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Seven Deadly Sins: Time for churches to reclaim the tradition

It's time for the church to reclaim and apply the concept of the Seven Deadly Sins or Capital Vices to spiritual formation. A feature story exploring the Seven Deadly Sins.

Jamie Wyeth has painted them as nasty seagulls. They’re celebrated in costume parties and cocktail names…magnified in manga comics, video games, and Se7en, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman….poked fun at in “How naughty are you?” quizzes, the bookSkipping to Gomorrah, and WWJD-knockoff wristbands that “celebrate human weakness.”

Just for fun, geographers recently produced state-by-state sin maps and a county-by-county map of Nevada, home of “Sin City” (Las Vegas). Meanwhile publishers churn out books on the seven deadly sins of investing, turkey hunting, youth pastors, and more.

“My students can list off the seven deadly sins. Twenty-five years ago, only Catholic school kids could do that. The ‘seven deadly sins’ list is a rhetorical frame. It has cultural currency, but the culture confuses and trivializes the concepts. I’d like to see the church reclaim the power of this rich tradition to help us with moral formation,” says Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, a Calvin College philosophy professor and author of Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies.

Testing these concepts with students has shown her that growing in grace depends in part on naming “old self” vices that keep Christians from cooperating with the Holy Spirit in putting on “new self” virtues. Addressing these vices in corporate worship moves people further along in sanctification and discipleship.

Always growing

When you’re captivated by the full story of God’s creation and redemption, hopeful that another world is possible, you naturally want to be part of it. You want to live in, like, with, and for Christ. Yet who hasn’t echoed Paul’s conundrum about doing what he didn’t want to do and not doing what he did want to do? When DeYoung’s students study what ancient philosophers and medieval theologians said about virtue, they experience what Paul mourned.

“When I start talking about sanctification as a lifelong task—of imitation of Christ, care of souls, and disciple making—students are completely hooked,” DeYoung says in a recent conversation about her teen and young adult curriculum, The Seven Deadly Sins: A Survival Guide.

Many of her students come from churches where “the focus is on justification, initial commitment, and washing away of sins. Then they go to college, lose track of church, and fade away.”

Her students see the seven deadly vices as “a nifty educational tool to…identify common things that, once they take root in your life, proliferate into other vices. The focus isn’t on sin, like figuring out which level of Dante’s inferno you’ll end up in. That would defeat the purpose. It’s a strategy as a piece of sanctification in real discipleship,” DeYoung explains.

Glittering vices

In Glittering Vices DeYoung briefly traces the vices and virtues tradition from Jewish wisdom and Greek ethics to the Reformation, after which it fell off the moral map for Protestants wary of works righteousness. Virtues and vices are habits, character traits, or inclinations that we build up (or break down) through repeated actions.

Both virtues and vices seek genuine goods, such as love, security, pleasure, and worth. But the vices, which Augustine described as imitations of happiness, lure us into seeking happiness “on our own terms…in the wrong way, at the wrong times and wrong places, too intensely, or at the expense of other things of greater value,” DeYoung writes.

Over the centuries, Evagrius, John Cassian, Gregory the Great, andThomas Aquinas made lists—often with seven items to symbolize completeness—of virtues and evil thoughts, deadly sins, or capital vices. DeYoung prefers using “capital vices” instead of “deadly sins,” because “vices concern deeply rooted patterns in our character, patterns broader than a single act but narrower than our sinful human condition in general.”

Glittering Vices uses the tree of vice metaphor that pictures pride as a root and trunk with seven branches—envy, vainglory, sloth, avarice, anger, gluttony, and lust. Each vice grows more branches and poisonous fruit. Envy flowers into evil deeds, slander, taking pleasure in others’ suffering, hating others hating God, and murder. Fear fertilizes vices. When we “worry we won’t get what we need” so spend our energy on “pursuing abundance to achieve self-sufficiency—this is the vice of avarice,” DeYoung writes.

Deeper than you realized

You can use the vices as a spiritual self-examination or character mirror to see where you’re trying to “self manufacture” what only God can provide. “We’re settling for the cheap, shallow, unfulfilling version when we could get the real thing. But as Augustine keeps reminding us, that requires us to relinquish control—and that’s why that great original sin, pride, is the root of the seven vices,” she says.

