(This article was also published in the first issue of the new MIT Et Spiritus Christian journal. Thanks to Richard, Taylor, and Erik for helping to edit it to this final form!)
In August, I was listening to a sermon at church about how to recognize and defeat sin and temptation. I was struck by how many of the examples came from ambition, pride, the usual notion of the American Dream, and how I didn’t feel like I personally related to those temptations. As I searched in my mind for a personal application, gluttony came to mind. I love the pleasure of eating good food, often to a fault.
So I resolved to fight gluttony in my life, and as we moved to our time for response, I was struck by the irony of taking communion to fight that particular sin. To my surprise, whoever had prepared it that week had cut the pita bread into very small pieces, the smallest I’d seen. “Thanks, God,” I quietly prayed as I returned to my seat.
Further confirmation came later that week, when I came across a guest post in Christianity Today on the same issue. It’s short and very well-written so I’d encourage you to read it, but this paragraph struck me in particular:
The first [call to action] is to take gluttony seriously. While we are beginning to address the problems surrounding our culture’s materialism, we want to skip over the strong wording in Scripture to avoid excess food. “Put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony”? In my 33 years of regular church attendance, I’ve never heard that Proverb addressed from the pulpit.
While I think that particular passage (Proverbs 23:2) has an important larger context that can’t be ignored, I would like to argue that there are both biblical and biblically-motivated reasons to care much more about gluttony than we do right now.
At the very least, it’d be hard to care less. Gluttony has become the “acceptable” sin in the conservative American church today. I remember when my high school church went through the Purpose Driven Life videos by Rick Warren, he casually mentioned that American Christians were having so many potlucks and food-based gatherings to build community, we were collectively encouraging each other to pack on the pounds. This didn’t seem to cause much more than a nervous chuckle.
On a more humorous note, Trevor Noah of the Daily Show discovered that a certain 2016 presidential candidate had worked food into pretty much every political discussion. Who would it be other than former Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee? While Christians certainly don’t all agree with Huckabee’s politics, ask yourself: Does this surprise you?
At the same time, I see signs of the Christian world starting to wake up from our collective food coma and face the consequences of turning a blind eye to gluttony in our communities. John Piper’s ministry, Desiring God, has called gluttony America’s Most Tolerated Sin, offering a theological look at the struggle. Rick Warren eventually decided to do something about his weight, and crafted a biblically-guided diet called the Daniel Plan, an approach the Christian satire site The Babylon Bee recently skewered. Even Mike Huckabee himself lost 110 pounds and wrote a book called Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork, something you didn’t see much of in the latest presidential race.
What more is there to add? First, we need to take a step back, define gluttony, and look at why it is a sin. I’ll then offer a few guidelines I’ve found helpful in moving to combat it, by way of analogy with more frequently-discussed sins in the American church.
In the end, I hope that we can talk about gluttony openly in our Christian communities and seek to not simply affirm our addictions to food. We live in one of the most gluttonous cultures of all time: Every American holiday has food at the center, from Thanksgiving turkey to Fourth of July barbecue to Super Bowl 7-layer dip. To cope, the country swings from one crazy diet (“no fat!”) to another (“no carbs!”) to another (“no gluten!”) every decade. (To be clear, some individuals are gluten-intolerant and have no choice in the matter, but the diet’s recent popularity far outstrips what is medically warranted.)
Yet instead of distinguishing ourselves from the surrounding culture, when it comes to gluttony, Christians are right there in the middle of the buffet line.
What is Gluttony?
Let’s start by looking at gluttony as a whole. What is it, and how can it be a sin?
For the purposes of this article, I’ll define gluttony as the inordinate desire for and consumption of food and drink. Let’s unpack that definition first. There are two components: the bodily action of eating and drinking “too much,” and the mind’s desire to do so. This mirrors other pairs of sins, like stealing and coveting. Normal hunger isn’t gluttony; we need to eat to live, but when that desire goes too far, it becomes gluttonous. While I’ll be focusing on food and drink, you could also easily extend most of these lessons to other aspects of consumer consumption.
Why is gluttony a sin? To answer that, we inevitably have to further explain how much is “too much.” Instead of giving us a formula or litmus test to assess our gluttony, God’s word gives us a series of examples to consider, which we’ll turn to now.
Exchanging the Gifts of God for a Meal
Eating and the consequences of eating show up at the very beginning of the Bible. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve reject God and turn to food, specifically the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, their choice is less about the food than the open rebellion it signifies; the tree of life is also present in the Garden, offering fruit that would give them eternal life.
