A Lively Look at the Seven Deadly Sins: An Eight-Week Series
I’ll admit that I’m not too fond of sin. I’m speaking, of course, as a pastor and a preacher describing a bias in my preaching that I’ve carried for years. Too often in my experience the church has been a “guilt-giving culture,” and I have committed myself to preaching grace.
Sure, I’ve done occasional sermons on the first five Lord’s Days in the Heidelberg Catechism. Certainly we need to know our misery before we will appreciate our salvation. But I’ve always believed people know they are miserable. In seminary I read Berkhower’s book Sin, along with all the other books in his systematic theology series. Yet, to be honest, it always irked me that Sin was the thickest book in the series. I’ve always wanted to be someone other than the stern, dark-suited preacher who reminds people of the obvious: “We are sinners.”
So it took a lot of grace to get me to prepare an eight-part series on the seven deadly sins. Perhaps it took twenty years of pastoring in this broken world. Perhaps it took twenty years of maturing and recognizing the continual nature of my own frailties. Certainly Neal Plantinga’s wonderful book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be played a key role in developing my thinking. Whatever the influences, the series was received with genuine appreciation, and there was a persistent sense that God had something to say as we walked through the topic together.
Although we used this series in January and February, I believe these services would work extremely well as a Lenten series with only minor modification. Over and over the season of Lent calls us to repentance, and to recognizing the need for the divine sacrifice for human sin. This series provides such a focus.
The “enemy” certainly attacks disciples as much today as he always has. It is my prayer that this series will stimulate congregations to discover, as so many others have discovered in so many ways, that God’s grace is more than sufficient for all our sins.
WEEK 1 : INTRODUCTION
“What Is the Problem with Sin?”
I introduced the series by presenting the list of seven deadly sins as one we had probably heard of, but with which we were likely not closely acquainted. In fact, by a show of hands, few were confident they could even name five out of the seven deadly sins.
We reflected on the world’s perspective regarding sin, suggesting that in our culture we “soften sin” and even feel an attraction to sin. Our age excuses sin quite easily and envies the “bad boys” and their behavior.
At this point we turned to the call of Levi in Luke 5. Jesus offers a call that implies movement—that is, leaving one lifestyle and adopting another. Following the new call, however, does not imply a commitment to sad, somber living. Indeed, disciples are people who know how to rejoice (Luke 5:29-30 speaks of a great banquet!). Gratitude and joy were major themes in this message.
Finally, we reflected on owning our identity as “sinners.” Jesus makes it abundantly clear that such an identity is appropriate. We defined “sin” and acknowledged that the chief victim of sin is God himself (Ps. 51:4). We concluded with an invitation to a seven-week journey of courageous introspection and amazing grace.
I used the piano to illustrate that we humans have no idea how awful our perception is of “the songs and skills required for holiness.” I do not play this instrument at all, but during the message I went over to the piano and plunked out notes while singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” The dissonance was profound, making the point that we need instruction badly, and Jesus is the only one who can teach us!
“Standing in the Need of Prayer” PsH 265, SFL 46
“Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty” PsH 249, PH 138, RL 611, TH 100, TWC 2
“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” PsH 568, PH 376, RL 464, TH 529, TWC 558
WEEK 2 : PRIDE
Genesis 3:1-7; 1 Peter 5:5b-6
In Genesis 3 we find a serpent who is crafty, alerting us to the reality that Satan seeks to make us fall. Our best defense is to know what God says (“Did God really say . . .?”). Satan would have us believe the lie that God is selfish, and that we will care for ourselves better than he will care for us.
Henry Fairlie’s book The Seven Deadly Sins Today appropriately uses the metaphor of the tower for pride: We set ourselves above others. In so doing, we are unable to see or state the truth: That God is Lord, and we are not. That we are secure in God’s love as we rest in Christ.
The passage from 1 Peter 5 as it speaks of “clothing ourselves” inspired the following illustration: As I defined pride as “the glorification of self” and spoke of pride wanting “all eyes on self,” I put on a gaudy silk jacket purchased at an area thrift shop. Pride insists that “my taste is superior to everyone else’s taste.” Later in the message I put on a white lab coat called “humility.” Through a plan greater than mine, it was way too small, and it looked foolish on me—making the point that humility doesn’t come as naturally as pride.
