f you Google the seven deadly sins today, you’ll come up with websites selling seven deadly sins t-shirts, “flaunt your fatal flaw” color-coded wristbands, a seven deadly sins game telling you to “sin to win,” and a wine named the Seven Deadly Zins (yes, it’s a Zinfandel). In other words, our culture doesn’t often take sin to be much more than a humorous
By contrast, the writer of Proverbs comments,
For your ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all your paths.
The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them; the cords of their sins hold them fast.
For lack of discipline they will die, led astray by their own great folly. (5:21–23 NIV)
Sin is apparently its own punishment: we make foolish choices, and those “ways” lead to a kind of enslavement. To put it bluntly, we reap what we sow.
For Christians, it can be easy to act dismissively about sin, even if we say and pray all the right words from Scripture. Echoing Augustine, theologian N.T. Wright once said, “Christians seem to me to divide into two groups nowadays: the first lot don’t think that sin matters very much anyway, and the second know perfectly well that it does, but still can’t kick the habit.”1 We deceive ourselves about how powerful sin actually is, and when we finally do face our flaws, we often find ourselves, as Augustine said in his Confessions, “chained by the power of habit.” What would it look like to take sin seriously—to acknowledge how susceptible we are to the dark power of our own disordered desires? And what difference does it make to think of sin as self-destructive habit that shapes our lives from the inside out?
To address these questions, let’s backtrack from our Google searches about sin and consider the story of a man who learned the answers the hard way. Evagrius of Pontus was a church leader in the fourth century. Born near the Black Sea, he spent his early years mentored and educated by the greatest church leaders of the day—Basil and Gregory Nazianzus, powerful and influential bishops of large cities. And at that time church leadership was also political leadership. His mentors brought him into their inner circle and groomed him for positions of power. Respected and influential by age thirty-five, he was near the apex of professional success. And so, almost inevitably, temptation struck. He fell in love with a married woman. The attraction finally reached a tipping point. The affair—if exposed—would have created scandal in the church and cost him his reputation, irreparably ruining his career and connections in Constantinople. Prompted by a nightmare, which he saw as an angel’s visionary warning, he fled town.
In Jerusalem Evagrius went to see monastic leaders named Melania and Rufus. Still battling temptation and longing to return home, he became extremely ill—a physical breakdown and a spiritual crisis all in one. “What have I done? Who have I become? What am I doing with my life?” Melania the Elder saw right through the agony on his face to the condition of his heart. When he confessed, she handed him hard news: there’s no going back to Constantinople for you. With spiritual authority, she sent him off to the monastic training centers in Egypt—like a drug abuser sent to intensive inpatient rehab, like a delinquent sent to military camp. It was time to retrain, recalibrate everything, relearn who he was, and how he should live.
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