If we regularly, sincerely, thoughtfully and meaningfully put God ahead of consumption, I wonder whether we might not find ourselves having fewer problems with the deadly sin of gluttony.
I once heard about a preacher who said that he didn’t feel like he’d really preached unless he made people feel guilty. I would submit that this man has a mistaken understanding of his calling. The purpose of Christian proclamation is not to create feelings of guilt and helplessness in listeners. In offering this series of messages about the seven deadly sins, I’m not aiming to make us all feel bad about ourselves. God’s Word has been given to us in order to lead us to faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. The Bible says that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but so that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17).
On my wall I have a picture of the great biblical theologian John Calvin, with this quotation: “The Word of God was not given to us for us to talk about it or to make us eloquent or clever, but for the reformation of our lives.” So let’s talk about gluttony, but for the ultimate purpose of the reformation of our lives.
WHAT GLUTTONY IS
The essence of gluttony is overindulgence, excessive consumption of whatever it is we happen to crave. Its most obvious form comes in pigging out on food and drink, but there are also plenty of skinny gluttons around. We are guilty of the sin of gluttony whenever we stuff ourselves too full, whether that is stuffing our stomachs, our closets, our garages or our houses. It is gluttony that makes a woman own 2,000 pairs of shoes, as Imelda Marcos reportedly once did. I saw a news report recently about a new mansion in Dallas, Texas that caught fire and burned just before it was completed. The story said that the house was on the market for $45 million, and that, among other amenities, it boasted a twelve-car garage. What is that but gluttony?
What happens in gluttony is that, instead of our minds and our wills, our appetites take over control. The apostle Paul was speaking about gluttons when he wrote to the Christians in Phillipi about those whose “. . . end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). All of our natural appetites – for food and drink, sleep, recreation, sex or any other physical pleasure, or for nice things and appealing possessions, for fun experiences – all of these appetites can be legitimate. All those things may produce great enjoyment when used lawfully, that is, in accordance with God’s will. But if any of these desires are allowed to dominate us or are gratified in ways contrary to the law of God, then we fall into the sin of self-indulgence or gluttony. Our appetites are a source of blessing and delight when we control them; they become a curse and a source of misery when they control us.
I wonder how often we think about such self-indulgence? Speaking as an evangelical Christian, I would have to say that gluttony is the single least-noted sin in our churches. I wonder when the last time is that I’ve heard a sermon about it. We have lost sight of the long centuries of traditional Christian teaching that classified gluttony as a deadly sin, and fought against it with exercises of denial and restraint, intentional moderation and physical disciplines like fasting or the observance of the season of Lent. In evangelical circles we hear a fair amount about the evils of drunkenness. But there’s scarcely a word about other varieties of this basic sin: gluttony. Many people who would be appalled at the mere thought of alcohol on their tables regularly overload those same tables with so much food they can’t help but overindulge – and bulge!
And gluttony doesn’t start and stop in our kitchens. Think of the waste in every area of our lives and throughout our society. Americans consume energy, natural resources, water, and other basic commodities at levels far exceeding anyone else in the world, and we rarely even stop to think about it. Excessive consumption is obviously a personal sin, a sin against ourselves on an individual level. It can kill us not only spiritually but physically, as we are daily reminded by all the medical information about diet and life-style. But in its more wide-reaching forms, gluttony is also a sin against creation – and the Creator. At its heart gluttony is a waste of God’s good gifts, which are always meant not just to be mindlessly consumed, but to be thankfully received, wisely used, and generously shared.
Think about the enormous mountains of trash, the vast oceans of garbage that testify to the gluttony running throughout modern industrial society. We have developed the means of producing and distributing goods of every kind on a scale that is unimaginable but the result is that all these products must be sold in order for the economy to continue growing, which means that you and I must keep buying, using, throwing away, and then buying even more.
