The Seven Deadly Sins

Clifford Williams
Department of Philosophy
Wheaton College
Wheaton, Illinois 60187

Presentation at Cornerstone Festival
Bushnell, Illinois
July 7, 2006

 
The seven deadly sins: Pride, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth
 

Origin of the seven deadly sins

“The designation of certain sins as cardinal, capital, or chief began in ascetic and monastic communities established in the first centuries of the Christian era in the Egyptian desert. Evagrius, a fourth-century monastic, lists eight chief sins: gluttony (gula), lust (luxuria), avarice (avaritia), sadness (tristitia), anger (ira), spiritual lethargy (acedia), vain glory (vana gloria), and pride (superbia)” (Schimmel, 24-25).*

“Gregory the Great modified Cassian’s list. He considered pride to be a category by itself, the root of all sins, added envy, and merged spiritual lethargy with sadness. The tradition continued to evolve, culminating in the popular version we use today—pride, anger, envy, greed, sloth (the combination of spiritual lethargy and sadness), gluttony, and lust” (Schimmel, 25).

“According to John Cassian, a student of Evagrius, each cardinal sin generates the one that follows, so, for example, gluttony will lead to lust which will lead to avarice” (Schimmel, 25).

“The existence of different versions of the seven sins and of their order was due in part to different opinions about the theological and psychological importance of each one” (Schimmel, 25).
 
On being deadly

“Cardinal or capital has several senses according to Aquinas. Pride, which for Aquinas is contempt for God and the refusal to obey him, is the ‘head’ (caput in Latin) or ‘root’ of all sin. A sin is also ‘capital’ if it is the reason for committing other sins. Greed is a capital sin because we steal, cheat, and lie to satisfy it. Sloth is a capital sin because we ignore the dictates of charity out of our apathy to spiritual matters. Envy will induce us to harm others. A sin is also called capital if it enables us to commit many other sins. The money we accumulate through our greed empowers us to be gluttons or lechers, and to do other evil things” (Schimmel, 25-26).
 

Pride

Dictionary definitions: inordinate self-esteem, conceit; a reasonable or justifiable self-respect; delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship (parental pride); proud or disdainful behavior or treatment, disdain; ostentatious display; a company of lions; a showy or impressive group (a pride of dancers)

A few Bible verses: Prov. 16:18, Isaiah 2:11, Mark 7:21-22, Hebrews 3:6, Romans 12:3
 
Why is pride deadly?

“A common secular form of the Greek and biblical sin of hubris is expressed in the lives of individuals who strain themselves beyond reason in order to prove that there are no goals they cannot achieve, no obstacles they cannot overcome” (Schimmel, 30).

“Gregory the Great spoke of four species of pride. Some people consider themselves to be the cause of their achievements and talents. Others, though acknowledging that these qualities are from God, believe that they deserve them. Then there are those who boast of qualities they do not even possess. The fourth group despise others who lack the qualities they possess—they want to call attention to their uniqueness” (Schimmel. 32).

“It is not difficult to see how pride leads to the other sins. The arrogant person who thinks so highly of himself believes himself entitled to what his heart desires, whether in the social or in the material sphere. Since he expects deference he is easily angered when he doesn’t receive it. Assuming himself superior to others, he is especially prone to envy, which is a response to threats to one’s self-esteem” (Schimmel, 33).

“The self-love of pride today is more unbridled than at any other time. Nothing is set against the individual, nourished to be presumptuous and vain, to command his duty or his loyalty, except the power of the state, a power that the individual then boasts of evading” (Fairlie, 55).

“The working of pride in us will be seen in the rest of the sins” (Fairlie, 55).
 
The opposite of pride: humility

Dictionary definitions: not proud or haughty, not arrogant or assertive; reflecting, expressing, or offered in a spirit of deference or submission (a humble apology); ranking low in a hierarchy or scale, insignificant, unpretentious

A few Bible verses: Prov. 15:33, Matthew 18:4, Matthew 23:11-12, James 4:10

“Most Jewish and Christian moralists consider humility to be the moral virtue which is the prerequisite for attaining any of the other virtues. The devout Christian and Jew share a sense of utter dependence on God for all of the natural and material gifts with which they have been endowed” (Schimmel, 39-40).

“The humble person never engages in behavior in order to achieve honor or glory, but is motivated by benevolence or the glory of God. When praise is given him he reacts with indifference and thanks God for having made him an instrument for the benefit of others” (Schimmel, 40).

“Another way in which religious humility has been construed is as the utter lack of self-consciousness” (Schimmel, 40).

“Depreciating oneself too much is as wrong as esteeming oneself too much” (Fairlie, 56).
 

Envy

Dictionary definition: painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage

Covet: to wish for enviously, to desire (what belongs to another) inordinately or culpably

Jealous: intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness, hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage

A few Bible verses: Romans 1:29, Galatians 5:21, Titus 3:3
 
Why is envy deadly?

