I think we Orthodox don’t talk enough about sin. Really – how many of our people actually go to Confession? And when we do speak of morality, we seem to focus mostly on sex. Our hierarchs often (and properly) criticize disordered sexuality and its effects: adultery, gay marriage, abortion and the like. As a priest, I have often warned people against watching trash on television and pornography on the internet. I’ve warned our men against imitating the disgusting sexual misbehavior of far too many politicians, entertainers, business leaders and clergy But I wonder if we have left the misimpression that the only sins worth worrying about are sexual ones. I mean, when is the last time you heard a good sermon or read a pastoral letter on the evils of greed or gluttony?
However, the Church has traditionally condemned many sins, of which lust is only one, and there are other kinds of lust besides sexual lust. I’d put a picture of lust here, too, but you probably wouldn’t want to see it. Or would you?
When we Orthodox do talk about morality, we usually tend to accentuate the positive, trying to inspire people towards loftier goals, the great Christian virtues. We don’t browbeat people and play on their guilt. This is good. However, I think it may also be instructive and useful to approach the subject from the negative side, about the sins we need to avoid.
So here comes a new occasional series on the Seven Deadly Sins.
We’ll begin with some definitions. Someone described a philosopher as “a person who walks around telling people to define their terms”. But really, this is necessary if we’re to understand what we’re talking about here. If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you know that what follows is one of my “hobby horses” – but it is hard for us Westerners to keep this straight. So, class, now please pay close attention.
In the New Testament, the word “amartia” (ἁμαρτία), which we translate into English as “sin”, literally means “missing the mark”. “Sin” in the New Testament is a sports term – an archery term, where the mark is the bullseye. Today we might describe sin using a basketball term with the basket as the mark. The moral bullseye or basket is love – “love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength”, and “love your neighbor as yourself”. (That’s far harder than a 3-pointer.) Anything which hinders us from that perfect love is what we mean by sin.
“Amartia” has no necessary connotation of personal culpability or guilt. Of course, a person who intentionally aims wrong is culpable, but in the Church’s view, most people who commit sin are not guilty. They have really tried to do good. The Protestant theology I grew up with told me that most people are fundamentally rotten. When I got into parish life I found that was just not true. Usually people miss the mark simply because we need more training or practice. And my understanding of eternal life is this: If we really want to hit the mark perfectly, God will give us all the time and help we need, in this world and the next, to keep practicing till we get it right.
I wish we could get rid of the English word “sin”. To be replaced by what? I don’t know. But in our Western legalistic Christian tradition (both Roman Catholic and classical Protestant), “sin” became a “law-court” term with overtones of culpable wrongdoing. In the popular mind, if we “sin” we have broken God’s law and are automatically guilty and deserve punishment. So God says, “Into jail, sinner. Go to hell, sinner!” Then the point of our religion becomes finding someone or Someone who will pay the price to the Judge, so we can get sprung out of God’s “slammer”. No wonder many modern folks in our culture have rejected God and Christianity and the whole concept of sin.
No! That is not at all what the New Testament or the Church Fathers or the Orthodox Church teach about sin. This is something the medieval Western legal mind read into the New Testament. God condemns no one to hell. It’s something we choose. C.S. Lewis, an Anglican who got this straight, wrote that in the End there will be 2 possibilities: Either we will say to God “Your will be done”, or God will say to us “Your will be done.” If we haven’t chosen him, he won’t force himself upon us. It’s our choice, not God’s. We Orthodox believe the key to our salvation is to grow up spiritually, get healthy. Christ our God came and gave us his Church: his Family in which we together with our brothers and sisters can achieve maturity, his School in which we can learn right from wrong, his Hospital where we can become spiritually healthy.
Would you like to get Scriptural about this? “God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” John 3:17
Furthermore, the New Testament word which we translate as “forgiveness (“aphiemi”, ἀφίημι) usually means simply to “send” or “take” something away. (The Fathers rarely understood this to mean a legal decree of innocence.) So, to get this into English, we have to use an awkward double negative: To “forgive sin” is to “take away” our “missing the mark”. That is, the point of God’s forgiveness is not to get us off the hook legally, but to welcome us home again – like the father of the Prodigal Son – and so help get us back on the mark again.
So as we go through this series, you ex-Protestants (like me) and ex-Roman Catholics, please please try to root the Western legalistic understanding of sin and forgiveness out of your mind, and keep it out. (This will not come easily. After almost 30 years Orthodox, I’m still working on it.) But otherwise you’ll misunderstand much of what follows. Indeed, you’ll misunderstand much of what the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers and the Orthodox Church – and Jesus Christ! – are all about.
