They are often referred to as the Seven Deadly Sins, though this is something of a misnomer. Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust are more correctly called the Seven Capital Sins from the Latin capitas, or head, because they are not so much direct actions as attitudes or “habits of mind.” As such these habits may predispose one to more concrete sinful activities. These are the root or source of particular sins. One does not commit a direct act of envy, for instance, but envy in the heart can lead to malicious gossip, lying to discredit or harm another’s reputation, sabotaging a co-worker’s promotion, or even murder. These seven deadly dispositions are the underlying, root causes of many evils. They are the motive power behind sinful actions.
Because these seven pathological attitudes lurk deep in the heart and soul of man they have great potential to corrupt. Genesis itself attests to such evil spirits lurking within through the story of Cain and Abel. God warns Cain even before he has sinned, “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well you can hold up your head, but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is towards you, yet you can be his master.” (Gen. 4:6-7) Pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust are seven demons lurking at the door of every human mind and heart. But God also promises that we are not powerless to resist such demons for he assures us, like Cain, “yet you can be their master.”
Still, these are very powerful spirits which can easily become the seven pathways to hell for any person. We must resist such spirits or tendencies while they are still in the heart, and before they express themselves outwardly, for once they have brought forth their ugly fruits it is too late to resist. The real battle is an interior struggle, deep within each human heart. “You have heard that it was said: You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt. 5:27-28)
Although I have compared these seven capital sins to seven roads leading into hell in my title, that analogy is somewhat imprecise. In actuality we should imagine those seven pathways more as multiple lanes on a busy highway. Like a modern superhighway these lanes all flank one another and we can easily cross from one to another. Think of slower lanes on the right with adjoining faster lanes on the left where the cars speed along at a dizzying pace. Centuries before modern toll roads existed our Lord used a similar imagery. “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter through it. How narrow the gate and restricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. (Mt. 7:13-14)
So, let us examine those seven lanes to see just how they support, and accommodate one another. The inside lane is the fastest and potentially most dangerous to one’s spiritual health. That lane is called Pride. Pride is not only the deadliest capital sin but perhaps the most permeating as well. Pride places the self at the very center of one’s universe. I become my own idol. There is no other good greater than myself. Now, the naturally ordered love of self is a good thing for we cannot love another if we despise ourselves (which is actually an inverted form of pride). But self-love becomes a tyrannical craving if separated from its proper context, which is to exist within a universe of “other” beings. The “I” only has true meaning as it relates to others, and especially that supreme “Other” who is God. Pride denies this essential dependency upon others and upon God. It is lawless, not unlike a driver who brazenly defies any speed limit that might constrain his personal sense of freedom, that is until his car has a fatal encounter with a highway abutment. In one form or another pride influences and under-girds every other sin because it places the “self” above any other good or consideration. It is therefore an idolatry.
Moving over one lane on the capital sin highway we encounter Envy. Envy is pride’s wannabe brother, driven by the same abiding belief in the absolute primacy of the self. Envy is filled with pride but lacks pride’s self confidence. A nagging insecurity causes envy to resent those who appear to be more successful, or perhaps better looking, or more gifted. Unable to tolerate such unfair competition, envy turns to brooding and jealous rage. Envy may sidle up to and even flatter such people, but not out of genuine admiration. Envy’s true aim is to put such people in their proper places when the opportunity arises. Envy hates the good in others and refuses to see any redeeming qualities in “the competition.” It develops an attitude of sour grapes at best, or plans for the premeditated undermining and destruction of any rival at its worst. Envy is pride seasoned with a generous dash of self-doubt. It wins only by assuring that others will lose.
As we nudge over another lane the traffic starts to thicken. Here we discover the true meaning of road rage for we have entered the domain of Wrath. This particular capital sin is often mis-characterized as “anger.” But true anger is a perfectly valid human emotion. God himself shows anger in the Bible, yet always in measured and justified amounts. Wrath is a particular form of anger, not the natural emotion but proceeding from a prideful heart. For wrath is a “vengeful” anger that resides deep in the mind and soul. Healthy anger is not vengeful, rather it is corrective. Wrath broods on injury until it can think of nothing but repaying injury for injury. Like envy, it is steeped in pride. Therefore it is cold and calculating (unlike emotional anger which can be disproportionately hot-headed and even rash at times). Wrath has but one aim; to extract its “pound of flesh” from any and all perceived offenders. Anger can forgive; wrath is unforgiving.
