Christians would do well to rediscover the 'seven lively virtues'

Christians would do well to rediscover the 'seven lively virtues'

October 31, 2004
Written by Staff Reports
Robin Meyers

A monthly feature about spirituality

Centuries ago, when most of us could neither read nor write, and there was a shortage of teachers and preachers, the church leaders got together and made up lists of sins—so that people would at least know what not to do.

To help the average sinner recognize the consequences they "classified" them. There were lightweight, middleweight and heavyweight sins. At the top of the list, in the super-heavyweight category, were the seven deadly sins.

A product of the monasteries—not the Bible—these mortal or capital sins were toxic to the soul, crawling up from the very floor of hell itself: pride, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, greed and sloth.

The church, in its zeal for symmetry, created a list of seven "opposing" or "contrary" virtues: humility, kindness, patience, chastity, abstinence, liberality and diligence. It should come as no surprise that Hollywood loves the seven deadly sins. They are juicy, excessive, depraved. Nobody, after all, has ever made a movie about the seven contrary virtues!

The problem with such a simplistic division of virtue and vice is that it leaves most of us out. The lust/chastity dichotomy, for example, is not very helpful—especially for those who struggle to reconcile body and soul. Is the world of virtue and vice really this simple?

We live in a time of media-induced false dichotomies. You're either "with us, or with the terrorists," "liberal or conservative," "born again or Ôleft behind.'" Life, on the other hand, teaches us a different lesson. What is a drug, after all, but a medicine out of place? What is an antique, but the perception that something old and useless is in fact something rare and priceless?

Perhaps the seven deadly sins are really seven fallen angels. Perhaps, instead of seven "contrary" virtues, we might be able to recover these seven lively virtues—drawing upon the same desires, the same universal human appetites, but forming them into different, more redemptive shapes.

In this column, over the next seven months, I will offer a new list of seven lively virtues for real people, facing real temptation. These will not be "excuses" for sin, but a call to choose differently, shaping our urges and impulses into something more helpful and realistic than an angel sitting on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Stay tuned.

The Rev. Robin Meyers has been senior minister of Mayflower UCC of Oklahoma City since 1985 and is professor of rhetoric in the philosophy department at Oklahoma City University. His latest book, The Virtue in the Vice: Finding Seven Lively Virtues in the Seven Deadly Sins is available at

Editor's note: Robin Meyers' new spirituality column will appear in several upcoming issues of United Church News. Barbara Brown Zikmund's history column, Past as Prologue—which normally appears on this page—will return periodically in future editions. Meanwhile, continue to read Zikmund's monthly installments in the online version of our newspaper at

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