The reason we examine our sins is not so we will wallow in guilt, but rather so we can see the particular ways in which we need to get back on the mark.
This is absolutely vital because sin is dangerous, deadly dangerous. Sin is spiritual disease which, left untreated, will destroy our inner spirit and our conscience and ultimately kill our soul. We all know exactly how this works. When we first fall into a particular sin we feel bad about it, but (I’m sure you’ve noticed) if we keep it up and it becomes a habit, it doesn’t bother us so much any more, and eventually we notice it scarcely at all. Our conscience begins to go numb. Serial killers started out just like you and me, but as they proceeded to knock people off, progressively their consciences went dead, and eventually murdering no longer troubled them.
And that’s how, if we’re not careful, any sin little by little can take over and allow us to do dreadful things without a pang of conscience. We just don’t care anymore. Love dies. Obedience to God dies. And then in the end the eternal life which was given us in Baptism dies. For God is the Source of life, and if we get cut off from him – from the love of God and the love of people whom he loves – then when our bodies die, we have nothing left to take into the Kingdom. And so we wind up somewhere else. That is why we often refer to these as Seven Deadly Sins.
The little Pocket Prayer Book of my Antiochian Archdiocese, which I’m going to use as a guide through this series, titles these the “Seven Grievous Sins” (p. 28), because they “grieve God’s Holy Spirit”. Ephesians 4:30. But I like the term “Deadly Sins” better, because it’s scarier.
Why Seven Sins?
It’s entirely arbitrary. We could list 1 or 7 or 107. The 1 sin would be Pride, which is usually (not always) said to be the source of all the rest. 107 sins would be insufficient if we wanted to subdivide them all. But because it’s easier to analyze anything if we start with a manageable number, Christians have often listed Seven Deadly Sins.
To Christians and Jews alike, 7 has often been a sort of mystical number. It may derive from the 7 planets visible to the ancients. (They were spared from having to decide whether or not Pluto was a planet!) This may have been the source of the 7 days of the week, the 7 days of Genesis, which number (I think) is common all over the world, though there is no necessary reason in nature why weeks must have 7 days. Then the Old Testament proceeds to speak of 7 archangels, and Isaiah mentions 7 Spirits of God. The Book of Revelation gives us 7 letters to 7 churches of Asia, and 7 angels with 7 plagues. Since
then Christians (especially Roman Catholics) have enjoyed listing other things in “sevens” – 7 virtues, 7 sins, 7 sacraments. I’m reminded of Father Alexander Schmemann’s comment that, until Orthodox made contact with Roman Catholics and Protestants, it never occurred to us that sacraments were something to be counted!
However, as I say, categories help us to get a handle on the topic, and thus the Seven Deadly Sins.
A little history of how the idea of Seven Sins came about
Actually the categories have shifted occasionally. The following is from Sacred Origins of Profound Things, by Charles Panati:
“The Greek monastic theologian Evagrius of Pontus first drew up a list of eight offenses and wicked human passions. They were, in order of increasing seriousness: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. Evagrius saw the escalating severity as representing increasing fixation with the self, with pride as the most egregious of the sins. Acedia (from the Greek “akedia,” or “not to care”) denoted spiritual sloth.
In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great reduced the list to seven items, folding vainglory into pride, acedia into sadness, and adding envy. His ranking of the sins’ seriousness was based on the degree from which they offended against love. It was from most serious to least: pride, envy, anger, sadness, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Later theologians, including Saint Thomas Aquinas, would contradict the notion that the seriousness of the sins could be ranked in this way. The term “covetousness” has historically been used interchangeably with “avarice” in accounts of the Deadly Sins. In the seventeenth century, the [Roman Catholic] Church replaced the vague sin of “sadness” with sloth.”
Are we sufficiently confused now?
So for this series I’m just going to stick with the Seven Sins and their definitions as found in our Antiochian Pocket Prayer Book. I’m Antiochian, and it’s as good a place to start as any.
Seven Interior Sins
These Seven Deadly Sins are the interior, spiritual roots of external acts of sin, the manifestations of sin. (A depressing list of external acts of sin could go on almost forever.) For example, because of greed (interior) one may steal or tell lies or even murder (exterior).To put it another way, stealing or lying or murdering are the symptoms. Greed is the disease that causes the symptoms. So, if we are to get rid of sin, we need not only try to control the external symptoms (though that’s helpful), but even more important we need to cure the inner disease itself. The Seven Deadly Sins are the diseases. As we continue we’ll see that, as with any bodily illness, often diseases and symptoms are interconnected. (As I’ve discovered by my own experience, a virus or infection, while not a cause of my neuropathy, can make the symptoms of neuropathy much worse.)
