Seven Deadly Sins – an Interview with Rebecca DeYoung

A few years ago during Lent, I read Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies. That book gave me a whole new understanding of the “seven deadly sins.” And it was cause for quite a bit of soul-searching in my life.

If you’re not familiar with the book, I can’t recommend it highly enough. To give you a small taste, I asked the author, Rebecca DeYoung, to chat about it.

You can listen (right-click here to download), watch, or read the transcript below. Enjoy!

This is Teddy Ray, and I am interviewing Rebecca DeYoung today. Professor DeYoung is from Calvin College, and she’s the author of Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies. And then more recently, the author of a book called Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice.

Rebecca, I was so excited to talk to you because I read Glittering Vices about two and a half years ago and started sharing insights from it and recommending it to other people. It’s now kind of swept through my congregation. A number of our small groups have read it. It has influenced us where our preaching series for Lent this year is on the capital vices, or deadly sins, and I was just excited to be able to hear more from you. So thanks for being here.

RD: Good, it’s a pleasure to be with you today.

TR: Let me start here. This is one of the things I loved most. You show how these deadly sins are so much deeper than the popular assumptions about them today. Or in some cases they’re almost altogether different from our popular assumptions. I’m curious, which of those seven deadly sins would you say is maybe most misunderstood today?

RD: That’s a really good question. I mean they’re all misunderstood, mostly in terms of making them more behavioral and less matters of the heart. So that sort of runs through all seven, but I would say vainglory is the least familiar in terms of the name of the vice in question. I think it’s a very familiar phenomenon, so as soon as you slap the label on it, people have an “oh, of course” moment.

Sloth, I think, is the most misunderstood, just in terms of what that the actual vice is about. I wrote that chapter thinking, “Oh, good. For sure I don’t have this one. I’m a diligent, hard-working, over-achieving person.” And what I realized in studying it was that that was a deep misconception, and in fact both my laziness and my diligence could be front symptoms for this vice, which may lay much deeper within. And so, thinking about sloth as kind of resistance to the transforming power of God’s love, wanting to sort of stay comfortable with who you are and stay the same, in your comfort zone. That was a really new discovery for me in terms of what that vice was really about.

TR: So you end up identifying more of it in yourself then you had hoped to.

RD: Well I had hoped for a little relief as I was writing the book. Every chapter I went through I thought, “Oh no, it’s another one!” And you sort of think you have a little bit of a take on your own signature vices.

But I discovered there was a little bit of everything in me, too. And I honestly think that’s probably a good thing in the sense that, then as an author of the book, I don’t come across as you know, “I’m some saintly person, and look at all you schmucks out there who are still struggling with the vices.” We are really all, all of us, in this together on almost all fronts. So I think that makes me a little bit more human, a little more humble. That’s probably a good thing.

TR:  Absolutely. It sounded that way. And I’m curious based on that, it sounds like this is a book that ended up producing a lot of soul-searching for you. Did it originate from that? Did you start exploring these in more depth because you were doing some soul-searching, or did that just happen along the way?

RD: That’s a really good question. It’s also a dangerous question for a philosopher, right? We sort of do self-knowledge, the examined life, that’s what we do for a living. So when I found this set of resources for that kind of seeking, it struck me that there’s just great depth here that I think is worth sharing.

It originally started in the classroom, my own classroom in graduate school. So I was reading about the virtues and vices in Thomas Aquinas, ran across a couple that really hit me in between the eyes, and what I discovered is there’s this whole thousand-year stretch of Christian wisdom on discipleship, transformation, spiritual formation, and so on. And they had virtue-vice labels for how this works, and it was a really illuminating moment for me.

I took it into my own classroom then when I became the teacher and my students had exactly the same reaction. So I’m thinking I don’t know if they’ll ever forgive me for cranking them through the whole second part of the Summa. You know, a hundred and eighty questions of all these dry, disputed questions with very few examples and very few stories.

