For churches that follow a traditional liturgical calendar, the season of Lent is the period of preparation for the celebration and commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In most churches it is in principle a 40-day period, though precisely how those 40 days are counted varies tremendously. What does not vary, however, is the purpose of the season: it is intended to be a time of self-examination and repentance, recognizing that Jesus went to the Cross because of what each one of us individually has done.
The beginning of Lent is an appropriate time to begin a series on vices and virtues, that is, on habits of life that lead us either away from God or toward Him, that make us either a worse, more evil person or a better person. In this series, we will examine a group of vices known traditionally as the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Gluttony, Greed, and Lust. Each of these is an orientation of our heart and life that leads us into sin and ever further from God. We will look at what the sins are and how they operate.
But simply knowing about sins is not the same as dealing with them, and so we will also examine ways to root them out of our lives. Since you cannot replace something with nothing, this will lead us to a discussion of virtues and associated practices that can counteract the effects of the sinful passions in our lives. The traditional list of these virtues includes Humility, Gratitude, Patience, Diligence, Temperance, Generosity, and Chastity.
From Temptation to Enslavement
Before we delve into specific sins, however, it will be helpful to look at the dynamics by which sin enters our lives and turns into a vice that controls our behavior. Our guide here is the Orthodox monk Fr. Maximos of Mt. Athos.
Fr. Maximos said that sin begins as a logismos, a tempting thought. A comprehensive catalog or logismoi was first compiled by Evagrius Ponticus (c.346-399) in 375. He listed eight: gluttony, fornication, avarice, sorrow, discouragement, anger, vainglory, and pride. The first three were sins of the flesh and the most easily dealt with. The next three were sins of attitude and were more difficult. The last two were sins of the heart. They were at the root of all the others and were the hardest to extirpate.
In 590, Pope Gregory the Great revised the list, placing vainglory under pride, combining sorrow and discouragement as sloth, and adding envy to produce the Seven Deadly Sins as we know them today.
The first step on the road to sin is when our minds suffer the assault of a logismos. This is not yet sin, however. As Martin Luther is reported to have said, temptations are like birds: you can’t prevent them from flying around your head, but you can prevent them from making a nest in your hair. In other words, being tempted is not sinning.
The next step according to Fr. Maximos is interaction: we begin to entertain the thought in our minds. Rather than turn away from it, we think about it, consider it, ponder it…. At this point, the logismos is becoming more and more dangerous.
According to Fr. Maximos, if we limit ourselves to interaction, we have not yet fallen into sin, though you could make a case from the Sermon on the Mount that even here we have begun sinning. For Fr. Maximos, the next step, consent, is where sin happens: we give in to the temptation and follow the prompting of the logismos. When most people think of sin, this is what comes to mind: concrete action that we take in response to temptation that violates God’s instructions for how we are to live.
This is not the final step, however. By giving in to sin, we make ourselves more susceptible to the logismos in the future. In this stage, which Fr. Maximos calls defeat or captivity, we give more and more control over our behavior to the temptation and it becomes harder and harder to resist.
As we consent to the sin more and more, eventually it becomes a passion or obsession. At this point it is firmly embedded in our mind and heart and controls much of our lives and behavior.
Concerning the last two steps, consider Ps. 19. After showing the ways that God reveals Himself in nature and in the Law, the Psalmist moves to contemplating his response to God. In verse 12, he prays for protection from hidden sins, that is, sins that he might commit without even knowing it. Then in vs. 13, he prays against presumptuous sins—sins he commits knowing full well what he is doing. He prays for grace not to commit these so that they do not get dominion over him. The more we sin presumptuously, the more power we give the sin over us and our behavior. We literally sell ourselves into slavery to the sin, which takes dominion over our lives.
But the situation is even worse than that. When one logismos begins to have dominion over us, it tends to bring the others in with it. Thus, for example, a person given to lust may be angry at failing to obtain the object of his desire, may be greedy because he sees wealth as an aphrodisiac, may envy another their spouse, may be proud of his conquests, and so on. Early modern theologians believed that when one sinful passion was present, all were present, but that one was the ruling passion that provided the framework for all the others.
Dealing with Sin
Fr. Maximos’s explanation of the development of sin is very helpful as a tool for evaluating our weaknesses and our behavior, and it gives us a guide for recognizing and dealing with temptation: the sooner on the road we catch it, the easier it is to keep it from progressing. Interestingly enough, when a logismos is recognized, the best thing to do with it according to Fr. Maximos is to ignore it. If we turn our mind away from it, it cannot progress further down the road to sin.
The difficulty we face is recognizing the logismos for what it is.
We live in a culture that does not recognize many of the Seven Deadly Sins as sins, but even celebrates them, arguing that they are natural, good, or are important for psychological health
The Bible says otherwise and assuming that we know better than either the human or divine authors of Scripture is itself an example of the sin of Pride, which refuses to recognize an authority above itself, including ultimately God Himself.
A further difficulty comes from dealing with sin that has defeated us or that has become a passion. How do we break its hold on us?
Through the Holy Spirit, it is possible, but it is generally a synergistic activity. We need to struggle ourselves with the sin even as the Spirit works within us. The basic principle is traditionally stated as contraries are cured by contraries, that is, if you want to get one thing out of your life, you must practice its opposite. This was one of the original roots of the idea of penance: the penance imposed was less punishment for sin and more correction of behavior so that you would develop the appropriate virtues to replace the vices.
To put it differently, we must learn to practice virtues that act as counter-measures to our vices. And as we habituate ourselves to the practice of these virtues, the power of the vice in our life gradually weakens until its hold over us is broken.