Sin is a varied and intricate concept within the Christian faith. In Hebrew, the word we know of as “sin” is translated from “chattâ’âh,” meaning “offense” and usually also includes that offense’s accompanying penalty. In Greek, “hamartia” refers to an arrow missing its target. Thus, for the authors of the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and the New Testament, to sin is to “miss the mark” in a moral sense. For Christians, various gradations and classifications of sin emerged as the Christian canon formed and as people attempted to determine the levels of sin’s egregiousness and severity. One of the most enduring schemes of early Christian belief on sin came to be known as the Seven Cardinal or Capital Vices, or the Seven Deadly Sins in their more modern terminology. These sins are Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Anger, Sloth, Envy, and Pride.
A brief history
The seven deadly sins have a great deal of scriptural basis, and the early church Fathers and Mothers arrived at them through much deep thought and meditation upon the biblical texts. Though not formulated as any cohesive list in the New Testament writings, a good starting point can be found in the Gospel of Mark: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23, NRSVUE).
This would become a standard line of thought for the Eastern church, and the development of the current list of Seven Deadly Sins stems from this passage. The primary source for much of the earliest writings about the seven deadly sins comes from Evagrius Ponticus (345–399 AD), a theologian from what would become the Eastern Orthodox church. His work influenced many of the later Western theologians who would write about sin, including Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), Maximus the Confessor (580-662 AD), and on down to medieval Roman Catholic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD).
Both traditions offer insight regarding the definition of “sin.” In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sin is defined as “failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods,” and that sin “wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.” In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is “the removal of … man from God’s will and grace,” a “violation of the laws of God,” and “the perverted nature in sinful man which causes him to turn to himself and away from God.” As such, the most dangerous and grievous of sins are the ones in which these “perverse attachments” are most apparent. For our purposes here, we shall go from least to greatest, as handed down from these traditions.
The Seven Deadly Sins
A frequent theme in the understanding of sin has to do with excess, based upon the works of Aristotle and his ethical concept of the Golden Mean. For Aristotle, virtue was often found in the mean between two poles of excess. For example, the virtue of Courage was found between the excesses of Cowardice and Foolhardiness. Much of Christianity’s ethos concerning virtue can trace its lineage to Aristotle, as the Christian list of vices and sins tends to echo Aristotle’s philosophy on the virtues. The antithesis of each of these sins will be a virtue, as enumerated in the following list.
Gluttony is the desire for excess food and drink, and its antithesis is Temperance. By no means should one think that eating and drinking is a sin, simply the desire for excess is where things go wrong. But, why should excessive consumption be a sin?
Excessive drinking of alcohol should be an obvious example. To be sure, some alcoholic consumption was expected in the ancient world and is enshrined in the act of Holy Communion. However excessive drinking lowers the inhibitions of the user and can cause one to act irrationally, dangerously, or even violently. Such behavior leaves one out of control and can even endanger one’s spiritual life.
Excessive eating might be difficult to parse at first, but consider the reality of our world. There are people in this world who go hungry all the time, and eating excessive amounts of food can leave one in a position where some might have too much and one’s neighbor may not have enough. Though nowadays we have an excess of food available in many places, some are not so lucky and live in conditions where food is scarce. Consuming excessive food can also be hazardous to one’s health, and can damage the body that God has given to us.
Gluttony’s antithesis is the virtue of self-control, to honor not only the temple of one’s body (1 Corinthians 6:12, 19) but also one’s resources and gifts. Wastefulness is a terrible thing to indulge in, particularly when there is so much want in the world. Self-control avoids the – effects of gluttony.
Of the seven sins on the list, perhaps lust is the one upon which most ink has been spilled, and the most sermons have been written–yet it is only the second lowest in severity! Nevertheless, it is worth examining the danger that lust, a desire for excessive sexual pleasure, can pose.
Lust is considered a disordered desire. God created us for one another. Sharing in sexual pleasure is perhaps the most intimate and beautiful act one can share with their partner, and is necessary for procreation. However, problems arise when one seeks out sexual pleasure above all else. It can destroy relationships and can result in unwanted pregnancy as well as serious illness. Indulging in lust is akin to lighting one’s soul on fire uncontrollably; passion and sensual pleasure may last for a short time, but overall may leave one unfulfilled, hollow, and ashamed.
Lust’s antithesis is Chastity, abstinence from indulgence in sexual immorality. Chastity as a practice can range from abstaining from premarital or extramarital sex to complete abstinence in celibacy. What is most important regarding chastity is maintaining a measure of mutual respect in relationships. To violate the clear boundaries of one’s relationships with each other is to do serious damage to one another. Our human relationships are a reflection of our relationship with God, and maintaining the covenants of trust is crucial to our earthly and heavenly relationships. Christians are expected to maintain a clear head Concerning their sexual practices and to refrain from excessive indulgence in sexual activity.
Greed, or avarice, is the vice of desiring excessive amounts of material wealth. Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) once said, “From avarice there spring treachery, fraud, deceit, restlessness, violence, and harnesses of heart against compassion.” It is probably one of the most dangerous sins in this world, as it is the most rewarded in our society. Though money in and of itself is not sinful, what is sinful is the love of and desire for ever more wealth (1 Timothy 3:3, 8, 6:10), which can have disastrous effects on our fellow human beings, let alone our planet.
Jesus himself made his position clear on the subject of wealth: “…Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-24, CSB). Despite what you might have heard in sermon illustrations, Jesus was not referencing a gate in Jerusalem, nor giving a geographical example as a point of reference. No, Jesus was quite serious and plain in his meaning.
