Editor's note:

In this unusu­al sea­son of social dis­tanc­ing, dis­rup­tion, and deep health and eco­nom­ic con­cerns, many of us are dis­cov­er­ing dis­heart­en­ing cracks in our per­son­al­i­ties. Jokes on social media about binge eat­ing, drink­ing, or series-watch­ing make us laugh because they are so telling. News out­lets report that both pornog­ra­phy usage and gun sales have spiked — two evi­dences of the unhealthy ways humans attempt to deal with bore­dom on the one hand and pro­found anx­i­ety on the oth­er.

On the flip side, there is also the hope­ful sense that the cur­rent dis­rup­tion could be a chance to reset direc­tion or cul­ti­vate some new habits. When the online learn­ing plat­form Cours­era adver­tised a free Yale course called The Sci­ence of Well­be­ing: Psy­chol­o­gy and the Good Life,” over 2.2 mil­lion peo­ple enrolled. There is a deep hunger to live a right­ly-ordered life, and a sense that this cul­tur­al moment could be a defin­ing one.

Both the per­ils and the promise of this sea­son have made us want to go back to the ancient-but-more-rel­e­vant-than-ever school of thought that exam­ines vice and virtue in the light of God’s love and His desire to heal and trans­form us. Our friend Dr. Rebec­ca Konyn­dyk DeY­oung has writ­ten help­ful­ly and exten­sive­ly on this top­ic, includ­ing what’s below. She also joined Chris Hall and Car­olyn Arends in a webi­nar on the top­ic, which was recorded.

—Renovaré Team

A col­league once gave a chapel talk com­par­ing the rhythms of the spir­i­tu­al life to jump­ing on a tram­po­line. On the first few bounces, you sink and rise only a lit­tle. As you gain momen­tum, how­ev­er, the force of your down­ward weight push­es you low­er and low­er, while the buoy­an­cy of the tramp pro­pels you high­er and high­er. He com­pared this dynam­ic to fac­ing the depths of our sin, which then serves as a spring­board for ris­ing to grasp the heights of God’s mer­cy. Like­wise, the high­er you drop from — that is, the more aware you are of the lim­it­less reach of God’s gra­cious and lov­ing embrace — the low­er you can go — unveil­ing lay­ers sin fur­ther and fur­ther beneath the sur­face. This might help explain why some of the great­est saints have such a dark view of their own hearts, while at the same time appear­ing to be beau­ti­ful­ly sanc­ti­fied peo­ple full of trust and joy. Their height­ened sense of their beloved­ness in Christ makes pos­si­ble the depths of their contrition.

As the author of the book Glit­ter­ing Vices, it may seem iron­ic to say that I hope that your atten­tion isn’t ulti­mate­ly focused on your own sin­ful­ness. Reflec­tion on the vices is one part of the prac­tice of self-exam­i­na­tion, but that prac­tice must first and always be framed by the love of God, which stead­fast­ly holds us. Pro­ceed in the con­fi­dence that when we con­fess our sin­ful nature and die to sin, it is only a pre­lude to God’s cre­ation of a beau­ti­ful new life in us. 

There seem to be three com­mon approach­es to the vices in our mod­ern the cul­ture. The first treats the vices as a joke. Thanks to the inter­net, I found every­thing from a key­board-short­cuts ver­sion of the sev­en (com­mit them all at work!), to col­or-cod­ed wrist­bands (“flaunt your fatal flaw!”), to a wine named The Sev­en Dead­ly Zins” (yes, it’s a Zin­fan­del — and delicious!)

The sec­ond approach, with equal dis­re­gard for their seri­ous­ness, treats the sins as some sil­ly reli­gious arti­fact best left in the dusty past — for exam­ple, in Wicked Plea­sures, philoso­pher Robert Solomon intro­duces the infa­mous sev­en with this description: 

Among the man-made evils in the world, the dead­ly’ sins bare­ly jig­gle the scales of jus­tice, and it’s hard to imag­ine why God would both­er to raise a celes­tial eye­brow about them; in oth­er words, why they would rate as sins at all….[W]e are still left with the odd por­trait of a God of infi­nite con­cerns and capac­i­ties being both­ered by a bloke who can’t get out of bed [sloth], or takes one too many peeks at a naughty Play­boy pic­to­r­i­al [lust], or scarfs down three extra jel­ly dough­nuts [glut­tony], or has a nasty thought about his neigh­bor [envy].

