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Topics: Ethical Living | Society

7 contemporary takes on the 7 deadly sins

Greed, lust, envy, wrath, gluttony, pride, sloth: let our writers tempt you with their meditations on the seven notorious no-nos.


By Trisha Elliott

Someone to shovel the driveway. A housecleaner once a week. A trip somewhere warm. I don’t think I’m a greedy person, but this list I’ve inwardly rhymed off might suggest otherwise. I’d like to live a little easier. Have more fun. Kick back from time to time, which is not necessarily bad, except when I’m more attached to those things than I am to leading a holy life.

Greed — misappropriated or excessive attachment — is the slippery slope of the other deadly sins. In Phyllis Trible’s words, it is “the mother and matrix, root and consort” of all sins. Wrath, lust, pride, sloth, envy and gluttony all stem from greed. Whether the attachment is to revenge, food, sex, money, status, control — they all boil down to greed.

The New Testament has a lot to say about greed. One of my favourite passages is an ancient tale about hoarding. The story goes that a man tries to rope Jesus into advising his brother to share his inheritance with him. Sensing the request is coming from a place of greed, Jesus replies, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Jesus goes on to recount a parable about a rich man who had a huge harvest, much too big to fit into his barn. What does he do with his wealth? Sharing it doesn’t cross his mind. Instead, he decides to build a bigger barn, planning to “eat, drink and be merry” the rest of his life. Jesus calls the man a fool for stockpiling treasures but not being rich toward God. Later, he sums up the parable: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be.”

Several years ago, I went to a stewardship workshop where that passage was read. After hearing the scripture, we took stock of our daytimers and budgets and then were challenged to realign our “treasures” to do our part in making “the Kingdom come” in whatever way we felt called. The exercise has stuck with me. I was shocked at how little my values were reflected in what I actually did with my time and money.

Greed had misappropriated the treasures of my heart. It continues to misappropriate our personal, social and earthly treasures. We routinely extract natural resources to the detriment of ecosystems and communities, pollute and privatize our water, compromise habitats with tourist traps. Children starve while the equitable sharing of resources would allow everyone to eat well. People die of treatable illness in a world rich with medicine.

Greed is no doubt a deadly sin. We are saturated in it. Individually and collectively, we are the rich man in the parable, building our barns at the expense of our planet and her people. At the same time, we are deathly afraid of losing what we have.

Between Jesus’ parable and his wise assessment, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be,” he tells the man to not be afraid. In fact, he tells him not to be afraid three times in a mere 11 verses. Jesus knew the interdependence of fear and greed. The more greedy we are, the more we fear letting go of our stash. The more fearful we are, the more we stockpile. Conquering greed depends on squashing anxiety.

Back to my list. What am I afraid of? Do I need all this stuff: a third flat-screen television, a basement renovation, a housekeeper? No. I have plenty of barns. In fact, it’s high time I crack open a few.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a writer and minister in Ottawa.


By Lee Simpson

Lust is the sin we are most reluctant to relinquish. It is the most life-affirming of the Big Seven.

My mother’s dear friend, Ruth Honderich Spielberg, was an early feminist who numbered Doris Anderson and June Callwood among her circle. She had a brilliant career in public relations, raised two children in the 1950s and had been widowed for some years when we spoke in the den of her condo shortly before her death. This funny, bright lady, still a force majeure at 90, confessed she was a slave to baseball on her new big-screen television. “I do love to see those fit young players from behind,” she confided, with her signature rich laugh. “It reminds me I am a woman.”

Most of us have felt the pull of pure lust, carnal or otherwise. The first stirrings present as physical desire for another human being. Once, I was foolish enough to sign on as don and chaplain to 54 women of high school age, far from home, in Europe. The corridors of that residence seethed with teen passion. Primal urges shook otherwise savvy women to the core: they defied curfew, failed to hand in papers, and acted in ways they will look back on and wonder, “What the heck was going on?” Life was going on — the vital instinct to find a partner. They were learning the greatest challenge of maturity: head over heat, reason over passion. All faith families teach about this dilemma. It is the single greatest quest of civilized life.

