The seven deadly sins.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 December 2019

The “seven deadly sins” confuse a lot of people.

Back in 2008, a rumor spread that the Vatican declared more deadly sins. It came from an interview with Gianfranco Girotti, the head bishop of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary. (I know; this sounds like the Vatican prison. It’s actually the theologians who handle questions about sin, repentance, and forgiveness.) Anyway, in Girotti’s interview with L’Osservatore Romano on 7 March 2008, he listed certain present-day practices which he believed have a harmful global impact: Pollution, drug trafficking, embryo-destroying research, other unethical human experiments, abortion, pedophilia, and economic injustice.

Somehow the press converted this into “The Vatican announced there are new sins!” And since your average reporter (lapsed Catholics included) know bupkis about the seven deadly sins, they just assumed there are now 14 deadly sins. Now littering is gonna send you to hell.

Like I said, they confuse people.

Most people figure they’re a Roman Catholic thing. And they largely are. Few Protestants teach on ’em. More of them, particularly the Fundamentalists, consider way more things to be deadly sins than seven. Like voting for the wrong political party.

Loads of people think the seven deadly sins are in the bible. And they actually are. Just not in the form of a list.

I’ve heard Protestants claim the list is found in Catholic bibles. Well, maybe if it’s a Catholic study bible, it’ll be in the notes, but no. You’ll find passages—in all bibles—which rebuke these attitudes and the behaviors they cause. And whether you’re Catholic or not, you might wanna know about them. So here’s the list, in convenient chart form.

1.LECHERYluxuria/“sexual lust”For sex. Cl 3.5Purity
2.GLUTTONYgulaFor food, drink, intoxicants. Ek 16.49Moderation
3.GREEDavaritia/“avarice”For money, wealth, possessions. Ep 5.3Generosity
4.LAZINESSacedia/“sloth, discouragement”To evade responsibility, avoid work, stay uninvolved. Mt 25.26Integrity
5.WRATHira/“anger”To fight, take revenge, act out of rage or bitterness. Ep 4.32Meekness
6.ENVYinvidia/“begrudge”To covet, be jealous. Mk 7.22Kindness
7.PRIDEsuperbia/“magnificence”To exalt oneself: Self-praise, self-promotion. Mt 7.22Humility

What makes ’em deadly? Well, they’re works of the flesh. And those who choose a lifestyle of works of the flesh don’t inherit God’s kingdom. Ga 5.21 Their lifestyle implies they’re not saved: They don’t have the Holy Spirit indwelling them, making ’em fruity, making ’em not want to sin, getting them to reject the sort of lifestyle which burps up deadly sins.

It’s the lifestyle, not the sins themselves.

Think of deadly sins like cigars. One’s not gonna kill you. Chain-smoking them for 30 years absolutely will: If the heart disease doesn’t getcha, the emphysema and lung cancer will. Same with works of the flesh: One outburst of anger Ga 5.20 —or take it to Jesus’s extreme of 70 × 7 outbursts of anger—doesn’t mean you’re a fake Christian and actually destined for the hot place. But it’s definitely not a good sign.

When this angry Christian steps it up and turns anger into a lifestyle, redefining patience as tolerance, peace as quiet, kindness as stifling how they really feel; when the high point of their week is to go to a dark church’s service and rejoice as the pastor denounces everyone and everything they hate; when the twisted “gospel” they proclaim is that when Jesus returns, he’ll finally torch all the sinners, and man are they looking forward to all that wrath and vengeance… obviously these folks don’t know God at all. The Holy Spirit is working not with them, but despite them.

A true Christian knows these lifestyles are destructive. A fake Christian will make a thousand excuses for such behavior.

