The (not-so-) Magnificent Seven
Q: What are the Seven Deadly Sins? How and why were they named?
A: When folks began using philosophy to develop Christian theology, questions about the details of the faith arose. Sin was sometimes divided into two parts — mortal and venial. Venial sins were those which were viewed as almost accidental or incidental departures from the Christian life.
Mortal sins were said to be those sins which destroyed spiritual progress and brought spiritual death through the willful turning of one’s back on God and rejecting his saving grace. These seven can be seen almost as a summary of the intent behind the whole moral Law, especially the Ten Commandments. They are these: Pride, Covetousness (Avarice), Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy, and Sloth.
Many theologians would say (and I agree with them) that all sins are “mortal.” That is, any unrepented sin of thought, word, or deed warrants the wrath of God and needs his forgiveness.
In this day of self-help and promoting positive images, PRIDE is sometimes overly encouraged; its inclusion in the list reminds us of its wrongful influences. Relating to God, pride may be displayed as spiritual arrogance and self-righteousness or self-assertion. Ultimately, it says, “Let me be God and let God leave me.” Thus, many have viewed it as the root of all other sins (which is why it’s usually listed first). Toward other people, pride comes out with feelings of superiority, haughtiness, prejudice, and such.
COVETOUSNESS is often defined as the desire to gain at the expense of others. Avarice and Greed are sometimes used as synonyms, since both express a part of the coveting heart’s intent. It can cause people to center their lives around possessions rather than God, making things into idols.
LUST parallels covetousness. It, also, is a too-strong desire for that which does not belong to a person. Normally, lust is thought of as sexual desire, either for a person or an activity, which exceeds the bounds set by the Scriptures.
ANGER is included because it sets us against others who are also created by and loved by God. We sometimes distinguish between “good” anger, where we are moved to right a wrong, and sinful hatred, which Christ warns is the same as the actual commission of murder in the eyes of the Lord.
Although it doesn’t seem so severe, GLUTTONY is also included because it exalts the body by giving in to its every desire to be fed. It takes rather than gives. By extension, drunkenness and addiction are often included in this category, since they also are urges to satisfy the body, no matter the consequences.
ENVY is on the list as an offspring of pride. We don’t accept who we are. Instead of serving the Lord and others with our special gifts from God, envy leads us to want to be like other people. We crave their popularity, intellect, or position in life for ourselves. Envy is not following another’s good example, but the desire to put ourselves in another’s place without effort or sacrifice.
Finally, we come to SLOTH. Sloth is laziness, the desire to do nothing and have everything done for us. Sloth denies God our service and our worship. It makes us a burden rather than a blessing to others, and destroys the interdependence and support God has developed among people.
Why aren’t murder, theft, sexual sin, and deceit on the list? They are! Each of these actions is rooted in one or more evil intentions described by the Seven. Theft and gambling can stem from covetousness, adultery from lust, and so on. If you could look into their hearts, you probably could trace back the misdeeds of every criminal and every civil offender to one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins. More important for each of us individually, this list serves as a reminder of what we need to confess and have forgiven, and what areas we need God to specially address in our own lives.
The next two columns cover the Seven Virtues. We first examine the four Cardinal Virtues and then the three Theological Virtues.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.