Lenten road map: Sins by the numbers

By Patricia Kasten | March 7, 2015

How well are you navigating the key points of avoiding sin?

How many sins can you name by number?

1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 10, 13?

The answer: all of the above, and more. Lists of sins can be insightful, and serve as guides —like points on a road map: you can analyze your trip through life by checking them to keep on track.

First, we need a basic definition of sin.

The first sin was that of Adam and Eve. The Catechism of the Church says, “In that sin, man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God” (n. 398). This is the original sin, the one that started everything sinful that followed.

The Old Testament has several words for sin. Two are hattah and hamartia, which both roughly mean “to miss the mark.” Another word is pesha, which literally means to “overstep”or “rebel.”

So, from Old Testament times onward, we have understood that sin is steeping away from God. When we move away from God, we aren’t doing what God wants of us, and we’re missing what God wants for us.

From here, our first list of “sins by the number” leads to the Ten Commandments (Ex 20: 2-17 and Deut 5: 4-21):

  • I am the Lord your God. You shall not have other gods besides me.
  • You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.
  • Remember to keep holy the Sabbath.
  • Honor your father and mother.
  • You shall not kill.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not bear false witness.
  • You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
  • You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.

We can see that the Ten Commandments spell out how God’s plans for us are linked to each other — whether as parents, spouses or neighbors. That link shows how we are all hurt by bad actions by those around us. This is what we mean when we say we share in Adam’s sin. What hurts, alienates and separates one person, hurts, alienates and separates everyone.

In the Old Testament, we find another list: what are called “the four sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance”:

  • Willful murder (Gn 4), first committed by Cain, the son of Adam.
  • The sin of Sodom (Gn 18), which appears in the story of Abraham.
  • Oppressing the poor (Ex 2:23), which leads into Moses’ story.
  • Not paying laborers a fair wage. (OK, that’s from the New Testament’ Letter of James, chapter 5).

The Fathers of Vatican II may have been speaking about these sins when, in their document (Gaudium et Spes) about the church in the modern world, they warned their flock to counter “that spirit of vanity and malice which transforms into an instrument of sin those human energies intended for the service of God and man” (no. 37).

Moving into the New Testament, we see Jesus acknowledging the Ten Commandments and distilling them to two: “You shall love the Lord, your God, … You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Mt 22:37-39).

But Jesus gave us another list when addressing Pharisees who had become too focused on rules and outward acts: “From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly,” Jesus said. “All these evils come from within and they defile” (Mk 7:20-23). (That’s 13, in case you were counting.)

After the coming of the Spirit, the church spread across the world and its doctrines were refined by great teachers. In the fourth century, just as the faith was becoming accepted by the Roman Empire, a Greek monk, Evagrius of Pontus, compiled a list of what he considered threats to those living in monastic life.

He called these logismoi, a Greek term for evil or obsessive thoughts; we know them better as “vices.” Evagrius’ list found its way to church teachings through St. John Cassian (360-435) and Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). We know them as the seven deadly sins:

  • Pride
  • Avarice
  • Envy
  • Wrath
  • Lust
  • Gluttony
  • Sloth

In whatever order these seven are listed, it’s best to think of each of them in terms of the direction they lead us — away from somewhere good (as in a state of health and happiness) or toward somewhere bad. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas (in the 13th century) preferred to call them “vices” instead of “sins.”

For Aquinas, the vices arose from our appetites: appetites that start out leading us to good things. For example, we desire food and water — for the good of the body. However, Aquinas said, these desires can become distorted, leading to gluttony or distorted desires. And, from there, comes all the sins on the list.

We can also thank Aquinas for a list that deals with sins against the Holy Spirit, which he numbered at six:

  • Presumption of God’s mercy.
  • Despair of salvation.
  • Resisting or even disparaging the known truth.
  • Envy of another’s spiritual good.
  • Obstinacy in sin.
  • Final impenitence.

“The Catholic Encyclopedia” explains that Aquinas wrote extensively on this in his Summa Theologica, saying that sins against the Holy Spirit are “committed from downright malice, either by despising or rejecting the inspirations and impulses which, having been stirred in a man’s soul by the Holy Spirit, would turn him away or deliver him from evil.”

That’s a lot of lists. Whatever “sins by the number” you choose to measure up against this Lent, the basics are simple. When we sin, we:

  • are not acting as God wants;
  • are not being faithful to God;
  • are not reflecting the God in whose image (Gn 1:26) we were made;
  • are not acting as children of God, who follow God’s Son; and
  • we are not responding to our call (prompted by the Holy Spirit) to be Christ to others;

Ultimately, there is only one list to follow. One word. Four letters. Love. Because “God is love.”


Sources: The Catechism of the Catholic Church; the Summa Theologica; “Gaudium et Spes”; etwn.com/library; catholicdoors.com; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Modern Catholic Dictionary”; “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism”; “The Douay Catechism of 1649”; proecclesia.com; and “The Baltimore Catechism.”

Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” and “Making Sense of Saints,” both published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.

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