Since today is the first day of a new year, this is a wonderful time for making some New Year’s resolutions. I thought I would share with you my dieting resolutions for the past few years.
2013: I will get my weight down below 200 pounds.
2014: I will follow my new diet religiously until I get below 220 pounds.
2015: I will develop a realistic attitude about my weight.
2016: I will work out 3 days a week.
This year’s resolution — I will try to drive past a gym at least once a week. In all seriousness, there is value in assessing where we are in our lives and seeing where we need some improvement.
And so, I’d like to make some suggestions to you over the next several weeks. My focus will be not on getting you to change some particular behavior, like dieting or quitting smoking, but rather my focus will be on developing some aspects of Christian character, because more than anything else, we want to look like Jesus. And we’ll work toward that goal by looking together at the seven deadly sins. Because, as the ancient Roman poet Horace said, “To flee vice is the beginning of virtue.”
One of the biggest complaints of young adults regarding the church today is that we are too judgmental, which is really just another way of saying we talk about sin too much. More specifically, though, we tend to talk about everybody else’s sins. Far too often, we do what Jesus warned us about in Matthew 7 – we spend our time looking at the specks in others’ eyes while ignoring the logs that are in our own.
And it’s not that we claim to be perfect. We quote Romans 6:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We’re all sinners. And we often pray to God asking forgiveness for our sins. But those prayers tend to go something like this – “God, please forgive me for all the sins I may have committed.”
But when it comes to being specific, we don’t do so well. And if I were to ask you this morning to share with me a specific sin in your life, I suspect the room would get very quiet. We all know that we fall short of what God expects us to be, but too often we prefer not to dwell on the specifics of our own sinfulness, especially not in any group context.
And even when preachers talk about sin in their sermons, we tend to spend much of our time focused on the sin that’s “out there”.
Jonathan Storment tells about a time when he was traveling with his children, and he stopped at a fast-food restaurant so that his kids could play on the playground. But there was another girl there, an older girl who was being mean and hateful. She was bullying the other kids around, saying some rude hateful things. And Jonathan kept telling his daughter, “Try to work it out.”
And she tried. At one point, she walked up to the bully and she said, “You need to know my dad’s a preacher.” And the girl said, “What’s that?” And she said. “You know, he tells people about Jesus at church every week.” And the little girl said, “Oh, I don’t go to church.” And Jonathan’s daughter came up to him and whispered very loudly, “That explains everything.”
But does it? Because I’ve been in church my entire life, and I’ve known a lot of mean, unkind, greedy, selfish people in church, too. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in church. I believe very much in what we do together and what God is doing through us and in our lives.
But it’s not our job to try to make everybody in the world do what God wants them to do. It it is very much our responsibility to make sure that we are doing what God wants us to do.
As Peter said, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (I Peter 1:14-16)
For far too long, Christians have focused on other people’s sins, especially non-Christians. But when we turn the microscope on ourselves, it becomes all too clear in light of Jesus’ perfect example of righteousness and the sheer holiness of God just how unrighteous we are by comparison.
The story is told of a man who walks out to the street and catches a taxi going by. He gets into the taxi, and the cabbie says, “Perfect timing. You’re just like Frank.”
Cabbie: “Frank Feldman. He’s a guy who did everything right all the time. Like my coming along when you needed a cab, things happened like that to Frank Feldman every single time.”
Passenger: “There are always a few clouds over everybody.”
Cabbie: “Not Frank Feldman. He was a terrific athlete. He could have won the Grand Slam at tennis. He could golf with the pros. He sang like an opera baritone and danced like a Broadway star and you should have heard him play the piano. He was an amazing guy.”
Passenger: “Sounds like he was something really special.”
Cabbie: “There’s more… He had a memory like a computer. He remembered everybody’s birthday. He always knew which foods to order and which fork to eat them with. He could fix anything. Not like me. I change a fuse, and the whole street blacks out. But Frank Feldman, he could do everything right.”
Passenger: “Wow, some guy.”
Cabbie: “Yeah, Frank, he never made a mistake, and he really knew how to treat a woman and make her feel good. He would never answer her back even if she was in the wrong; and his clothing was always immaculate, shoes polished. He was the perfect man! He never made a mistake. No one could ever measure up to Frank Feldman.”
Passenger: “Sounds like he’s an amazing fellow. How did you meet him?”
Cabbie: “Well, I never actually met Frank. He died . . . I’m married to his widow.”
It’s just a joke, but it makes an important point. When we stand next to someone who does everything right, it becomes all the more evident what we’re doing wrong. And so, the closer we get to Jesus, the more we become aware of our sinfulness. The more we understand about his love, and his patience, and his courage, and his integrity, the more we see the cracks in our own soul.
Before we met Jesus, we felt like things between us and God weren’t all that bad, but when we see the standard set by Jesus Christ, we begin to see the filthy rags of our own righteousness. Jesus became for us not only a window into the heart of God, but also a mirror held up to us to show us the hard truth about ourselves.
