The Eight Deadly Sins
by Patrick Oden 11/28/2006 / Christian Living
In recent times, namely the last millenium plus or minus a century, the list of deadly vices has typically numbered seven. Seven is, of course, the perfect number according to those who think seven is the perfect number. The Seven Deadly Sins then are considered the complete package of a person's faults and misdemeanors before God and each other.
It's not the Ten Commandments anymore we have to watch out for, even if overly zealous religious folks would rather make this the monument in our various civic forums.
The Seven sins are gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sloth, envy, and pride. Of these only fornication is really considered a sin anymore, unless a person exists outside the church circle and then that's a sin only if involves unattractive people.
The others are more or less frowned upon in excess, but television wouldn't exist in any recognizable form if we really didn't wink and nod at the whole lot of them. Indeed, most of our own lives would have to be radically adjusted were we to really take the “deadly” part seriously. For us they are more like yellow lights than red. If we notice them we won't stop but we will slow down or speed up, depending on the situation and our own state of mind.
Gluttony is eating too much. Well, it's more than that. It's anything which takes particular and consuming notice of food. Eat too much and become overweight? That's just a part. Send the waitress back because the meat is a slight bit too red or the plate has carrots instead of peas on it? That's gluttony too. Not eating, starving oneself, always watching every bit and morsel, shaping one's life in the endless avoidance of every calorie? That's another form of gluttony.
The opposite of gluttony is temperance.
Fornication then comes next, and it considered a close cousin to gluttony. A full stomach means the mind can think in other directions, and as with gluttony, it's not only a matter of wrongful satiation. There's all manner of thoughts, and approaches, and ways of living which can suggest a soul enslaved to sexuality. But, we're all pretty clear on this one. The internet can tell you all you really didn't want to know about this particular sin.
The opposite of fornication is chastity.
Anger is a deadly sin, which is confusing really because there are so many really great things to get angry at. It's hard to go through the day and not find some sort of righteous indignation about what someone else is doing, and being that we're entirely right to find it wrong the anger seems entirely appropriate. Only the Deadly Sins aren't about that other person. Their concern lies elsewhere, within our own soul, and an angry soul is not a soul which is still. A still soul listens to the Spirit, and responds in love. It's a deadly sin because it throws us into a chaotic state, for there is so very much to get angry at, if we indulge we will easily find ourselves trapped in that tar and constantly ignited with the slightest spark. Sure the guy in the corvette may have cut you off and given you the finger while doing it, but to react with anything nearing equivalent emotions is a step onwards to hell.
The opposite of anger is impassivity. It's not just passive, it's impassive, intentionally not letting things get to you.
So far so good. These three are sins listed in every list, and each can consume a soul with endless strife. When we think of a spiritual person, we know to not include these three things. Even if we excuse them in our own lives.
Fourth on most lists comes Sloth. This is where I part ways, and not because I like a good sleep-in on a midweek morning. Sloth in contemporary parlance is just about equivalent to laziness. Thus, the sin of sloth becomes a transformable beast, determined not by some heavenly dictate but by each person's consideration of how much work should be getting done. The opposite of sloth is clearly work. But that's not right at all. Well, work is right, but who gets to define what work is right? Does any old act of unenjoyable effort constitute a spiritual discipline and lead to our overcoming a deadly sin? No.
Indeed, leaving sloth in the list, in my estimation has done enormous damage to the the whole Christian Spirituality project because it has allowed a variably defined word to induce significant influence on how people perceive their spiritual state.
This is why the earlier, and in my estimation spiritually and psychologically better, lists had not seven but eight deadly sins. Eight isn't as good a number, truth be told, as it doesn't really seem to mean anything in the kinds of numerologies that conservative Christians take so seriously. It's just a number with one circle on top of the other. Give it a carrot nose, two piece of coal, and a corncob pipe it'd be a snowman. It's not really a number for noble lists, but maybe that's appropriate as there's hardly anything less noble than the deadly sins, which really do number eight.
Now, it seems odd to be rejecting one on the seven list and in doing so make the list larger. That's bad math really. Except, you were focusing solely on addition. The eight numbered list comes about by a little bit of division. Sloth is divided into two, and these two have only a little in common with the popular conception of their sum.
The first of the new two is sadness. In our modern era it seems downright callous to say that sadness is a deadly sin, because we have clinicized it and given it the name of depression. Depression is a condition not a sin, consumed with all manner of psychology and neurochemistry, and brain wave transducivity (I think I made that last one up). All true. Only who said sin had to be isolated from our neurochemistry? We are humans, body and spirit. Whole not a collection of parts. That we have even a genetic predisposition towards what can develop into a deadly sin is not at all a reason to toss it out. Indeed, it helps our understanding to realize what can be a sin if embraced can also be attacked from all sorts of directions.
