The Seven Deadly Virtues

In the latter part of the Fourth Century, a monk named Evagrius Ponticus compiled a list of eight sins that people commonly commit. This wasn’t an exhaustive catalog of sinful behavior. The eight actions he singled out were meant to represent the main categories under which all other sins might fall. His list included gluttony, fornication, greed, sadness, anger, weariness, vainglory and pride. Later church leaders reduced them to seven reasoning that vainglory and pride were essentially the same thing.

No doubt some of the items in this list of will seem odd to us. Hardly anybody I know would call sadness a sin, let alone a capital sin. If it is debilitating, we usually call it a disease. Likewise, gluttony seems to moderns to be a throwback to an age when food was scarce. We might think that it’s unhealthy or perhaps rude. But we generally don’t consider it to be a sin.

I’ve only heard one sermon on gluttony in my life and that was from a guest speaker during a chapel service while I was a student in seminary. The athletically fit speaker told us that Christians who were overweight preached the gospel with their mouths but contradicted it with their lives. In the class that followed chapel, we were eager to know what our professor, a man of some girth, thought of the message. “Give me a moment,” he said. “I am enjoying a Snickers bar.” He chewed for a while and then in a wry tone declared: “All I have to say is that Proverbs 11:25 says, ‘The liberal soul shall be made fat.’”

Weariness also seems out of place to most of us. After all, isn’t weariness just a consequence of hard work? The industrious person is more likely to consider it a virtue rather than a sin. We don’t even know what vainglory is, though we tend to recognize it in others. In those instances, we call it boasting. While we may be reluctant to categorize boasting as a sin, we do agree that it is bad form. Unless, of course, it appears on a résumé.

Fornication is still generally considered to be a sin. But hardly anybody commits it anymore. Instead, people “make love.” Love is widely regarded to be a good thing and for many people making love is simply part of the dating ritual. Indeed, our view on these matters has become so degraded that what the ancients once regarded as sins modern people have relabeled and now consider to be virtues. These days the seven capital sins are the seven deadly virtues.

Almost 20 years ago Os Guinness observed, “Every generation has its own conscious or unconscious ranking of the sins–Victorians, for example, exaggerated sloth and lust while underestimating envy and avarice. But a defining feature of our generation is it minimizing of any notion of sin.” The irony of this is that we are also living in an age of collective moral outrage. One of the main features of this outrage, apart from its universality, is its largely impersonal nature. It is directed at large, systemic problems more often than at individual actions. When it is directed at individual behavior, it is usually aimed at media figures like presidents and movie moguls. When it comes to our own virtues or their lack, we have learned to be hypersensitive to the faults of others and generally blind to our own. We are quick to know when we have been wronged but would hard-pressed to define right and wrong in concrete terms. The tablets of stone upon which they were once inscribed by the finger of God are broken and we are cast adrift.

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