This week with the start of Lent, we continue our examination of discipleship and spiritual health with a new teaching series, What’s So Deadly About The Seven Deadly Sins?
Like Lent itself, the notion of the Seven Deadly Sins in not in the Bible. It actually didn’t arise until four centuries after Christ when a desert monk named Evagrius wrote a practical tract for his fellow monks on how to live a holy life where he itemized eight particular sins which he felt were especially pesky to a person trying to please God.
Later writers took his list and played around with it. A century later, one of the early Catholic popes, Gregory the Great, is the first one to write of the Seven as a collective, then a great theologian named Thomas Acquinas in the 13th century wrote the most famous and definitive analysis of the Seven, assuring that they would be passed on down through the centuries.
What are the seven deadly sins?
Pride, greed, gluttony, anger, envy, sloth and lust.
If the Seven are not in the Bible, then why teach on them? Two reasons come quickly to mind.
First, while the Bible doesn’t give us this particular list of sins, it does provide us with numerous other lists of sins.
What is the Ten Commandments at its heart? It is a list of right and wrong behaviors. Remember the Sabbath Day. Honor your father and mother. Don’t kill. Don’t steal.
Jesus in the Beatitudes gave us a list of nine behaviors he is looking for in his followers. “Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the pure in the heart. Blessed are the merciful.” The apostle Paul gave us organized lists of right and wrong behavior. He lists in Galatians nine ‘fruit of the Spirit’: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control.”
Paul also provides us with several very specific lists of sins to turn away from. Galatians 5:19-21 says, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Similar virtue/vice lists are presented in Corinthians and Ephesians and Colossians. But there is no definitive list. Each one is slightly different. Paul uses the words, “and the like.” These are examples of sinful behaviors to avoid, is what he is saying.
Second, we humans need to recognize what the real problem is with human nature.
This knowledge doesn’t come naturally to us. Paul says in Romans 7:7 – “I would not have known what sin was except through the law. (i.e. the List). For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’”
Left to ourselves, we humans desperately try to deny the reality of our sin. How often outside of church do you even hear the word sin used? (You might be thinking right now: When’s the last time I heard the word spoken inside of church?)
The idea that somehow there is evil imbedded in our very being, that by nature I am prone to do the wrong, meanwhile I struggle to do what is good – that idea is blasphemy to the culture today.
I once saw a show on the History Channel (not always the best place to get your theology) that was trying to get at the evolutionary reasons why humans are warlike and violent. Most primates are warlike like we are. Except for one species of ape, the bonobo, who don’t fight, but share with others and live peaceably. Why is this? the researchers wondered.
Their theory? The first bonobos lived on the other side of a great African river than their primate cousins. And on their side of the river there was plenty of food and water. On the other side, where the chimps and gorillas and baboons lived, there was scarcity. They had to fight for resources. And that’s why we’re violent today.
Do you see the explanation then for why we are evil? It’s not that we’re inherently sinful. Our barbarism is an evolutionary response to having grown up in a world with scarcity. If we only fix the environment, make sure everyone has plenty of food and water, we humans will straighten ourselves out. No more war, no more fighting, no more selfishness. (Maybe if we just explain all this to Vladimir Putin, he’ll reconsider, and pull back into Russia.)
Christianity says in distinction from such points of view that while we certainly ought to be addressing exterior problems when we find them – fighting hunger, injustice, corruption, lack of education – still, the main nub of the human problem is what’s in us, not what’s outside of us. Evil is imbedded in us, and it’s far deeper than a genetic deformity. It’s a disease of my soul.
And so to study the 7 deadly sins is to be given a chance to look under the hood of the human heart, and examine honestly at what is there, if we have the courage.
Why These Seven?
What makes these Seven stand out is not that they are the worst sins imaginable. At first glance, these particular sins might seem trivial. Gluttony, really? Sloth, are you serious? What about genocide, murder, destruction of the ozone, what about sex trafficking? Why didn’t they make the list? But the point behind the Seven was not to make a list of the worst possible sins. The point was to examine the roots of our worst possible sins.
What is it that brings a human to making war on another, to raping another human being, that leads one generation to say to the next, “Forget about you. We’re going to take care of ourselves first, even if it means destroying the environment or wrecking the economy.”
What brings a person to this place? Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount. Long before we commit the deadlier sins, there are less obvious sins, already at work, eating away at us, setting us up for a great fall.
Evagrius, the monk who came up with the first list, called these sins, the ‘captains of armies’. If you yield to these sins, if you don’t fight these sins, then they will bring other sins in their wake, and they will destroy you.
Which is why these seven are so deadly. And why it will be an essential next chapter in our study of spiritual health and Christlike maturity.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.