It is not in the temptation or the tendency towards depression that it is a sin. It is in the wallowing. It is in the accepting of this condition as reality and living in such a way that justifies our own lowered self. It is succumbing to moods similar to anger, except they are self-focused and corrosive. Rather than seeking to impose our will, it is a total loss of will because our expectations or yearnings have not been met. Sadness such as this can certainly be reflected in a lowered energy level, loss of ambition, and inability to poke oneself back into the game. But, to address solely the symptoms is to miss the much deeper and deadly part. It is not work that is the opposite, it is trust.
Similar in basic description but entirely not similar in outward response is the sin of acedia. This is, basically, spiritual depression. But, it's more than what comes to mind with those words. One of the reasons for leaving this off the newer lists is because it was thought this is a tempation peculiar to monks or those living in purposeful spiritual communities. Not at all. Indeed, I'd say this is one of the most common deadly sins around, and for me at least, the dragon which sparks the rest of the sins.
Acedia is the feeling that prayer doesn't work, that studying Scripture is a waste of time, that the spiritual disciplines are spiritual nuisances, and that anything devoted to the interior soul is energy poorly spent. Indeed, the very symptoms of acedia can be congratulated as an overcoming of sloth. The person fallen into this deadly sin wants to do just about anything other than commune with God privately. This person loves to visit others, always seeking out new company or new conversation, seeking out new jobs and new responsibilities, moving from place to place, impatient of stopping and frustrated with solitude. This person uses busyness as a mask for their lack of faith in the Living God. Rather than devote themselves to maturing as did Mary, they devote themselves to activity according to Martha. There are things that need to get done, such a person says, and getting these things done brings noise to an unbearable silence. Such a person doesn't hear God. They are resigned to the fact God is not doing a thing. They let their frenzied soul be their religious guide rather than the Holy Spirit.
Those with acedia are often the least slothful people you'll ever meet. Because if they stop they will have to face the fact they don't really believe. And that is a reality most folks would rather hide by any means possible, even and especially by honored ministry.
“Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'”
- Matthew 7:21-23
The opposite of acedia is perseverance, standing even when all seems lost and barren, waiting for the sun to again rise.
As is now clear, the topic of sin isn't about some legal wrongs and rights. That's what makes it so tricky in some ways. We like to have lists posted on boards so that we can know what shouldn't be done and who is doing it anyhow. We put on our sash and then go out to patrol the highways and the byways to make sure that no one violates our particular lists that may or may not exactly match up with the Divine lists we think were written.
It doesn't matter that Scripture says overcoming sin is only possible by the Holy Spirit. Violations are violations and folks just plain need to stop it.
Having lists is easy but it also can be entirely misleading. Because lists depend on egregious action all we can do is keep an eye on people to make sure they aren't doing something which offends. Only offensive actions do not make up the totality of sin. And sometimes being offensive is exactly the opposite of sin. Jesus offended people left and right, in word and in action.
Sin is not about doing wrong. Sin is an orientation. It is an expression of a reality which does not match up to true reality. Each time we sin we express a view of this world and an opinion about God which is out of alignment with what God says is real.
Holiness is like gravity oriented always Godward. The nature of things got disturbed, however, and sin is that which distances us from our core. Sin too much we will break orbit and drift away into nothingness.
That is why the 8 deadly sins are such an important point of orientation. They are not lists of wrong and right actions, and they are not limited to the dirty or licentious. Just as we are whole beings, sin attacks us holistically. It affects our actions, our needs, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our attitudes, our very being, with the most pernicious not being those which are reflected in a dubious deed, but instead corrupting us within like a cancer.
The worst sinners among us may seem to never sin at all.
That is the nature of the final three deadly sins: avarice, vainglory, and pride.
All three look down on the lascivious and ignoble sins of gluttony, fornication, sadness, and acedia. Sermons will be preached on these four sins, and folks will go around and judge others who fall into their trap.
Ah, but avarice, vainglory, and pride are oft commended and encouraged. No, not in their blatant expressions, that is too crass even for evil. It is in their deeper and noxious states that they have infiltrated the community of saints and sought honor for their shame, even to the point of making what is an evil into a good, and blinding folks to the effects of this transformation.
It is this infiltration that makes sin such a nasty business.
Patrick Oden lives and works in the mountains of Southern California. Education web design pays the bills. Writing and enjoying the beauty of God's Creation fills his soul.