Taking Sin Seriously

In this unusual season of social distancing, disruption, and deep health and economic concerns, many of us are discovering disheartening cracks in our personalities. Jokes on social media about binge eating, drinking, or series-watching make us laugh because they are so telling. News outlets report that both pornography usage and gun sales have spiked—two evidences of the unhealthy ways humans attempt to deal with boredom on the one hand and profound anxiety on the other.

On the flip side, there is also the hopeful sense that the current disruption could be a chance to reset direction or cultivate some new habits. When the online learning platform Coursera advertised a free Yale course called “The Science of Wellbeing: Psychology and the Good Life,” over 2.2 million people enrolled. There is a deep hunger to live a rightly-ordered life, and a sense that this cultural moment could be a defining one.

A colleague once gave a chapel talk comparing the rhythms of the spiritual life to jumping on a trampoline. On the first few bounces, you sink and rise only a little. As you gain momentum, however, the force of your downward weight pushes you lower and lower, while the buoyancy of the tramp propels you higher and higher. He compared this dynamic to facing the depths of our sin, which then serves as a springboard for rising to grasp the heights of God’s mercy. Likewise, the higher you drop from—that is, the more aware you are of the limitless reach of God’s gracious and loving embrace—the lower you can go—unveiling layers sin further and further beneath the surface. This might help explain why some of the greatest saints have such a dark view of their own hearts, while at the same time appearing to be beautifully sanctified people full of trust and joy. Their heightened sense of their belovedness in Christ makes possible the depths of their contrition.

As the author of the book Glittering Vices, it may seem ironic to say that I hope that your attention isn’t ultimately focused on your own sinfulness. Reflection on the vices is one part of the practice of self-examination, but that practice must first and always be framed by the love of God, which steadfastly holds us. Proceed in the confidence that when we confess our sinful nature and die to sin, it is only a prelude to God’s creation of a beautiful new life in us.

There seem to be three common approaches to the vices in our modern the culture. The first treats the vices as a joke. Thanks to the internet, I found everything from a keyboard-shortcuts version of the seven (commit them all at work!), to color-coded wristbands (“flaunt your fatal flaw!”), to a wine named “The Seven Deadly Zins”.

The second approach, with equal disregard for their seriousness, treats the sins as some silly religious artifact best left in the dusty past—for example, in Wicked Pleasures, philosopher Robert Solomon introduces the infamous seven with this description:

Among the man-made evils in the world, the ‘deadly’ sins barely jiggle the scales of justice, and it’s hard to imagine why God would bother to raise a celestial eyebrow about them; in other words, why they would rate as sins at all….[W]e are still left with the odd portrait of a God of infinite concerns and capacities being bothered by a bloke who can’t get out of bed [sloth], or takes one too many peeks at a naughty Playboy pictorial [lust], or scarfs down three extra jelly doughnuts [gluttony], or has a nasty thought about his neighbor [envy].
The third approach, exemplified in certain Christian books and sermons I’ve read, takes God’s judgment for sin seriously enough but is woefully short on grace. Moreover, these treatments had little or no sense of the history of the church or the history of the vices, and they did not attempt to contextualize the vices’ role within spiritual formation. Their finger-pointing simply left you, the sinner, wallowing in guilt.

In contrast, I wrote Glittering Vices because I wanted to take sin seriously, and to take the history of Christian reflection and wisdom on the spiritual life seriously, and to do so without a moralistic tone of blaming and shaming “the sinful,” since I felt like I was right in the middle of the same struggles myself. But what to do about it?

John Stott once said, “Holiness is not a condition into which we can drift.” Growing up, I inherited a faith formation with a heavy emphasis on justification, but a little too thin on sanctification. The character formation talk I discovered first through my philosophical studies turned out to be a spiritual breakthrough. What I learned helped me think more clearly and intentionally about cultivating Christlike character as a lifelong practice. The ancient Greeks called the ongoing and intentional practice of virtue “a way of life”; Dallas Willard once described Jesus as apprenticing students in “the master class of life”; you might know this process simply as discipleship.

And yet our lifelong virtuous practice is also and ultimately a work of grace. The New Testament uses both active and passive voice “Make every effort” (2 Peter 1) but also “Be transformed” (Romans 12). Studying our sinful disorder and deformation should lead us to spiritual disciplines (our efforts) that open us to receive God’s gracious power (God’s work). Grace-empowered practice reorders our desires, conforms our character to Christ, and transforms our lives.