The issue of gluttony in particular comes much more into focus at a pivotal moment for Isaac’s sons Esau and Jacob:
Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:29-34)
While Jacob was certainly very opportunistic in this passage, I’d encourage you to not just see Esau as a brain-dead victim of Jacob’s treachery. As the last verse summarizes, he didn’t really care about that birthright thing. The comfort of food was far more important to him than being part of God’s grand plan for mankind.
We don’t have birthrights to give away on a whim today, but we can still do much of the same thing on a smaller scale, missing the ultimately more important work that God has for us because we can’t just wait to eat. For a simple everyday example, think of all the times when you’ve eaten with a friend and paid more attention to the food you were eating than the conversation you were having.
This improper elevation of something mundane (the meal) over something eternal (the spirit of God in the person you’re eating with) is a prototypical example of idolatry in the Bible. In general, idolatry is any attempt to elevate something into the place of God in the believer’s life.
It might be strange to think about food as one’s god, but ask yourself: Where do you turn when you first get bad news? Do you kneel down in prayer, or run to the kitchen for some chocolate? In this way, “comfort foods” replace the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Waste When There Is Need
The first half of Ezekiel is a very long judgment condemning Israel’s sinfulness, and in chapter 16, Ezekiel calls them out for being worse than Sodom, proclaiming:
Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)
This is another way that gluttony can be sinful: if we have plenty of excess food but don’t help the poor with it. Let’s see, does this criticism apply to us?
One thing at least is clear: We waste a lot of food, to the tune of a staggering 133 billion pounds per year in the US, at just the retail and consumer levels alone! That’s over a pound per person per day. And yet, as we’re all aware living in a city, there is need right where we are. As Jesus predicted, the poor are still with us.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that we should all get together our friends to participate in canned food drives, one of the least efficient means of charity out there. The Greater Boston Food Bank, to take one example, can feed someone for three meals on just a dollar. That can of soup you were thinking of donating just can’t compete with the economies of scale they can achieve from monetary donations.
Instead, we should work not to buy that extra can in the first place, and donate the savings to charities like the food bank. How much food do you buy that goes bad before you get a chance to eat it? Do you feel an excessive need to “stock up” on foods you like, even if it’s unlikely you’ll finish them in time?
We see here another way that food can be an idol: We can find our security in having more than enough to eat, rather than finding it in the Father of all good gifts. We would do well to heed Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:25-26)
This lesson is one of the easiest to apply to other aspects of consumerism. Do you really need to go on that shopping spree? Is that new computer, phone, or tablet really worth the opportunity cost of not being able to feed someone else? (Remember: 33 cents per meal!) What level of security is God calling you to sacrifice to do his work?
Eating One’s Way Out of the Action
Finally, we come to the practical, down-to-earth wisdom of the Proverbs:
Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags. (Proverbs 23:20-21)
If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it. (Proverbs 25:16)
I love how clear and relevant the inferences in these proverbs are. Sometimes eating good food, and particularly meat, is expensive. If you eat too much, it’ll make you sick to your stomach. Food coma is a real thing, and falling asleep after a big meal can be disgraceful.
Yet sometimes these inferences are exactly what we need. I stopped eating sugary cereals like Cinnamon Toast Crunch on a regular basis because I noticed that I was going through a sugar high-low cycle shortly thereafter, and it wasn’t worth it. Now I drink Soylent for my breakfasts, which has a very low glycemic index and therefore moderates those swings much better.
On the financial side, food is also a significant portion of my budget as a graduate student, a little over $10 a day, third behind rent and taxes. And I already get a lot of free food at MIT, around a meal per day during the semester. Do you understand how much money you spend on food, and what you aren’t able to do without that money?
Beyond poverty simply being an undesirable state, we don’t want the consequences of our poor eating choices to keep us from being able to serve God. This is also the message some Christians have drawn with respect to health from Paul’s bold description of our bodies as the temples where we worship:
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
Is that second piece of cake going to render you unable to think straight for the next hour? Will you fall asleep praying after going back for another round at the buffet? If your poor eating habits will cause you to die sooner than otherwise expected, is that really God’s calling on your life?
A Road Forward
I write all of this not as a CrossFit trainer ready to whip you into shape, but as a gluttonous recreational eater in even more need of hearing these words than you likely are. So when I offer suggestions, they’re much more of the beginning of a conversation than a complete diet plan that will work for everyone. If a diet plan is what you’re looking for, there are already plenty of them out there.
