THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS: A Case for Knowing Them

Sin is not a popular topic for discussion today, even in Christian circles. Therefore, to suggest there are ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ sends one running for the hilltops. But we need not react that way once we understand that apart from knowing about them, it is impossible to grow spiritually as a Christian. I hope this essay will help you discern, especially since Lent is not too far away, a better sense of yourself and what aspects of your life, with God’s help, you may want to change.

These Seven Deadly Sins are also called ‘Cardinal’ sins’ The word ‘cardinal’ means (no, not a bird), ‘hinge’ such as you find on a door. Just as a lot of weight rides on a door’s hinges, so what we can know about ourselves hinges on our understanding of these Seven Cardinal Sins. They specifically refer to the inclinations that lead to specific sins, rather than sins themselves. Consider them as warning signs such as a speed sign alongside a road. If you obey the sign, you will be fine. If not, you may get a speeding ticket or worse, into an accident.  The classic Cardinal vice is ‘avarice’, the desire for the accumulation of worldly things. This desire may cause one to steal, cheat, or lie to get what one wants. For instance, most people do not steal just for stealing’s sake. You may steal money so you can buy drugs. Sometimes when we consider a sin, such as lying, we do not realize what is the underlying problem. It may be avarice, pride, or lust? These Seven Cardinal Sins are called ‘deadly’ because they are dispositions or tendencies towards evil activity. If they are not dealt with, they will lead you into trouble.

Where does this tradition come from? It began with the early Greek philosophers and later picked up by Roman scholars. In their search for the good life, they came up with a list of vices and virtues. Christians adopted this list and, by applying them to what Scripture says, found them a helpful tool for understanding the underlying dispositions that lead to sinful activity. The first Christian writers who considered them were the early Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian in the 4th century. At this point in time there were 8 vices, which they narrowed down to 7 for no other reason that the number 7 is symbolically an important number in the bible. The original list of 8 included the vices of sadness/dejection and sloth/acedia. Gregory the Great combined these two under the heading sloth or acedia. Bragging or vainglory was also combined with pride. But now Gregory was left with only 6 vices. And so, he added the vice of envy to make 7. This list, once Thomas Aquinas made a good case for them, has stood the test of time.

Let’s now consider the meaning of each vice in order. They are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. The order is important. It moves from natural to unnatural vices. A natural vice may arise from a natural disposition. For example, by nature we must eat and drink for nourishment. When our natural disposition to eat and drink becomes an end rather than a means to an end, it becomes a vice that leads to sin. Whereas the vices of wrath, envy, and pride are unnatural, evil and without any good roots.

Lust is a pervasive vice today, especially among younger people. What is it? It is when we make sexual activity and imagination of the same an end rather than a means. Sex is good and beautiful when it is engaged in as God intended, for procreation and as an expression of love towards your spouse. Lust is not interested in loving the person I am intimate with or having children. Sexual activity is purely used to satisfy my physical desires. The lustful person has no interest in giving to another person, except as today’s culture encourages, as an exchange of a service. Sexual activity is all about me and my needs rather than about building up and fostering a community of love between husband and wife. The correlating virtue is chastity and prudence. You are prudent when you trust and follow God’s plan for making you happy. Chastity does not necessarily mean, withholding from having sex altogether. Rather, it refers to doing it in the right way and in the proper place.

Gluttony is not something we often think about, yet it is a major problem for many today, especially in North America. God made us to eat and drink and it is good to do so. But, like sex, food has its proper end and place. Food is not meant to be an end, for instance, something to entertain us while we are watching TV. Food and drink are meant for nourishment and fellowship. Sin is anything that we do that separates us from God and other people. For instance, eating a large quantity of food in private because you are embarrassed to do so in front other people is being gluttonous. We eat and drink for nourishment. But we also do so, so we can have fellowship together. In the Middle East, sharing a meal with someone reflects the nature of that relationship. The word ‘companion’ comes from ‘sharing bread together’. Therefore, signs of gluttony are whether you drink alcohol alone and eat food between mealtimes. Why do my Italian relatives look so trim and healthy? They do not eat between mealtimes as we do. The opposite virtue is moderation; enjoying food and drink as God intended, to nourish our bodies and to enjoy fellowship with one another. I eat to live not live to eat.