The third approach, exem­pli­fied in cer­tain Chris­t­ian books and ser­mons I’ve read, takes God’s judg­ment for sin seri­ous­ly enough but is woe­ful­ly short on grace. More­over, these treat­ments had lit­tle or no sense of the his­to­ry of the church or the his­to­ry of the vices, and they did not attempt to con­tex­tu­al­ize the vices’ role with­in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. Their fin­ger-point­ing sim­ply left you, the sin­ner, wal­low­ing in guilt.

In con­trast, I wrote Glit­ter­ing Vices because I want­ed to take sin seri­ous­ly, and to take the his­to­ry of Chris­t­ian reflec­tion and wis­dom on the spir­i­tu­al life seri­ous­ly, and to do so with­out a moral­is­tic tone of blam­ing and sham­ing the sin­ful,” since I felt like I was right in the mid­dle of the same strug­gles myself. But what to do about it? 

John Stott once said, Holi­ness is not a con­di­tion into which we can drift.” Grow­ing up, I inher­it­ed a faith for­ma­tion with a heavy empha­sis on jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, but a lit­tle too thin on sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion. The char­ac­ter for­ma­tion talk I dis­cov­ered first through my philo­soph­i­cal stud­ies turned out to be a spir­i­tu­al break­through. What I learned helped me think more clear­ly and inten­tion­al­ly about cul­ti­vat­ing Christ­like char­ac­ter as a life­long prac­tice. The ancient Greeks called the ongo­ing and inten­tion­al prac­tice of virtue a way of life”; Dal­las Willard once described Jesus as appren­tic­ing stu­dents in the mas­ter class of life”; you might know this process sim­ply as discipleship.

And yet our life­long vir­tu­ous prac­tice is also and ulti­mate­ly a work of grace. The New Tes­ta­ment uses both active and pas­sive voice Make every effort” (2 Peter 1) but also Be trans­formed” (Romans 12). Study­ing our sin­ful dis­or­der and defor­ma­tion should lead us to spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines (our efforts) that open us to receive God’s gra­cious pow­er (God’s work). Grace-empow­ered prac­tice reorders our desires, con­forms our char­ac­ter to Christ, and trans­forms our lives.

As we explore the vices, we seek to empha­size the graced dis­ci­plines” side of our study. Such trans­for­ma­tive prac­tices are the way we take off the old nature and its prac­tices” (the vices) and clothe our­selves in Christ­like­ness” (the virtues; Col. 3, see also Eph. 4). 

The list of sev­en vices turns our atten­tion toward habit­u­al sins, or pat­terns in our char­ac­ter. It is help­ful to focus on how those habits of mind and heart make us unwill­ing and unable to give and receive the love God made us for. Why take sin seri­ous­ly? If noth­ing else, because it is self-destruc­tive. It cuts us off from the beau­ti­ful life and gifts God offers us in Christ. Self-exam­i­na­tion through the lens of vice helps us see our habits for what they are and the dam­age they do, with­in and without.

The writer of Proverbs puts it this way:

For our ways are in full view of the Lord,
and he exam­ines all our paths.
The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them,
The cords of sin hold them fast.
They will die for lack of dis­ci­pline,
led astray by their own great fol­ly. (Prov. 5: 21 – 23)

The wis­dom lit­er­a­ture in Scrip­ture teach­es us about two ways to live — the way of life, led by wis­dom, and the way of death, led by fol­ly. Sin blinds us to the true good. Sin binds us and holds us back. Although we can’t always see it, choos­ing to live bound and suf­fo­cat­ed is sheer fool­ish­ness. Through Christ and the dis­ci­plines that redi­rect us by his Spir­it, we can be free. The point of it all is the abun­dant life Jesus came to give us. 