We finished the message with a recognition of God’s call in Genesis 3: “Where are you?” It is an appropriate contemporary question. In 1 Peter 5 God tells us he opposes the proud, yet he offers grace for the humble. I offered three “test questions” to help us determine when we are proud and how to express humility. We concluded that, just as God clothed Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:21, he also offers to clothe us with his grace and righteousness in Christ.
“In Labor All Creation Groans” SNC 270
“Blest Are They” SNC 122
“O God of Every Nation” PsH 606, PH 289, TWC 422
WEEK 3 : ENVY
“Killing with Kindness”
Genesis 4:1-12; Ephesians 2:6-7
The well-known story of Cain and Abel has at its heart the sin of envy. Genesis 4 offers a classic challenge: “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7). This warning itself is enough to spur us on in a study of the deadly sins.
The dictionary defines envy as “a feeling of discontent and resentment aroused by another’s good.” It doesn’t take much work to show how Cain’s response to Abel’s good is a pattern we too easily repeat today. To illustrate, I confessed how I experience envy in my life as a pastor, citing my critical spirit as I attend worship where someone else is leading.
Henry Fairlie’s essay on envy helped focus attention on the irrational and destructive nature of envy. Using the story in Genesis 4, we saw that envy is indeed a murderous path. We concluded the study by acknowledging the victory that has come into our lives by the blood of another, that is, by Christ’s murder. Through God’s act of great kindness, we are empowered to express kindness as the holy alternative to envy. This theme is developed in New Testament passages such as Ephesians 2:6-7, 1 Corinthians 13:4, and Colossians 3:12.
“In An Age of Twisted Values” SNC 61
“Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love” PsH 601, PH 367, SFL 251, TWC 436
WEEK 4 : ANGER
I began this fourth study in the series by showing photos of “talking” four-legged animals (on PowerPoint): Mr. Ed, Francis the talking mule, and Shrek’s donkey—which immediately launched us into the story of Balaam the prophet! We were invited to accompany Balaam on his journey with a donkey who spoke the truth about anger. The three questions the donkey poses in Numbers 22:28-30 are questions that challenge us to examine our anger.
In this message, as in many others in this series, Henry Fairlie’s essay helped clarify the factors that fuel our anger and sabotage our patience. We listed some erroneous beliefs held by most of us and countered each with the Word of God. By God’s grace, we came to the response of Balaam in Numbers 22:34.
Once we recognize the inept nature of our anger, we find hope in seeing that anger can be a holy impulse (22:22). Our holy God gives us a new Spirit, and a new habit, as presented in Ephesians 4:1-3. That habit is patience, and the human reality is that patience takes practice. We ended with the call to practice patience.
“The Fruit of the Spirit” PsH 224, SFL 188
“Not for Tongues of Heaven’s Angels” SNC 275
“O God, My Faithful God” PsH 574, RL 69, TH 602
“Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive” PsH 266
WEEK 5 : SLOTH
“The Duty of Diligence”
Proverbs 26:13-26; Hebrews 6:9-12
A regional homeowners’ magazine just happened to publish an issue at the time of this series with a cover story called “The Seven Deadly Sins of Homeowners.” Displaying the cover was a perfect introduction to this message, as each of the “sins” had to do with some form of home maintenance neglect.
Our Proverbs passage offers an equally lively picture of sloth. We recognized that many of us have a sloth living in our homes, sleeping in our beds. As Proverbs 26 shows, sluggards (sloths) invent ways to remain inactive, they are stuck in inactivity, and all along they inflate their ego. The truth is, the sluggard is not free.
Sloth is a major theme in our land. We’re a culture of the complacent, a community dedicated to leisure. For most of us, our diversions distract us more than they restore us. The spiritual issues are enormous, as we find ourselves “busy” with things that have no eternal worth. Fairlie suggests we have made a “religion” of sloth.
In this context, Hebrews 6:9-12 calls us to the alternative of diligence. It’s a character trait that will more and more consume the Christian. We concluded with the offer of rest found in Matthew 11:28-30, recognizing this gift as the authentic goal the slothful are seeking in their broken way.
“We Are An Offering” SNC 230
“Take My Life and Let It Be” PsH 288/289, PH 391, RL 475, TH 585, TWC 568
“Father, Help Your People” PsH 607
WEEK 6 : GREED
Dealing with greed in a pastoral manner is difficult. I didn’t want to have people walk away having heard only another diatribe against the materialism of our day. My goal was to encourage an honest assessment of the heart and an honest recommitment to generosity, the holy alternative to greed.