  • It’s not really lechery when they’re constantly prodding their spouse for sex. God approves of marital sex, right? So what’s wrong with way more of it than their spouse is comfortable with? They’re not the problem; it’s that frigid partner.
  • It’s not really gluttony when they spend three hours in the gym every day burning off all the calories from their out-of-control diet. Hey, if they mitigate the consequences with a crazy workout (or liposuction), it’s not a problem, is it?
  • It’s not really greed when they refuse to pay their employees a living wage; it’s capitalism. It’s not really greed when they absolutely refuse to give handouts, ’cause they do donate millions to charity for the tax breaks; it’s “good stewardship.” It’s not really greed when they refuse to give a dime more than their tithes, on the grounds they give the church plenty as it is.
  • It’s not really laziness when they hire other people to do their duties for ’em. Or take plenty of “personal days” when their employees only get weekends.
  • It’s not really wrath when it’s righteous anger. Or really bitterness when the reason they constantly talk about their loss is “to promote awareness.” Or really vengeance when they seek “justice,” as our system calls it.
  • It’s not really envy when the other person really doesn’t deserve their successes. It’s a sense of fairness. It’s pursuing a proper balance in nature.
  • It’s not really pride when they’re being honest and “keeping it real.”

And so on. You can think of plenty others.

When people’s entire lives revolve around better sex, better food, greater wealth (and the prosperity gospel to justify it), battling foe after foe (including theological foes), keeping up with the neighbors, and evading new duties, they’re gonna do that rather than follow Jesus. They’ll ditch neighbors and God, shipwreck their relationship with Jesus, in favor of themselves, their possessions, and their favorite sins. They don’t really want the kingdom anyway—not as God set it up—so they won’t inherit it.

Where’d this list come from?

People like lists. Some websites and YouTube channels publish nothing else. Pastors love preaching lists: “Five ways to love your spouse,” or “Nine ways to be a better parent,” or “Six things the LORD hates,” Pr 6.16 or “Three things which tempted Jesus,” or 10 commandments. Christians have always made lists.

Arguably the first list of deadly sins came from Greek monk Evagrius of Pontus (345–399), who called them the λογισμόι/loghismí, /“calculations.” He considered them the usual temptations a Christian might go through. In his book Περί των οκτώ πνευμάτων της πονηρίας/Perí ton októ pnefmáton tis ponirías (Latin De octo spiritibus malitiae), “On the Eight Evil Spirits,” he listed ’em from bad to worst:

  1. Gluttony (Greek γαστρῐμαργος/gastrímargos, “stomach-love”).
  2. Porn (πορνεία/porneía, “inappropriate sexual activity”).
  3. Greed (φιλάργυρος/filárgyros, “money-love”).
  4. Irritation (λύπη/lýpi, “grief,” emotional pain—both clinging to it in yourself, and spreading it to others).
  5. Wrath (θυμός/thýmos, “temper, passion”).
  6. Apathy (ἀπάθεια/apátheia, “no emotion,” insensibility, no compassion).
  7. Acclaim (δόξα τῶν ἀνθρώπων dóxa ton anthrópon/“[high] opinion of people,” currying favor, fan service).
  8. Pride (ὑπερήφανος/yperífanos, “overbright,” excessive confidence).

Yep, eight temptations, not seven. In his Περί διαφόρων πονηρών λογισμών/Peri diaforón ponirón logismon (Latin De malignis cogitationibus), “On the Different Evil Calculations,” Evagrius he discussed how Christians can identify these temptations—and the devils which use them to tempt us—and use this knowledge to resist them. Eastern Christians still use Evagrius’s list when they discuss temptation.

I’ve heard more than one Christian claim Gregory Dialogus (c. 540–604) whom we nowadays call Pope Gregory 1, came up with the list of seven deadly sins. I even repeated this factoid myself. Turns out it’s not so. Gregory’s list isn’t not the list. His list comes from his 591 book Magna moralia in Job, “The Great Morals of Job.”

Pride is the root of all evil. Like it’s said, as scripture testifies, “Pride is the beginning of all sin.” Si 10.1 NABRE But undoubtedly seven principal vices spring from this poisonous root—namely acclaim, envy, wrath, ill temper, greed, gluttony, lechery. Our Redeemer, because he grieved we were held captive by these seven sins of pride, came to the spiritual battle for our freedom, full of the sevenfold Spirit of grace.

These several sins each have their own army against us:

  1. From acclaim comes disobedience, boasting, hypocrisy, arguments, stubbornness, disharmony, and the presumption of new ideas.
  2. From envy springs hatred, whispering, undermining, rejoicing at neighbors’ misfortunes, and suffering at their prosperity.
  3. From wrath produces fights, inflated minds, insults, noise, indignation, and slander.
  4. From ill temper arises malice, resentfulness, cowardice, despair, slowness in obeying commands, and one’s mind wandering towards sinful things.
  5. From greed springs treachery, fraud, deceit, perjury, restlessness, violence, and hardness of heart against compassion.
  6. From gluttony spreads foolish mirth, insults, uncleanness, babbling, and dull understanding.
  7. From lechery produces blindness of mind, inconsideration, undependability, rash behvior, self-love, God-hatred, affection for this present world, and dread or despair of what’s to come.

