, these sins lay the groundwork for other types of sin. For example, anger may be the very root of what could be murder. Or lust could be the root for adultery.

Let’s begin to dissect these various sins and how each might show up in everyday life. How about we start with sloth?

Have you ever seen an animal the sloth? They’re very slow moving. Based on this animal’s behavior, some would identify the sin of sloth as being lazy or slow moving. My dad would always joke that I had the sin of sloth. Though, theologically speaking, sloth is not so much about a general laziness, meaning you’re not hardworking or you don’t have a lot of energy and drive. It’s actually more of a spiritual sloth. That is, you stop taking your spiritual life seriously. Maybe you avoid reading Scripture or you find it hard to go to church or you don’t pray regularly. Sloth is seen as the sin of having lost your passion and your love for God. Your spirituality is no longer vibrant.

Interesting point. I had always understood sloth as physical laziness. This is the first time I’ve heard it explained as spiritual sloth.

Right. I had always thought sloth was about laziness, too. But the context seems to suggest sloth is more that “you have left your first love,” as it says in the Book of Revelation, and therefore your spiritual life is not vibrant. The idea is that if you’re not doing those things that energize your Christian experience—such as attending church regularly, hearing the Word of God preached, receiving the Lord’s Supper, or praying regularly—then that will impact the rest of your life. It could mean that other sins would be more likely to appear in your life because you’ve lost that spiritual vibrancy.

Most Christians are aware of the seven deadly sins. Yet not many would know the seven cardinal virtues that contrast these sins or vices. Can you name them?

Sure. Meekness is the contrasting virtue to anger. Charity contrasts envy. Temperance contrasts gluttony. Generosity contrasts greed. Purity contrasts lust. Humility contrasts pride. Zeal contrasts sloth.

How might Christians exhibit the virtue of zeal, particularly if they begin to recognize the sin of sloth in their lives?

Sloth or complacency—again with more emphasis in this context to the spiritual side of life—is contrasted with zeal. That is, I have a zeal for the Lord and I want to honor Him. Zeal even involves the idea of integrity, meaning that everything I’m committed to is for God. In pursuing the tough road of sanctification (inner godliness), Christians must always keep in mind that their relationship with God is accomplished and maintained by the Lord’s loving and forging grace and not in their specific growth rate in sanctification (Titus 3:4–7).

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Come back next week as we look at two more deadly sins and their virtuous counterparts.

For more on the seven deadly sins, see Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness by David K. Naugle.

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