Signature Sins: Taming Our Wayward
Arthor: Michael Mangis
Publisher: IVP Books
Length: 245 Pages
The central thesis of Michael Mangis’
book Signature Sins: Taming Our Wayward Hearts is that, while “there
is nothing new under the sun,” as the writer of Ecclesiastes said, each
of us struggles with sin in a unique and deeply personal way. Borrowing
Oswald Chambers’ definition of sin as “an incurable suspicion of God,”
Mangis claims that “[m]y signature sins are my personal doubts about God’s
goodness. I sin when I do not trust that God has my best interests
at heart. I sin when I am alone and afraid and God’s promises seem
so long ago and difficult to remember. I sin when I am pretty sure
that God would say no to the thing I want right now but that I am convinced
I cannot live without” (19). Our doubts of God’s goodness are not
random but rather arise from the myriad forces at work in shaping our personalities
themselves. Gender, race, temperament and culture, to name a few,
can all leave their unique imprint on our sinful habits and behaviors.
The antidote to our signature sins, Mangis suggests, is in an equally unique
and personal application of the ancient practice of spiritual disciplines
and spiritual direction.
Mangis is a psychologist and examines
this subject from the perspective of a counselor and “soul-care professional,”
not a theologian. Much of what he does say about the nature of sin
is garnered from ancient church tradition, rather than from the Biblical
account. He begins the book by examining each of the seven “deadly”
sins in turn, looking carefully at the various ways these classic sins
can manifest themselves in our lives. He then explains how our various
circumstances, from our temperaments, to our biologies, to our families,
to our cultures, can influence the development of our signature sins.
None of these factors is sufficient to excuse or dismiss sin in our lives,
but understanding them will aid us in the self-examination that Mangis
believes is key to ultimately disarming them: “Since most sin is
motivated by the suspicion that God is not good, we can point the finger
of blame within ourselves, in our hearts where the suspicion lies, and
outside ourselves, in the people and circumstances that feed our suspicion.
Once we become aware of the influences over us, we are responsible to turn
around and exercise control over them. If I have become sufficiently
aware of outside influences on my free will to complain about them, I no
longer have any excuse for blaming them” (137).
Finally, Mangis again turns to ancient
church tradition and the practice of spiritual disciplines as a way to
combat our signature sins. Drawing from contemplative traditions,
he examines specific antidotes to specific sins, as well as making general
suggestions for a “rule of life” that is meant to take seriously our desire
for freedom from our peculiar vices. Mangis believes intense self-examination
is key toward combating sin, and toward this end he includes several questions
at the end of each chapter for individual reflection. On the other
hand, he emphasizes the need for community, and a “spiritual friend” or
director, who might help us come to terms with our signature sins and aid
us in determining an antidote. For this purpose, there are questions
at the end of the book that could be used in small group discussion of
I have to confess that I approached this
book with a bit of skepticism, expecting to encounter dark Puritanical
condemnation and threats of dire eternal consequences, something akin to
Jonathan Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon.
While Mangis is unflinching in his belief that “[e]ven the most mature
believer must continually look beneath the surface to find places where
deep-rooted sins are peeking through the surface, ready to begin their
destructive growth,” (100) he is no believer in what he calls “worm theology,”
the misguided belief of some Christians that “we should always feel worthless
and unworthy of God’s love” (101). Rather, he advocates that we arrive
at a truly humble view of ourselves, which he says can be understood as
“being down to earth, grounded in reality. The goal of maturity is
an entirely accurate view of oneself with no distortions or inaccuracies.
For many people humility requires a step down in their perception of themselves.
Others must take a step up in their view of themselves to attain an accurate
– and therefore humble – self perception” (64). Signature Sins
is a helpful tool toward this achieving end, and Mangis serves as a sympathetic
and supportive guide, unwilling to allow us to wallow in blissful spiritual
ignorance or to encourage us to button up a hair shirt.