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Half-truths are often the worst lies. It’s hard to think of an innocent half-truth. Their whole purpose is to deceive. They hide lies behind a portion of truth. Like a magician’s slight-of-hand, a half-truth directs our attention away from what we aren’t intended to see.
Among the seven deadly sins, lust is the most obvious half-truth and therefore, the greatest deception. It represents sin’s slight of hand.
To see my point, we have to understand the proper connection between sex and love. Our society conflates the two. We use the expressions “having sex” and “making love” in the same way. To society at large, their meanings are close enough to be used interchangeably. In a biblical world view, sex and love are related, but not identical.
Love is patient and kind. It is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It’s not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never fails. (Of course you recognize the teachings of Paul in I Corinthians 13.)
When a couple loves each other this way and commits to each other for a lifetime, sex is the physical communication of their commitment in its highest form. Despite some flawed “Christian” views of sex, in this context, the context of marriage, sex is good.
Lust’s slight of hand tries to convince people that sex is always good, even when divorced from love, commitment, and marriage. It’s half-truth says that we can divorce the physical from the personal. From the biblical point of view, however, “casual sex” is an oxymoron. In this regard lust always fails. It can’t deliver the fulfillment it promises because it has come unmoored from it’s natural and necessary anchor, which is commitment. It becomes, what Eric Fromm calls, a “joyless pleasure.” (Think about that expression for a few minutes. It can describe binge eating, substance abuse, pornography addiction, and the hollowness of sex for the sake of sex. I find it revealing and haunting. See Fromm’s To Have or to Be, p. 100)
This is why lust always fails.
Here are some insightful quotes on lust.
Quoting Malcolm Muggeridge: “Christianity…does not say that, in spite of appearances, we are all murderers or burglars or crooks or sexual perverts at heart; it does not say that we are totally depraved, in the sense that we are incapable of feeling or responding to any good impulses whatever. The truth is much deeper and more subtle than that. It is precisely when you consider the best in man that you see there is in each of us a hard core of pride or self-centeredness which corrupts our best achievements and blights our best experiences. It comes out in all sorts of ways—in the jealousy which spoils our friendships, in the vanity we feel when we have done something pretty good, in the easy conversion of love into lust, in the meanness which makes us depreciate the efforts of other people, in the distortion of our own judgment by our own self-interest, in our fondness for flattery and our resentment of blame, in our self-assertive profession of fine ideals which we never begin to practice. Philip Yancey in Rumors of Another World, pp.123 ff
“When you have indulged a lust, your wing drops off;
you become lame, abandoned by a fantasy.
…People fancy they are enjoying themselves,
but they are really tearing out their wings
for the sake of an illusion.” Rumi
“There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows far too little.” John Paul II
Lust and disgust keep close company. John Updike
The week I preached on this sin I conducted anecdotal research to see how many people thought they were prone to greed. Few people did. They admitted to anger, envy, and gluttony, but no one confessed a problem with greed. A few attributed greed to others, but not to themselves.
These isolated responses backed up my assumption: the face of greed has changed and few of us see it as a spiritual problem affecting us. The old image of greed is a character like Ebenezer Scrooge, sitting in a cold room, counting gold coins while earing fingerless gloves. Occasonal news stories back up our image when we hear of a woman in Detroit who was found frozen to death in an unheated house. Later authorities discover she had hundred’s of thousands of dollars in her bank account.
Or, we visualize Michael Douglas in the nearly 30-year old movie, Wall Street, saying “Greed is good.” Greed is something that afflicts hermits who count their money, or Wall Street “fat cats,” none of whom we identify with. Therefore, greed is someone else’s problem, not ours. Anyone teaching or preaching on greed today must overcome the listeners’ rationalizations of why they are not greedy. We need images of greed that fit our generation.
