Seven deadly sins

In the third century after Jesus, a group of Christian ascetics and monks lived in the Scetes desert of Egypt. They have been referred to as the Desert Fathers, but there were also women who followed those practices, sometimes known as the Desert Mothers. These early monks and nuns eventually numbered in the thousands. What had begun as isolated hermits became communities of people who lived and worked together and formed the model for Christian monasticism which continues to this day. During the middle ages, there were several monastic revivals and all looked to the desert for inspiration and guidance. The influence of these early Christian leaders is also evident in other areas of the church including the pietist movement among Christian evangelicals and the Methodist Revival in England.

Some of our contemporary understandings of faith come out of the thinking and teaching of those early monks and nuns. The Apophthegmata Patrum is a collection of the wisdom of early Desert Fathers and Mothers. It appears in print in English under the taels “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.”

I was introduced to the Desert Fathers and Mothers through a book by Henri Nowen: “The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.” It is an excellent reminder that our faith and beliefs are connected with the faith of those who have gone before. The enterprise of Christianity is not reserved to a single generation, but rather, is a multi-generational relationship with God.

Often people have notions and ideas about faith without being fully aware of their source. I am frequently asked to tell someone where a particular saying is located in the Bible. Often the sayings that are offered are things that didn’t come from the bible. One of the questions I get is about the seven deadly sins, sometimes called cardinal sins.

There is no single place in the Bible that contains a simple list of the seven deadly sins. They are, rather a product of careful reflection on scripture steeped in traditional teachings that can be traced all the way back to those early ascetics living in the Egyptian desert. There are a few variations in the list, but the standard list is: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.

Aurelius Clemns Prudentius, a Christian governor who lived in the 5th century, wrote about the battle between good and evil and his writings were very popular during the Middle Ages. In his epic poem titled Psyhchomachia or Battle of the Soul, matches seven virtues with the seven sins:
Pride is overcome by humility.
Greed is overcome by charity.
Lust is overcome by chastity.
Envy is overcome by kindness.
Gluttony is overcome by temperance.
Wrath is overcome by patience.
And sloth is overcome by diligence.

The listing of the sins was not, in the thinking of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a recipe to judge who has been saved and who has not. It is rather, a spiritual discipline. It functions as a list of thoughts that should b avoided in pursuit of a life of grace. The goal was a change in the way that the individual thinks. Some writers have referred to the seven deadly sins as the foundation upon which all evil is based.

It is, I think, helpful to invest time meditating on the presence of sin or evil within ourselves. Our natural tendency is to externalize evil - to blame its presence on others. We are far better practiced at naming the sins of others than we are at recognizing our own shortcomings. Despite what you will hear in many contemporary Christian churches, Christian teachings, however, lead one to understand that we are all capable of falling short of our potential and that pain can be the result of our own thoughts and actions. The Desert Fathers and Mothers encouraged their followers to look inside themselves for the solutions to the evil of the world.

This complex set of ideas has often been reduced into a kind of preaching that focuses on stirring up fear of hell in the minds of believers. You can find such references in the sermons of Christian preachers throughout history. The formula is simple: “When you die, you face judgment and the only way to escape eternal torture and damnation is through the grace of God.” Some preachers simplify the solution as well claiming that all that one needs to do is to repeat a formula saying and ask Jesus for salvation.

In everyday life, living with grace and in peace with one’s neighbors is not a simple process. Our emotions sometimes take over. We say things that we ought not to have said. Tempers flare. Misunderstandings and miscommunications occur. It is hard work to keep relationships strong. Sometimes apologies are required. Sometimes we need to learn to forgive not only others, but ourselves as well.

I’m not sure that I have found meditating on the seven deadly sins to be particularly helpful in teaching me how to handle the complex relationships of my life. I’m not conscious of how they influence my thought when I am sitting on a board of directors in executive session dealing with complex personnel issues. I don’t have the list in mind when I am working with boards and committees in the church. I don’t have the seven deadly sins as part of my daily discipline of reading and prayer. They are, however, part of the fabric of the spiritual traditions that I have inherited. Knowing that I should emphasize certain qualities and avoid others is part of my way of thinking. But I know of no particular magic about the number seven. There are probably dozens more thoughts that one ought to avoid. No list would be perfect for every time and every occasion.

Still, there is wisdom in the simplicity of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Seven is a small number. Were we to simply meditate on the evil in the world, we would be overwhelmed. Sometimes it helps to have a short list instead of an endless cavalcade. This time in our history, with the complexity of danger and threats to society that surround us, might be a good time for a nice, concise list.

The idea of seven deadly sins is still meaningful after all of these years.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!