And they were absolutely captivated by it. They found it extremely effective soul surgery kind of reading. And so they were interested in it. They thought it was practical. And through my conversations with them in that philosophy seminar, I thought, “I really just need to write up this class.” And that’s essentially what Glittering Vices is, and that’s why it’s dedicated to those students.

TR: Ok that’s great. That makes a lot of sense. And it’s so interesting to me you talk about this thousand-year history, and you keep referring to Aquinas and medieval theologians. What happened, was this in the Reformation that these started being ignored? Or how did the Reformers even look at these?

RD: That’s a really controversial issue. And I think the answer is probably more complicated than anything I can explain here in a few minutes. But I do think there was a shift in ethics toward law-based ethics — late Middle Ages to Enlightenment. And that shift, you know, I don’t know that it was caused by the Reformation, but they certainly inherited that trajectory in ethics. So an emphasis on the commandments, which comes I think more obviously out of Scripture. You get a list of commandments, you get a list of fruits of the Spirit, but we don’t sort of have explicit, recurrent virtue talk in the New Testament, so I think as we move toward a kind of a sola scriptura approach…

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There was a test of flourishing-oriented virtue ethics systems, and moving toward law-based systems, duty, obligation, and so on. And that move, I don’t think was a move that necessarily always rejected virtue, it just sort of downplayed its importance in sort of the way we talk about our ethical lives.

TR: With a move to the law-based. And was there any sense of people saying, “This is not canonical. We can’t find these in one place in Scripture, so this must be something that was made up, invented, and we should ditch it for something straight from Scripture”?

RD: Yeah, you know, I know that’s one story you can tell about this. I don’t know that I could quote anybody making exactly that move. But that’s sort of, you know, in the back of people’s minds. They want to be sure that their traditional authority, authoritative teaching of the church, doesn’t trump what they’re finding in Scripture. So there is a move in that direction, but I don’t know that I could sort of pin anybody down with a quote on just that note.

It is true, you’re not going to find the seven as a set in Scripture, and you’ll only find the four cardinal virtues, sort of the parallel set of virtues in the Book of Wisdom, which is an apocryphal book. So sometimes Protestant traditions will be like, “Oh those aren’t even in Scripture at all,” whereas in fact, they are in the Book of Wisdom, which was written right around the same time that the Greeks were working on the four cardinal virtues. So there are biblical connections but like I said, the Bible doesn’t wear them on its sleeve. You have to dig a little bit.

TR: You describe… I have two questions about this—you describe the vices as acquired moral qualities. They’re character traits. They’re things that are cultivated, along with virtues being the same sort of way.

First, I thought the analogy that you used about a snow sled going down the hill was really helpful, just made a lot of sense for me. Would you mind sharing that for people to hear?

RD: Sure. I’m from Michigan so that explains why I chose that analogy, perhaps.

When you first go down a hill and you’re sledding, you have to sort of break ground through all that fluffy, piled-up snow, and the sled goes slowly, and you have to kind of push it forward. But the second or third time you slide down the hill, then you get a track and you wear a groove, and it becomes icy with repeated use. And all of a sudden it’s very hard to slide out of the track, and once you’re tipping a little bit out of it, the track will sort of groove you back down the hill at lightning speed. And that’s one picture for the way in which individual choices become cumulative in our character.

So my question for people with respect to the vices isn’t, “Is this the right thing to do, or is this absolutely morally prohibited?” The question is, “If I repeated this action every day for the next ten years, where would it land me in terms of my character formation? What kind of habits would it built up in me? What kind of groove would it wear in my character?” And you know, you have grooves that take you down the wrong path and grooves that take you down the right path. So that’s my way of explaining virtue-vice talk to people. The focus isn’t on one snapshot action that’s sort of isolated from the backstory and where it will lead you next. The virtue-vice talk tends to try to think long-term about character development in a more narrative way.