Some take the heat of lust and forge it into a lifelong love affair. Others get knocked sideways because their timing was off: there are few greater sorrows than losing a partner to middle-aged folly. It is amazing the plausible guise that lust wears to attract a wandering eye. Undoubtedly, there are marriages that were never meant to be, and we know their unhappy inmates do find true love, the second or third time around. But so often a partnership simply runs afoul of misplaced physical desire come to call on a willing ego.

Our scriptures are wise on this matter. They urge us to celebrate the joys of connubial bliss in the Song of Songs. Matthew 5:28, however, is sterner: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery.”

President Jimmy Carter told Playboy Magazine in 1976, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” This seemed disingenuous and overly pious to me at the time. I was 25, callous and wrong: Carter was actually explaining that he empathized with those who let passion lead them astray. This knowledge made him a more understanding human being.

I have my Carter moments. I am a reformed smoker. To this day, I cannot watch Bette Davis light up on screen without experiencing true palm-sweating, deep-breathing ciggy lust. This may sound paltry. But the sheer physicality of my reaction grants me insights into what alcoholics and the drug-addicted must bear; empathy has made me a better pastor to those who are brought to their knees by this pull on their senses.

On some level, we long to have our senses stirred. Desire reminds us of our humanity. In the end, we die, confessing to God our lust for life.

Rev. Lee Simpson is a minister in Lunenburg, N.S.

By Anne Hines

Before discussing “envy,” I have to say this. It totally bugs me that my fellow contributors got much better sins to write about than I did. Sloth? Who hasn’t blown off work for a day to lie on her couch watching Columbo reruns? I mean . . . not me . . . but I believe it’s done. Or pride. I could write something amazing and fabulous about the dangers of pride.

My fellow contributors are luckier than me. I deeply, deeply resent my fellow contributors.

Moreover, I must protest that I know nothing at all about envy.

Well, perhaps that’s not quite true.

Envy, it seems to me, is rooted in the conviction that other people are having a much better time than we are. They aren’t. But we find it hard to be convinced of this. We have a deep-seated belief that other people are happier, more confident, more generally untouched by the trials of life than we are. We believe this. No matter how many articles we read about Jennifer Aniston’s love life.

But the truth is, every human being is a walking grab bag of self-loathing, discontent, anxiety, fear and envy. This is the kind of thing, frankly, that makes the concept of “intelligent design” a bit of a hard sell at times. Envy tells us, though, that while our own world may not be perfect, someone else’s absolutely is.

Years ago, as a fledgling novelist, I was convinced that all I needed to make myself perfectly content was to get a book published. I did. And being published brought me total contentment. For about 12 minutes. So I assumed that what I really needed was for people to buy my book. Some did. Contentment didn’t follow. I looked around at writers I considered more successful, more happy, more satisfied than me. They had won awards. I needed to win an award. I didn’t.

Eventually, I couldn’t bear to crack the cover of any book stamped “Heather’s Pick” or “Governor General’s Literary Award.” So what if I was missing out on stories that might delight, inspire, even transform me? I hated every one of those authors for having the recognition, prestige and (I was certain) contentment my own life lacked.

One day I fell into conversation with a Governor General’s Award winner at a book fair. He glared at a stack of Margaret Atwood novels on a nearby table, growling, “You know who I really can’t stand? Writers who win the Booker Prize.” It suddenly hit me. The problem wasn’t that I hadn’t achieved enough in my life. The problem was that I didn’t appreciate what I had.

Envy and gratitude cannot coexist. Neither can envy and faith. Being envious of someone else’s good fortune means somehow believing that God offers others what they need to live a full, satisfying life, but denies the same to us. My contentment comes in realizing that I am being provided, every minute, with the events and experiences I need to win the prizes that truly matter: unshakeable peace, profound joy and a deep connection with my Divine Guide.

So, in the end, I’ve come to see envy as a gift. It reminds me that I’m paying a little too much attention to other people’s journeys rather than my own. And that with a mind turned to gratitude, a heart bent on love, and faith in God’s perfect and constant guidance, I just might make a life that’s the envy of all.