The next vice is greed. You are greedy when your riches, which includes material and financial wealth, is an end rather than a means to what is good. When you lust after someone or have a food/drink problem, you are normally aware of it. But not always with greed. It often masquerades as the virtue of thrift. ‘I am just being frugal and wise with my money.’ We do not know whether we are thrifty until we spend our money. Hoarding money does not make you thrifty. Thrifty means you spend it well. It is what you do with your money that makes you thrifty. For instance, giving 10% of your money away as the bible teaches is being thrifty. Not everyone can because of their financial situation. But if you can give away that amount and it does not change your lifestyle (or even if it does just a bit!), greed may be a problem for you. The opposite virtue is liberality which means we are generally sharing what we have for the goodness of society, Church, and others. St. Paul tells thieves to get a job. Why? So, they can give it to others. We work not just to make money for ourselves but also so we can give some of it away to help others.

We are now turning to what I said are the unnatural vices. The first is sloth or acedia. It refers to an unwillingness to exercise virtuous behaviour, for instance, doing the right thing when it would be much easier not to. It sometimes requires courage to do the right thing, especially if it is at the expense of your safety, even your life, for the sake of someone else. We often do not want to do the right thing such as going to work in the morning, helping your wife do the dishes, or helping a neighbour in need. Not wanting to do the right thing is not yet slothful. You are slothful when you acquiesce to these feelings. The opposite virtue is diligence. It comes from the Latin phrase, amolo delico, or labour of love. It is wanting to do the right thing even though it is hard to do, or you do not want to.

Wrath is the desire for vengeance and getting even with someone. Anger is different. It is natural to feel anger when someone kicks you on the shin. Wrath happens when anger does not conform with the right reason. Classic sign of wrath is when anger is indiscriminate. ‘I do not care who I hurt and whether it is against the Law.’ It can also be a disproportionate angry response or just being angry for anger’s sake. Unfortunately, today’s culture, for instance, the entertainment world, teaches us that wrath and vengeance is a virtue. ‘If someone hits me, I am going to hit them back even harder.’ We see this in today’s politics where it is common for one candidate to try to destroy the character of their political opponent. Today’s politics and culture in general encourage wrath and vengeance because it is easy to create such emotions in people rather than encourage them to be happy. For instance, there is a lot of negative advertising in political campaigns because it is harder to inspire people rather than to get them to be angry at someone. The opposite virtue is patience, which is a willingness to put up with something, try to calm things down, consider both sides of an issue, and seek for a peaceful resolution.

Envy should not be mistaken for jealousy. For instance, we are told in the bible that God is jealous when we seek after other gods. Jealousy can be good if it motivates you to do better. For instance, you may be jealous of a friend who has succeeded at school which then motivates you to consider going back to school. Still, envy can be one of the worst of the vices. Envy is when you are unhappy and angry at someone just because the other person has succeeded. You want to destroy whatever someone else has gained simply because they have it and you do not. And it pleases you when the other person fails. The opposite virtue is gratitude. Instead of looking at what you do not have, you consider what you do have and are grateful for it. You are not always looking sideways and comparing yourself to what others have and can do.

The last and most dangerous of the vices is pride. It is the most dangerous vice because we are setting ourselves up to be in competition with God. Pride is considered the root of all evil, instead of acknowledging that God is the center of the universe, and we are not, we set ourselves up as His rival. That is what happened in the Garden of Eden. ‘If you eat this apple, you will be like God!’ Consequently, we cannot be in communion with either God or each other. If I am the center of the universe, and people around me are not playing along with the way I think things should go, I get angry. Pride inherently breaks down communion with God and our neighbour. The opposite virtue is humility. When we humbly accept our position in relationship to God, then we can begin to humbly relate to one another in love as we are meant to do.

A few final words of direction. Knowing the Seven Cardinal Vices is not the same thing as applying them to your life. It takes a great deal of honest self-reflection of your emotions, thought patterns, and actions. The key word is ‘honesty’. We often fail miserably being honest about our vices, although we are quick to point them out in others. Consequently, and if you want to take seriously dealing with your vices and developing virtues in your life, you need others in the Church, your family, and friends to help you out. If it was not for Trish, and some honest and caring Christian friends, I would have no idea about the vices that I have and continue to struggle with. Of course, you too must do some work on your own, as I suggested in my sermon regarding contemplation (Baptism of the Lord, Jan. 14, 2024). I pray this essay will help you do that.

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS: A Case for Knowing Them