Category Archives: Et Spiritus

Stop Ignoring Impact Multipliers

I love to play board games, especially in this golden age we’re in. Every once in a while, I learn a new way of thinking from a board game. In this post, I’d like to share one general lesson that I learned from one of my favorite strategic board games, Navegador. This lesson actually succinctly encapsulates key messages from several of my recent blog posts, among other thoughts I’ve had recently.

Navegador is an exploration and economic-themed game designed by Mac Gerdts. Throughout the game, players representing different nobles in Portugal during the Age of Exploration accumulate a combination of five scoring opportunities: sailing to new lands, buying colonies, and building factories, churches, and shipyards back in Lisbon. The scoring varies by player, though: At the end of the game, each of these five achievements score a varying number of points depending on how many of another component called “privilege tokens” that each player has. For instance, factories are worth 2 points plus one additional point for each factor privilege token you have, to a maximum of 5 points. So a player with nine factories and one factory privilege token will score 27 points, while a player with only six factories but all three factory privilege tokens will score 30. The story in the game is that each player is winning influence with the government that will make their factories that much more valuable.

An illustration of Navegador scoring: the five columns represent colonies, factories, exploration, shipyards, and churches, respectively. For instance, this player has two churches (the gray buildings at the bottom), which are each worth 3 + 2 = 5 points. If you want to practice counting their full score, I think they have 89 points shown here (including 2 points for their money).

This scoring system naturally encourages everyone to specialize in one or two of these five tracks, accumulate as many of those along with all three privilege tokens of that type. For instance, we might describe someone as pursuing the “shipyard strategy” if they try to buy as many shipyards as possible and make them as valuable as possible (shipyards score 3 points plus 2 for every shipyard privilege token, maxing out at 9 points each!).

However, when new players play, it can be very easy to simply overlook the privilege tokens. They don’t really help players’ economic engines, and also have a steep price tag of costing a worker (the story is that you’re sending one of your employees to work in the government, where they can make things go even smoother for you). They also are clearly a long-term strategy, so new players can easily get stuck in early game habits that don’t often accumulate privilege tokens. When it comes to the end of the game, they can’t catch up and don’t end up getting the full value for everything they’ve gotten.

How does this lesson generalize? The key is that I’ve realized that many opportunities we have in life have a similar sort of “scoring rule,” where the effectiveness of what we’re doing tends to scale as the product of multiple features. Let’s just take a look at some of my recent blog posts…

Teaching valuable material effectively

Last week, I wrote about an oft-neglected component of teaching: curriculum choice. One could phrase the two components here as teaching valuable material, and teaching it effectively. If the material we are teaching is valuable, but we cannot usefully communicate it, then our effort is wasted. This was probably the strongest criticism of the “Common Core” movement — teachers weren’t properly trained to teach the material, even if it was a more helpful for students. But more frequently, I see the reverse: We’ve become very effective at teaching material that quite possibly will be useless to our students. By focusing only on effective teaching, we ignore the impact multiplier of the choice of curriculum.

As another example, in the same post, I pointed to the analogy of GiveWell, an organization that seeks to evaluate charities for the good they actually do, not just whether dollars donated are going to direct work. Yes, it’s important for an organization to minimize overhead costs, but it’s also important for them to be doing actually useful work to the people they’re trying to serve. If either is zeroed out, their mission fails.

Let’s study algorithms people actually use

I noticed exactly the same pattern in my research options in applied math. So many fields of research try to learn incredible amounts of detail about models that have very little to do with reality. This is the same error: Effectiveness of applied research is proportional to both our ability to answer questions and those questions actually being relevant in practice. It’s difficult to find research where both are promising (it’s taken me nearly five years just to find that intersection!), but it’s important if our research is to be noticeably better than useless.

Who even reads this stuff?

As another recent example on my mind, I have been part of the team putting together the MIT Et Spiritus, a student journal of Christian thought. This week, we were very excited to publish our third issue. We’ve spent the entire semester writing, editing and laying out the journal, poring over everything from the big picture to word choices to captions on the pictures. Naturally, it can be tempting to just relax after finally finishing.

