March 1, 2009
Sin, like gravity, is a downer During the season of Lent we begin our next Finding Grace series exploring what are known as the seven ‘deadly’ or ‘capital’ sins
Humankind has always sought the ability to fly. Unfortunately, gravity is a downer pun intended. The force of gravity pulls us down and keeps us from flying. And yet, I wrote this article while soaring at an altitude of 39,000 feet. On a jet plane, of course. On my own, I can’t fly. I can only do so with the help of an airplane.
The human spirit has always sought to soar beyond our earthly existence and to experience the divine. Unfortunately, sin is a downer. Like gravity, sin pulls us down and keeps us from “flying.” And yet, by virtue of our baptism, we are capable of soaring — of having our human existence lifted up to the divine. On our own, we cannot do this. Sin weighs us down and we ourselves are helpless to overpower it. Through the grace of God, however, we are capable of overcoming the effects of sin and of experiencing the divine life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Sin is not just a nuisance. It is a condition — a serious condition — terminal, in fact, if left untreated. In order to better understand sin, however, we need to be sure that we understand the concept of grace. Grace is not some mysterious power like “the Force” in Star Wars. Neither is it some kind of magic dust that we can acquire and store up. Rather, grace is a relationship with God. Grace is the divine life of God, offered to us as a gift in baptism and in all the sacraments of the church. When we are in the “state of grace,” we are living in intimate relationship with God — our thoughts and actions being in harmony with God’s will.
Sin, then, is the disruption of our relationship with God. Sin is an ever-present reality in our world, seeking to fill the space within us that only a relationship with God can fill. Because of our human weakness and because of sin’s false promise to give us the ability “to fly,” we are all-too-easily seduced. Through our thoughts, words and actions, we can gradually (or sometimes dramatically) disrupt our relationship with God by relating to that which provides only an illusion of happiness.
Sinful actions are like the tip of an iceberg, however. Experts tell us that only 10 percent of an iceberg is above water while 90 percent lies concealed beneath the surface. Similarly, sinful actions — those things that we see — are grounded in sinful attitudes that lie beneath the surface. As children, we were taught to avoid sinful actions and our experiences of the sacrament of reconciliation were too often reduced to the reciting of a laundry list of sinful acts. As adults, we are better equipped to pay attention to sinful attitudes that are at the source of sinful acts. Likewise, our experience of the sacrament of reconciliation can become much more fruitful as we learn to identify, confess and seek forgiveness for sinful attitudes that form within us and sometimes lead to sinful acts.
Seven of these sinful attitudes have been identified in church tradition as the “deadly sins”— referred to in church documents as “capital” sins. Hollywood and popular culture have glamorized these sins, portraying them in “over-the-top” fashion as though they are a danger only to those who live on the edge.
Not so. The seven deadly sins are deadly because of their subtlety. Like a cancer that can spread through the human body without detection, any one of the seven deadly sins can quietly poison our relationship with God unless we are vigilant. These deadly sins are pride, envy, anger, greed, gluttony, lust and sloth.
Although these seven sins are not explicitly listed in one place in the Bible, there are numerous places in the Bible where lists of virtues are contrasted with lists of sins (for example, Eph 4:25-32 and 5:1-10). Various lists of serious sins were used to teach in the early church. Pope St. Gregory the Great (604 A.D.) is credited with formalizing the list of the seven deadly sins as we know it today.
These seven sins are called “deadly” because they can seriously harm or destroy our relationship with God from our end. This does not mean, however, that the relationship is beyond repair. God remains faithful to his end of the relationship and, even if we destroy it from our end, he holds out to us the opportunity for reconciliation. Through the sacrament of reconciliation and through our ongoing reception of the Eucharist, our intimacy with God can be restored, strengthened, and protected.
Likewise, we can practice virtues that help us to avoid and counter these sins. If sin is a poison, then the virtues are the antidote. While vices are bad habits virtues are good habits. In particular, there are seven virtues (humility, kindness, gentleness, generosity, temperance, chastity and zeal), known as the contrary virtues that can counter the effects of the seven deadly sins. These virtues are grounded in the traditional seven virtues of faith, hope and love (theological virtues) and prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance (cardinal virtues).
The virtue of humility can help us to counteract the sin of pride. Like Mary, we are called to magnify or glorify the Lord, not ourselves. The virtue of kindness (gratitude) can help us to counteract the sin of envy. By being thankful for what we have and showing kindness to others, we can overcome envy.
The virtue of gentleness (patience) can help us to counteract the sin of anger. Anger is often expressed without thinking. Gentleness and patience allow us to pause and think before we act. The virtue of generosity can help us to counteract the sin of avarice. When we recognize that God’s abundant creation is intended for all, we can come to share rather than to hoard.
The virtue of temperance can help us to counteract the sin of gluttony. Temperance is at the heart of the well-known phrase “eat to live instead of live to eat.” The virtue of chastity can help us to counteract the sin of lust. We are not called to repress desires but to recognize that all of our desires are ultimately a desire for the joy we find when in union with God.
The virtue of zeal (diligence) can help us to counteract the sin of sloth. Relationships require work. Our relationship with God deserves diligent work on our part to remain alert to God’s movement in our lives.
Of course, the plane I was flying on eventually landed and my feet once again touched the ground. Gravity prevailed. It was inevitable. Sin, however, is not inevitable. Although we may reject God’s grace by choosing poor substitutes, the grace of God is not withdrawn. We can continue to soar — allowing ourselves to be lifted up into the divine life of God by living according to his loving will.
Paprocki is national consultant for faith formation at Loyola Press in Chicago and is the author of “A Well-Built Faith: A Catholic’s Guide to Knowing and Sharing What We Believe” (Loyola Press).