By looking at Jesus, we’re able to see ourselves truthfully and call things by their proper names. And it is only through the story of Jesus Christ that we see the depth and seriousness of our sin.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t emphasize grace. We are a forgiven people. But only sins can be forgiven, so we must realize that we have sinned before we can appreciate the forgiveness that God offers.
And I think that’s the problem. We don’t realize the depth of our own sin. I think one of the reasons that Paul marveled at the grace of God was because he was so aware of his own sinfulness. In I Timothy 1:15, he wrote, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
So, if you have this idea that sin is something that’s “out there”, that sin is something that other people struggle with, then you will never fully appreciate grace.
So, for the couple of months, we’re going to talk about sin, as we look at the seven deadly sins. And the reason we’re going to this is not so that we can point out all the sin that exists out there in the world, not so that we can point out the sin the exists in those churches we’ve been at where nobody acts like a Christian. It’s not even to point out the sin that exists in the Christians sitting around you. But my goal is to help you to see the sin that exists in your own heart and mine.
This is so very important, because we are good at spotting what’s wrong with other people. If I were to ask you what’s wrong with the world, I would imagine you could come up with hundreds of answers. But none of them would be as good as the answer given by G.K. Chesterton. There was once a British newspaper who wrote to a number of famous authors, asking the question, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton is said to have sent back a postcard with a two-word answer – “I am.”
But most of us are not very eager to admit that we are part of the problem. But that’s what I want us to consider, especially now at the beginning of a new year. This is an opportunity for us to turn our focus inward because maybe, just maybe, all the sin isn’t out there. Maybe the problem isn’t just in the world. Maybe it’s in here, too. And one of the greatest ways the church can be a blessing to the world is by taking the lead in confessing and repenting what’s actually wrong with us.
When the lesson is over this morning, I want to give you some homework. I’d like to invite you to pray a prayer this week. It’s from the last couple of verses of Psalm 139, and it’s a dangerous prayer. It’s where the Psalmist prays, “Search me, O God.” Search me. Not my enemies, not those people who irritate me, not the people that I work with, but me. Search me, Lord, and see if there’s anything in me that you find offensive.
And every week, I want us to expand that prayer to cover the sin that we are looking at that week. Search me, O God, and see if there is any envy in my heart. Search me, O God, and see if there is any pride in my heart. Search me, O God, and see if there is any anger in my heart. Search me, O God, and see if there is any greed in my heart. Search me, O God, and see if there is any sloth in my heart. Search me, O God, and see if there is any gluttony in my heart. Search me, O God, and see if there is any lust in my heart.
Because we have got to get past the tendency in our lives to ignore sin. Turn with me to Genesis chapter 3. God created a good world, but then Adam and Eve disobeyed. The one thing God asked them not to do, they did, and here’s how this story plays out in Genesis 3.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Genesis 3:1-11)
And the man said, “Yes I have. God, I did it. The responsibility lays with me. Leave Eve out of this, God, because I’m the one who chose to do this.” But, of course, that’s not how that story goes at all.
What Adam actually says in verse 12 is, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”
And I love the way Adam says this because I see this in my own heart. It’s not just, “It’s her fault”. It’s “the woman you gave me, God”. You know, God, you and I were doing just fine before Eve came along, so why don’t the two of you just go off and talk, work this whole problem out, and leave me out of this.” And we can relate, because we see the same tendency in our own lives, the tendency to blame other people for what we’ve done.
And the one thing that is so important, the ability to be honest enough to confess our sin and to admit that we have messed up, is sometimes the hardest thing in the world to do. But, we must confront the honest truth about ourselves before we can find healing.
Anybody here ever watch Dr. Phil? There is nobody I know on TV who is as straightforward and blunt as he is. If you are doing something wrong, he’ll let you know it. And it makes me wonder why anybody would go on that show, knowing that they’re going to have to face that. But, one counselor explained it this way – “People are ready to be told the truth about themselves, even when it hurts, because they know that without getting the truth, they won’t get life.”
The author Anton Chekov put it this way – “a person will only become better when you make him see what he is like.” And we haven’t really been told the truth about ourselves until we have been told us that, deep down, the biggest problem in our lives is our sin.
That’s why, in Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the major steps towards healing is confession. A recovering alcoholic was once asked the question, “Sam, why have you stopped coming to church?” And his answer was this — “Preacher, after you have been to AA…and stared your demons in the face, and have to stand naked in front of twenty other drunks and tell every bad thing you have done or thought, and had to ask God and them to forgive you for being you, well, church just seems like such a trivial waste of time.”
It has been said that church is about more than just sin, but, by the grace of God, it cannot be less. So for the next several weeks, we’re going to talk about what’s wrong with us. More specifically, we’re going to talk about what’s wrong with you, and what’s wrong with me.