But that would be to miss a crucial impact multiplier: distribution. It’d be completely useless to publish a journal and not get it out to anyone, wasting all of our hard work. And especially with these early issues, without much of a following, we really need to get word out about the journal and establish an audience who will come to us wanting the next issue when it comes out.

Perilous Proselytism

Speaking of Et Spiritus, I had the joy of editing an excellent examination of evangelism by sophomore Ryan Robinett that went by this title (it starts on page 10 in the PDF). In his article, Ryan describes some of his experiences with evangelism, both positive and negative, and how he is still motivated by the beauty of the gospel despite the difficulties. To pick a couple of the best quotes from the piece, Ryan “fears embodying the callousness, arrogance, and intellectual dearth that is stereotypically trademark of evangelism.” But at the same time, he “has had the joy of seeing the gospel catch the wonder and the hope of others.” It’s for this reason that he presses on, while also being completely aware of the pitfalls that come with proselytism.

I think this approach is exactly right. Even if you aren’t a Christian, you’ve probably considered our perspective that absent intervention, our close friends are going to hell. Of course we want to do something!

Yet if we just do anything, we’re ignoring a crucial impact multiplier: What’s actually effective? Even more than that, some of the things we do are actually counterproductive! (You definitely don’t want to be getting more factories if they’re worth negative points!) As David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons write in unChristian,

In our research with some of the leading “mass evangelism” efforts, we found that often these measures create three to ten times as much negative response as positive. In other words, imagine your church is considering mailing Bibles or videos or other Christian materials to homes in your community. Our research shows that the “collateral damage” of doing so — those whose impressions of your church and of Christianity would be more negative as a result — is significantly greater than the positive impact on those who will respond favorably to those efforts. (unChristian, p69)

Kinnaman and Lyons go on to describe how the vast majority most people who come to faith list relationships as being a key factor, not mass media like radio, television, or tracts.

Where does that put me as a Christian blogger? Do I even have the hope of bringing someone to faith through my posts? These are important questions, and I’m not really done wrestling with them. I have noticed that the more explicitly Christian a post is, the more it seems to only get attention from Christians, which limits my ability to communicate important truths about my faith to those on the outside. Still, I think many Christians and seekers alike struggle with some of the topics I’ve tried to address already (e.g. gay marriage, abortion, miracles, or faith), and I only hope that what I write can help to explain my perspective.

Armchair policy experts

The more I look, the more I see myself sharing the exact same message post after post. Even my post on taking a week off from politics back in March falls into this category. As I reflected back then,

And yet, as I noticed, very little good had come out of all this attention, both mine and others. The levers of democracy in this democratic republic of ours only operate every couple of years. Sure, we could call our representatives, but I live in Massachusetts. Besides, has anyone ever heard of diminishing marginal returns? They’re already getting dozens of faxes a day, let alone letters, e-mails and phone calls.

Despite that, I still spend hours every week reading about politics, trying to stay as informed as possible on whatever the latest Trump scandal is about. But why does this matter if I’m not doing anything about it? Having a precise understanding of all of the Trump associates that have been traced back to Russia doesn’t matter unless it’s somehow going to affect my decisions in the future. It’s not all of our jobs to be millions of little citizen investigators, as tempting it is to want to understand the truth.

I’m definitely part of the problem, but I’ve recently noticed a pattern on some of the discussions that I’ve engaged in on Facebook. My friends and I will frequently debate the fine details about alternative proposals we might bring to solving a few of the most obvious problems with the world, all of this with no actual plan to make any of our ideas come to fruition. In just the last month or two, we’ve collectively written 51 comments debating whether various news reports had sufficient sourcing to be believable, 86 comments on the best way to reduce the miscarriage rate, and a whopping 218 comments on precisely how much people should be compensated for being involuntarily bumped from a flight. Okay, those weren’t the only topics discussed, but you probably get the point.

I don’t necessarily regret these discussions, since they’ve been congenial and fun (and at least have served as good examples of convergent discussion on Facebook in that regard). But speaking to myself probably more than anyone else, I think we might put a bit too much effort into them given the completely zeroed out impact multiplier of actually doing anything with the conclusions we come to.