Why these sev­en vices? They’re cer­tain­ly not the worst sins, or even the most harm­ful to oth­ers. Thomas Aquinas explains that these sev­en are sin­gled out because they con­cern goods or areas of life that we think promise us hap­pi­ness. Since every­one wants to be hap­py, and pride moti­vates us to seek hap­pi­ness for our­selves on our own terms, these are typ­i­cal places sin is eas­i­ly nour­ished and fos­tered. Avarice con­cerns pro­vi­sion and pos­ses­sion; lust con­cerns sex­u­al plea­sure; envy con­cerns self-worth and esteem from oth­ers; glut­tony con­cerns the plea­sure of con­sum­ing and being filled; wrath con­cerns hon­or, con­trol, and get­ting what’s deserved; vain­glo­ry con­cerns being known and loved by oth­ers; and sloth con­cerns com­mit­ment and the effort we need to sus­tain it.

The main prob­lem is that don’t want to receive these good (cre­at­ed) things as gifts from God. That’s pride speak­ing. The rea­son there’s no chap­ter devot­ed to pride in the book is because it would be redun­dant — pride is the tired old pat­tern behind all the oth­ers. Pride priv­i­leges our view of what’s good and our own efforts to get it in the way we see fit. It is the antithe­sis of the trust­ing depen­dence that Christ and the dis­ci­plines teach.

The same vice list has last­ed for cen­turies because human beings peren­ni­al­ly tend to fall into the same pride­ful traps. As Fred­er­ick Buech­n­er once put it,

Greed, glut­tony, lust, envy, [and] pride are no more than sad efforts to fill the emp­ty place where love belongs, and anger and sloth [are] just two things that may hap­pen when you find that not even all sev­en of them at their dead­liest ever can. 

We human beings are a hope­less­ly bro­ken record when it comes to sin. As a child, I used to find myself frus­trat­ed read­ing the Old Tes­ta­ments sto­ries of Israel: What is wrong with those peo­ple? Can’t they see what God has done over and over for them? Why do they keep going back to the same dumb idols? Study­ing and writ­ing about vice was a lit­tle bit like look­ing in the mir­ror and find­ing anoth­er frus­trat­ing Israelite look­ing back at me. Maybe you can relate! None of us are immune to these temp­ta­tions. They are all painful­ly familiar.

One rea­son the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion puts humil­i­ty at the cen­ter of the spir­i­tu­al life is because this virtue enables us to see our­selves clear­ly as both depen­dent crea­tures and sin­ners in need of res­cue. Our fun­da­men­tal pos­ture toward God in humil­i­ty is one of utter reliance on grace. The anti­dote to a life warped by vice is not a Chris­tian­ized self-help Cul­ti­vate-More-Virtue pro­gram! It’s a life utter­ly depen­dent on the Spirit’s gra­cious work in us. 

My hope is that fac­ing these vices will reveal the pow­er of pride and sin in our lives so that we bring our bro­ken selves to God for heal­ing. (Note the par­al­lels to the first sev­er­al of Alco­holics Anonymous’s 12 steps.) The best prayer when con­fronting our own fail­ings might be sim­ply, Kyrie elei­son; Christ, have mer­cy” — or in the ancient words found in the litur­gy: God, make speed to save us! O Lord, make haste to help us.” 

My wise and beloved friend Sharon Gar­lough Brown once called read­ing my book Glit­ter­ing Vices spir­i­tu­al heart surgery.” It can be daunt­ing to see how dam­aged our hearts are. We are com­fort­ed to know that the surgery is being done by the one the desert fathers and moth­ers loved to call the Physi­cian of Souls. Sub­mis­sion to this surgeon’s lov­ing hands brings us clos­er to being well and being made whole. 

What do you want from me?” Jesus asks.
May our reply also be, Lord, I want to be well.”

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Orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten for the Ren­o­varé Book Club as an intro­duc­tion to a six-week study on Glit­ter­ing Vices (Bra­zos Press, 2009). This essay has been mod­i­fied from its orig­i­nal version.

Pho­to by Michael Liao on Unsplash

Originally published December 2018