TR: And so, when you look at one single action, and say, “Why did I do that? Or why did this person do that?” the answer isn’t so much in that moment as maybe the last ten years, or whatever we would see in their history?

RD: And what you find with the vices, and with the virtues frankly, is that where your grooves of character have been worn shapes the way you even see a situation. So after you’ve become, say, well-schooled in faithfulness, certain alternatives, certain options just don’t even occur to you to do.

So that’s the good and the bad thing. It’s good in the virtue case because the bad options often don’t even pop off the landscape, the moral landscape of the situation for you. But in the vice case, sometimes you get blinded to certain goods that might otherwise be in view, because you’re so focused on some particular thing that you desire, and that desire has gotten out of control.

TR: Have you done any research into recovery programs and how they approach things and whether it relates there?

RD: Sure. I think there’s a lot of common ground here between addiction and recovery programs. Addictive behavior is habitual, and so insofar as vices and addictions are habitual, there’s gonna certainly be some shared ground.

And there’s shared ground between psychology and moral psychology or spiritual formation, too. I like to think of them as overlapping circles. There are areas where they’re saying similar things about similar phenomena, but what I want to say with the vices is when these things spin out of control—two things: it’s a lot deeper diagnosis than you’re gonna get from a counselor, and that’s not to denigrate counseling or addiction recovery. They’re all very, very helpful. But spiritual heart surgery is at a completely different level.

And it also implicates our sense of brokenness and a sense of fallenness or sinfulness that isn’t always necessarily a sinfulness we can get ourselves out of. And so there’s a sense when you’re deep in a vice that you can be stuck and not be able to help yourself. And I think you’re gonna have a similar kind of crash moment if you’re in an addiction recovery program. You’re gonna say, “You know what, this is not a willpower thing for me anymore. I’m gonna have to transfer over to a higher power.” And I think there’s a similar moment with the vices. You can get yourself so deep in that your willpower or rehabituation can’t get you back out. And in that respect, I like to say this is more than just moral formation we’re talking about. We need the categories of sin and grace to do the work here.

TR: That relates to the other question I wanted to ask you about this. You describe these as acquired moral qualities. And you’re a good Calvinist. You’re at Calvin College. So I’m curious how you compare these acquired qualities––virtues and vices––to original sin and total depravity. What’s the relation in all these?

RD: I think what virtue-vice talk does is it really just gives us a helpful way to talk about the ways that we get trapped in sin. And we come into I think our moral and spiritual lives sort of broken from the get-go. I think that’s what the Calvinist tradition would say. You’re not just coming in clean and then gradually sliding off into some terrible vice or something. We’re all coming in with idolatrous hearts to begin with. And then the vices just sort of name specific forms of idolatry. Different ones will appeal to you than will appeal to me. I might be a wrath person and you might be a sloth person. Just to say that the devil works in strategic and complex ways in each of our lives, and he’s willing to exploit whatever form of brokenness is in you.

And so part of what the Calvinist tradition does for me is it says, “Look, this is not just a matter of a new Christian self-help program with a little willpower and 10 easy steps and a small group. You can make progress.” I think it’s really just saying, “Look, when you get this diagnosis, it’s gonna require the Great Physician to heal it.”

And my own research has moved away from virtue talk and towards spiritual discipline talk for just that reason. I’m not so sure that we can virtue ourselves out of these old ruts and grooves. And part of what spiritual discipline talk does, I think most helpfully, is there’s no formula. It’s not like, “Well, if you practice solitude and silence for long enough, you will achieve these three results.” Spiritual disciplines aren’t like that. Spiritual disciplines are more like, “Lord, I’m gonna fast for a period of time, and that’s just my way of opening my hands to you and saying whatever needs doing here in my recovery, in my healing process, I trust you to do, so be at work in me.” So that kind of cooperative intentionality I think is probably a more accurate way to think about how to move away from the vices through grace, and maybe the virtues are a better way of explaining the Christ-like character that God is drawing us toward.