Rev. Anne Hines is a minister, columnist and the author of five books. She lives in Lucky Lake, Sask.


By Ken Gallinger

Nothing makes me madder than weak-kneed, limp-wristed Christians pontificating piously about how anger is a sin.

Has anyone looked out the window lately? Or read the morning paper? We’ve built a nation in which the gap between the richest and poorest is greater than at any time in recent history. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the wealthiest 10 percent make 10 times more than the poorest, largely because of the way we deliberately structure our taxation system. We’ve created a world where the signs of climate change can no longer be ignored, while we voraciously gobble up the last shreds of fossil fuels, leaving our grandkids a mess we can’t imagine. We’ve devolved into a church where survival is the primary agenda of 90 percent of our congregations, and the transforming gospel of Christ is smothered by layers of niceness and theological superficiality.

But get mad? Hell, no. Anger is a sin. Let’s have another prayer group. Hold a think tank on church structures. Orchestrate Councils and Conferences so that nothing resembling fury gets close to the plenary floor. Pass empty resolutions downloading unto congregations decisions the larger church is too chicken to make. Let’s keep the peace, lest more sheep abandon the fold.

Of course, wrath can be a bad thing. When it is selfish, out of control, impulsive or destructive of other people, anger can do more harm than good — much more. But anger itself is not the sin; selfishness, loss of control and destructive impulsivity are evil. Wrath is merely the name of a passion. When any passion — be it hunger, sexuality, whatever — becomes selfish or impulsive, it’s dangerous. But it’s not the passion that’s nasty; it’s the way it finds expression.

Wasn’t it, well, Jesus, who blew his cool with his best friend, calling him Satan? Wasn’t it Jesus who referred to the king as “that fox” and named the clergy of the day a bunch of “whitewashed sepulchres”? Wasn’t it Jesus who overturned the tables in the temple courtyard, using his belt as a whip to drive people out?

Martin Luther King famously wrote, “The supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.” King, of course, was speaking of transformation in a specific context, but given the church, the country, the world in which we now find ourselves, can anyone argue that the need for transformation has passed? Surely not. What has become passé, however, is passion. Many things make us sad in the church these days — Apologies “R” Us. But nothing ever seems to make us mad. There’s a time for sadness, but abiding in the vale of tears only disables. Anger can move us forward, but first it must be embraced, owned and directed with creativity and guts.

Mark Twain described anger as an “acid.” As every high school kid learns in Chemistry 101, acids are powerful and dangerous. They must be treated with respect and care. But without acid, many transformations would never happen. Acids can cleanse, shape, preserve, energize; they allow strong bonds to be forged; they destroy impurities, make growth possible in the soil, bring balance to creation.

French fries without vinegar are just greasy potatoes. And Christianity without righteous wrath is just a greasy mutual admiration society.

Rev. Ken Gallinger is a minister at Lawrence Park Community Church in Toronto.


By Ross Lockhart

You never have to look far for sin in Sin City. Recently, I was strolling down Fremont Street in Las Vegas with clergy friends as part of our annual Nevada ministry retreat when a new establishment caught my eye, the Heart Attack Grill. Large neon signs proclaimed, “Over 350 lbs eats free” and “Cash only, because you might die before the check clears.” I entered the 1950s-style diner, where the servers are dressed as nurses and the customers are referred to as “patients.” Once inside, you are fitted with a hospital gown and offered a menu that includes Triple Bypass Burgers and lard-encrusted Flatliner Fries. At the end of the meal, diners are wheeled to the front door and discharged. Surrounded by such extreme gluttony, I could actually feel my arteries clogging. In fact, a month later a customer would actually suffer a heart attack in the restaurant — patrons were not sure if it was real or staged.

Naturally, we associate gluttony with overeating. After all, Statistics Canada estimates that 23 percent of Canadians are obese. Obesity expert Steve Bloom at Imperial College London claims, “We are murdering ourselves with gluttony.”