So because the seven principal vices themselves produce so great a number of vices, when they reach the heart it’s like they bring their very own armies with them. Moralia 31.87-88

Gregory might’ve read Evagrius’s list, but his eight “principal vices”—pride, and the seven vices which spring from pride—doesn’t exactly match, and doesn’t match our traditional list either. Porn became lechery; irritation became ill temper (Gregory’s word was melancholia, which often gets translated “sadness,” but “ill temper” is way more accurate); apathy got dropped; envy got added.

People also claim Dante Aligheri (1265–1321) came up with the list, or at least made it popular: Supposedly his seven levels of hell in his 1308(-ish) poem Inferno match up with a different deadly sin. And once again, they don’t. As his character traveled through hell, working his way down to Satan on the bottom level, each level contained those who committed lechery, gluttony, greed, and wrath—the stuff found in the usual lists. But then heresy, violence, blasphemy, fraud, and treachery each get a level.

So where’d the list come from? Thomas Aquinas (1225–73). He’s the first guy to give the list we’re all familiar with, in Summa Theologica 2A.84.4. He claimed he got ’em from Gregory, but you just read Gregory: Not quite. He adapted them from Gregory, same as Gregory adapted his list from Evagrius. (Or to be fair, maybe Thomas had a bad copy of Gregory.)

Thomas called them capital vices, ’cause they’re the capitals—the sources—of all other sins. When we lie, it’s usually because the truth is embarrassing, so out of pride we conceal it. When we steal, it’s usually because we’re greedy. When we commit adultery, sometimes it’s greed, sometimes it’s envy. (You thought I was gonna say lechery, huh? Sometimes it’s that. But promiscuity is the product of lechery. Adultery stems from wanting who you can’t have, i.e. covetousness, i.e. envy or greed.)

Thomas didn’t care about which order the deadly sins were listed in. Most people just assumed Thomas’s order was bad to worst (as usual), so in order to list the worst first, they flipped it. And frankly, a lot of Christians assume lechery’s the worst because to them lechery’s the worst: They make a huge deal of sexual sins. Problem is, they don’t worry so much about pride, envy, wrath, and the stuff we see a lot of fruitless Christians indulging in. (And Americans, as demonstrated by how most of us are overweight, don’t appear to care any more about gluttony.)

Anyway, Thomas’s list was the one everybody spread around. Medieval artists anchored it in popular culture, ’cause now they could get away with depicting all these evil behaviors in their paintings and sculptures, and defend it with, “I’m teaching on one of the deadly sins.” Or several deadly sins at once. ’Cause if you’re not endorsing this behavior, but warning people away from it, it justifies all. Yeah, right.

The seven virtues.

As you noticed in the chart, there’s a list of seven virtues—fruit of the Spirit, really—which Christians oughta practice instead of deadly sins. If we’re producing purity, moderation, generosity, integrity, meekness, kindness, and humility, you shouldn’t see any lechery, gluttony, greed, laziness, wrath, envy, nor pride in us.

So this is why we don’t really need to memorize the seven deadly sins, and ponder how to resist their temptations. We just need to concentrate on producing good fruit. Work on the seven virtues, plus all the other fruit of the Spirit, and the sins go away on their own. Ignore fruit, or try to pass off our selfish behavior as fruit, and we’ll continue with the same destructive lifestyle we had before we became Christian.

See, this is why Christians fixate on the seven deadly sins so often. Loads of us don’t concentrate on the Spirit’s fruit. We figure all it takes to be a Christian is to avoid the deadly sins. Or at least repent of them every time we commit them. But all the other sins: They’re not so deadly, so not to worry. And fruit?—what do we need to produce fruit for? Hence we have the very problem I just wrote about: Christians who don’t change any.

Don’t be like that. Concentrate on the virtues. Produce fruit.

Spiritual warfare.