Seven Deadly Sins: Pracitices of Spiritual Deformation

Bosch Deadly Sins

You may regard this post as a teaser. I plan over the next couple of weeks to post reflections on each of the deadly sins, but I want to say something about what the deadly sins are and my approach to them. My hope is to probe each of the deadly sins as a means of taking inventory of my own soul(’tis the season to be penitent) but also to offer up some insights from the Christian tradition for those like me who struggle.

The Seven Sins were once eight but because of cutbacks Satan had to lay one of the sins off. Alright, maybe that isn’t exactly the story, but the Seven Deadly Sins did come out of a list of eight that one of the desert fathers, Evagrius of Ponticus(345-399 CE)formulated. These ‘eight thoughts’ were part of a demonic strategy to tempt the faithful (monks) away from their rule and their commitment to God. Evagrius’ buddy John Cassian (360-435 CE) built on Evagrius’ thinking but kept his list: Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Wrath, Sadness, Sloth(Acedia), Vainglory andPride. With Gregory the Great (530-604 CE) pride was separated out from the list and identified as a root sin of all the others. When Aquinas formulated his list these were the sins: Vainglory, Envy, Sloth, Avarice, Wrath, Lust and Gluttony. This is the list I will be interacting with the later list but I think that Evagrius, Cassian and the desert dudes still have important things to say.

Following Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s insightful book, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies(Brazos, 2009), I will be interacting with each of these sins as ‘vice’ rather than ‘Sin.’ What’s the difference? Sin is a term used broadly to refer to either a wrong action or a persisting condition. Vice is a more limited term referring specifically to practiced sin. Through a series of habitual acts the vice (i.e. Gluttony, Lust, Greed) (de)forms spiritual character. Think of it this way: if you overeat you have committed the ‘sin; of gluttony; if you are caught in the ‘vice of gluttony,’ you habitually overeat and thus are a glutton.

By thinking of each of these ‘deadly sins’ as a vice my aim will be to see where our habitual practices have spiritual mis-shaped us and then propose alternative practices which shape us in the virtuous life and our pursuit of God. I am excited by this series of posts, so please stay tuned. They will be Sinsational.

What’s in a Word?: Why I’m not ‘Driven’ and You Shouldn’t Be Either

This is the first of an occasional series where I critique the words that we Christians use. I know what you’re thinking, “James you are an overly critical and cranky man who thinks you are smarter and more holy than the rest of Christendom.” Guilty. Well, not really. I admit I am a little neurotic about some of these things but I also really think words matter. Yes the Spirit of God can shoot straight arrows with the crooked arrows of our words but the metaphors by which we habitually describe God, faith and the spiritual life shape our understanding and experience. Some of the words that we use are actually damaging and do injustice to both God and ourselves. I submit that one such word is ‘driven.’

I am not sure that I can blame Rick Warren for entering driven into our spiritual lexicon but he certainly popularized it with his wildly successful books The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life and various purpose-driven spin-offs. But Rick Warren with his warm smile and Hawaiian shirts is not the only offender. A search of titles with ‘driven’ in the title from Christianbook.comreveal that many are clamoring to join the herd. There are books with titles like: Family Driven Faith, Driven by Eternity: Making Your Life Count Today & Forever, The Gospel-Driven Life, A Proverbs Driven-Life, The Passion Driven Sermon, Text-Driven Preaching, Spirit-Driven Success, Values Driven Leadership, The Spirit Driven Leader, Jesus Driven Ministry, The Values Driven Family, The Market Driven Church(I think this one is a critique), Character Driven, The Wisdom Driven Life, The Passion Driven Youth Choir, The Mission Driven Parish, The Spirit Driven Church, Driven by Hope: Men & Meaning, A Love Driven Life, A Passion Driven Life and From God-Given to God-Driven.Bull Whip Cattle Drive

Without critiquing the content of these books (some I am sure have great stuff to say and others just have stuff) this list shows how pervasive the word ‘driven’ is in the Christian publishing world. But the book title doesn’t even begin to reflect how much authors use this word within their books to speak of the sort of life we all should be living. This is picked up by pastors, blogs and every tweep from here to eternity. This is where I have issues.

What does it mean to be driven? It is obvious to me that the people who use it are trying to get at what are motivation is but this is bad language to be using. The dictionary defines driven as, “being under compulsion to succeed or excel.” I understand a personal ‘drive’ towards excellence but I get worried about what we mean when something outside of ourselves is the one said to be ‘driving us.’ Are we under compulsion by our families and values? Are we ‘driven’ by our commitments? Does God, the Spirit, Jesus ‘drive’ our spiritual life? What does that say about us and God?

I think this term stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the spiritual life. Hear the good news: In a world where we are driven by the will to succeed, the will-to-knowledge and the will to power, in a world where we are under the compulsion of a thousand demands internal and external, you don’t need to be driven anymore. You are being invited by God to enjoy the good things he has stored up for you. Listen to these words From Isaiah 55:

    “Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
    and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
    Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
    Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
    Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.”

