The Sinful Vices that Lead Us to Other Sins
In preparing for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, do you ever feel dejected because you just cannot seem to stop committing certain sins? This kind of thinking reminds us that against the virtues which dispose us to do good, deep within us is a tendency to struggle against God so that even with the best of intentions we sometimes sin. Saint Paul may have captured it best when he wrote in his letter to the Romans, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin. What I do, I do not understand. . . . For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7:14-15, 19-20).
In examining the root cause of sin, the Church has identified certain vices, which can be classified according to the virtues they oppose, or be linked to the capital sins (CCC 1866). Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that “a capital vice is one that has a very desirable end, so that through desire for that end, a man proceeds to commit many sins, all of which are said to arise from that vice as from a principal vice” (Summa Theologica, II-II:153:4). It is not then the gravity of the vice in itself that makes it capital, but rather the fact that it gives rise to many other sins.
When we repeatedly give in to these vices and commit actions that respond to their urging, they can become habits which incline us to walk even more readily on that path that carries us away from God. Since the path leads to spiritual death, these vices are called deadly.
What are these capital sins? They are pride, gluttony, avarice (greed), lust, sloth, envy and wrathful anger. What is important to recognize is that while these bad behaviors are quite familiar to us, they are truly deadly for the way they can attack our spiritual life at its roots.
Pride is the first among the deadly sins. Pride is the exaltation of self when our Lord calls us to the simple recognition that whatever we have, whoever we are, and whatever good gifts we possess are all from God.
The second, third and fourth of the deadly sins speak to an imbalance in our lives. Gluttony, at its source, is the failure to practice restraint. We become gluttonous when we give in to satisfy the physical desire for food or drink and to do so in a way that is unbalanced and completely disproportionate to our basic human need. Avarice, on the other hand, is the accumulation of goods beyond what we really need or simply for the sake of having things. A question that goes to the root of avarice is whether we shop when we need something or do we need to shop? The third sin related to imbalance is related to physical pleasure, and it is the sin of lust. Lust is an inordinate attachment to sexual activity and the pleasure derived from it. The gift of sexuality is so beautiful and so powerful that it is reserved for the covenant of married love.
An often misinterpreted capital sin is sloth. While it does refer to laziness, it is spiritual laziness with which this sin is concerned. The best practices that keep us from sin are strong spiritual ones. We fall into slothful habits when our physical and creature needs override our diligence to our spiritual lives.
The final two capital sins are perhaps the most familiar to us: envy and wrath. Envy gives rise to resentment when we look at the good things others receive or have achieved and we begin to dislike both the person and their achievements. Finally, we consider the sin of wrathful anger. By this is not meant merely displeasure arising from some injustice, but that bitter enmity which is contrary to charity or is unduly harbored (cf. Ephesians 4:26-32; CCC 1772-73). At its root, such anger is the expression or sometimes the feeling of resentment and how we manifest that, be it with a raised voice or silence or in some physical action.
As we come to the final weeks of Lent, may we resolve to take an honest look at which of these bad behaviors need to be uprooted from our lives. And if there is a struggle going on between a virtuous life before God and overcoming vice and temptation to sin, we know that it is a struggle that we can surely win if the Spirit of God dwells within us.