Greed for wealth and its acquisition is dangerous for one’s soul (Luke 12:13-21). To hoard resources when one does not need them is tantamount to depriving others of basic necessities. Consider the rich man’s eternal destiny, in Jesus’s parable (Luke 16:19-31), in torment for having hoarded his wealth rather than share it with the poor at his doorstep.
Greed’s antithesis is the virtue of Generosity. More than simply giving loose pocket change, the spirit of generosity inspires us to go out of our way to give to others, and to be extravagant in our giving. This spirit of generosity extends to our neighbors, even to strangers, because God’s generosity knows no bounds, and neither should ours. In the words of John Wesley’s famous maxim: “Make all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.”
Wrath, or excessive anger, is an outward and damaging vice and has the most apparent and visible effects of the seven deadly sins. Everyone experiences anger in different ways. Anger itself is a value-neutral emotion–it simply is, and it is completely healthy to feel anger on occasion. Life will always throw curve balls, and sometimes the correct response is anger! However, though anger expressed in healthy ways can be good, Wrath is another matter entirely (cf. Ephesians 4:26, 31, 6:4).
Wrath is when anger goes too far. Wrath is when anger leads to violence, lashing out at another in the heat of the moment when all self-control is lost. In the words of St. Jerome (c. 342 – 420 AD), “The wrathful person is always riled, while the angry person is perturbed just for a little while.” Wrath is an all-consuming fire, a way of life where one is never centered, never peaceable, and always looking for another slight to use as an excuse for yet more rage. It is a miserable existence, to live consumed by wrath.
The antithesis of Wrath is Patience. Wrath is quick to act, quick to explode, and quick to find blame. Patience requires time. It lets the fires of rage settle so that one may address a problem calmly, with a cool head. Patience is firm, yet fair. It allows a person to act with integrity and thoughtfulness. Wrath only enables violence and hate.
Sloth is in many ways the polar opposite of Wrath. If wrath is caring too much, then Sloth is complete apathy. Usually categorized as “laziness,” in truth, sloth is far more insidious. Apathy makes one care not at all about others, and soon, not even about the self. Apathy lets everything go to a dangerous degree, as it makes one believe that existence is itself pointless. The Desert Fathers and Mothers often called it the “noonday demon”, as it frequently caused a variety of effects within a person, from abject restlessness to despair, and despondency.
In truth, Sloth is a manifestation of the loss of hope. It is indulgence in inactivity for the sake of a belief that all activity is pointless, and can achieve nothing. It bears the enormity of the weight of the world on its shoulders, and says that nothing good is truly possible, so why bother? Why bother doing good for one another when such great evil in the world seems to outweigh it? Why bother taking care of oneself when one is but one in eight billion people on this planet? The day stretches on into eternity for one afflicted by sloth, and so causes one to do nothing at all, paralyzed by fear.
Sloth’s antithesis is the virtue of Diligence or Perseverance (cf. Romans 5:2-5, Hebrews 12;1). Perseverance can see past the “noonday demon” to the real good one might enact in the world, even for just one person. Perseverance stands in the face of hopelessness and dares to move anyway, to put effort into one’s work for the joy of knowing that every action has consequences, even the smallest of moves.
Like jealousy, Envy is a subtle vice. It can go unnoticed and grow until it consumes a person entirely. Envy is the excessive desire to have what others have (James 3:14-16), whereas jealousy is the excessive desire to prevent others from accessing what one feels is one’s alone. The sin of envy is so serious it is given explicit prohibition in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not covet … anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17, NRSVUE).
Envy is dangerous because it can lead to wrath, greed, gluttony, or lust. Jealousy can cause one to do horrible things to enact vengeance against perceived slights. Much like the other vices, though, there will never be enough to satisfy envy or jealousy. Combating envy and jealousy takes a substantial amount of self-awareness and control, and even then, this vice can still linger in the heart.
The antithesis of Envy, and jealousy, is the virtue of Charity, more specifically fraternal charity. To engage others with charity is to rejoice in the success and good fortune of your sibling in Christ, to not begrudge them their happiness but to share in it. It removes the self-centered nature of envy with the self-giving attitude of love.
Pride is the king of all vices, the chief sin among all others. The vice from which all other vices ultimately flow is Pride. The primary transgression of Pride is idolatry–removing God from the center of worship and replacing God with one of our own making, usually in our image. To be prideful is to love one’s self over all others (cf. Romans 1:21-23).
There does need to be a distinction between normal pride, and the arrogant pride the scriptures speak of, however. Some pride is good and healthy, such as pride in a hard day’s work, pride over a child’s success, and the pride of knowing one is doing good for the world through charity and goodwill. However, all vices are practices and desires in excess. Excessive pride is thinking one’s good work and actions trump all other people’s, and that one is more important than anyone else. The old word for this kind of pride is “vainglory,” and that seems to cut to the heart of it. Vanity and glory-seeking are destructive elements of pride.
Pride’s antithesis is the virtue of Humility. To combat pride, one must remove one’s self from the center of one’s universe and replace oneself with God as the proper object of worship. A healthy sense of self and Humility can address a multitude of problems, and remove temptations of self-worship along with a host of other vices in the process.
The Seven Deadly Sins are a helpful framework for understanding the nature of vice and the temptations that we face in our lives. Knowing each sin and its antithesis virtue can help us to better live out a Christian life, aware of how sin operates and tempts us. With prayer and the guidance of a loving faith community, one can overcome the temptations of sin that plague us, and recenter our attention on God and the fruits of a Christian life.
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