Introductory 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.”

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

Text First Published December 2018 · Last Featured on April 2020

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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