“It has been said that envy is the one deadly sin to which no one readily confesses. . . . Its expression crosses our faces in a split second. . . . Few of us are able to suppress a secret envy at someone else’s good fortune, or even at someone else’s good joke” (Fairlie, 61).

“Envy is not merely a grieving on account of another’s good . . . , but a grieving because one regards that good as diminishing one’s own and even as reflecting disgrace on oneself” (Fairlie, 64).

“The roots of envy begin early in life. From childhood we are compared to others. Our value as individuals is measured by how much dumber or smarter, uglier or more beautiful, weaker or stronger, poorer or richer we are than our peers” (Schimmel, 57).
 
The effects of envy

“Envy is a sower of strife, between colleagues, between neighbors, even between friends” (Fairlie, 78).

“Another perverse effect that envy has on us is ingratitude” (Schimmel, 73).

“Envy and hatred often go hand in hand” (Schimmel, 73).

“It makes us focus on the negative aspects of experience. We are always seeking to find fault in others, to minimize their virtues and positive achievements, and to call attention to their weaknesses and faults. We become bitter and venomous” (Schimmel, 74).
 
How can we fight envy?
 
“Envy may be overcome by maintaining a proper perspective on what is worth valuing” (Schimmel, 64).

“Another remedy for envy is the well-known adage to count our blessings” (Schimmel, 64).

“Another way one can cope with envy is by cultivating feelings and thoughts that are incompatible with it. . . .  If we truly love someone we want to see that person flourish—even, at times, at our own expense. Another emotion that is incompatible with envy is pity or compassion” (Schimmel, 74-78).

“Probably the most powerful of all antidotes to envy, and one of the most difficult to apply in our competitive, materialistic culture, is ‘contentedness.’ This means being satisfied with what one has in life” (Schimmel, 79).

“One of the wisest ways of dealing with envy is, where possible, to transform it into emulation” (Schimmel, 81).
 

Anger

Dictionary definitions: a strong feeling if displeasure and usually of antagonism. Forms of anger: fury, wrath, ire, rage, resentment, vengeance, indignation

A few Bible verses: Matthew 5:22, Ephesians 4:26, James 1:19
 
Why is anger deadly?

“It is not our flashes of anger, at least in themselves, that are counted as one of the deadly sins. Anger as a deadly sin is ‘a disorderly outburst of emotion connected with the inordinate desire for revenge.’ . . . It is likely to be accompanied by surliness of heart, by malice aforethought, and above all by the determination to take vengeance” (Fairlie, 88).

Anger “may be righteous when it is aroused against evil or for the sake of justice” (Schimmel, 89).
 
What causes anger?

“Anger is aroused when a person suffers a real or perceived injury. Usually the angered person directs his actions toward punishing the real or perceived offender” (Schimmel, 87).

“Many instances of anger and festering resentment result from our misperceptions of the motives of others” (Schimmel, 107).
 
Ways of dealing with anger

“The moralists try to weaken anger by cultivating a variety of dispositions that are incompatible with it, preaching the virtues of love, humility, patience, forgiveness, compassion, empathy, aversion to cruelty, and domestic tranquillity” (Schimmel, 94).

“In Judaism and Christianity self-criticism as a way of restraining anger is especially compelling” (Schimmel, 100).

“The anger diary” (Schimmel, 103-104).

“Frank but tactful criticism of the individual who has offended us is an important instrument for preventing anger” (Schimmel, 107).

“Another technique for coping with anger is to practice the opposite behavior, on the principle that ‘gradually the inner person conforms to the outer’” (Schimmel, 109).
 

Lust

Dictionary definitions: intense or unbridled sexual desire, lasciviousness, an intense longing, craving

A few Bible verses: Romans 1:24, Ephesians 4:22, 1 Thess. 4:5, I John 2:16
 
Why is lust deadly?

“Lust is not interested in its partners, but only in the gratification of its own craving, not in the satisfaction of our whole natures, but only in the appeasement of an appetite that we are unable to subdue” (Fairlie, 175).

“Our obsession with our sexuality has led us to develop a wholly false, rather silly, and in the end objectionable view of our natures. Our sexual life is taken to be the measure of our entire life” (Fairlie, 185).

“A characteristic of lust, and of our sexually provocative popular culture, is to exaggerate the importance of sex in life” (Schimmel, 129).
 
Ways of dealing with lust

“The truth is that sex is far less important than many in our culture would have us believe. The amount of time most of us spend directly or indirectly on sexual activity is small compared to the time we spend working, eating, raising children, studying, caring for our health, and engaging in leisure activities” (Schimmel, 129).

“We should avoid situations which will tempt us and direct our energies to nonsexual activities” (Schimmel, 130).

“Be willing to make radical sacrifices rather than give in to sin” (Schimmel, 130).

“Shared interests, values, and goals, companionship and support, and for the especially lucky, an admiring mutual love, are the essential components of enduring and satisfying relationships” (Schimmel, 132).
 

