Sounds like a question that would have an easy answer, but it’s more involved than it looks! There’s a lot of history behind this list. So sit back, pour yourself a second cup of coffee, and enjoy… (the article, that is, not the sins!)
First it should be mentioned that the Bible itself says nothing about ‘seven deadly sins’ or ‘deadly sins’ in general. In Scripture all sins, even the smallest, are deadly and the antidote is faith in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
Having said that, what is a “deadly sin” and where did the idea come from? Sometime back in the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church made a differentiation between “Cardinal Sins” (sins that could cost a person his or her soul) and “Venial Sins” (which weren’t quite as serious). The idea was that the lesser sins could be taken care of through any of the sacraments but the greater sins required the sacrament of Confession and acts of contrition. It should be understood that the Catholic Church considers participation in any of the sacraments to include repentance on the worshiper’s part and forgiveness on God’s part; the physical sacraments in and of themselves do not ‘magically’ remove sins.
Even before the Middle Ages different theologians had made various lists of the worst sins. The earliest recorded “greatest sins” list, written around the third century, contained eight: gluttony, lust, greed, sorrow, wrath, despair, vainglory, and pride. Around 590AD the list was narrowed down to seven: extravagance, gluttony, greed, discouragement, wrath, envy, and pride. In modern times, the current list recognized by the Roman Catholic Church is: pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth/acedia. In addition a list of the top seven virtues has been created to help identify what one should strive for: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.
The actual meanings of some of these words have changed over time. “Charity” (for example) has little to do with giving money and would be expressed in modern language as “brotherly love”. With this in mind, here’s a closer look at the most modern list of the Seven Deadly Sins:
Pride – “Excessive love of one’s own excellence” is the opening definition given in The Catholic Encyclopedia — which continues, “that frame of mind in which a person, through the love of his own worth, aims to withdraw himself from subjection to God.” Pride is considered by many to be the original sin and the most deadly of the seven, the sin from which all other sins grow. It includes the desire to be more important, more attractive, or better than others, and often includes an inability to acknowledge the good in others. Vainglory (in the earliest list) is considered a form of pride, and includes boasting, vanity, presumption, excessive ambition, and narcissism.
Pride has its roots in contempt of God. Scripture names Pride as the sin for which Lucifer was thrown out of heaven: the desire to compete with or to be equal to God. ([Lucifer said] “I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” (Isaiah 14:14)) Jesus, by contrast, “in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…” (Phil. 2:5-7)
Avarice or Greed – From the Latin avarus, “to crave”, Avarice is often listed as “Greed” in the top-seven list. The definition of avarice includes the sins one commits in planning to satisfy one’s craving for money. Greed is related to Envy and Gluttony in that all three are sins of excess. Greed, however, usually relates directly to wealth, and is the excessive accumulation of (or desire for) money. The foundational sin behind all three sins is making things of this earth — temporal things, destined to pass away — more important than God, or making them into things worth living for. Related to Greed are the sins of bribery, hoarding, and disloyalty.
Envy – Sometimes called Jealousy, Envy is related to Greed but differs in two respects: one, greed is usually associated with material goods, where envy is not necessarily so; and two, in envy, a person resents another person who has something they don’t. The end result of envy is that a person wishes to take away from another what they themselves wish they had. Thomas Aquinas defined envy as “sorrow at another’s well-being“. Envy opposes Love because it fails to rejoice in the good of others. Growing out of envy are the sins of hatred, idolatry, and gossip.
Wrath – Wrath goes beyond just being ticked off about something. It is a deep, abiding rage: hatred and anger spinning out of control, hatred of someone or something that has done nothing to deserve one’s wrath. Wrath is irrational: it can be seen in denial, impatience, a desire for revenge, or a desire to do evil to another. Wrath is considered to be the root cause of the sins of murder, assault, and in some cases genocide. Wrath can also be turned inward into self-destructive behaviors such as self-mutilation and suicide. Wrath is not necessarily a selfish sin, and often works against self-interest; it is at its root a rejection of the good God has created in others and/or in oneself.
Lust – In the original Latin list the word was luxuria, from which we get the word “luxury”. Luxuria included immoral sexual thoughts and acts, but the original meaning was as much the “the lust of the eyes” as “the lust of the flesh”. In some lists this sin was called “extravagance“, and I prefer this translation because it gives insight into the nature of the sin: to be excessive in enjoying good things; to mis-use, abuse, or take for granted the gifts one has been given. In the modern sense, however, lust refers strictly to sexual sin, and is defined as an inordinate craving for carnal pleasure. The sinful aspect of lust is not in wanting sex but in either the excess of or the inappropriate satisfaction of desire. Lust is often one of the foundational sins for crimes such as adultery, incest, criminal assault, rape, and abduction.
Gluttony – From the Latin gluttire meaning “to swallow”, gluttony in modern speech deals with eating or drinking too much. However the original meaning implies something deeper: consuming so much one harms one’s health, or becoming obsessed with consuming, or consuming to the point that it interferes with one’s ability to carry out one’s duties. Originally Gluttony meant over-indulgence or over-consumption of anything; wastefulness. Gluttony is also a sin because it takes away from the needs of the poor being met. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines gluttony as taking more than you need. Some church teachers expand the definition (and I think rightly so) to include the thoughts a person has about their particular over-indulgences: anticipation, obsession with specific delicacies, spending too much money on exotic food and drink, etc.
Sloth/Acedia – “Acedia” is an ancient Latin/Greek word meaning “neglect” and refers to neglectfulness of one’s self or one’s duties. Apathy is the nearest translation we have in modern speech — the attitude that “doing the right thing is too much work”. Acedia might include listlessness, uneasiness of mind, restlessness, or instability. Its root is a lack of love, or a lack of passion — of all the seven deadly sins it is the only one that has its roots in emptiness, or an absence of something. In modern speech, Sloth is often equated with laziness, and this is certainly part of the definition; but in adding acedia the meaning expands to include states of mind that produce frenetic activity without any sense of purpose; directionlessness. Related to this is the sin of Despair, a deep dissatisfaction or discontent, and Sorrow. Both of these were in the earliest top-seven list. (Sorrow goes beyond garden-variety mourning; its definition is a despondency often without discernible cause.) Sloth violates the First Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) The opposite of Sloth is Charity (Love).
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.