TR: Great! And so even to add that into your sled analogy… You talk about cutting those grooves at the beginning, but we are predisposed to cut those grooves with vices. And we can’t get ourselves out without the grace of God.

RD: Right, you can think of in the sledding analogy, you could think of original sin as sort of like gravity. Which groove you’re in is just a matter of sort of your personal predispositions, your communal training, whatever formation led you to that groove.

TR: That’s a great way to put that.

I heard somebody recently say that we as a society used to discuss character and now we’ve replaced a lot of that conversation with discussion about personality. I’m curious if you’ve seen that and how that might affect how we think about vice and virtue.

RD: I think the contemporary positive psychology language right now, for example, is strengths. So you’re looking for personality strengths, personality weaknesses. It’s just disposition talk. By calling it strengths, I think the language still is trying to leave it in the realm of your control. You have personal dispositions in certain directions, but you can build on those strengths. So that’s, I think, the language that’s being used in psychology.

We still use character language in, for example, K-12 curricula, thinking about what kind of character we want to build in, for example, good democratic citizens. We have values espoused by various civic organizations. So for example, in the town where I live, we have a series of flags up in the downtown area explaining which civic virtues—they don’t use the virtue language—but what kind of character we want to embody as a community.

And so there’s language everywhere, and I think, “Good for them.” That’s just a way in for me. I don’t need to insist on my own terms, necessarily. It’s actually I think a touchpoint for beginning a good conversation. We may end up having to argue about terms later on and which terms do which kinds of work best. But I do think it’s an opportunity to enter the conversation for Christians. And we don’t need to just sort of chuck everybody else’s categories. I guess I would like to sort of think ecumenically about it if we can.

TR: So whether they’re saying strengths or dispositions or virtues, you’ll take whatever people are giving you and get them to a similar discussion.

RD: I will at the beginning of the conversation. What you do want to move toward is, you want to move away from, “Well, this is just my personality.” As if it’s something that could never be changed or formed in certain ways. Because of course we’re all being formed through many different influences—our friends, our family, our culture, entertainment, our own practices, and so on.

You could move one level over to moral formation, and there you’re in the realm of needing to practice and habituate yourself into certain virtues. And we do think this is possible, right?

This is part of what goes into training your children when you’re parenting, right? You want them to learn certain habits. And we think that’s possible and that’s good and that actually makes people better people, or at least easier to live with.

And then I think one step further you’re going to get into spiritual formation. And here it’s about deep cooperation between you and the Spirit. It’s primarily God’s work, but you need to be intentional about it, reflective about it, and open-hearted, open-handed about it. So I guess I’d like to start the conversation wherever people will let me and try to move in that direction.

TR: That’s great!

We’re almost out of time, and I want to ask you something quick and helpful maybe for churches. I said my church is doing this during Lent. I  actually know at least one or two others that are, as well. You said in a Wheaton lecture, “I found a diagnosis for something that I had been struggling with in my life, and finding a name for it was a path to becoming free from it.”

So here’s what I’m gonna do if you’re okay with it. I want to list each of these seven capital vices and just ask if you could give one practical sign that someone may be struggling with each, and then maybe one practice toward its remedy. Does that sound all right?

RD: Well that’s tricky. Because you know what I’m going to say. These are matters of the heart and not necessarily behavioral issues. Especially with sloth, it can be especially tricky.

TR: So is that unfair? Is it too much to jump straight to symptoms and even identify any?

RD: I would say there are often symptoms that show up, but they’re not necessarily symptoms of that vice. They can be confused with other things.

For example, I might be very very concerned about what I eat and when and where and why. And you might think, “Oh, we’ve got a fastidious glutton on our hands,” when it turns out what I’m really concerned about is vainglory, my appearance. Right?