How to properly weigh various impact multipliers

Another board game I love features one somewhat interesting but unfortunately rarely useful impact multiplier example. In the game of Dominion, duchies always cost $5 and are worth 3 points. Dukes are another card that you sometimes play with; they also costs $5 but give you one point per duchy you have. A natural question arises: if you’re going for a duke-duchy strategy, what order should you buy them in to maximize your points at every step?

This is pretty easy to work out, although the answer isn’t immediately obvious. If you have n duchies and m dukes, your score is mn + 3n, or (m+3)n. That’s the exact same product structure as before! Therefore, you should buy a duke if m+3 < n, i.e. you have at least four more duchies than dukes, and you should buy a duchy if m+3 > n, i.e. you have at most two more duchies than dukes. If m+3 = n, either works. (Of course, in reality, the piles are limited and you might have an idea of when the game will end, so you might want grab that fifth duchy before the first duke, especially if multiple players are going for this strategy.)

In general, let’s say that effectiveness depends on several (positive) multiplicative factors: m_1*m_2*m_3*…*m_k. The effect of increasing m_i by one is equal to the product of the rest of the terms, or in other words, the current effectiveness divided by m_i. That means that the most important factors to improve are those that are currently the weakest, on the scale of plausible changes we could make. Another way of putting this is that we should focus on the percentage improvement we’re making in each of those relevant factors. Of course, this is equivalent; currently low values will be much easier to improve on a percentage basis.

This rule of thumb can actually be somewhat useful in practice, beyond the artificial constructs of board games. In my recent research, I’ve been trying to demonstrate that certain techniques are both theoretically and empirically justifiable — both of which are necessary to be able to say anything new. Depending on how much progress I’ve made in each (and how much I would additionally expect to make in an hour), I try to gauge which of the two objectives I need to work on next, at least without alternating too much.

But beyond that rule of thumb, I hope this post and all of the ones I’ve referenced have inspired you to look for those hidden impact multipliers in your life, especially those which are particularly low at the present.

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Politics: Where do we go from here?

Note: This article will appear in the upcoming Fall 2016 issue of The MIT Et Spiritus. Follow us on Facebook for more updates!

The 2016 US Presidential Election is over. It was an election like no other, producing so many unprecedented storylines that none of us could keep our eyes away from. It feels like forever ago, but the primary season saw a record percentage of voters on the Republican side and the second highest percentage on the Democratic side participating. In the general election, a all-time high of 84 million people watched the first debate from their homes. And yet, it was one of the most depressing. Just a week before the election, a NYT/CBS poll found that 82% of voters had become more disgusted by American politics this campaign, compared to 13% who had become more excited.

Distracted by this stultifying mix of comedy and disaster voyeurism, we largely missed out on the opportunity to discuss and debate the best role of government in the 21st Century.1 And that’s a conversation we desperately need to have, because the one thing we can all agree on is that Washington isn’t working. Faced with a president-elect who has taken a wide variety of positions on nearly every issue, we need to ask ourselves: How should he actually govern?

As we return to this age-old question, we need to resist the temptation to fall back into our usual partisan ruts. For instance, in economics, we’ve had decades of Republicans arguing that we need to lower taxes and reduce regulation to spur economic growth, while Democrats argue that we need higher taxes on the rich and more regulation to restrain corporations and distribute economic benefits more widely. Repeating the same debate every cycle has made US politics more and more polarized, especially at the national level.

No, we all need to take a deep breath, step back from the battles and come together to think about the big picture. What led us here? What has changed about our country since whenever our history classes left off? What are the new challenges we face in the 21st Century? And what does God have to say about all of this? In the end, I hope we can all start to see politics as much more than stand-up comedy or partisan tug-of-war. At its root, politics is not even really about addressing the latest national controversy or advancing a particular agenda, but about bringing us together as citizens to do what we can’t do on our own. We might not think of it that way, but our involvement in many different types of communities, from churches to frats, small groups to volunteering, forms the building blocks of our public life. If we want to solve the problems we face in our politics, that’s where we should start.

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Getting Serious About Gluttony

(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?

Huckabee Food-Based Politics

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)

Jacob and Esau

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)

Pooh Honey

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.

Flee temptation!

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.