One modern portrayal of greed is shopping. People joke about it all the time: with number stickers such as “shop until you drop,” shopaholic,” or simply “gone shopping.” Our greed is not counted in gold coins, but in pairs of shoes or tech items. We don’t keep the objects of our greed in bank accounts but in rental storage units because there is no longer any room in our homes. We find sweaters or shirts in the bottom of a drawer that we forgot we had purchased. Older relatives die and we find item after item in the house – unused and with the price tags still affixed. We can’t stop shopping or spending on ourselves. We must possess – and that impulse is greed.
The second way the greed of our generation expresses itself: the more we have the less we give. We convince ourselves we will be more generous when we have more, but statistics show that as we have more, we give away a decreasing percentage of what is ours. Does spending more on ourselves imply generosity or greed?
Greed is a product of fear, often the fear of not having enough. The financial industry preys on this fear all the time: you won’t have enough to retire, or to send children to college, etc.
Or fear may express itself as the anxiety of missing out on what everyone else has. Consider how many times we hear the word “deserve” in advertising. We deserve what others have, so we must spend on ourselves.
What a terrible way to live. The anxious life of greed reveals its toxic nature. It is a “deadly” sin because it murders joy.
Consider a better way:
Matthew 6: 25-34 (ESV)
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Trusting God is the antidote for greed.
Perhaps both are one and the same: the greed with which we cling to what we should let go, and the fear of letting go. Fear tells us that things might take a turn for the worse. A sparrow in one’s hand is better than a pigeon on the rooftop. I am sure of what I possess, but I am not so sure of what I shall receive upon letting go what I have. Emil Brunner in Sowing and Reaping, p. 31
Green is the color of spring. Plants send out new shoots, dormant grasses revive, and trees bud into new life. Green is the color of plant life and those who grow flowers or vegetation well are said to have a green thumb. Green represents life among plants.
So why is the deadly sin of envy associated with the color green? Because in ancient cultures, a shade of green, different from plant life, is connected to death. Look no further than John’s Revelation: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth” (6:8). The word John uses for “pale” is cloros, the root for chlorine. Pour some bleach (Clorox gets it’s name here) into a clear glass and see what color it is. This color is associated with death because after life leaves the body, the corpse turns pale green as red blood cells break down. Before embalming was a common practice, people saw the dead as this color during the decomposition process. Pale green was also associated with various illnesses, particularly those which affected the liver. Pale green is not a color we wish to be. Consequently, Ovid, Chaucer, and Shakespeare all refer to envy as green. Dryden calls jealousy (often associated with envy) the jaundice of the soul. Envy is a deadly, sickening sin.
Angus Wilson points out the irony of envy, the only deadly sin which promises nothing except heartache: “All the seven deadly sins are self destroying, morbid appetites, but in their early stages at least, lust and gluttony, averice and sloth know some gratification, while anger and pride have power, even though that power eventually destroys itself. Envy is impotent, numbed with fear, never ceasing in its appetite, and it knows no gratification, but endless self torment. It has the ugliness of a trapped rat, which gnaws its own foot in an effort to escape” (Seven Deadly Sins, p. 11).
Wilson is correct. Sloth seems to offer rest, greed wealth, lust pleasure, gluttony fullness – but envy promises absolutely nothing except sorrow. It is a moral boomerang that, when thrown at another, returns to us. I cannot find the quotation but remember another say it is like poisoning our enemy’s food, then eating it ourselves. Envy takes the heart out of praise we feel obliged to give a professional colleague. It keeps us silent when we hear a rival unfairly criticized. It makes us quietly glad when that rival fails. It is not a psychological problem which therapy will eliminate; rather, it is a sin for which we need to repent each time it rears it’s toxic head within our hearts.
Here are some additional helps for anyone leading a Bible study or preaching on the sin of envy.
Envy is the root of many familiar biblical stories: Cain and Able, Joseph and his brothers, Saul and David, the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
“His eye was forever fixed on what he didn’t have.” Hugh Howey in The Sand Omnibus (Kindle Locations 2407-2408). .