As we explore the vices, we seek to emphasize the “graced disciplines” side of our study. Such transformative practices are the way we “take off the old nature and its practices” (the vices) and “clothe ourselves in Christlikeness” (the virtues; Col. 3, see also Eph. 4).

The list of seven vices turns our attention toward habitual sins, or patterns in our character. It is helpful to focus on how those habits of mind and heart make us unwilling and unable to give and receive the love God made us for. Why take sin seriously? If nothing else, because it is self-destructive. It cuts us off from the beautiful life and gifts God offers us in Christ. Self-examination through the lens of vice helps us see our habits for what they are and the damage they do, within and without.

The writer of Proverbs puts it this way:

For our ways are in full view of the Lord,
and he examines all our paths.
The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them,
The cords of sin hold them fast.
They will die for lack of discipline,
led astray by their own great folly. (Prov. 5: 21-23)
The wisdom literature in Scripture teaches us about two ways to live—the way of life, led by wisdom, and the way of death, led by folly. Sin blinds us to the true good. Sin binds us and holds us back. Although we can’t always see it, choosing to live bound and suffocated is sheer foolishness. Through Christ and the disciplines that redirect us by his Spirit, we can be free. The point of it all is the abundant life Jesus came to give us.

Why these seven vices? They’re certainly not the worst sins, or even the most harmful to others. Thomas Aquinas explains that these seven are singled out because they concern goods or areas of life that we think promise us happiness. Since everyone wants to be happy, and pride motivates us to seek happiness for ourselves on our own terms, these are typical places sin is easily nourished and fostered. Avarice concerns provision and possession; lust concerns sexual pleasure; envy concerns self-worth and esteem from others; gluttony concerns the pleasure of consuming and being filled; wrath concerns honor, control, and getting what’s deserved; vainglory concerns being known and loved by others; and sloth concerns commitment and the effort we need to sustain it.

The main problem is that don’t want to receive these good (created) things as gifts from God. That’s pride speaking. The reason there’s no chapter devoted to pride in the book is because it would be redundant—pride is the tired old pattern behind all the others. Pride privileges our view of what’s good and our own efforts to get it in the way we see fit. It is the antithesis of the trusting dependence that Christ and the disciplines teach.

The same vice list has lasted for centuries because human beings perennially tend to fall into the same prideful traps. As Frederick Buechner once put it,

Greed, gluttony, lust, envy, [and] pride are no more than sad efforts to fill the empty place where love belongs, and anger and sloth [are] just two things that may happen when you find that not even all seven of them at their deadliest ever can.
We human beings are a hopelessly broken record when it comes to sin. As a child, I used to find myself frustrated reading the Old Testaments stories of Israel: What is wrong with those people? Can’t they see what God has done over and over for them? Why do they keep going back to the same dumb idols? Studying and writing about vice was a little bit like looking in the mirror and finding another frustrating Israelite looking back at me. Maybe you can relate! None of us are immune to these temptations. They are all painfully familiar.

One reason the Christian tradition puts humility at the center of the spiritual life is because this virtue enables us to see ourselves clearly as both dependent creatures and sinners in need of rescue. Our fundamental posture toward God in humility is one of utter reliance on grace. The antidote to a life warped by vice is not a Christianized self-help Cultivate-More-Virtue program! It’s a life utterly dependent on the Spirit’s gracious work in us.

My hope is that facing these vices will reveal the power of pride and sin in our lives so that we bring our broken selves to God for healing. (Note the parallels to the first several of Alcoholics Anonymous’s 12 steps.) The best prayer when confronting our own failings might be simply, “Kyrie eleison; Christ, have mercy”—or in the ancient words found in the liturgy: “God, make speed to save us! O Lord, make haste to help us.”

My wise and beloved friend Sharon Garlough Brown once called reading my book Glittering Vices “spiritual heart surgery.” It can be daunting to see how damaged our hearts are. We are comforted to know that the surgery is being done by the one the desert fathers and mothers loved to call the Physician of Souls. Submission to this surgeon’s loving hands brings us closer to being well and being made whole.

“What do you want from me?” Jesus asks.
May our reply also be, “Lord, I want to be well.”

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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