This is why the Orthodox Church is not “moralistic”, focused chiefly on rules and external control. We are much more concerned to heal the “sin-sick soul”. Do that and then 1 with a little guidance, if we “inform the conscience” as they say in the West, and 2 if we strengthen ourselves through our involvement with the Church and all that entails, the moral life will naturally follow. But if we work only on the external acts of sin, we’ll never be cured and the symptoms will keep coming back.
Finally, the Seven Deadly Sins
,,,and their definitions, taken from the Antiochian Pocket Prayer Book.
1 Pride: the lack of humility befitting a creature of God.
2 Greed: too great a desire for money or worldly goods.
3 Lust: impure and unworthy desire for something evil.
4 Anger: unworthy irritation and lack of self control.
5 Gluttony: the habit of eating or drinking too much.
6 Envy: jealousy of some other person’s happiness.
7 Sloth: laziness that keeps us from doing our duty to God and man.
As we go along, I’ll elaborate somewhat on these definitions and refine them, since I’m not entirely satisfied with a couple of them.
Students, there will be no homework for this course. You do not – repeat: do not – need to practice up on your sins in order to be prepared for the classes.
Next Week: Pride
This series is an elaboration on talks I gave at Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church, Cedarburg, Wisconsin in 2003. These were printed and distributed privately by a good friend Terry Kohler of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, but they are not copyrighted.
7 thoughts on “85. The Seven Deadly Sins – Introduction”
Another famous Biblical reference to the number 7, which also doesn’t get mentioned or talked about very often: Jesus emphasized the importance of forgiving: forgive 7×70.
God Bless You Father Bill! Much appreciate your Blog.
I have not read it entirely yet, but there is a great Protestant book called The Mortification of Sin, that while being an Orthodox Christian and taking special care not to incorporate legal categories into my thought, has been tremendously helpful. Not that there aren’t good, better Orthodox books.
“Thou settest thyself with all diligence and earnestness to mortify such a lust or sin; what is the reason of it? It disquiets thee, it hath taken away thy peace, it fills thy heart with sorrow, and trouble, and fear; thou hast no rest because of it. Yea; but, friend, thou hast neglected prayer and reading; thou hast been vain and loose in thy conversation in other things, that have not been the same nature with that lust wherewith thou art perplexed. These are no less sins and evils than those under which thou groanest. Jesus Christ bled for them also. Why does thou not set thyself against them also? If thou hatest sin, every evil way, thou wouldest be no less watchful against every thing that grieves and disquiets thine own soul. It is evident that thou contendest against sin merely because of thy own trouble.”
Sorry for such a long quote, but there are piercing insights in this book.
Yes, there are more than a few Protestants and Roman Catholics who get this pretty much straight. One was C.S. Lewis, whom I’ll quote in the next Post.
Dear Father Bill,
I’m so glad I found this older post as my Protestant church is doing a series on the 7 Deadly Sins right now and I’m glad I have an Orthodox view of them also. I have written to you before… I’m the one who is “waist deep in Protestantism” but being called, I believe, to Orthodoxy.
I’m realizing now how much the penal substitution belief has affected me so negatively. I seem to have trouble with the wrath of God when I sin. I find myself thinking if I do or did sin in this way God is going to punish me greatly . I’ve been paying attention to my thoughts as I miss the mark in areas of my life and I find they have to do with being afraid of what God will do to me because of it. This of course leads to all kinds of problems, one of being insincere and disingenuous with my actions. They aren’t pure if I’m doing things out of fear etc.
I’ve read some things about the Orthodox view on this but I’m still having trouble grasping it so as to make a change in my life or at least begin. The head knows but the heart hasn’t figured it yet.
I’d surely appreciate some help and advice on this matter, Father Bill. Thank you for your continued encouragement through this blog and your prayers.
I think you need to change your images of God. Picture him 1) as a loving Father. Christ didn’t teach us to pray “Our Judge” but “Our Father”, and 2) as Christ the Great Physician who wants to heal us.
Western Christianity tends to take a legal approach to sin: “What? You did something wrong? Into jail with you. Pay the penalty.” Orthodoxy tends to take a therapeutic approach to sin: “You’re off the mark? How can we heal you?”
I think this distinction lies behind most of the religious issues in America, and even the political issues. Should we help people get out of the condition they’re in? Or should we punish them for it?
Thank you Father Bill for your help in this. I will be praying and trying to replace my image of God as you suggested. It’s funny how one doesn’t realize their true view of God until another one is shown. I appreciate your time and concern.
God bless you,