Another lane change brings us to the very center of this highway to hell. The middle lane is a far more comfortable place to drive. Traffic has slowed considerably to a sane, leisurely pace. A cool breeze blows freshly on the face as we enjoy the passing scenery, casually sipping a soothing cup of java. Life is good, cruising along and daydreaming about our professional success. We anticipate the inviting summer cottage near the seashore where we will soon be reclining on comfortable deck chairs, sipping a cool gin and tonic. Welcome to the world of Sloth. But how can enjoying life’s legitimate pleasures to the fullest be at the root of sin, you may ask? We earned all these little pleasures by our own hard work after all. Only the sourest puritan could attribute sin to such innocent enjoyment.
Personal enjoyment is hardly a pertinent question, however, because even Christ attended feasts and festivals. Unlike the other capital sins, sloth is not manifested by what we actually do but rather by the good things we fail to do. Sloth’s signature trait is sins of omission, not sins of commission. Sloth is a spirit of neglect, particularly of spiritual duties. Compared to the bad fruits of pride, envy, and wrath such neglect would seem incredibly benign. So you forgot to pick up your kids at school or do the dishes as promised. No big deal, right? After all, no one has intentionally gone out of his way to hurt anyone. We all pay our taxes and drop a few bucks into some non-profit cause every now and then; maybe we even help out at a soup kitchen once a month.
Sloth is more than forgetfulness. It is a desire to rest comfortably in the middle, to blend in and avoid controversy of any sort; especially if that might require a sincere commitment to some principle. Religious duties are seemingly satisfied by attending church once a week, monthly, or yearly just to remind God that we are still on the rolls. But if the local public school is foisting a pornographic sex-ed program on one’s kids, or a new abortion mill opens up a few blocks away, such things do not seem to concern us. Get on with your own life and ignore the rest.
Sloth is perhaps the most insidious capital sin because it implies no resistance to anything. In fact it is the will not to resist ─ even the gravest evil. One simply turns the conscience off when convenience demands. Like carbon monoxide it poisons its victims slowly, effortlessly, painlessly. One simply drifts off into an apparently peaceful yet endless sleep. Sloth is spiritual euthanasia. That is why Scripture sternly warns, “I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth. (Rev. 3:15-16)
In this age of great material comforts sloth is perhaps the most dangerous yet least recognized of the capital sins. Sandwiched between the spiritual sins ─ pride, envy, wrath ─ and the carnal sins which we will soon visit ─ avarice, gluttony, and lust ─ sloth huddles almost invisibly, concealed under a cozy blanket of indifference. It is neither intellectual nor sensual but straddles the divide between truth and falsehood. Its greatest modern manifestation is the moral and spiritual relativism which is so pervasive in today’s culture. It is moral laziness which suffocates any sense of righteousness. Its poisonous mantra is heard quite often today: “Who am I to judge?”
As we merge into the next lane over we encounter those capital sins which broadly appeal to our carnal, bodily natures. The first of these is called Avarice, or more commonly Greed. Avarice is what compels our consumerist culture to ever more extravagant heights. For Americans especially, avarice can be indistinguishable from consumer economics. The motto of consumerism could well read, “Yesterday’s luxuries are today’s necessities. Today’s luxuries will become tomorrow’s necessities.” If you doubt it look at one simple invention, the smart-phone.
Consumerism is often described as a frenzy and rightly so. It can cause one to lose any reasonable perspective on what we really need to live and survive. Greed is never satisfied and so “more” becomes one’s very reason to exist. Nor is greed something that only big bucks capitalists indulge in; it extends its tentacles through all levels of society. Consumerism is not the only form that avarice takes but it is surely its most common form in Western societies. Consumerism is aptly named because of its potential to “consume” all one’s time, energy, and affections as we become more and more possessed by those things that we possess. Left unchallenged it can consume our very souls as well.
A cautionary true story about avarice: Just recently a 56 year old investment banker hurled himself through a 24th story window to his death. This individual was an extremely intelligent multi-millionaire with a beautiful family. They owned a $35 million town house on the upper east side of Manhattan and he was actively employed by a major hedge fund. But apparently this man had become obsessed with a fear that there were no more rich deals out there to exploit. He only saw himself as a Midas who had lost his golden touch. Although in no imminent danger of losing the millions he had amassed, a brooding sense that he had “peaked” haunted him and drove him into a deep depression. Even his wife and children were of little solace because any real meaning in his life seemed to center on one thing, making money.
