Gluttony is not a word we hear much today, other than when we tease someone about being a ‘glutton’ for punishment. Have you ever heard a sermon on gluttony? Have you ever reflected on whether the sin of gluttony is one you are prone to? No-one has ever confessed to me that they struggle with the sin of gluttony. Are you reading this article and you’re quietly impressed you’ve made it this far because the topic is completely irrelevant for you? We live with the impression that this sin is a relic of past ages. But when we have a closer look, it might be more accurate to say this is one of the besetting sins of our age.
Perhaps you think the sin of gluttony is easily identified. It is detected every time a person gets on the scales. You think gluttony is all about weight. Your simple formula is, BMI in the obese range equals a person struggling with gluttony. We need to be very careful, however. Just because a person is overweight that does not mean they are a glutton. There are many reasons a person can be overweight that are unrelated to eating an excess of food. On the other hand, that thin person in your congregation, with plenty of energy and an extremely good metabolism, might actually have a real problem with gluttony. That’s because gluttony is not just about eating. It’s about the desires behind how we treat food. Gluttony is the term we use to describe an inordinate or disordered desire for food1.
The term gluttony derives from a Latin word meaning ‘to gulp down’. We’ve all had the displeasure of sitting at the table with someone who scoffs their food, it hardly touches the sides, and they are into seconds before we’ve finished two bites. We think they are a bit of a pig. However, gluttony isn’t simply the act of eating quickly. Gluttony is about the various desires which drive our food choices. A desire for security, or for satisfaction, or for comfort. In this sense, we are dealing not so much with a physical2 problem, but a spiritual one. Gluttony is a worship disorder. Perhaps Paul puts it best when he warns the church in Philippi about false teachers whose god was their stomach3 (Phil 3:19). It was their appetites that drove their behavior. In the same way, it is our appetites that drive how we treat food and how much we either eat, or don’t eat.
A biblical theology of food
Now, the take home from this article should not be that we resolve from now on to drink only kale thickshakes and we stop eating any food that gives us pleasure. Food is a good gift from God. In fact, we find that one of the first commands given to mankind is to enjoy the lavish provision of food that God provided. When the Lord put Adam and Eve in the garden, he said to them: “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely …” (Gen 2:16). Food is a good gift from the Lord. It is to be received from His hand with thankful and grateful hearts.
In fact, feasting is actually something positively commended in the Bible. Avoiding gluttony does not mean there are no special times when we enjoy an abundance of food. There were many feast days in ancient Israel, of which food was a major part. In fact, at one point the Israelites are given the rather remarkable command to feast before God at the tabernacle, and as part of that they are told to spend their money on “whatever you desire — oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household” (Deut. 14:26). It would appear that occasional celebratory meals in which feasting is a part are perfectly acceptable to God.
In fact, that’s what we’re looking forward to isn’t it? The great wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:9). The great banquet when Jesus returns and all things are made new. We cannot conclude that food and feasting are positive evils if they are used to picture what eternal life will be like. We are to use food rightly, as God has designed it. Not as an end in itself, but as a gift from God, a means he uses to sustain our lives so that we might serve Him. The problem is, that in this fallen world, we have a tendency to misuse God’s good gifts. As Paul reminds us in Romans, we worship created things, rather than the creator. And that’s what the sin of gluttony entails – food worship.
So what does bowing down at the shrine of the fridge or pantry actually look like? What would you look for in your shopping list to determine if you were a food worshipper? The sin of gluttony can actually take many forms. We naturally think of the person who eats to excess all the time. They can’t go past KFC or McDonalds without stopping for just a little snack. They have been mastered by the desire for the pleasure they derive from eating.
However, theologians have also identified several other forms of gluttony. One of those is eating lavishly. This refers not to the quantity you eat, but the quality of the food you ingest. This form of gluttony might involve eating very little, but what is eaten is expensive, luxurious, top shelf. This is one form of gluttony the foodies amongst us need to be on the alert for. Passionate eating is another form of gluttony. This is where our passion for food becomes so great, we are constantly thinking about that next meal. Our passion for food exceeds its proper bounds. Our thought life is dominated by food. Disordered eating is another form of gluttony. This refers to the person who refuses to observe proper times for meals. They are constantly snacking and are unable to order their food intake properly.
