I will go ahead and admit it. The last time I went to confession, I said to the priest, “I have to tell you about the same sin I talked about last time.” In fact, that same sin has come up every time I’ve been to confession as far back as I can remember — pride. A big challenge for me is keeping my ego in check, especially when it comes to being “right.” On more than one occasion, I have said hurtful things to people I care about in my desire to prove that my position is the correct one whenever we disagree. In the moment, I think I’m merely arguing my position. But when I reflect upon it later, I recognize those conversations for what they are — excessive pride. I really just wanted to win the debate and come out on top.
This time in confession was different, though. This time, the priest asked me to reflect on why the sin of pride has been such a challenge for me as my penance. The weeks after that confession, I did a lot of prayerful thinking, not only about pride but about each of the “seven deadly sins.” Also known as the “capital vices,” these sins include pride, envy, wrath, greed, lust, sloth, and gluttony. Although they may seem like antiquated doctrine, I have come to understand them as seven ways we separate ourselves from God’s embrace. Truly understanding them and how they work can provide a lot of relevant guidance for us today. As a result of my penance, I came to three new conclusions about the seven deadly sins.
First, although each one is a “bad” thing, each one is rooted in a “good” thing but taken to unhealthy extremes. For example, it’s a good thing to set goals and provide for one’s family, but when it becomes excessive or divorced from a healthy purpose, it turns into greed. An attorney friend of mine told me that she very nearly destroyed her marriage in pursuit of her goal to bill the most hours of any junior associate at her firm. Likewise, it’s a good thing to have self-respect and feel confident, but when taken to the extreme, it becomes pride. And while it’s great to take a break from continual activity and spend the whole morning in bed, that same impulse on steroids can become sloth.
Second, at their very core is one central, uncomfortable feeling – fear. Perhaps envy is just an unhealthy response to the fear that I’m not good enough just as I am. To this day, I still remember my envy of the girl who sat next to me in chemistry class during high school. She was smart, beautiful, thin, and popular. It wasn’t until much later I realized that this wasted emotion was really my fear that I wasn’t as talented or attractive as she was. Similarly, wrath may be a maladaptive response to the fear that I will be hurt again. And the core dynamic at work within lust just might be the fear that we will not know the joy and pleasure of true intimacy.
Third, the reason each is so “deadly” is because it separates us from our true selves, our real identity as children of God. Think of the toddler who is perfectly happy playing on the family room floor knowing that Mommy is right there to care for his every need. But then he looks up and doesn’t see Mommy. She may have walked to the other side of the room, but in that instant, the toddler doesn’t know that. So his immediate response is fear that results in panicked shrieking until Mommy comes back into view. In many ways, we are just like that toddler. We’re whole and healthy when we feel God is right there with us. But when we fail to trust that God is truly “in the room,” we become afraid, which leads us to sin. We react by taking good things to unhealthy extremes so that we can mask our feelings of fear.
If I’m being honest and realistic, I know that pride may still come up during confession for me in the future. But I do believe that by coming to a deeper understanding of how the seven deadly sins work, I have a better shot at avoiding them.