I began by giving a walking tour through my kitchen appliances—displayed on two tables in the front of the worship center. As a congregation we recognized lightheartedly (at my expense) that our homes are filled with “an abundance of possessions.” This led naturally into the passage in Luke 12 (note verse 15!). We talked about greed (or avarice, as it’s also called). Simply put, greed is a fondness for accumulating wealth. It’s hard to live in North America without developing this fondness.
The pain of this fondness comes in the way our possessions distract us, and in the way we objectify people by equating them with their possessions. Fairlie suggests, “We are in danger in our affluent societies of destroying our humanity, as Midas came near to doing.” Furthermore, we ignore issues of waste and injustice, which are primary calls to us as God’s earthkeepers.
We concluded by using 2 Chronicles 31:5-10 as a call to cultivate a thankful spirit, a worshiping spirit, a generous spirit. We sang the short song “In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful” over and over, interspersed with readings on God’s gift of generosity and God’s call to generosity (Eph. 1:3-5; 2 Cor. 8:8; 2 Cor. 9:6-8; 1 Tim. 6:17-18).
Note: If this series is presented during Lenten season, it may well be that this service (appropriately) takes place on Palm Sunday. The kingdom Jesus represents and claims was and is much different than the kingdom of power and possessions our world seeks. Jesus lived to lay down his life, not to hold on to possessions; his commitment to eternal justice and generosity of spirit guides us all!
“Children from Your Vast Creation” SNC 58
“O God, Your Justice Towers” SNC 272
“Give Me A Clean Heart” SNC 64
“God of All Living” PsH 604
“In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful” SNC 220
WEEK 7 : GLUTTONY
“The Secret of Contentment”
In a local happenchance I believe God engineered long before this series was planned, one of our newest attenders had been involved in a Christian weight-loss program called Prism. She was willing to be interviewed during the service. This person showed her vulnerability in a struggle with which many people are confounded. A quote from her weight loss program guidebook set the tone of the message: “We suffer spiritually when we overeat and binge. Our focus is on food and all that surrounds it. We think of food when we are sad, reward ourselves with food when we are happy, and tranquilize ourselves with food when we are anxious. We have taken the spot in our hearts and lives that rightfully belongs to God and given it over to food. In many cases food has become nothing less than our idol” (The Prism Weight Loss Program by Karen Kingsbury, www.pwlp.com).
This woman established for the service a tone of honesty and humility. Statistics regarding the number of us who are overweight make it obvious that gluttony is a big problem. During the message we spoke not only of the size of our belt, but also of the state of our heart. Discipline was identified as a key issue, as Neal Plantinga suggests in his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, where he speaks of discipline as a key to freedom and power in sports and music (p. 146).
The Proverbs 23 passage offers what I called “a cartoon warning” regarding gluttony. We spoke of various lies (“deceptions”) involved with food in our culture and heard God’s call to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1). Then we recognized contentment as the positive alternative to gluttony and considered the call to contentment in Philippians 4:12. Jesus’ offer as “the bread of life” (John 6:35) concluded the message with the promise that as we seek him, we will never go hungry!
Note: If this series is used in the Lenten season, this seventh study may well be used for a midweek service for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. As the Lord’s Supper is often celebrated in these services, the theme of proper spiritual food and an improper use of material food will be appropriate.
“Go, My Children, with My Blessing” SNC 284
“God of Justice Ever Flowing” SNC 101
“I Am the Bread of Life” SNC 152
WEEK 8 : LUST
“The Help of Holiness”
Proverbs 5:1-6; 1 Peter 1:13-16
Easter alternative: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
This final service deals with perhaps the most sensitive sin of all, since we live in a sexually charged culture that easily confuses lust and healthy desire. After recognizing that lust can apply to many objects, we recognized that the issue of lust between a man and a woman needs to be addressed. Using Proverbs 5:1-6 and 1 Peter 1:13-16, we compared and contrasted lust and love, identifying the ways in which lust is far from the “healthy, red-blooded American” virtue it is often thought to be.
God’s call to holiness was described as a gracious gift of God intended to save us from the sure death that comes on the road called lust. We recognized in Job 31:1—“I have made a covenant with my eyes”—a practical biblical help to battle lust. In a fitting conclusion to this message and to the series as a whole, we lifted once again the gift of grace: “Set your hope fully on the grace to be given you” (1 Pet. 1:13).