“Envy is the religion of the mediocre. It comforts them, it soothes their worries, and finally it rots their souls, allowing them to justify their meanness and their greed until they believe these to be virtues. Such people are convinced that the doors of heaven will be opened only to poor wretches like themselves who go through life without leaving any trace but their threadbare attempts to belittle others and to exclude—and destroy if possible—those who, by the simple fact of their existence, show up their own poorness of spirit, mind, and guts.” Denise Mina, in Still Midnight, p. 101 .
Anger. Of course it is a deadly sin. News stories about road rage and disgruntled workers shooting former coworkers remind us of the deep anger which permeates society. Envy has destroyed many relationships and on a national level can lead to war. Surely it is a deadly sin. But Sloth? Really? Are our neighbors sinning because they enjoy extra time in the Jacuzzi? Are our children sinning when they procrastinate? Am I sinning by mindlessly decompressing in front of my iPad? Is sloth that bad?
In fact, as a type A personality, I envy (oops, a deadly sin). people who can relax and not worry Maybe the productive people in our society could use a dose of sloth in order to chill out. Few educated, productive individuals see sloth as a personal problem affecting them, and calling it a sin? Forget about it. No one asks a pastor, “I need help. Can you recommend a good book on sloth?”
In our society we see sloth applying to a class of people: the chronically unemployed, the stereotyped deadbeat welfare recipient, the mythical people we hear about who are on disability when they could work. But those of us who work, those of us with calendars filled with obligations – well, there is no way that sloth is an issue in our lives, and it is certainly not a sin we commit.
Not so fast. A problem in our understanding of sloth is one of translation. What we call sloth was called acedia (in Latin) and connoted much more than laziness. A full recipe for acedia includes 1/2 a cup of laziness, but also contains an equal part of apathy. A-pathos – without emotion – it means we don’t care. Thus, when we mix apathy with laziness, it means we don’t care that we don’t care. The acedia problem becomes more difficult to root out. An individual suffering from acedia finds herself in an unfulfilling job in a job, but doesn’t care enough to look for another. A married couple with acedia finds their relationship barren, but continues to go through the motions because change is too much effort.
But apathy and laziness are only part of the complete recipe. We must also add a stick of boredom and stir thoroughly. Here is James Gleick’s portrayal of boredom:
You are bored doing nothing, so you go for a drive. You are bored, just driving, so you turn on the radio. You are bored just driving and listening to the radio, so you make a call on the cellular phone. You realize that you are now driving, listening to the radio, and talking on the phone, and you are still bored. Then you reflect that it would be nice if you had time, occasionally, just to do nothing. Perhaps you have a kind of sense organ that can adjust to the slowness, after being blinded by the speed. The void is not so dark after all. With the phone not ringing, the television switched off, the computer rebooting, the newspaper out of reach, even the window shade down, you are alone with yourself. The neurons don’t stop firing. Your thoughts come through like distant radio signals finding a hole in the static. (James Gleick, in Faster, p. 268)
Now for the final ingredient in the mixing bowl of acedia: two cups of distraction. At this time of year, our primary distraction is football. We pretend it matters so much because it really matters so little. But it does distract us from real life, meaningful relationships, or involvement in causes that could make a difference. Did you know the word “sport” comes from the Latin disport, which means to distract? The latest mass shooting pales in importance next to Tom Brady’s availability for a fantasy football league. God bless you, Tom Brady. Thanks to deflategate, I don’t have to think about those victims. Or my soul. But sports is only one distraction.
Even our crammed schedules are distractions: 5:00 am – Crossfit; 7:30 am – take kids to school; 7:45 am -work, where I multitask all day; 4:30 pm – take kids to French and fencing lessons, while on a conference call in the car; 5:00 pm – gourmet cooking class; 6:30 pm – drive through Chik-fil-a while on the way to scouts….. And so it goes.