Instead, I hope to draw on experiences that Christians already have in handling sin in other domains, and show that these can also be brought to bear on this issue. In that way, I’d like to focus on the aspects related to sin, the portion of this issue that deals with our heart’s desires, rather than directly with the food itself.
Shine a light
Sin thrives when it is hidden, in the dark. John repeatedly urges us to instead “walk in the light, as he is in the light.” (1 John 1:7) We’re familiar with what this looks like for flagrant sins like marital infidelity: You shouldn’t try to cover up an affair, and be honest with your spouse when you’re tempted earlier rather than later.
For gluttons like me, this starts with buying a scale. I now weigh myself nearly every morning before I shower, and I’ve plotted the data for almost a whole year now. (Unsurprisingly, I lost the most when the weather was warmer, and gained some of it back in the winter. On a day-to-day basis, there’s a lot of noise, but it provides a quick reminder that I probably ate too much for dinner the night before.)
Just writing down my weight won’t make that number go down on its own, but it reminds me of my sins the night before. However, I will caution that focusing too much on metrics like this can be hazardous. If we elevate a low BMI or waistline to the position of God, that’s yet another idolatry. While I don’t have any personal experience with eating disorders, they seem like particularly awful instantiations of this idol.
The radical solution
A rich young man had obeyed the law all of his life. Coming to Jesus, he could sense that that wasn’t all, though. Peering into his soul, Jesus called him, just like he called his disciples: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:16). As we all remember, he went away sad, because he had many possessions.
Jesus knew what his sin was, greed, and sought to remedy it with a radical shift. He encouraged the same with Zacchaeus, the extorting tax collector who upon meeting Jesus decided to repay everyone he extorted fourfold and give half his enormous wealth to the poor. It’s clear that this isn’t the calling for everyone; Jesus doesn’t tell Mary and Martha to sell their home, and the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea donates his tomb to hold Jesus. But when it’s a sin that you personally succumb to far too easily, it’s important to be bold in the adjustments you make.
This applies equally well to food, and forms an additional justification for some forms of fasting. By removing the pleasure of food from our lives entirely, we can start to break its insatiable hold over us. (Of course, this isn’t the only reason to fast, just as combating our own greed isn’t the only reason to give. But it’s a motivation that can often be ignored.) Recently, I realized that I was addicted to my department’s daily free cookies, sometimes eating more than a meal’s worth. I decided the best way to break this addiction was not by gradually decreasing the number I ate, but by cutting myself off from them completely for a few weeks. Now that I’ve broken that fast, I find I now enjoy the best cookies in small numbers once again.
Rebuke a friend
Christians often talk about seeking “accountability partners” to help us navigate temptation. As Paul writes in Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” We invite these spiritual siblings to examine certain parts of our lives and find ways we are not living up to God’s standards. I’ve seen friends do this with romantic relationships, regular Bible reading and even finances.
But I’ve never seen it with gluttony. (That is, except for parents rebuking kids, which is a bit of a different sort of relationship.) Instead, we tend to have the complete opposite effect together, encouraging each other to eat more at potlucks and other social gatherings, feeding the idol we’ve made of our taste buds. Even on social media, we share Tasty videos of making delicious food in seconds that increase our appetite further. (Seriously, as I wrote this, my Facebook feed showed me three similar videos in a row from completely unconnected fellow Christians! Why, people?)
At the same time, the spirit of gentleness is critical. Without it, rebuking gluttony turns into fat-shaming and unsolicited diet advice. There is still a lot of embarrassment around weight, and it’s not our responsibility to just wade into it all and tell someone they’re fat. We need to be willing to walk with them through their own personal habits and metabolic idiosyncrasies.
American Christians are often most familiar with sexual sin, including the struggle for many against porn. One of the most common verses we lean on for inspiration is 2 Timothy 2:22: “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” Simply don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re tempted. Some urges are just too strong.
The same approach can help for food. As much as we’d all like to be able to avoid overeating at a gourmet 11-course meal, we might have about as much success as in interacting normally with an attractive naked person. Handling such extreme temptations may very well be the ideal, but if we’re not there yet, we shouldn’t put ourselves in a position to fail.
For me, this means deliberately restricting access. I don’t normally keep any food within arm’s reach at my desk, and I don’t keep a lot of food available in my apartment anymore, especially easy snacks like candy or granola bars. I’ve seen the effect those temptations can have on me, and for where I’m at with fighting it right now, I need to stay away.
I still have a long way to go towards a healthy lifestyle, but I hope that we can jump-start this conversation for the sake of all of us who struggle to resist the tastiest food that the world has ever seen.