So gluttony really is a “deadly” sin. Gregory the Great, the sixth-century pope who drew up the definitive list of the seven deadly sins, said that gluttony occurs when we eat too soon, too greedily and too much. Gluttony was deadly for two reasons. First, people mistook their stomachs for God, worshipping food instead of the Creator. Second, gluttony encouraged lax behaviour, and this led to other ill-advised activities. As a defence against excessive indulgence, St. Francis of Assisi went so far as to sprinkle ashes from the fireplace on his food.

But is the sin of gluttony only to be associated with overeating? What about contexts like my own in Vancouver, where an overwhelming majority of people are super fit? How does one understand gluttony in a place where babies come out of the womb doing Pilates and senior citizens can still look great in Lululemon pants? To help resolve this dilemma, I looked again at the Oxford dictionary’s definition of gluttony. Yes, it was defined as excessive eating, but it was also defined as “habitual greed.” Now, the Bible has a lot to say about that. From Jacob’s trickster ways, to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, to the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, to little Zacchaeus up in the tree, to Ananias and Sapphira falling dead at the board meeting in the book of Acts — greed is a sinful habit that’s hard to shake.

Approaching gluttony as customary greed hits a bit closer to home for us, doesn’t it? After all, many Canadians today gauge the value of life based on our security and pleasure. The Gospel unsettles both, although I don’t think it’s as easy as condemning wealth in itself. After all, our Methodist ancestor John Wesley taught that Christians are called to “gain all you can,” “save all you can” and “give all you can” — at the same time. Too often we excel at the first two but fail on the third. But in our attempt to be faithful followers of the risen Christ, we “seek justice and resist evil” by gaining, saving and giving all we can to God’s mission. By God’s grace and through Christ’s power, we choose a Spirit-led life of salvation over security, purpose over pleasure and generosity over gluttony. Maybe next time I’ll be strong enough to say no to the Triple Bypass Burger.

Rev. Ross Lockhart is lead minister at West Vancouver United.


By James Christie 

It comes down to the numbers. Numbers are a big thing for humans, especially biblically. Take 40 days, 40 nights: that means “a long time.” Christians tried to trump the 12 tribes of Israel with 12 apostles. Don’t get me started on the number three!

Then there’s seven. Seven days in the first week: God creates on six, golfs on seven. (Okay, that last one is a marginal translation.) And seven deadly sins. Why so many? We’re bound to miss a couple.

Sloth? Who has time? Greed? That’s a cultural value. Lust? Without it, the advertising industry would collapse. Gluttony? After greed, it’s redundant: super-size

everything. Wrath? Just try to follow the prompts to customer service — in Delhi. Envy? Aren’t you jealous of people who don’t suffer from that one?

But pride — now that’s a sin for the ages. It’s the first sin: the original sin, if you prefer. It’s the biggest sin. It’s the sin from which all other sins derive. It’s the deadliest sin.

It may be the only deadly sin.

Pride emerges in that first moment in human evolution when a person becomes self-aware: for that is the moment when we can compare ourselves to others.

Pride, C.S. Lewis claimed, is the competitive sin. We don’t take pride in being intelligent, attractive, strong, wealthy; we take pride in being more intelligent, more attractive, stronger, wealthier than somebody else — ideally, everybody else.

All sin is in some measure nothing more than good corrupted. When taken or employed in a way that is damaging, excessive or abusive, something that is in itself potentially positive or at least neutral becomes sin.

Greed is appropriate planning for security blown out of all proportion; lust, healthy desire twisted into the objectification of the other; gluttony, the reasonable need for healthy and pleasurable caloric consumption taken to extremes.

But pride is the most insidious of these double-edged swords. From childhood, pride is used as a civilizing principle by those who raise us: “Take pride in your appearance.” “Take pride in your work.” “Make us proud of you.”

God help us if we don’t, is the implicit message, even from the most nurturing parents or guardians, teachers or clergy.

