4. Seven Deadly Sins
If we desire to pursue integrity wholeheartedly, we must be willing to acknowledge sin’s presence in our lives. The next few sessions are designed to prompt honest assessment of where sin has taken root in us. We expect the Spirit to produce heartfelt conviction in areas of needed change—the kind of conviction that will lead to repentance. As a community, we are called to “confess [our] sins to each other” (James 5:16). In this session we will identify and share areas in which we are most likely to struggle with sin. This will prepare us for the following session, in which we each will write and present an assessment of how one area of sin affects us.
- Individual Aim: To identify predominant areas of sin in your life and consider how those areas stem from issues of personal identity.
- Group Aim: To share with one another your areas of greatest struggle and discuss how those areas stem from issues of personal identity.
Read Session 4: Seven Deadly Sins.
Complete the Life Change: Seven Deadly Sins exercise beginning on page 82.
The list known as the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, anger, greed, lust, sloth, gluttony) was used as early as the sixth century AD to help Christians identify and address the roots of sin in their lives. The list isn’t meant to cover all sin or even the worst sins but rather seven foundational sins that underlie and nourish the rest.
Medieval theologian St. John of the Cross wrote that God digs out these seven root sins most deeply when believers enter a “dark night of the soul.” John said such dark times are inevitable and are opportunities for growth because they force the believer to deal with areas of sin otherwise dormant in them. During such times, according to John, God removes some of the “consolations” the young believer has enjoyed. Young believers are like nursing babies who must mature in their faith, but the process of growth brings trials, including temptations to stumble in these seven ways. Yet while life brings such temptations, believers can be confident that God will remain diligent to continue His work of transformation:
His love is not content to leave us in our weakness, and for this reason he takes us into a dark night. He weans us from all the pleasures [of the Christian life] by giving us dry times and inward darkness. In doing so he is able to take away all these [seven deadly] vices and create virtues within us. Through the dark night pride becomes humility, greed becomes simplicity, wrath becomes contentment, luxury becomes peace, gluttony becomes moderation, envy becomes joy, and sloth becomes strength.
—St. John of the Cross
While categories help us identify areas of greatest struggle, they sometimes overlap. For example, pride is the most fundamental sin and is contained in all sin, as James states:
“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.”
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:6-8)
Every sin includes an attempt to attain a desire in ways that are contrary to God’s purposes and His ways of attaining those purposes. Consider envy. If people desire others’ recognition, they may spread gossip about someone they envy. Decreasing a competitor’s reputation may seem like a means to increasing one’s own reputation in comparison. In this case, the purpose (obtaining more recognition from others) and the means to that end (spreading gossip) are both contrary to God’s will.
In contrast, consider gluttony. Eating and drinking are not contrary to God’s will. However, the purpose that drives our desire to eat and drink can be. If we are eating and drinking excessively for the purpose of escaping hardships in life, we are gluttons. We should not substitute eating and drinking for dependence on God to sustain us through hardship. The purpose of eating and drinking is to sustain our bodies and, in some situations, to celebrate. (Feasts in the Old Testament and the “potlucks” of the early church [see Acts 2:42-47] show that celebration is a valid reason for eating and drinking.)
Most of the categories of sin occur in human relations. When a person struggles with greed, he desires some material thing that another person has. If he did not observe another person possessing that object, greed might never have sprung up. When a person struggles with anger, she typically is enraged at another person’s actions or words. Therefore, interpersonal communication often plays a central role in sin and virtue. Lying is not on the list of seven deadly sins, perhaps because many of the sins involve deceptive communication. Deceptive communication includes blatant and subtle forms of lying as well as nonverbal communication. Suggestions can be made without words. For example, a person might want others to think he is grieving a coworker’s failure, when in fact he envies his coworker. When he hears of that person’s failure, he may use facial expressions that communicate sadness for the coworker, while inside he is secretly rejoicing.
In The Inferno, Dante Alighieri describes the various levels of hell. In the deepest levels are those who engaged in what Dante calls fraud. Dante means lying, which is the use of communication to deceive others for personal gain or pleasure. The point is that though we may struggle with being deceptive in our communication with others, deception is usually only a means to some other end. There is some larger issue of sin driving that mode of communication.
It is difficult to face our sins honestly and even more difficult to share them honestly. The “Seven Deadly Sins” exercise and the sharing that will take place in the next two sessions are designed to help you identify not only some important areas of sin in your life but also some of the root causes.The exercise will require some thought and creativity, but it is worth the effort.
We must always guard against the temptations presented by our flesh, the world, and our spiritual enemy. But the struggle with sin is not the central focus of the Christian life. The Christian life is not chiefly about avoiding sin but about learning how to love God and people. Keep this in mind as you go through this part of the study.
Read Sessions 5 and 6: A Letter from Your Tempter.
Complete the Life Change: A Letter from Your Tempter exercise beginning on page 96.
Half the group members should be prepared to share their tempter letters at the next group session.
Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin)