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FIRST-PERSON: Gluttony – the elephant in the room

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) — Gluttony is the big fat elephant in the room of the evangelical church. I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon or lesson on gluttony when I was growing up, despite the fact it was rampant all around us. I remember plenty of talk on the dangers of sex and alcohol and even rock and roll music, but nary a word on over-indulging in food.

I grew up in a traditional Bible Belt environment, and while the church of my childhood was more “contemporary” than most, we still made no compromise when it came to potlucks, dinners on the ground, ice cream socials and the like. We were from the South. We were supposed to eat, buddy. On top of that, I come from a border town in south Texas, so if we weren’t in the mood for fried chicken, biscuits and sweet tea, there was plenty of Tex-Mex to be had. The botana platter at Garcia’s was a gift from Dios himself. And my dad, summoning the spirit of the half of him that is Hispanic, could cook the daylights out of some fajitas, y’all.

But I digress.

Can you tell I like food? I like it a lot. In fact, a few years ago as I studied for a sermon on the sin of gluttony it occurred to me not just that I’d never heard such a sermon before but that it was also a sermon I really needed to hear. Like you, I have struggled with all seven of the deadly sins off and on throughout the course of my life, but next to lust, gluttony is the sin I have battled (and continue to battle) most.

If you’ve ever given much thought to combating this sin, you’ve probably run into the same problem I have: there doesn’t seem to be much help out there. Certainly the sentiments of the world aren’t going to do us any favors. We live in the land of all-you-can-eat buffets, Big Gulps and super-sizing. When portions at restaurants aren’t big enough to feed three people we feel cheated. We’ve even turned eating into a competitive sport, with one of the umpteen ESPN stations broadcasting battles to eat the most hot dogs.

Once upon a time, C.S. Lewis used the image of a “strip tease” revealing a mutton chop or bit of bacon to demonstrate the folly of sexual lust. The illustration was meant to be obviously silly. I think Lewis might be shocked today if he watched television commercials or flipped through magazines. We are inundated with ads that amount to little more than a food strip tease! We hardly care that what we purchase at the fast food joint barely resembles what gleamed so tantalizingly in the ad.

We don’t live in a world where we are encouraged to stop consuming, be it food or anything else. In our culture’s estimation, there is no such thing as “enough.”

But many of us don’t get much help from the Christian culture either. And this is really surprising when, if we expand gluttony to encompass more than food, we realize just how gluttonous so many of us are. In his book on the seven deadly sins, Billy Graham writes of gluttony, “It is a sin that most of us commit, but few of us mention. It is one of the prevalent sins among Christians.”

We never seem satisfied. In some sections of evangelicalism the effort to reach bigger, higher, better and faster as it pertains to our ministries or programs, the emphasis on outperforming the previous year as it pertains to income and attendance, and the consumeristic adoption of the world’s standards of popularity or appeal are all evidences of what insatiable eaters we all are. The question is posed to us “How much is enough?” and we answer “A little more. OK, a lot more.”

  1. Gluttony is saying “more” to anything when you should say “enough.”

At its core, gluttony is about dissatisfaction. Not all dissatisfaction is bad, of course. But given all the good gifts we have in the developed world, the reality that most of us don’t have to worry too much about where our next meal will come from, it is profound act of selfishness to cultivate dissatisfaction.

In this way, gluttony isn’t just about food. Just as we can lust for things other than sex, we can over-consume things other than food. Indeed, those who struggle with gluttony when it comes to food will likely find this true with a little self-reflection. In my struggle, gluttony rears its head most evidently when it comes to my diet, but it is also there when I entertain a sense of entitlement about other things.

Why am I crushed when I can’t sit next to an empty seat on an airplane? It’s because I don’t want to be satisfied with what everybody else has. Why do I want every vacation to go perfectly and feel personally hurt when little things go awry? Because I am not simply satisfied to be away with my family doing something fun. It must also be complication-free. I won’t be satisfied with good. I always want better. Why, after I am thanked and encouraged by people after preaching a sermon, do I wonder why somebody else or more people didn’t do the same? Because I’m a glutton.

Gluttony is in operation when we indulge in workaholism or “retail therapy” or hogging the bedspread. We have to be careful in understanding gluttony that we don’t just limit it to consumption of food.

Similarly, we have to be careful that we don’t automatically connect someone who is overweight with the sin of gluttony. They may eat very well but struggle with other physical or medical issues that makes staying physically healthy difficult. Likewise, some of the most gluttonous people I know don’t appear overweight. And that may be part of the problem: their body is not (yet) revealing the rotten fruit of their lack of self-control, so they assume full speed ahead with the fast food is no big deal.

In the Bible, gluttony refers almost exclusively to food. It is often paired with drunkenness, since eating and drinking go hand in hand. When Jesus is accused of sin for sharing meals with sinners, he is accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:17; Luke 7:34).

It is probably good at this point to mention what gluttony is not. Gluttony is not:

  • Eating in moderation food that is considered “bad” for you (like fatty foods or candy or desserts).
  • Finding a meal enjoyable.
  • In moderation, treating yourself to chocolate or ice cream or other culinary indulgences.
  • Having extra portions if you are still legitimately

Consider what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory.”

Doing things “for God’s glory” means making sure that he is recognized as God and praised as God in what we do. This means we cannot eat or drink or do anything else as if we are the center of the universe, because that glorifies us, not God.

Avoiding gluttony, then, doesn’t mean subsisting on bread and water or eating our meals with frowns on our faces. In fact, if we mean to glorify God when we eat, we ought to enjoy food, because it demonstrates taking pleasure in something good God has provided. When you give someone a gift, don’t you want them to enjoy it?

We could say that Gluttony is consuming more of anything than you should. It is the refusal to say “enough.”

Gluttony is basically like making food a drug. When we engage in gluttony, we expect food to provide a pleasure beyond its design. We expect it to help us avoid the problems of life. Or we treat it like an entitlement or as a cure for anxiety.

Where did the phrase “comfort food” come from? As it pertains to food that is delectable to eat, that evokes pleasant memories from our past, or satisfies our hunger in unique ways, comfort food is a good thing. But many people remember a time in adolescence when mom or dad would prescribe food as the cure for hurt feelings or a bad day. Again, there’s nothing wrong with taking pleasure in good food or treating ourselves now and again. But a steady practice of this kind of diet can create an unhealthy relationship with food. Today many adults find it hard to cope with hardships or hurts without over-indulging in food, in part because they were trained as children to think of food as the way to feel better. In this way, gluttony is idolatry. By orienting our behavior, thinking, and affections around food, we seek to find in food what can only be found in God.

  1. Gluttony is never truly filling.

Have you ever had Turkish Delight? C.S. Lewis symbolizes the forbidden fruit with this delectable delicacy in his classic book The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Turkish Delight is what the White Witch uses to lure Edmund into betraying his siblings.

While he was eating, the queen kept asking him questions. At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the queen should be so inquisitive.

Edmund keeps eating until it’s all gone. And then the Witch uses his hunger for more to keep deceiving him. Edmund is a willing participant because he has given himself over to the god of his belly (Philippians 3:19). In the end, though, like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, the promise proves empty. Edmund has eaten all the Turkish Delight; the Witch promises him more if he will only keep to her infernal scheme. When he is reunited with his younger sister, he feels different.

“I say,” says Lucy, “you do look awful, Edmund. Don’t you feel well?”

“I’m all right,” Edmund says, but this is not true. He is feeling very sick.

Food is good. It’s supposed to be. God has designed it that way. As I write this very sentence my wife is in the kitchen preparing her secret recipe pork chops. The tangy scent of the spices and meat sizzling on the stove tickles my nose. My mouth is watering and my stomach is growling. Praise God for good food and people gifted to cook it well!

The Bible says a lot about food, and even enjoyment of food. It commands enjoyment of food. Embedded in the old covenant law is a series of feasts and festivals the children of Israel are commanded to observe each year. The Bible often equates the abundance of food and drink with God’s blessings and the lack thereof with His consternation. At different points in the biblical narrative we see food playing important roles in the turning points of people’s lives and in God’s demonstration of his faithfulness. Think of everything from Esau’s trading his birthright for a bowl of soup to Elijah and the widow making cakes, from Jesus’ feeding the 5,000 to His Passover meal with the disciples at the last supper.

But as with all of the things God gives us to enjoy, when we fixate on the gift to the neglect of the Giver, we find happiness fleeting, thin.

Gluttony is one of those sins that holds out pleasure and satisfaction for the moment but quickly results in disaster. The immediate effects of gluttony can be a physical discomfort that immediately makes us regret our over-indulgence, but the long-term effects of gluttony can be devastating. A gluttonous life can result in all sorts of problems. It can even lead to a lack of taste for the very foods that once tasted so good!

Think over the following words found in Proverbs 23:20-21:

Don’t associate with those who drink too much wine,
or with those who gorge themselves on meat.

For the drunkard and the glutton will become poor,
and grogginess will clothe [them] in rags.

When we are engaging in gluttony it is essentially because we have a desire deep down to find delight and satisfaction. To paraphrase Bruce Marshall’s famous words about the young man at the brothel, the young man ordering too much at the Taco Bell drive-thru window is unconsciously looking for joy. There is joy to be found in food, but it is a hollow joy if we intend it to be an ultimate joy. Food is made for man, not man for food, in other words.

  1. Kill gluttony by knowing food’s function and Father.

Similar to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:29-30 on plucking out our eyes and cutting off our hands if they cause us to stumble in lust, check out Proverbs 23:2: “[S]tick a knife in your throat if you have a big appetite.”

This is not a literal command, of course! It simply means to get rid of the idol(s) driving our gluttony. But how do we do that?

We begin by getting the right perspective, to see food as a gift from God and not as a “giver” like a god. We gluttons expect more from food than it’s designed to give. And we prioritize it wrongly.

Take a look at 1 Corinthians 6:12-14:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” – and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.

Gluttony is enslavement to our appetite. This sort of relationship is out of order. Paul says food is for the stomach and the stomach for food and both will be destroyed – meaning, both are temporal. It makes no sense, then, to elevate food or our hunger pangs to a place of authority over our wills. The context of this passage in 1 Corinthians 6 is a discussion of repenting of sexual immorality, but the principle remains the same. Food has a purpose and servicing our prideful self-worship isn’t it.

We totally miss the function of food when see it as the end rather than as the means. We don’t have to stop enjoying food to stop enjoying it too much. In fact, what we discover as we practice self-control and eating to God’s glory is that we end up enjoying food more when we enjoy it rightly.

Our body is meant “for the Lord,” Paul says, and “the Lord for the body.” He is commanding us to turn from the misuse of God’s gifts in seeking satisfaction and instead turn to God Himself as the satisfier we have sought in sex or food. So it is important, then, not just to know what food is (a gift with a specific purpose) but who God is (our Father who promises not to leave us dissatisfied).

The closer we get to God, the less reliance we will have on His earthly gifts. When it comes right down to it, gluttony is distrust of God’s provision, which is distrust of God’s character.

When we eat too much, it is a reflection that deep down we don’t trust God for joy after that meal, that we don’t trust him for food after that meal. Do you eat “like it’s going out of style”? Why? Don’t you know that we aren’t to worry about what we’ll eat or drink, that if God makes sure the flowers and birds have what they need, He will do the same for us?

To know God is to trust him. So the more we pursue knowledge of the Giver, the less we will abuse his gifts. This is what David discovered in his darkest, leanest moments:

All eyes look to You,
and You give them their food in due time.

You open Your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.

The LORD is righteous in all His ways
and gracious in all His acts.  (Psalm 145:15-17)

Such knowledge of our heavenly Father eventually leads David to say multiple times “the LORD is my portion.” And this portion is generous. And delicious!

Taste and see that the LORD is good. How happy is the man who takes refuge in Him!  (Psalm 34:8)

There is real satisfaction and delight – the things we gluttons are looking for in food – only in the Creator of food. He gives us His good gifts to be received with thankfulness and to be enjoyed but to His glory, not ours.

Paul provides our final instruction on how to execute the god of our belly and eat to God’s glory:

For Christ’s love compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: if One died for all, then all died. And He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).

When we are being gluttonous, we are compelled by love for ourselves and the hollow joy of food. But when Christ’s love compels us, we no longer live for ourselves but for God’s glory. How do we orient ourselves out of gluttonous compulsion to the compulsion of Christ’s love, then? By “reaching this conclusion”: If Christ died for me, I am able to die to myself. Gluttony is not just an eating problem; it’s a belief problem. We disbelieve our way into overeating, so we have to believe our way out.

    About the Author

  • Jared C. Wilson
    Jared C. Wilson is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Spurgeon College, Author in Residence at Midwestern Seminary, General Editor of For The Church (and co-host of the For The Church Podcast), Director of the Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church, and author of numerous books, including The Pastor’s JustificationThe Imperfect DiscipleThe Gospel According to Satan, and The Gospel-Driven Church.Read All by Jared C. Wilson ›