The Seven Deadly Virtues-Love

The first of the seven deadly sins is lust. For most of us, this word is associated with sexual sin. But the Bible employs the term more broadly. In the New Testament, the Greek term that is translated lust is often one that simply means desire. In addition to illicit sexual desire, it can refer to both ordinate and inordinate desire. Lust is as liable to take the form of an illicit desire for someone else’s things or their success as it is an inappropriate desire for sex. John hints at the full scope of this cardinal sin in 1 John 2:16: “ For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” As far as John is concerned, when it comes to lust everything in the world is a potential target.

The opposite of lust is love. But the terms themselves may not be of much help in distinguishing between the two. We often use “love” to refer to a multitude of desires and affections, some high and some low. A couple on a date might declare undying love for one another during dinner and then in the next breath say that they “love” the food that is on their plates. Neither thinks of the second of these as genuine love, at least not in the biblical sense.  Afterwards, they might decide to “make love,” using the same term in a third sense that is really more in line with what the Bible actually means by lust. Not every desire we experience is necessarily lust nor does every affection that we call love qualify as love in the biblical sense.

You would think that sin and love would be incompatible. After all, if the heart of righteousness is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself, then the essence of sin must be the opposite (Matt. 22:37, 39). To sin is to love yourself at the expense of your neighbor. More than that, it is to love yourself at the expense of God. Yet this assertion seems to imply something in addition to this. Namely, that sin has its own version of love.

Sin shaped love expresses itself primarily in the form of narcissism. It is self-absorbed love. This affection is actually a distortion of love which, once it has achieved its full effect, proves to be an exercise in self-loathing. It is hate masquerading as love, compelling us to engage in self-destructive behavior. Sin promises freedom and delivers slavery. It speaks the language of friendship while treating us like enemies. It is a cruel master who promises good wages only to reward our loyalty with hard service, disappointment, and death. Yet for some reason, we return repeatedly to this false lover and expect a different result.

In the Old Testament, David was criticized for preferring his unfaithful and rebellious son to those faithful men who had risked their lives for him. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you” David’s commander Joab complained (2 Sam. 19:6). Similarly, when Jehu the Seer went out to meet Jehoshaphat after the king’s ill-advised alliance with Ahab, the prophet warned, “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the LORD? Because of this, the wrath of the LORD is upon you.” A similar charge might be laid at our own feet in this present age. We claim love as our cardinal virtue. But a closer inspection all too quickly reveals that what we are really celebrating is an infatuation with ourselves.

The alternative to lust is love. It is a love that comes to us, like the righteousness of Christ, from the outside. Adopting the same language Martin Luther coined to speak of that righteousness, we might call it “alien love.” Because it is not our own it is the only love powerful enough to wean us away from ourselves.

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.