Gluttony

Dictionary definition: excess in eating or drinking; glutton: one given habitually to greedy and voracious eating and drinking

A few Bible verses: Matthew 11:19, Titus 1:12
 
Why is gluttony deadly?

“The problem with this overmeasure, as with all excess, is that it may enslave us, that it is almost certain to do so” (Fairlie, 159).

“Gluttony is a grievous sin, according to theology, if it induces us to find all our contentment in the gratifying of our appetites. But this is today almost all that our societies offer us, the only strenuousness of activity to which we are excited. We are left with a hollow at our core, a sinking feeling in our spirits from day to day” (Fairlie, 171).

“In popular usage gluttony means eating to excess. In devotional and theological thought, the sin or vice of gluttony encompasses more. The moralists are especially interested in our motives for eating” (Schimmel, 141).

“We are a society inundated with food and drink” (Schimmel, 139).

“The more we desire food, the more anxious and driven we make our life. We sacrifice the psychological serenity that comes with moderation and simplicity” (Schimmel, 151).
 

Greed (Avarice)

Dictionary definitions: excessive or reprehensible acquisitiveness, excessive or insatiable desire for wealth or gain

A few Bible verses: Matthew 6:24, 1 Timothy 6:10, Hebrews 13:5, 2 Peter 2:14
 
What makes greed deadly?

“Why do people pursue wealth? There are many reasons. Foremost among them is the desire to satisfy hedonistic impulses. . . . Another motive is to use money as an instrument of power and control. . . . There are people whose avarice is a result of envy. . . . Sometimes a person pursues wealth because of pressure from a spouse. . . . Another common motive for the pursuit of wealth is to alleviate anxiety about future security” (Schimmel, 169).

“The incessant, selfish search for happiness through wealth often produces misery instead. . . . The happiest people are those who help others rather than those who focus on helping themselves” (Schimmel, 186).

“Covetousness . . . is like an illness. . . . It is characterized by an insatiable thirst for riches even though one is already filled with them. . . . The illness of insatiability cannot be healed by trying to satisfy the avaricious person’s appetite. On the contrary, he is to practice simplicity and scarcity. Allowing him to indulge his desire will only exacerbate his illness. Therefore he who wishes to disentangle himself from greed should practice living modestly” (Schimmel, 188).

“This pursuit of wealth and possessions, when conducted with such single-mindedness as it is in our societies, constantly distracts us from spiritual things” (Fairlie, 147).
 

Sloth

Dictionary definitions: disinclination to action or labor, indolence, spiritual apathy and inactivity

A Bible verse: Romans 12:11
 
What makes sloth deadly?

“In contemporary usage sloth means physical laziness. But physical laziness is a small part of what sloth referred to in the past. The sin of sloth has two components: acedia, which means a lack of caring, an aimless indifference to one’s responsibilities to God and to man, and tristitia, meaning sadness and sorrow. In its final stages sloth becomes despair at the possibility of salvation” (Schimmel, 193).

“The sin of sloth is a state of dejection that gives rise to torpor of mind and feeling and spirit; to a sluggishness or, as it has been put, a poisoning of the will; to despair, faintheartedness, and even desirelessness, a lack of real desire for anything, even for what is good. Sloth is a deadly sin because it is ‘an oppressive sorrow that so weighs upon a man’s mind that he wants not to exercise any virtue’” (Fairlie, 113).

“Some people with strong spiritual or moral convictions, whose lives are filled with meaning and purpose, can experience ‘moral burnout.’ . . . They give up hope and retreat into sloth” (Schimmel, 196).

“For certain individuals sloth may also result from the feeling that they are spiritual and moral weaklings, unable to live up to their own ideals. Such a person often comes to feel that since he can’t live up to the highest standards of virtue or spirituality, it is futile to aspire to them at all” (Schimmel, 196).

“A paradox of sloth is its ability to mask itself in fervid but misdirected activity. . . . Our Sisyphean struggle to satisfy selfish passions leaves us with a spiritually and morally empty life” (Schimmel, 201).
 

*Books from which the above quotations are taken

Henry Fairlie, The Seven Deadly Sins Today (University of Notre Dame Press, 1979)   Breezy, not always precise, but insightful.

Solomon Schimmel, The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology (Oxford University Press, 1997)  Scholarly but accessible and thorough. Contains a good bibliography.

Other books:

Tony Compalo, Seven Deadly Sins  A popular treatment. Good insights.

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung,
Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (Brazos Press, 2009)   Very good.

The Oxford University series (2003-2005): Pride, Michael Eric Dyson; Envy, Joseph Epstein; Anger, Robert A. F. Thurman;
Lust, Simon Blackburn; Gluttony, Francine Prose; Greed, Phyllis A. Tickle; Sloth, Wendy Wasserstein. Some of these are better than others.


 

Home page