Gaining Wisdom from the Seven Deadly Sins
Jul 1, 2016 · Christopher Hunt
The Seven Deadly Sins are in fact seven deadly attitudes—pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust—that underpin almost every conceivable (and inconceivable) sin of the heart, mind, or hand. Frankly, I never thought much about the so-called “Seven Deadly Sins” until recently. I thought of them as some medieval concept carried over into popular culture in horror movies and Halloween parties. However, I have found that studying this historical list of lethal attitudes has taught me not only the wisdom to hear the Holy Spirit and recognize my own sin, but has also enabled me to follow the Spirit’s guidance to produce the good fruit that grows in the soil of life-giving attitudes: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
What are the Seven Deadly Sins?
In an earlier article, I delve more deeply into this list of seven attitudes. But briefly, it begins with pride which boils down to a self-reliant contempt for our need for God. Pride spawns envy, which goes beyond mere jealousy. As Thomas Aquinas put it, to envy is to feel “sorrow at another’s good.” Anger twists an otherwise healthy indignation for wrong into a misdirected, seething burn. Sloth, more than mere laziness, just doesn’t care, and willfully gives up on what is good and right. With greed, gluttony, and lust people make self-serving idols of material possessions, food, and sex. Instead of receiving God’s loving provision with thanksgiving, these attitudes curse it, and pridefully demand more or something different. Reflecting on these attitudes can help us recognize them in ourselves. It can also help us recognize these things in our culture and society. But what does it look like to study the Seven Deadly Sins? Let’s pick one and see. How about one of the more misunderstood of the seven, sloth?
An example study of the Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth
Most people think of sloth as laziness or slovenliness. They imagine someone sprawled out on the couch, TV remote dangling from limp fingers, piles all around of mostly-empty pizza boxes and dirty dishes in a room that hasn’t heard the whir of a vacuum cleaner in a decade. But in the context of the Seven Deadly Sins, sloth means something more perfidious. It’s the willful omission brought on by complacency, boredom, or apathy for doing what is right. Sloth has little to do with an individual’s industriousness, or lack thereof, but with the state of the heart. It’s the conscious decision not to care about doing right. The monks of the Middle Ages called it acedia, the “midday sin,” when a brother was most tempted to shirk his spiritual duties because he was tired and no longer saw the use of it all.
The Old Testament is replete with examples of the sloth of kings. Commanded to utterly destroy Amalek, Saul relented and spared the Amalekite king and the best livestock in the land. Saul’s sloth, his willful refusal to persevere, cost him his kingdom (1 Samuel 15). Again and again after Saul, kings arise to restore the land to the proper worship of God, but again and again, those kings go only so far and fail to eradicate idol worship in the “high places.” Each king’s failure to follow-through leads God’s people further into judgment, and ultimately into exile. In the New Testament, the Rich Young Ruler has done all the Law requires, but walks away when Jesus demands his whole heart (Matthew 19:16-22). It was in sloth that Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit when they had held back some of the proceeds from property they had sold yet claimed to have given it all to the Apostles (Acts 5:1-11). They willfully omitted doing what was right in direct contempt of God’s commandments.
What shall we say, then?
If pride is the marshy foundation of all other sin, sloth is the noxious gas that chokes the breath from anyone wandering in the swamp. It’s possibly the most common deadly attitude among us. Even as I write this, it dawns on me that sloth might be the single biggest problem in my life. All the time, I fail to follow-through on commitments. Too often, I demur and take no action to help someone in need. As often as not, I’ll do the exact opposite of the thing I ought to do as a disciple of Jesus Christ, who said to me “If you love me, you will do as I command.” Now that I recognize sloth in myself, I totally relate to Paul when he laments in Romans 7: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...Wretched man that I am!” That’s me.
Of course, one should read all the way to the end of that chapter: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And continuing on to the beginning of the next: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
That’s me, too, praise be to God. Christ took my sin of sloth to the cross. He did what I am utterly incapable of doing on my own. He rescued me from my own spiritual apathy. In Christ, I am righteous and sanctified in God’s sight. He keeps no more record of my wrongs. Yet, Christ’s admonition to do as he commands still calls me to good works. When I fail, I confess my sin, calling it what it is, sloth. If I humble myself, the Spirit of Truth will enable me to obey, to follow-through, to stay involved and active in my walk with Christ. I might pray Galatians 6:9-10: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
To present yourself as one approved...correctly handling the Word of Truth
One of the primary reasons that we study the Scriptures, and even memorize them, is so that we do not sin against God. “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). By looking into this historical list of “evil thoughts,” as we did with sloth above, we followers of Jesus can gain a great deal of wisdom about ourselves and our hearts. In studying his word, we become sensitive to God’s voice and we learn to attune ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. From there, the Spirit leads us in wisdom, training us in those life-giving attitudes that bear good fruit.