Note: If this series takes place during Lent, the topic of lust makes a surprisingly relevant topic for an Easter message. I would recommend selecting as the main passage 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, which speaks of God’s power in raising the Lord from the dead (v. 14), as it makes the very practical application of living in sexual purity.
“Perdón, SeÃ±or” SNC 59
“For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free!” SNC 66
“Lord, I Want to Be a Christian” PsH 264, PH 372, SFL 40, TH 530, TWC 563
“Christian, Do You Struggle?” PsH 575, TWC 660
Seven Deadly Sins . . .
and Seven Lively Alternatives
- Pride Humility
- Envy Kindness
- Anger Patience
- Sloth Diligence
- Greed Generosity
- Gluttony Contentment
- Lust Holiness
For Further Reading
For a topic as old and well-known as the seven deadly sins, books and articles are surprisingly rare. Quoted in this article are books by Fairlie and Plantinga:
Henry Fairlie. The Seven Deadly Sins Today (University of Notre Dame Press, 1979)
In this fine series of essays, Fairlie offers a wonderful analysis and critique of culture. Available in paperback.
Neal Plantinga. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1995) A compelling, provoking analysis of sin as a topic we too easily avoid. The five-page preface alone is worth the purchase price of the book!
Other sources worth consulting include the following:
Angus Wilson et al. The Seven Deadly Sins (Morrow, 1962)
Out of print, but may be available at libraries and in used-book markets. This tempting appetizer into the theme, first published in the London Sunday Times, offers essays by such stellar English critics and writers as Angus Wilson, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh and W.H. Auden, with a Foreword by none other than spy-writer Ian Fleming. These witty essays are not so much theological reflections as sharp notes and comments by able people. Their breadth and depth of humanistic observation also help enlighten 21st century preachers.
Finally, almost as if to remind us that we will always have sin with us Oxford University Press and the New York Public Library have combined to publish a new series of “meditations on temptation” on the seven deadly sins. Four of the projected seven monographs have now been published after their initial presentations as lectures in 2002-03: Envy by Joseph Epstein, Gluttony by Francine Prose, Lust by Simon Blackburn, and Greed by Phyllis A. Tickle; the rest are forthcoming.
—James C. Dekker
One of my commitments as a pastor is to present a children’s message at least every other Sunday morning. Most often the message relates to the sermon of the morning. With a good degree of creativity and commitment, it is possible to present each of the seven deadly sins, and their positive alternatives, in a memorable and appropriate way for children.
I particularly enjoyed a children’s message on gluttony. Holding up a series of two objects, I asked the children which they would choose: not surprisingly they chose the giant chocolate bar over the mini chocolate bar; the giant cookie over the apple; the potato chips over the carrot sticks. As so often happens in children’s messages, the adults got the point just as much as the children. We talked about the option of “seeking to be fed by Jesus,” recognizing that we need to learn what that means. This simple message served both to include the children and to set the stage for the message that was to come.
Another way we include children in worship is to invite them to read Scripture, and to have them serve as a “praise team” on occasion, leading the congregation in song. The season of Lent offers numerous classic texts with which children are familiar enough to read publicly. And the rich music of this season becomes even richer when children lead us in singing!
Other Worship Resources
Sing! A New Creation (CRC Publications, 2001, in cooperation with Reformed Church Press and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship)
This relatively new song and worship book provides many fresh hymn texts, contemporary songs, and readings and prayers for worship. Many of the song suggestions for the series come from this book. I would also recommend for this series the section on Confession and Assurance (note the Prayers of Confession, pp. 52-55) and the songs for Lent and Easter.
Stages on the Way (GIA Publications, 2000)
This worship resource for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter comes out of the Iona Community in Scotland. This collection of prayers, responsive readings, and dramatic readings has enhanced the last two years of our Lenten worship, and we’ve only begun to use the resources in it!
Prayer for Each Day (GIA Publications, 1998)
The Taizé Community has prepared this paperback book as a tool for worship throughout the year. The readings and prayers in the Lent and Holy Week section (pp. 53-89) provide useful “ready-made” presentations for lay involvement in worship accompanying this service series. After this series, you’ll still have the rest of the book to use during the seasons of Advent, Easter, and Pentecost.