So sometimes you can get doubling up, sometimes you can get one masking another one. This is why the tradition uses spiritual direction. Because you need a fine-tuned diagnosis for you. So I’d be happy to speculate, but I wouldn’t want people to read too quickly into just the behavioral sometimes.

TR: Okay, well let’s remove behavioral symptoms and you address it however you want, in 10 seconds how somebody might recognize one of these in their lives. So sloth, you spoke to that some, anything you would say specifically there?

RD: I guess with all of them I would ask, “What makes you uncomfortable?” So with sloth, does resting and being still make you uncomfortable? If you get in a place where you can hear God calling you to something, do you feel resistant to that? That would be a worry for a slothful person.

TR: Wow! How entirely opposite!

RD: Right, right! So thinking about stillness as a remedy for sloth, I just love the irony there, with the common misconception. So that’s a fun one.

TR: That’s great! Okay, this is good. We’ll keep going. How about envy?

RD: With envy I would worry about competitive situations and the fears that they raise in you. So if you’re a person who frames everything competitively and that competitive achievement is deeply tied to your own sense of worthiness, I would be worried about envy there.

Can you receive other people’s achievements with gratitude? Or do you struggle with those achievements making you feel worthless or inferior? So that would be an envy type frame of mind.

TR: How about anger or wrath?

RD: Anger or wrath… How much do you need to be in control? How important is your own agenda? Wrath, like many others, I would recommend practices of detachment. Because part of what they are is they’re excessive desires for things. And the question is, if you have to peel your sticky fingers off something that you deeply care about, how painful is that for you?

So fasting is a remedy for gluttony in the same way. You don’t even necessarily realize how attached you are to control, in the case of wrath, or pleasure, in the case of lust or gluttony, until you have to give those things up.

And then you realize that that emptiness that’s left behind is driving you crazy. Richard Foster says fasting reveals the things that control us. And I would say fasting is just a stand-in there for any practice of detachment.

Regular detachment teaches us what we’re hanging onto too tightly and what we need to then die to and let go of. And that is a movement toward freedom. I want to emphasize that.

It feels like teeth-gritting discipline at the beginning, but it is a way to become free. Free to love.

TR: I was talking with someone last week who said, “I am in control of everything except my emotions.” Sounds so much like what you’re describing there.

Gluttony?

RD: Gluttony. I already mentioned fasting. I would say one of the things that I did in a practice of fasting once was to try to just eat less. So I wasn’t full every time I ate. And I tried to eat less often. So I kept it to two meals a day instead of three plus snacks, or whatever. And one of the things that I realized is how much of my mental decompression, my comfort seeking, was filled by food.

And what I also realized was that when I had less food to go on, less caffeine and sugar to prop up my hyper-achieving lifestyle, I had to slow down quite a bit. That also made me angry and crabby and upset. I had to think about how priorities would work in my life. Ok, if I don’t have as much energy, then I have to choose. And I don’t want to choose. I want to do it all, have it all.

So for me that practice of fasting, like for Cassian, gluttony’s just the gateway. Once you blow that one open, you’ll find it connected to lots of other things that you’re hanging onto too tightly in your life. So fasting led me to Sabbath rest. I don’t know where it will lead you, but that was when I realized that all my gluttony was kind of propping up a hyper-achieving self, which needed to lay down a few things, and that involved Sabbath.

TR: Forcing you to slow down in a very different way.

RD: Yeah, so be ready to be surprised through these practices is my bottom line there.

TR: Vainglory. You’ve written a whole book on vainglory.

RD: This is a favorite of mine. I keep having new thoughts about it. With vainglory, I think solitude and silence are the big ones. Those are again practices of detachment. Solitude takes away your audience, although you can still replay those little fantasies in your head. It takes a while for those to quiet down.