No matter how successful one becomes the obsessive desire for “more” always seems to lurk within the human heart. This is because the heart in fact has a limitless appetite. We were made to possess the infinite God and that is what we truly desire. But when the heart turns the search away from this divine object to seek after material goods, it becomes frustrated and ultimately disappointed. Avarice is the tendency to substitute things for God. That becomes a fatal substitution spiritually, and sometimes even bodily. Truly, no man can serve two masters.
The biological equivalent of avarice is called Gluttony, and so this capital sin is located in an adjoining lane on the highway to hell. Like the mind, the body also craves fulfillment in the form of rich food and drink. Today’s fast-food culture of super-sized meals, binge drinking every weekend, and the alarming rise in obesity among Americans, especially children, all testify to the increasing popularity of gluttony. But since the body also craves more than it can possibly process we see a related phenomenon: massive food waste, amounting to 40% or more in a typical restaurant. Material prosperity is often a strong inducement to gluttony in a society just as it was for ancient Rome. But there is an antidote to the reckless consumption of food and drink which is called temperance.
The seventh and final capital sin, Lust, has the distinction of claiming the widest audience. Lust’s broad appeal may stem from the fact that it is hard-wired into our bodily natures. Like gluttony, lust springs from a fundamental human appetite. Without that sexual appetite it is safe to assume that our race would have died out long ago. But it is an extremely fine line that separates our sexual appetites, which are basically good, from lust which becomes a corrosive and debilitating habit. Consequently this is the busiest lane on the highway. Sitting at the far right edge of the roadway it also serves as an entry lane onto the highway. Consequently, lust is where many young people first set foot on the highway to hell.
The sexual appetite, like every bodily appetite, must be tempered or else it will run amok under its own volition. But as we now live in a very intemperate society one can witness the popularity of lust in every area of life. The sexual revolution has in fact become the defining social phenomenon of our times. Casual sex, adultery, and homosexuality are now defended as basic human rights instead of being regarded for what they are, the excesses of inflamed libidos. The most alarming sign of lust gone viral, however, is the explosion of pornography which, ironically, is still unable to satisfy any natural sexual urge. Instead it lures its victims into a perpetual cat and mouse game of heightened but unsatisfied lust. No matter how much one feeds lust, it always leaves one clamoring for more. Can you see a correlation with avarice and gluttony where one can never quite get enough?
The common denominator in this trio of capital sins is that they collectively induce one to “use people and love things.” This is in direct contradiction to the Christian Gospel which teaches just the opposite: that we should “love people and use things.” That is why these three appetite-driven capital sins huddle together on their own side of the highway. Like the other capital sins they are not actions per se but attitudes ─ habits of the mind ─ that produce actual sins in turn. Just as our Lord warned, “the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, un-chastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person.” (Mt. 15:18-20)
The premier capital sin will always be pride and so there is an element of pride that runs through all the others because each, in its own way, is wholly self-centered. But there is an antidote to these seven “habits of mind” which constantly conspire to lead us into sin. Opposed to the capital sins are seven “capital” virtues that form a highway running in the opposite direction of the expressway to hell. That antidote is composed of four natural and three theological virtues. Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude, called the Cardinal virtues, are reinforced by the Theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. These seven virtues, representing alternate “habits of the mind,” have the power to lead us down another highway which ends in heaven. Granted, it is a much tougher, narrower pathway than the other, but with patient endurance it leads to a much happier outcome than the infernal expressway ever could.
In truth there is an eighth “bonus” virtue called humility which seamlessly binds those seven golden virtues together. Humility is God’s response to that primal source of every sin: pride. Humility is the virtue which conquers the self, just as pride is the vice that exalts the self. Consider that without humility there would be no Christ, no cross, and no salvation. It is an essential ingredient of that highest and greatest virtue, love. It is equally indispensable to faith, hope, and the four cardinal virtues. Humility is what ultimately defeats pride and thereby conquers sin in all its forms. It is the fullest expression of love.
St. Paul captured this reality most sublimely in his Letter to the Philippians. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself, and took the form of a slave, appearing in human likeness. Thus he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Because of this God greatly exalted him and freely bestowed upon him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in the heavens and on the earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father, Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Phil. 2:6-11)
Francis J. Pierson + a.m.d.g.
Thanks Fran. Great article!
Thanks, Fran. I appreciate you writing this in the way you did – Highway to Hell vs. the Highway to Heaven. You might also enjoy the Pope’s TED talk at https://www.ted.com/talks/pope_francis_why_the_only_future_worth_building_includes_everyone