Tracing your sinful actions back to their motivational roots may sound depressing. DeYoung, however, felt liberated when she learned that Aquinas saw pusillanimity or “smallness of soul” as a form of pride. Whether pride leads you to exalt yourself or sell yourself short, it tempts you to rely on your own power and potential. DeYoung says that being able to name the vice that held her back “was a small yet significant step toward gradually wrestling free of its grip.” She began daring to accept God’s grace to grant strength rather than giving in to her inclination to “shrink back from all God called me to be.”

Glittering Vices devotes a chapter to each vice so readers can identify it, see how it’s a disordered love for a good thing, and turn toward Christ-like virtues. DeYoung restores the historic Christian understanding of sloth as “resisting transformation into the new self in Christ.” It shows up in busyness and workaholism as well as in laziness and apathy. Either way, sloth settles for shallow relationships and the old self rather than “accepting God’s love for us and the cost of loving him back.”

Facing the “sad and dark” truth about deeply networked vice isn’t about wallowing in guilt or trying to pay for your own sin. It’s not all up to you. Rather, struggling against vice “was and is the graced and disciplined formation of the body of believers seeking to become more and more like Jesus Christ,” DeYoung writes. “The more we understand the dynamics of sin…the more amazing we will find the grace and power promised to us to help us change.”

A Scriptural Journey from Vice to Virtue

A recent Barna Group survey on spiritual maturity found that churchgoers and pastors want to be spiritually mature but don’t know how to say what that means. Some confess that sinful behaviors and habits trip them up. Compared to older believers, Christians under age 40 are less likely to feel spiritually satisfied, rate themselves as spiritually healthy, or identify spiritual health with following rules.

Maybe that’s why a recent spate of Christian books about “the seven deadly sins” is finding receptive readers and inspiring so many sermons. This trend recognizes what Christian virtues, capital vices, and worship services have in common: All involve repeated actions, habits, and inclinations that form character and faith.

If your congregation defines spiritual growth as becoming more like Christ, then you can use biblical ideas from similar churches for addressing vices and virtues in worship.

Preaching, prayers, songs, and other worship practices help congregations identify what keeps us from fixing our eyes on Jesus, “the picture of perfected human nature, the image of God redeemed and restored, the one to be emulated by all human beings,” as Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung writes in Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies.

Whose control?

Becoming and making disciples is a major theme at Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church (COS) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Pastor Jack Roeda once preached a series on how each worship service moves through a pattern of coming, listening, communing, and serving. Each liturgy reenacts the story of life together as Christ’s disciples.

Roeda recently preached a series on the seven vices. “The disciplined life is faithful and does not give in to the vices. Glittering Vices talks about vices as first of all a condition of the heart. We can all relate on some level to each vice if we see it as a tilt of the heart. And these tilts of the human heart are magnified in the culture we create. You may want to live simply, but just living in our society is like being a recovering alcoholic who works in a bar,” he explains.

Gluttony was tricky to preach on. Roeda didn’t want worshipers to see the vice as someone else’s problem or confuse sin with eating disorders. Gluttony may manifest as excessive attention to food, eating too little but always thinking about it, being self-righteous or picky about consumption, or even eating on the run with no thought for the Giver.

“If you see each vice as a tilt away from God, the questions about gluttony become ‘Are you eating with God?’ and ‘Where do you find your joy?’ ” he said.

Most of us are more likely after a hard day to find comfort in a gin and tonic or slice of chocolate sin…than to spend 15 minutes feasting on God’s Word. “We seek the predictable pleasures that make us feel in control and above it all,” Roeda says.

Scripture more powerful than moralism

“This tilt of the heart perspective heads off moralism. I confess and try to limit vice not to make the cut. I do this because I have received grace and want to keep my face turned to God,” Roeda says.

In one sermon he shared an illustration from John Timmer’s book God of Weakness. A plane’s navigation equipment breaks while flying over a body of water on a cloudy day. So the pilot flies from one cloud opening to another to see the sun and get his bearings. Roeda said that worship, prayer, fasting, generosity, and other virtues are like openings in the clouds.

During Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, he used Scripture to resist Satan’s offers of happiness imitators. Roeda says the Psalms make excellent partners for rooting out vice, choosing virtue, and depending on God’s grace. The seven penitential psalms are often associated with vices, such as Psalm 51 with lust and Psalm 130 with envy.

Before Roeda’s sermon on greed, the congregation sang “Oh, Worship the King,” based in part on Psalm 104 in that Sunday’s lectionary. Psalm 34 (“Oh, taste and see”) was the lectionary psalm for the gluttony service.

“The Psalms talk so much about enemies. If you have a comfortable suburban life, you might not feel you have enemies. But try naming the enemies as a specific vice. That gives grit to the Psalms,” Roeda says (e.g. “See how my sloth has increased,” Psalm 25:19; “When my anger and envy attack me,” Psalm 22:2).

“The psalmists are often unnerved that others who yield to vice seem to come off so well. Psalms 37 and 73 fret about how the ungodly seem to prosper. It’s not till you go the temple that you get straight with God and remember God is your refuge, rest, rock, portion, and joy,” Roeda says.

Uncovering more parallels

Some worship planners build on how Augustine and Dante contrasted the Beatitudes with the vices. For a deadly sins series at Atlas Church of Christ in Greeley, Colorado, musician Tim Coons composed a CD,The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes, and pastor Jeff V. Cook wrote a book, Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes.

Using the vices to measure tilts of the heart sheds new light on Bible stories—and how we face similar choices.

DeYoung writes in Glittering Vices that she now sees sloth not only in proverbs about sluggards or the parable of the talents but also in “the Israelites’ resistance to embracing their new home in the Promised Land, and in Lot’s wife turning back to the familiarity of Sodom while angels attempted to rescue her.”

Learn More

Read Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. Check out abook reviewstory, or Christianity Todayinterview for more insights about the book and author. Listen to a conversation with DeYoung about The Seven Deadly Sins: A Survival Guide curriculum for older teens and up in age. Hear her speak at the 2010 Calvin Symposium on Worship.

Apply to attend a 2010 summer seminar, “Seven Deadly Sins (Capital Vices) in the Christian Tradition,” taught at Calvin College by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung and Robert Kruschwitz.

Read more books on vices and virtues:

Get multimedia ideas from Igniting Worship Series: The Seven Deadly Sins by Eric Elnes. This book and DVD set includes services and video clips. Eric Elnesis now pastor of Countryside Community United Church of Christ in Omaha, Nebraska.

You can book musician Tim Coons, who composed The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes, and pastor Jeff V. Cook, who wrote a book, Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes, for “Seven: a beat poetic, music experience of the deadly sins.”

The sung ballet “Seven Deadly Sins,” by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, is not a specifically Christian work but powerfully symbolizes the split personality at work during a Christian’s transformation from old self to new self.

See which vertical habits resources other congregations find helpful for saying “I’m sorry” to God. Use ideas from Reformed Worship stories on obedient living,preaching about the seven deadly sins and Lenten art for the seven deadly sins, and writing prayers of confession.

Browse related stories on becoming more like Christ, completing baptism, faith formation, and justice in God-centered worship.

Start a Discussion

Talk about how to use the vices and virtues tradition for spiritual formation.

  • How do you address sins or vices in worship without sliding into works righteousness, legalism, or moralism? How does the Christian tradition of capital vices fit with your understanding of sanctification?
  • In worship, when we pray about confession, we often talk about the pride end of the spectrum, not the gluttony end. Why do we resist or refuse to name sins of gluttony and lust and instead confess pride and envy?
  • Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung writes in Glittering Vices that Christians are especially vulnerable to the vice of vainglory. Why might that be?
  • In what ways do your worship services help form worshipers to become more like Christ?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to address the capital vices and Christian virtues within the overarching story of God’s forgiveness and reconciling grace?

  • If you experimented with an interactive way—discussions or confession groups, online forums, journals, texting, interviews—to help worshipers link their daily struggles with the “vice of the week,” please share your results.
  • Did you find a simple multisensory element that helped open up a vice or virtue for your congregation? What new insights did it lead to? How did you build on or reinforce those insights in other services or in congregational life?