If one were to look in the Bible for a complete definitive list of the sins we have come to know collectively as the Seven Deadly Sins, you would not be able to locate such a list. But rest assured, while there is no specific list of these sins, they’re all in there. Repeatedly. From the very origins of man in the Book of Genesis, to the Greek philosophers and the Church Fathers, a consistent list of grave sins has come to be known as the Seven Deadly Sins. Relying upon the Catholic theology and philosophy of the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, completed his most important work The Divine Comedy around 1321, forever defining the list to include the following capital sins: Pride, Wrath, Greed, Envy, Sloth, Gluttony, and Lust.
But why are these sins called “deadly” sins? The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the following distinction: “Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal (deadly) and venal sin, already evident in Scripture, became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.” (CCC 1854)
The CCC goes on to define mortal sin as sin that “destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to Him.” (CCC 1855)
Especially at Christmas, we hear a lot of discussion about the virtue of charity. At its essence is the fact that charity is one of the three Theological Virtues, along with faith and hope. Charity is the virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. Therefore, if mortal sin destroys the charity in our hearts, it also destroys our relationship with God because we essentially turn away from Him. And when properly understood, the Seven Deadly Sins are such grave sins because they lead us away from God and turn our focus inward, upon ourselves.
Of course, there is a tendency in today’s culture to downplay the impact of these sins which goes so far as to suggest that these are merely normal human behaviors and not sins at all. Some might even suggest that they are human behaviors that lead to good outcomes. For example, the traditional definition of envy goes beyond understanding it as simple jealousy, but rather as a deadly sin because it causes us to feel unjustified sorrow and distress at someone else’s good fortune. Yet, modern society often stresses the importance of envy as a means of overcoming inequality and social injustice. After all, shouldn’t we be happy if those who are wealthy have it taken away and redistributed to those who have nothing? The traditional understanding of greed (also known as avarice or covetousness) is the immoderate desire for earthly goods, as well as situations such as power. Yet, modern thinking regularly emphasizes that it is good to own things. After all, he who dies with the most toys wins, right?
The dangers inherent in dismissing these sins as basically good can be especially troublesome during these charitable seasons of Advent and Christmas. While we are inundated with marketing messages that tell us that we need to buy things and own things to be happy, at the core of both sins is the desire to fill a void in our hearts that things are not, and never will be, capable of filling. For some, greed and envy are born out of perceptions of inadequacy, of perhaps not measuring up to others, and to some, they are the result of fear and insecurity.
In Dr. Seuss’s classic tale, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the mean-spirited, green furry main character is said to have a heart that is “two sizes too small.” Because of this cardiac deficiency, the Grinch plots to steal all the Christmas gifts from nearby Whoville and destroy them. Motivated by envy, and perhaps even a little greed, the Grinch figures that if he is miserable, others might just as well suffer too. But in the end, his actions do not destroy the love and joy that lies deep in the hearts of the people of Whoville who know the true meaning of Christmas, which in turn inspires him to return the stolen gifts. As a result, his heart was said to have “grown three sizes.”
Perhaps we also have a deficient heart. It has been said that all humans have a God-sized hole in their hearts, and only God can ultimately fill this void. As St. Augustine famously declared after his own youthful pursuits of happiness from worldly possessions, “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you.”
Being envious of others who are able to own things that we ourselves cannot own leads to bitterness toward our neighbor and destroys the charity in our hearts. Desiring to own things that others cannot, or to attain power and wield it over others, further destroys the charity in our hearts for others, especially when we try to replace God and our human relationships with material objects.
In 1 John 2:15-17 we are told, “Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life, is not from the Father but is from the world. Yet the world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever.”
Perhaps the best way to enjoy the holiday season in true Christian charity is to come to some comprehension as to why Christmas has always been a season of giving. God, who needs nothing from us and has no need of anything from us, nevertheless created us out of love, in order that we might be able to receive His love. It is out of that same love from which our salvation, though undeserved, was given to us freely. God, Who is Love, loved us into existence so that we might know His love and return that love to Him and share it with our neighbors. When we give love away, it returns to us in abundance. Through gift giving, we convey the message to others that we love them and wish for them to love us in return.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:24-26 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
This could be money, possessions, fame, status, or whatever is valued more than the Lord.
Perhaps in the words from the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, we can see that true happiness is not found in holding onto things, but in giving them away: “For it is in giving that we receive!” Let us truly aspire to give more than we receive, so that we may ultimately know how abundantly we are loved. After all, things are not capable of loving us back.
Winston Kenton — SFA Theologians Guild Member