Frederick Buechner, the novelist and theologian, captures this dilemma in a reflection on the second great commandment: “Pride is self-love. . . . Another way of saying Love your neighbor as yourself is to say Love yourself as your neighbor.”

He goes on to observe, “The more I dislike my neighbor, the more I’m apt to dislike myself for disliking him and him for making me dislike myself and so on.” The circle becomes ever more vicious.

Pride, Buechner writes, becomes a sin when, “instead of leading you to share with others the self you love, it leads you to keep your self in perpetual safe-deposit. You not only don’t accrue any interest that way but become less and less interesting every day.”

At its most deadly, pride ensures that there is nothing at the centre of our universe except us. Even God is relegated to the outer darkness.

In the end, we become our god. That’s madness at best; madness that leads inevitably to death — the death of whatever spirit animates us.

C.S. Lewis called it as he saw it: “A proud [person] is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”

As long as you’re looking down, you can’t see where you’re going, either.

Rev. James Christie is a professor of dialogue theology at the University of Winnipeg.


By Sandra Beardsall

You should go out more.” So wrote the Rev. John Wesley to Miss Mary Bishop in 1774. By “going out,” Wesley did not mean to parties and pubs. Heavens, no. He meant “doing good works to all, warning and exhorting all.” He also meant gathering with the “household of faith” for mutual encouragement, prayer and Bible study.

I doubt anyone ever accused John Wesley of sloth. Like his Puritan ancestors (on his mother’s side), Wesley viewed work as a gift, intended to further the cause of God’s world set right. He galloped about the British Isles, covering over 4,000 miles a year to promote and assist the evangelical revival that was unfolding across the land. He celebrated communion, often by himself, each morning before dawn, then spent his days preaching and visiting — but not loitering. “John Wesley’s conversation is good, but he is never at leisure,” the literary critic Samuel Johnson famously sniffed. “He is always obliged to go at a certain hour.”

However, when Wesley told his friend Mary Bishop to “go out more,” he was not only encouraging a suitably pious social life. He also wanted to steer her away from the “quietists,” Christians who believed that salvation came only to those who waited for it in absolute and passive silence. He believed that Satan used this solitude as a temptation to self-absorption. Unless you go out, he cautioned Bishop, “your faith will insensibly die away.”

How quaint. How perfectly Methodistical. But what have John Wesley’s 18th-century friends and foes to do with us? Like Wesley, The United Church of Canada inherited from its forebears in the faith a potent dose of “work ethic.” Today, we tend to be ambivalent about that heritage. Rather than celebrating it, we recognize in it the seeds of all sorts of dysfunctional behaviour. By glorifying work, we have ended up blaming the unemployed for their lot, experiencing personal burnout from shouldering heavy loads, even threatening to destroy life on Earth itself in a frenzied need to do and control. Maybe we need a little sloth to slow us down and give the planet a break.

Yet I think Wesley’s reflections can offer us something more. They suggest that we may be prone to a deeper idleness: the moral, intellectual and spiritual laziness that cannot be bothered to probe, to seek, to discern what is faithful and true. Such lethargy allows the hard-working corporate mythmakers and spin doctors of our generation to inhabit us — heart, mind, body and soul — with images that invite us into complacency and over-consumption; with messages that tempt us to embrace greed, lust and, well, all those other deadly sins. Sloth, then, is perhaps the spiritual equivalent of what some scientists label a “gateway drug,” the sort of mild opiate that ushers its users into the snare of those more dangerous intoxicants that imperil our collective soul.

So, shall we “Just Say No” to sloth? It’s never that easy, is it? But fortunately for us, part of the delight in being Christians in community, as we can hope Mary Bishop came to see, is that we get to work it out together: when to work and when to rest, when to sing and when to serve. Together we can ponder how the lilies of the field and birds of the air manage to engage their daily struggle for life without worrying. And of course, we can also muse whether it was his decidedly sloth-free existence that helped John Wesley live to age 87, robust and still preaching to the end.

Rev. Sandra Beardsall is a professor of church history and ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon.

This story first appeared in The Observer’s May 2012 issue with the title “The 7 deadly sins.”


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