And also silence removes our ability to manage our own self-image through words. Now I know in our culture we do that through images, as well as words. But those are two practices that I think help us realize how attached we are to audience and appearance and approval. But I would counter that…

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Those practices of detachment…

I think people could just as equally practice celebration, encouragement, affirmation of others, and see how good glory works. So you need both the dying to the old self and the rising of the new self, and I think both of those happen first through detachment and then rightful reattachment to the things that reflect God’s glory in our communities. By being good givers of glory and good receivers of glory. We need to know how to do that well, too.

TR: Yeah, that’s a great play on that word glory there. Okay, lust? How about lust?

RD: Lust is a lot like gluttony. It involves detachment, in part because you will not have the freedom to love other people and to receive other people in love if you are hanging onto your own egotistical need for pleasure in the experience. Right? What you really want with both gluttony and lust is to learn how to receive a gift. In the case of gluttony, you want to learn how to really appreciate food.

And you look at the way the glutton tends to ramp up desire. You tend to go for things that are worse and worse for you, and more and more of them. And it sort of gets out of control. And you get further and further away from actually appreciating a well-cooked, very simple meal. So I once read an Eastern Orthodox priest who said he’s never appreciated a piece of cheese more than after his forty day Lenten fast, where he abstained from all meat and dairy. One tiny little piece of cheese. Celebration!

And I would say the same thing for lust. You don’t understand what it’s like to be able to celebrate and receive an individual in their inexhaustible mystery and full humanity if you’re constantly substituting. It’s kind of like going for a sugar substitute. You’re becoming a junkie for pleasure instead of someone who is open to love.

And so detachment from the selfish desire is the first step. You need to just have your hands and heart free to be able to receive another person. And if you’re so ego-invested in your own pleasure, there’s no room for that.

Lust is hard, though, I will say. And lust is also full of shame, so isolation is a really bad thing, community is a really good thing.

TR: It’s interesting you’re using detachment. I think you’ve used it with almost every single one of these. But it’s a different form of detachment each time.

RD: And I think there’s a rhythm here. There’s a reason why the Sabbath comes around once a week and Lent comes around once a year. Right? It’s not as though you go through a discipline once and then you’re good to go. These are lifelong transformative, reformative practices, and we need to keep going around the wheel time and time again.

I would just say that’s part of the drill for all of us, so there’s humility in that, but there’s also continued reliance on God in that rhythm. So discipleship is really about the way that he’s calling us to become closer to him. And in all of these practices I want to just make sure we have that as the final frame. He’s in this for your healing. That’s what this is for.

TR: I’ve left one off. Let me ask one last one, and we’ll be done. Avarice, or greed?

RD: Oh, greed. Well, there the practice is to get your hands off the money. Any way that you can give away money, possessions—practices again of just making sure that you have a very loose grip on the things that you own. And regularly giving things away is a really useful way to go about that—either in more dutiful giving like tithing, but also over and above that—showing hospitality, sharing your time, sharing your possessions.

When someone shows up and looks like they have a need, is your first thought, “Here, have mine”? Or, “Oh, let’s see what we can do for this person”? And so there’s a kind of, “How loose is your grip? How ready are you to hand over what’s needed?” Because everything that you have isn’t yours. You are a steward of it.

TR: How interesting for you to relate that to time, too. I think for some of us it’s easier to give away stuff than to give away our time.

RD: It’s much easier to write the check. I think face-to-face giving is really important. Because greed really makes stuff about stuff, and stuff really has to be about need. Who has the need, and how can this created, good thing that I have meet that need? Wherever the need is, mine or yours.

TR: This is all excellent. It’s a great jump-start. Now we’ve got to be able to build on it in some way with what we’re doing here at our church and, I would imagine, in several other places.

Let me just remind everyone: on my site I’ll have links to both of these books, to Glittering Vices and to Vainglory. I’ve widely recommended Glittering Vices, so I hope if you haven’t read it that you get a chance to. And I hope to get all the way through Vainglory before the end of the season, as well.

Rebecca, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and your thoughts toward all this.

RD: It’s just absolutely a pleasure to be with you today.

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