This is fundamentally different from having any sort of ‘driven life.’ What if we understood our spiritual life less in terms of its demands and more in terms of what we are being invited into? What if we didn’t speak so much of ‘being driven’ but spoke of where God is drawing us?

The reason why I am so passionate that ‘driven’ is a bad word in the spirital life is because I tend to imbibe its message. I load on myself heroic spiritual disciplines and feel guilty about where I have failed to do all I am supposed to do. When it comes to drive I’ve got it and then some. What I haven’t always understood is that my life with God is more joyful, freeing and wonderful than I can imagine.

Marva Dawn’s hymn Come Away From Rush and Hurry capture for me the reality of the post-driven life:

Come away from rush and hurry
Marva J. Dawn

    Come away from rush and hurry
    to the stillness of God’s peace;
    from our vain ambition’s worry,
    come to Christ and find release.
    Come away from noise and clamor,
    life’s demands and frenzied pace;
    come to join the people gathered
    here to seek and find God’s face.

    In the pastures of God’s goodness
    we lie down to rest our soul.
    From the waters of his mercy
    we drink deeply, are made whole.
    At the table of his presence
    all his saints are richly fed.
    With the oil of his anointing
    into service we are led.

    Come, then, children, with your burdens –
    life’s confusions, fears, and pain.
    Leave them at the cross of Jesus;
    take instead his kingdom’s reign.
    Bring your thirsts, for he will quench them –
    he alone will satisfy.
    All our longings find attainment
    when to self we gladly die.

As we enter into this season of Lent, what is God inviting you into?

When I saw this book I thought of you (A book review)

Our Favorite Sins Okay sinners, here is a book for you. Todd D. Hunter, author, Anglican bishop, adjunct professor, and authority on sin has written a helpful book on dealing with the problem of temptation (or dealing with the problem of ‘not dealing with temptation).

What makes this book so good is Hunter eschews strategies for handling sin that don’t go to the root of the problem. He isn’t interested in simply helping you modify your behavior; rather he want you to do the hard inner-work of looking at where your desires are disordered and are causing you to be tempted in certain ways. He writes:

Disordered desires are a tyrant. This is why we struggle against them, striving to overthrow them in our hearts like the little despots they are….Our disordered desires are ruling our hearts and minds, and we don’t know what to do about it (7)

Hunter is adamant that we can only be tempted when a desire that we already have inside matches something that comes to our attention. Thus temptation is not an outside problem; it’s a heart problem.

Using research from the Barna group, Hunter addresses the five chief areas where contemporary people are tempted: anxiety, procrastination, overeating, media addiction, and laziness. While he has some practical insights into each temptation, he primarily uses these issues as case studies to explore how various strategies do not really get at the core of our sin problem.

Hunter’s proposed plan for dealing with sin involves the recovery of ‘Ancient and Fruitful’ practices such as the abstaining disciplines of silence and solitude, retraining your desires to desire the Kingdom first, liturgical prayer & the daily office, the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist and the Lectionary. He urges us to hold on to hope, carry a vision and make a plan to overcome temptation, but also to make use of the resources we have in Christ and the Holy Spirit. The bottom line is that overcoming temptation will require inner-work retraining disordered desires and cultivating a vision and hope for the Kingdom and a relationship with the triune God.

Each chapter closes with a prayer exercise taken from one of the prayers from the Book of Common Prayer or the Celtic prayer book. I really appreciated these prayers (they also feature prominently in several chapters). This made this book more formational than merely informational for me. The book is an invitation into cultivating the sort of inner life which can stand up in the time of trial. There is a lot of wisdom in Hunters words. His reliance on prayer, sacraments and spiritual practices point the way to victory from the sin that so easily entangles us.

One question I would have is what role does the community have in helping us pursue holiness? It is true that some of the practices he commends are communal (liturgical prayer, the sacraments, etc.) but the theme of mutual accountability is underdeveloped. Maybe he’s right that wrestling with sin is personal inner work but I also crave the intercession of the saints, particularly those who know me as I am (not just a general confession). I also have experienced hearing the words of absolution from those who knew my tangled heart in all its tawdry details and it broke the power of my shame. It seems like an important dimension of this.

The appendix of the book includes Barna’s survey which provides the statistic data used by Hunter in the chapters. Frankly I am not sure that the Barna study adds a whole lot. Hunter makes use of the statistical data, but on one level he’s rather ambivalent to it. He hones on the five particular areas of temptation that most of the respondents struggled with but he is clear that even if these are not your areas of struggle, the remedy of inner work, spiritual disciplines, prayer, sacraments and the larger story of redemption provides you the way to freedom.

These small caveats aside I highly recommend this book for you if you are self aware enough to know your struggle with sin and temptation. Otherwise I’m sure you know someone particularly sinful whom you could probably gift this book too. Give it to them and say, “When I saw this book, I thought of you.”

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me with a copy of this book. I was asked to give a fair and honest review, and that is what you just read.