The distracted life is a wasted life and not only do we not care, but we are glad. Secretly, we love our busy-ness because it distracts us from the need to look for God working in the world or to think about how we might invest in the work of the Kingdom.
In the end we have the perfect recipe for purposeless, unfulfilling, unredeeming “life.” We waste our lives on things that don’t matter. We ignore the greater calling of life, lest it demand something of us. Yet, we are bored with it all and not care. As ancient Christians pointed out: we despair of it, but we don’t care enough to repent of it.
Such a life is acedia and such a life is sin, precisely because of its waste and because it is self centered and ignores God. Sloth is not just a sin of an imagined lazy member of of the welfare class; rather it is the sin of all who waste their lives on loves that are too small and causes that are not worthy of our devotion, but serve to protect us from having to respond to the impulse of the Spirit to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and with all our might. The fact we don’t care enough to do anything about it is just a further indictment that the sins ours.
Here are a few quotes that related to acedia:
The word “boredom” does not exist in any ancient language. It first appears in the 17th century. No one knows its origin.
Peter Kreft in Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 187
The Church name the sixth Deadly Sin as Sloth. It is the sin which believes nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.
Dorothy Sayers in Creed or Chaos?, p. 108
The religion that costs nothing, that demands no hard sacrifices of other things, that does not lift the life out of low-level motives, is worth little and makes little difference to the life. The type of religion on the other hand, which costs the all, which makes the cross the central fact that dominates the life as its one driving power, becomes an incalculable force and turns many to salvation.
Rufus Jones in The World Within, p. 43
From The Seven Deadly Sins, Wilson Angus, editor:
The malice of sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty, but in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair. p. 58.
Fiction and non-fiction alike are full of characters who fail to do what they should because of the effort involved. p. 19
Sloth is the background radiation of the day. It is the easy listening station of the culture. It is everywhere and no longer noticed. p. 20
Recently I’ve been preaching a sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins. Keith Reaves, our Minister of Worship created the graphic, above, for use as our cover to the Sunday order of worship.
I will write a separate post for each sin here at The Substance of Faith. These posts will contain quotations I found helpful, references to books I used, and some insights I gained during study and preparing the sermons.
To get us thinking about this list of sins in this introductory post, I begin with a prayer by Howard Thurman:
Kindle thy light within me, oh God, that I may be guarded against self deception and the vanity that creeps into my spirit where a shadow is cast between me and thy scrutiny. (Meditations of the Heart, p. 159)
When considering the seven deadly sins, we must always guard against self-deception. Maybe we are convicted of lust. But pride? Sloth? Which of us thinks ourselves greedy? I’ve seen one person deny anger through clenched teeth. Therefore preaching on theses sins requires the pastor to overcome the mental caricatures of these sins because listeners use the caricatures to hide behind, denying that the sin fits them. A shadow is cast between us and God’s scrutiny, and that is the way we like it.
For instance, with greed our mental image is someone similar to Ebenezer Scrooge. None of us sit alone in cold rooms, counting stacks of gold coins. Because we don’t fit the mental stereotype, we rest easy with the belief we could not possibly be greedy. That belief is self deception. It is self preservation, for who wants to admit greed? Let the shadow fall between us and and God’s searching eye.
Anyone preaching or teaching on the sins will have to determine what images we use to hide behind, then breech the defenses of the listeners, either by frontal assault or by stealth.
In hindsight, I think I might have named this series “Seven Toxic Sins.” Toxic may communicate their danger better to this generation than Deadly. Who would not want to be warned of a toxic substance in drinking water or the air we breath? These sins are indeed toxic to our souls and they are a part of the ethos of this and every age. People need to be warned for they are in peril.
Finally, one general quote worth considering:
In medieval times, the seven cardinal sins were known to everyone, while nowadays, it is a rare university student who can name the seven. (Peter Kreft, Back to Virtue, p. 9)
People can’t be warned if they don’t know the names of the dangers around them.