Sunday, December 9, 2007


Medieval people were far more horrified by their sins than we are. Sin meant breaking the rules: God's rules, with God being both Lawgiver and Judge. Today's God is more benign, so the seven deadly sins are basically 'seven habits of highly destructive people'. Augustine's idea of 'original sin' - an inbuilt bias towards sin - doesn't sit well with modern notions of freedom. The 'seven deadly sins' emerged in the middle of the first millennium after Christ as a useful check-list to measure goodness or virtue.

PRIDE is the worst sin, according to most traditional Christian thinkers (from Augustine and Aquinas to G.K. Chesterton and C.S.Lewis). It's the 'primal' sin, our wanting to be independent of God's rules: expressed brilliantly by Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost: 'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.' Pride looks after 'number one': it is competitive, not wanting to give first place to anyone else. The opposite of pride is humility: the virtue that helps us become more like our humble, self-giving God. How? Through confession, whereby God and another hears our sins and faults and offers grace; and through service to others: 'thinking less about yourself, rather than thinking less of yourself.'

ENVY is the one sin which is not fun at all. It is 'sadness at the happiness of another' (Aquinas). Although no one wants to be renowned for their envy, in our meritocratic culture it is the bait in every advertisement. 'We are caught in a culture that hates envy, yet incites it mercilessly.' Mark Twain was wise: 'We will do many things to get ourselves loved; we will do anything to get ourselves envied.' Ancient wisdom teaches us that happiness consists not in getting what we want, but in wanting what we get. The first murder in the Bible (of Abel by Cain) was driven by envy. How shall we deal with it? First, change the price-tags: things may not what be what they seem. Second, learn to admire what others have without wanting it (Salieri both adored and detested Mozart's genius). Life and your talents are gifts: to be given back to the community. If you have God, you have everything.

ANGER can be an appropriate response to cruelty or injustice, but, as Seneca said, is is 'an acid which can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.' God gets angry at evil, and therefore, as William Willimon says, paradoxically, because he does, we don't have to. Solving problems via anger almost always does more harm than good - often creating an escalating cycle of bitterness. Righteous anger - our anger against evil - can quickly turn into a desire for vengeance. Like most sins anger takes something good - a proper hatred of evil and injustice - and twists it into something destructive. The heart of the Christian approach: it's God's prerogative to exercise wrath. Although our anger might do some good, God alone can sustain righteous anger that will truly sort things out. Part of 'anger management' is to practise silence, so that we do not say things we might later regret.

GLUTTONY headed the list of 7 deadly sins in the 4th century. Gluttony is an inordinate obsession with food, drink, or plain consumption. It's to food what lust is to sex: getting something good out of proportion. Being fat is Very Bad in a celebrity-obsessed culture, so obsessive dieting can be as gluttonous as over-eating. (Half the world lives on less than a dollar a day: each year 1.7 million children die from hunger-related diseases). How are we healed from eating disorders? The crucial first step, as AA teaches, is to hand over control. Traditionally Christians have emphasized not dieting, but the age-old rhythm of fasting and feasting: Easter and Christmas are preceded by the fasts of Lent and Advent - ensuring that we retain control of our appetites rather than being controlled by them.

LUST is not simply sexual desire: it's disordered desire - when sex is the dominating force in a relationship. Sex isn't simply physical: what we do with our bodies affects our souls/hearts/minds. 'It's not so much picking an apple off a tree as disturbing the roots'. Lust is 'the craving for salt of someone dying of thirst' (Buechner). The difference between looking and looking lustfully is about five seconds! We might pretend that we are serious about wanting someone else when we only really want part of them. Extra-marital sex is 'Lying in bed'! How is lust overcome? Not, as the Catholic Church has sometimes taught, by eliminating sexual desire altogether, but, with God's help, relating to others as whole persons.

GREED. The consumer culture is driven by a 'greed-is-good' mentality. Donald Trump put it candidly: 'The point is that you can't be too greedy.' It's not quite the same as self-interest, which, wrote Adam Smith, is the responsibility to look after ourselves and those who depend on us. And healthy ambition spurs us on to greater achievements. The problem is when self-interest impinges on the interests of others. An economy driven by consumption, with governments promised greater growth and prosperity, will inevitably lead to a depletion of the world's resources. 'Over the past 550 million years there have been five major extinctions of species. Who is to say that we might not be next?' We have probably passed the point of no return on global warming. God has provided good things for our enjoyment, but greed is destructive - both of ourselves and of society. A sabbath is a good antidote to greed: it is a regular reminder that the ultimate purpose of life is not to accumulate 'stuff'. But the best counterpart to greed is not poverty (the poor can be avaricious), but generosity. Ultimately we do not own anything: everything is a gift. So let us live simply, so that others can simply live.

SLOTH is the hardest of the 7 sins to define. It's not simply laziness. The old Latin idea of accidia is sometimes translated 'spiritual weariness' or 'despair': essentially 'giving up on life'. Aquinas described sloth as 'spiritual boredom'. Augustine says of the human race, 'They choose to look for happiness not in you, but in what you have created'. So sloth is losing our appetite for God, failing to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. It is substituting something else for God - even religious things like liturgies, church music or theological ideas. Simply enjoying/loving God is an acquired taste. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

Written by Rowland Croucher, with a little - no, considerable - help, from Graham Tomlin's excellent 2007 book 'The Seven Deadly Sins: and How to Overcome Them'.