People may say that Christians are too judgmental, that we talk too much about sin, but it seems that the problem really is that we talk too much about other people's sins—pointing out the proverbial speck in others' eyes while ignoring the logs in our own. We all know that we fall short of God's ideals for us, but too often prefer not to dwell on the specifics of our own sinfulness, especially not in any group context.
Reading the new edition of Will Willimon's Sinning Like a Christian: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins, however, made me itch to discuss these age-old pecadillos with my Sunday school class or small group. Willimon tells the story of a man who had found redemption from his most serious vices through Alcoholics Anonymous. After such a transformative experience, however, the man found church empty and superficial, lacking the honesty and soul-baring that should be central to any gathering of fallen people. It doesn't have to be that way.
With Sinning Like a Christian as a framework, dare to spark the honest self-examination we all need with an eight-week experience in both worship and classes/small groups. This series would be ideal for the eight weeks following Easter Sunday, since the triumphant story of Easter preceding the series sets a tone of redemption, rather than condemnation, for this focus on sin. In addition, the weeks following Christmas and Easter are ideal for a provocative and intriguing series to keep the occasional churchgoers coming back.
Consider the following sermon series outline as a starting point for your preaching. Consult the book for more theological background and feel free to select different scriptures as your starting point for each week.
Week 1: Thinking About Sin (Introduction and Chapter 1)
Leviticus 18:26-19:2 and Romans 3:19-24
Christians have long focused too much on other people's sins, especially non-Christians. Turning the microscope on ourselves, it becomes all too clear in light of Jesus' perfect example of righteousness and the sheer holiness of God how unrighteous we are by comparison. We like to comfort ourselves with the fact we haven't committed certain "big" sins, like murder, adultery, theft, etc., but what makes the Seven Deadly Sins (which are not directly biblical) perhaps more incisive than the Ten Commandments is their smallness, their personalness. The seven are the quiet, internal roots of so many other sins, and that is why we must explore them—and examine ourselves—so closely.
Week 2: Pride (Chapter 2)
Genesis 3:1-7 and Philippians 2:3-11
Pride—assuming it does not go so far as arrogance—is often considered a positive trait these days. We want our children to feel pride in their accomplishments, we feel a sense of pride in a job well done or in a group that we positively identify with. But more than just a positive association or an error in judgement (thinking more highly of oneself than is justified), Pride is the root of so much other evil. It is pride that makes some of us think we are above the law, that rules do not apply to us, or that we simply cannot fail, whatever we attempt. But if even Jesus, who was in the very form of God, did not consider himself equal to God, we have no place being any less humble than Jesus, who came to serve the lowest of the low.
Week 3: Envy (Chapter 3)
Genesis 4:1-8 and Matthew 20:1-16
Envy is the emotional root and a subtle form of hate—resenting the good and rejoicing in the bad that occurs to one's neighbor. It is a social sin, hurting our relationships (even to the point of murder, as in the case of Cain and Abel), and squelches joy in its tracks, as it maximizes others' good fortune and minimizes the blessings we ourselves enjoy. Envy leads us to criticize others and to attribute others' success to sheer luck, which makes us passive and (contrary to popular belief) unmotivated to work harder ourselves. A close cousin of Pride, Envy weighs and ranks and compares, making our neighbors into competitors, and our own blessings a prize to be boasted, rather than a gift to be shared.
Week 4: Anger (Chapter 4)
Psalm 137:7-9 and John 2:13-17
Anger has many redemptive qualities. We speak of "righteous anger," that drives people to correct many wrongs in the world. Even Jesus displayed anger when confronted with unrighteousness. Anger is a natural response to knowing the world is not as it ought to be. The infamous Psalm 137 is a sincere cry from people in pain, asking God for justice as they would define it. But misdirected, anger can lead us to resentment, depression, and violence. It ferments into bitterness and unwillingness to take any responsibility to change things. Forgiveness enables us to move beyond the immediate wrong to proactively work for justice and rightness in the world.
Week 5: Sloth (Chapter 5)
Ecclesiastes 1:1-9 and John 5:1-9a
Sloth is an interesting challenge for us to address, given our "Protestant work ethic" that condemns laziness, and our need for Sabbath rest, which too often we refuse to take. But in keeping with the nature of the Seven Deadly Sins being more about our heart than our actions, we should define Sloth here not as laziness or the lack of productive work, but rather as apathy toward spiritual matters to which we should devote ourselves. Sloth is not caring enough about God to wrestle mightily with Scripture and spiritual disciplines that would challenge us.
Week 6: Greed (Chapter 6)
1 Chronicles 4:9-10 and Matthew 6: 16:19-24
In our Western culture of relative luxury, it can be hard to tell the difference between needs and wants. Is a functional computer a need or a want? What about shoes for different types of occasions? We are driven to succeed and hope that, when we do, we will use our status and wealth to advance the kingdom. But are our motives really so pure? Rather than wishing and working for more, we should strive to cultivate gratitude for what we already have.
Week 7: Gluttony (Chapter 7)
Philippians 3:17-21 and Matthew 6:25-33
Jesus himself was accused of this sin, called a glutton and drunkard by his critics, and whether or not he took pleasures of eating and drinking to excess, he generally did not embody the aceticism many other holy men and philosophers have embraced throughout history. Gluttony is an odd sin to number among the Seven, seeming to harm only the glutton himself and hardly so damaging as anger and greed, but for the early monastics among whom the list of Seven originated, Gluttony signified overall preoccupation with matters of the flesh. It is as much a sin to obsess over the minutiae of what one eats as it is to lustfully consume an entire feast.
Week 8: Lust (Chapter 8)
2 Samuel 11:1-17 and Matthew 5:27-30
We humans are obsessed with sex. And if not obsessed with the having of it ourselves, we are obsessed with analyzing and critiquing others' bedroom activities. The inclusion of Lust among the Seven reminds us of the relational impact of sin. Sex as an act of consumption, of personal gratification, rather than for the benefit of the relationship and society as a whole is a matter of Pride, Greed, and perhaps Envy, pouring fuel on the fire of our most selfish tendencies. We think of Lust as a private sin, but it is in pursuit of virtue in this most intimate area of our lives that we honor and seek the holiness of a God who wants every part of us, who is concerned not only for the actions of people and affairs of this world, but also for our thoughts and feelings, these sins of the heart and mind that bear fruit in our actions.
Read Sinning Like a Christian for more detail and for quotes and illustrations that will be useful in your preaching. The book also includes study questions to facilitate discussion in small groups and classes.