CS Lewis describes a form of gluttony that we might call fussy eating. He describes a finicky old lady who always wants her tea and her food just right. This lady makes life intolerable for those around her with her demands about her diet4. It’s not hard to draw a line from CS Lewis to our society today. Have you ever met the person zealous that you eat only the ‘right foods’ – it must be organic, it must be whole food, it must be a craft beer and I couldn’t lower myself to anything else5. Then there’s the morally ‘wrong foods’ that we’ve got to avoid – anything processed, and don’t mention the ‘s’ word (that’s s*g*r). This person’s approach to food is also driven by their appetite. Often this form of gluttony is accompanied by a food righteousness whereby they look down on those who make different food choices as morally inferior.
So gluttony can take many forms. If you can’t see yourself as a food worshipper in any of the above examples, perhaps if we think about the inward desires that drive our food choices it is easier to see that it is an area of struggle for many of us. For example, you may have had a bad day with the kids. Or that guy you had a crush on didn’t reciprocate the affection you showed toward him. In response, have you ever gotten out the tub of ice-cream, the block of chocolate, and before you know it the whole thing is gone? What’s happened? The desire for comfort has driven you to find it in food. You’re a food worshipper.
Or perhaps it has been a long week – and you finally get home at 8pm on a Friday night and it’s time to relax. And so you sit down for that glass of red you’ve been thinking about since lunch time. Now there is nothing wrong with a glass of red of course. But what’s the desire that drives you? Is it to enjoy one of God’s good gifts, or is this the way you escape from the demands of work and home? Is the drink the place where you come with your weary and burdened soul to find rest? If so, you’re a food worshipper.
Or perhaps you’ve got that dull and boring job you’ve been doing for the last 20yrs. You feel like you haven’t really made it, you don’t really amount to much, and food is where you find your worth. You eat, and it takes away the sense of worthlessness and frustration. You’re a food worshipper as well. Although most of our readers probably don’t have a problem with the gluttony of excess, all of us have disordered desires which cause us to look for in food what we should be looking for in Christ.
Permission to glut
How do we deal with our food worship? How do we deal with our misuse of God’s good gift? The answer is not simply the call to exercise self-control. Diets and accountability and self-discipline do have a place, but not the primary place. Our disordered desires for food, and an immoderate desire for food, need to be addressed so that we can use food rightly. To put it another way, external rules and regulations won’t help us deal with what is a heart problem. Our hearts need to be strengthened by grace. We need to discover the true feast which alone can satisfy our deepest desires.
Jesus said that he was the true bread that came down from heaven (John 6:32). It is upon Jesus the believer is given permission to glut themselves. We are allowed to keep on coming back to him for more and more. When we do, we find that our souls are truly satisfied as with fat and rich food (Psalm 63:5). Instead of looking to food for what it was never designed to provide, we look to Christ and find in Him our satisfaction, our security, our worth, and true identity. Calvin wrote in the Institutes: “Now Christ is the only food of our soul, and therefore our Heavenly Father invites us to Christ, that, refreshed by partaking of him, we may repeatedly gather strength until we shall have reached heavenly immortality” (4.17.1). Let’s come to the food, the glorious food of Christ Himself. He will satisfy our spiritual appetite, and the result will be that our physical appetites will be put in their rightful place.
1 However, an inordinate desire for something other than food can also be a form of gluttony. You can be a glutton for pleasure, or TV (think binge watching), or computer games, or sport. Gluttony can take many forms, but this article will in particular deal with gluttony as it relates to food.
2 Although it can lead to many physical problems – see the Article by Dr Snoek in this edition of Faith in Focus – p.6.
3 The word ‘stomach’ is a reference to the more broad idea of ‘sensual appetites’. This would include one’s appetite for good.
4 “She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile ‘Oh please, please … all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.’ You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance.” The Screwtape Letters, pp.86-87
5 Clearly this does not apply to people who have allergies and must maintain a certain diet because it is dangerous for them to do otherwise.
Mr Andrew de Vries is a minister of the Reformed Church in Bishopdale.
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