Westmont Magazine Overcoming Deadly Thoughts with Godly Virtues
by Gayle D. Beebe, Ph.D., President
We can assess the quality of our life with God by asking ourselves daily if we exhibit the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If we’re mindful and attentive, we begin to realize that we fail to bear fruit when we’re out of sync with God and the people God has placed in our lives. Jesus summarized the law and the prophets by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” Our capacity to love God and our neighbor affects how effective we’ll be as we seek to develop the fruit of the spirit in our lives.
Evagrius, one of my favorite characters in the history of the church, lived in the fourth century. He grew up near Constantinople, now Istanbul. This beautiful, cosmopolitan city features one of the most scenic locations on Earth. He was studying with the Cappadocian fathers, the leaders of the church, heading toward high ecclesiastical office. But he fell in love with a married woman. The details are vague, but he feared for his life and fled to Jerusalem. Soon after, he retreated to the Egyptian desert for better protection and settled there to think through his life with God.
His reflections and excavation of the human soul yielded a rich spiritual understanding of our life with God. Evagrius summarized his findings in eight deadly thoughts, later compressed into the seven deadly sins, which describe temptations people have faced through the ages—and continue to confront today.
Evagrius believed that all our temptations in life and our actions as humans begin in the mind. He asked,“Do we focus on things that awaken in us the greatest, noblest desires of the human spirit, or do we give ourselves to the most debased thoughts and a life of debauchery?” His ideas stem from his life and observations of the monks who lived with him and the travelers who visited.
The deadly thoughts begin with gluttony. Evagrius noticed the monks worrying they wouldn’t have enough to eat. Instead of practicing gracious hospitality, they hoarded food, which led them to hoard all their belongings. Their inability to trust in God led to fear about the future. I think we become susceptible to the same kind of fear today when we overindulge in work, striving after opportunities we think will elude us.The antidote is temperance, recognizing that God will provide enough for our needs.
Anger, the second deadly thought, pulls communities apart and brings ruin. Evagrius called it the most feared passion, a boiling wrath against those we think have harmed us. Experiences that breed anger include breached agreements, disrupted patterns in our lives, and ignored needs. Ultimately, anger results from our desire to control the lives of others. The corresponding godly virtue, mildness, reflects a capacity for self-restraint. This takes incredible discipline and doesn’t happen automatically. Learning how to self-regulate poses a great challenge for many people.
Greed, the next deadly thought, means placing no limits on our desires. Boundless graspingfor money, fame, or attention from others occurs when our needs overrun any sense of boundary. Evagrius contrasts greed with generosity, which recognizes that our greatest good comes from sharing. Generous people understand that God has provided for them, and they seek to help others.
The deadly thought of envy resents the gifts God has given to others. It blinds us to the contribution God wants us to make, which we often discover as we celebrate the gifts of those around us. Evagrius said that happiness, or contentment, allows us to appreciate and understand the mutual contribution we all make.
The fifth deadly thought, pride, arises from a disproportionate sense of our own contribution. Yet someone will always exceed our gifts and abilities, which God develops in many different people. Humility in the classic Christian sense means finding our proper place in the universe and recognizing the role God wants us to play in his purposes.
Evagrius struggled with number six, lust, which can ruin our lives. It results from egocentrism and thinking that people exist to satisfy our physical desires. Evagrius explained the seductiveness of lust, which convinces us that others truly want to satisfy our needs. The godly virtue of chastity requires accepting responsibility to love those we’ve chosen to love, reigning in unbridled desires and channeling love to honor God.
The seventh and eighth deadly thoughts, indifference and melancholy, affect older people who begin to wonder if their lives matter. In mid-life, people may lose confidence in themselves and become disenchanted, thinking no one values their contributions. Diligence, persevering in the face of all obstacles, helps us see God as our true source of meaning in life. With wisdom, the godly virtue, we understand how our life has mattered.
For me, Philippians 4:8 summarizes Evagrius’ central message: “Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”