Seven Deadly Sins
Some forty years ago I was teaching in one of the Sheffield schools. A young lady, fresh from college, had joined the staff. Regretfully, if unsurprisingly, I have forgotten her name. Unsurprisingly, because these days I seem to have mislaid so many names from the past, along with quite a number from the present. I think others must have the same problem, for I see friends of my generation look at me with that puzzled expression, which says, “I am sure I know that face.” But to go back to the story. I do recall that she was a good teacher, a pleasant and enthusiastic girl. As well as being a teacher she was also a member of a fundamentalist Christian sect. Anxious to save souls, but no doubt she regarded me as beyond redemption.
One day she and I were in the staff-room at break-time enjoying a cup of tea and a biscuit. She had two chocolate biscuits bought from the tuck-shop. I teased her. “Surely one biscuit should be enough. I thought gluttony was one of the deadly sins”. She smiled. The next day she presented me with a slim paper-backed booklet, published by her church, entitled, “The seven deadly sins”. There were two or three pages about each of the seven, giving the viewpoint of her church on the perils they presented.
In this age of quizzes and general knowledge tests, one is tempted to test how many of the congregation can correctly name all seven sins. (However, I haven’t any tubes of smarties to give out to the winner) Then, I am sure you all can reel off correctly: Pride, Envy, Covetousness, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Sloth.
I had the booklet for some years, but it seems to have got lost, perhaps during one of the house moves. I remember at that time I was taking services monthly at one of our own places of worship, now closed, and used the titles as a starting point for a series of addresses. I have forgotten what I said, and my notes have disappeared too, but I doubt if the thoughts were very profound. My thoughts seldom are. Maybe that congregation though awaited with interest for the Sunday when I got round to lust. Or maybe not. They were elderly, all passion spent.
But now more seriously.
Musing today on that topic of deadly sins, there are two lines of thinking which occur to me. The first is about definition, and absolute terms. The second is about the selection, and the omissions.
Turning to the first point. Older members of the congregation may remember Professor Job. He was a regular panel member on a discussion programme popular some years ago, called the Brains’ Trust. A topic would be introduced, and invariably Job’s contribution would start with what became his catch-phrase, “It all depends on what you mean by ……beauty, democracy, honesty”, or whatever was relevant to the topic. The observation comes to my mind as I look at the list of deadly sins. Wasn’t there a character in Alice in Wonderland who said, “Words mean whatever I want them to mean? Let’s take pride for instance.
Far from being a sin, used in some contexts, pride may be extolled as a virtue. Which teacher or parent has not urged the child to “take a pride in your work, your appearance, your family, your school”? Used in this way it is about self-respect and setting good standards. Pride does not always equate with haughtiness.
And envy. Undoubtedly it may become a canker in the mind, and like jealousy, spawn the out-of-control destructive green-eyed monster. On the other hand it may be a spur to developing one’s own talents more fully; a desire to earn the rewards or the respect another enjoys. A wish to be as well-regarded as an admired citizen serving his fellows. Ambition is not always a characteristic to be deplored.
Sloth is an emotive word, but like its twin, idleness, it is not inevitably to be spoken of disapprovingly. “What is life if full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare,” wrote the poet W. H. Davies. If Wordsworth had spent all his time sitting working at his desk and not relaxed walking his beloved fells, he might not have observed the daffodils dancing in the breeze. It is a question of proportion, of balance, is it not? Martha, we read, was “cumbered about much serving” charging her sister Mary with idleness. Jesus is quoted as remarking, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, or one: and Mary has chosen that good part.” In other words, labour may not ever be the virtue, or inactivity a wicked sin.
It all depends on what you mean by….. Does it not?
And my second thought.
The description “deadly” implies these are the very worst of misdemeanours to which we might fall prey. They are, we are led to think, the most heinous of crimes. But, if we are to have a scale of wickedness, are these really top of the list? Do they represent the very worst in human behaviour? They may be regarded as chapter headings, trigger-point words for a whole series of other deplorable actions.
Take anger, for example. The loss of control which can occur in a sudden rush of blood can, and does, lead to violent words and deeds. Others suffer humiliation and physical harm as judgement is suspended, or distorted, rational thought becomes impossible. We can speak approvingly of righteous anger, which implies a controlled indignation at some injustice. But the red mist which surrounds a blind, unreasoning fury is indeed a vile thing. It is destructive, breeding hatred, blanking out love.
Envy, akin to jealousy, possesses mind and distorts the vision. Sexual crimes can be rooted in lust, pride may show no remorse, not permitting self-examination, or reconciliation.
But is it not curious that a character defect repeatedly and strongly condemned in the New Testament gospels is not included in the deadly list; that is hypocrisy? Allied to this is another unmentioned, but hated trait to which too many of us are prone, that of deceitfulness.
It seems to me that what we are talking about when we speaking of deadly sins as described, are not so much dreadful deeds in themselves, but states of mind which allow, even encourage, horrible actions to take place. The self-indulgence implicit in gluttony leaves no room in which to consider of the needs of others. It becomes all important that our own needs should be met regardless of the effect upon other people. Sloth, or idleness, looks out on the world with glazed vision, not seeing my brother or sister’s distress. Our own comfort is central. Action is too much trouble; it is probably cold outside.
I suggest that whether the rank order is correct or not, whether the total should be seven or, as Jesus remarked in a different context, seventy times seven, is not the real point. The so-called “deadly sins” are states of mind, a pernicious poison which leads on to evil conduct. The conduct includes, adapting the old language of the prayer, “doing those things which we ought not to do, and failing to act where we ought to act.”
The commandments are a list of do’s and don’ts; the list of deadly sins are built around the way we think, and consequently, how we act.
In the world of politics, as in other aspects of life, there are current fashions. Today, one is to seek what is known as the root cause. What are the root causes of crime, of poverty, of social unrest, inequality and so on, the politician asks. Similarly, we ask, what are the root causes of the wickedness we find around us. Violent acts, racist abuse, oppression, behaviour which destroys rather than creates, intimidates the neighbour instead of caring for the vulnerable.
Evil deeds, wicked acts, are carried out by human beings. The root cause of evil lies in the mindset of individuals. What we think, determines how we act.
One of the central purposes of coming together in worship is surely to give space for self-examination. Away from the bustle of life outside the chapel walls we have time to think about the chapter headings in our own mind. If there is pride, is it in worthy achievement, or is it arrogance which regards oneself as superior to ones neighbour? Do I experience envy as a spur to emulate the best seen in the life of another, or do I covet, then plot to down-grade the object of my jealousy. Am true in my dealings with others, or am I the hypocrite deceiving others and possibly myself.
My rather simplistic philosophy about life includes accepting that one must think right to do right. If the mind is wrong, poisoned by self regard, by hatred, by selfishness, by the deadly sins if you want to use that language, then one’s life becomes at best, unfulfilled, and at worst, evil deeds are done.
I believe strongly, that we should be judged by how we behave to others. That is the real measure of our faith. To use old-fashioned language, we are all open to temptation. Few, if any of us can sincerely say that greed and jealousy have never, ever, entered our minds, even for a moment. There are not too many angels, or saints around, whose minds are always pure.
What is demanded of us is that the meaning we give to the words, the interpretation we put on the titles, and most of all, the actions we put into practice, are designed to make the world a better place for all, and not just a way of gaining self-satisfaction, whatever the cost to someone else.
Search me, O God, and know my heart:
Try me, and know my thoughts;
And see if there be any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.
C.J. Rosling 12 March 2004
Hucklow 14 March 2004