And to do this, we’re going to look at the seven deadly sins. Now as you look over this list — envy, pride, anger, greed, sloth, gluttony and lust — one of the first things you are struck with is just how mundane this list is. I mean, surely there are more serious sins than these seven. They may be perfect for the plot of a daytime soap opera, but they hardly seem to be the most terrible of all sins.
What about kidnapping, rape, religious persecution, and racial violence? None of those are on the list. I’ve seen people suffer a lot more from alcoholism than from overeating, so why not list drunkenness as one of the seven instead of gluttony? And you’ve got to question a theology of sin that takes murder less seriously than sloth.
We sometimes comfort ourselves with the fact we’ve never committed any of the “big” sins, like murder, adultery, theft, etc., but what makes the seven deadly sins so convicting is that they seem so small, so ordinary. But these seven sins are the root of so many other sins, and that’s why it’s so important that we take a look at them — and that we examine ourselves —so closely.
But first, let me tell you where this list of sins same from. In case you’re wondering, this list does not appear anywhere in the Bible, but the Bible does say that each of these seven things is a sin.
So why are there seven deadly sins? You might think there should be ten to match up with the Ten Commandments, but when you compare those two lists, you find that there’s really not much similarity, except for the commandment about adultery (which is related to lust) and the commandment about covetousness (which basically is greed).
The truth is, there’s not a very good reason for there being seven sins on the list. In fact, when this list first appeared, it actually had eight sins listed (pride and vainglory were listed as two separate sins), but within a few centuries, the list of sins got trimmed down to seven, apparently because seven is a biblical number symbolizing completeness.
For example, in Proverbs 6, there is a list of seven sins, but they’re not the same seven.
There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16–19)
There are other lists of sins in the Bible. In Galatians 5, for example, we have the works of the flesh. There’s 15 of them. In Revelation 21, we find a list of sins that will find their way into the second death. There’s 8 of them. But none of those lists match up with the list of the seven deadly sins. So where did this list come from?
Several hundred years after the church was started, Rome went from persecuting Christians to making Christianity the official religion. And you would think that would be a wonderful thing, because everybody wanted to become a Christian. Which was a problem.
The problem was – everybody became a Christian. Even people who didn’t acknowledge that Jesus was Lord of their lives. Even people who weren’t interested in dying to themselves. Even people who weren’t interested in whether or not Jesus was God. It became the thing to do.
Imagine a culture where people go to church just because that’s what everybody else is doing. I know that’s hard to imagine, but imagine that kind of culture.
And so there were some Christians, we call them the Desert Fathers, who decided they wanted to take the way of Jesus seriously, and they didn’t see a whole lot of people doing that. So they left Rome and they went out into the desert to start their own community, to start a community centered around becoming like Jesus, and they thought they were leaving all the sin behind them.
But what they discovered was that they brought sin with them. They were trying to create communities of purity, and that’s when they actually discovered their own sin. And the reason that’s important for you to know that is because the only way to know how sinful we really are is to try to resist sin.
I love the way C.S. Lewis put it. He said, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down.
“A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means.”
And that’s what happened with these Desert Fathers. They went out into the desert to be committed to God, to be pure, to be holy. And when they did that, they became aware of their own sin.
And they began to realize that there were seven different kinds of sin that were attacking them. That all other sins were rooted in these seven. They were the source of all sin. They were the sins that fed all the other sins. And that is why I think it is important for us to study them.
But I also think it’s important to keep in mind that we don’t have to retreat into the desert to change who we are. I hear a lot of people expressing concern about how terrible the world is, and it’s just getting worse and worse, what are we going to do? And I would suggest that the best thing the church can do for the world is to continue to be the church. To be the salt of the earth, to be the light that directs people to the true Light. To have a positive influence on the world around us.
But to do that, we have to be honest with ourselves and examine our own hearts. For over a thousand years, Christians have used the work of the Desert Fathers as a way of learning what was going on inside of their own hearts. And if we care about being like Jesus, and I think you’re here today because you do, we need to started learning from them as well.
N.T. Wright once said that “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.”
We seem to have a really pessimistic view about being disciples of Jesus Christ. We seem to have this idea that there’s really no way for us to change, no way for us to kick the habit. No matter what happens, we’re always going to struggle with certain things. There are certain things that we just can’t conquer in our lives.
But we can, and we must. But it has to begin with being honest. Being honest with God, being honest with one another, being honest with ourselves. Because the hardest chains to break are the ones that we don’t ever acknowledge. As the apostle John put it, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:8-9)
In the words of Rebecca DeYoung, “Our confession can be fine-tuned. Rather than praying in general for forgiveness of sin, or reducing all our sin to pride or generic selfishness, we can lay specific sins before God, ask for the grace to root them out, and engage in daily disciplines – both individually and communally – that help us target them. Naming our sins is the confessional counterpart to counting our blessings.
And so, as we close this morning, I want us to pray together this very powerful prayer in Psalm 139:23-24. Let’s read this all together.
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
Make this be your prayer each and every day this week.