So the consumption grows and the waste flows: natural resources, oil, trees, paper, plastic, water, food, energy, chemicals; in Dorothy Sayer’s words, “all the slop and swill that pour down the sewers over which the palace of gluttony is built.” Our entire society, our whole culture, is hopelessly gluttonous and wasteful, and we can’t escape it. We are caught squarely in the middle, which means that – short of doing something really radical like joining a monastic community or moving to the wilderness and living off the land – we are all gluttons.
THE FRUIT OF SELF-CONTROL
So what is to be done? The answer, I think, is to do what we can to live more simply, soberly and thankfully in self-conscious and self-controlled dependence upon God. Self-indulgence, immoderate waste, consumption, gluttony, however you choose to describe it, such behavior is at root a spiritual problem. The issue involves more than committing yourself to earth-friendly living, or pursuing a healthy lifestyle. It’s about sin. Self-indulgence is the mark of an unspiritual person, one whose mind is set on earthly things in Paul’s phrase, that is, somebody who never thinks about anything higher than the perishing values of this physical world.
By contrast, self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:23), a virtue that the Lord grows in those whose lives are centered upon Jesus Christ. The grace of God that saves us also transforms us, turning us from those who live for themselves into those who live for God. Grace “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,” as Paul wrote to his young colleague Titus (Tit. 2:12). Self-control, the ability to exercise mastery over one’s own appetites, is also a theme in the apostle’s letter to the Corinthians. There Paul suggests an analogy with athletic training:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
1 Cor. 9:24-27
The apostle’s point is clear. If people can and do discipline themselves, curbing their appetites and learning to say “no” to their desires, for the sake of some temporary earthly goal (like a gold medal, or a bit of fame or money), should we not be able to do the same for the sake of eternal glory?
But how do you do that? How do you learn to say no and develop the fruit of self-control? Certainly it seems to me that one important step is to acknowledge God as the Giver of every good thing. Here’s one more passage from one of Paul’s letters. In 1 Timothy 4, Paul writes about certain teachers who had arisen in the early church. For a variety of reasons these people had developed an ethical teaching that was rigidly legalistic and ascetic, or self-denying. They were arguing that true Christians – at least those who were really spiritually advanced – would not only say no to sin but to all other kinds of pleasures and experiences. Paul writes of these false teachers that
They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.
1 Timothy 4:3-5
The answer to the sin of gluttony is not to be found through rigid or extreme forms of self-denial. God’s grace does teach us to say “no,” as we have noticed, but not to say “no” to good things. It teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and to sin. A radically ascetic set of disciplines could cure you of gluttony, but it could also create even worse problems for you.
No, says Paul, the key to healthy living is not simply self-denial, but gratitude. While spiritual disciplines like fasting or seasons of deprivation may be useful exercises – a sort of calisthenics for the will – the ultimate answer is to be found in prayer. Here’s the basic principle again: “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected” (v. 4). We start by acknowledging the Lord and his gifts, all of which are good. We will not reject or throw away any of them away, but remembering that they are from him, and that they are gifts, neither will we carelessly misuse them or overindulge ourselves or waste any of them.
One of my children was recently married, and we watched with great enjoyment as the young couple opened all their wedding presents a few days after the ceremony. How good it was to see all these expressions of love from family and friends, and how carefully each one was opened, examined, admired, and noted down for future acknowledgment and thanks. It was unthinkable that any of these wedding presents would be casually trashed. But if we behave that way with ordinary presents, how much more should we take care with the gifts of God! The world we live in, the air we breathe, our food and our drink, the resources that sustain us, the pleasures that delight us – all these things and more come to us as gifts from his Fatherly hand. Can we possibly consume these things gluttonously or squander them wastefully when we remember where they come from? No, that would be equally unthinkable.
Each gift from the Lord, writes Paul, is to be “received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. . . . for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.” It strikes me that one way to combat gluttony, one easy and literal way of doing what Paul says is to give thanks, give thanks before each meal, taking time to offer gratitude for the gifts we are about to receive. Or how about this for an idea – try stopping to pray before your next shopping trip. If we regularly, sincerely, thoughtfully, and meaningfully, put God ahead of consumption, I wonder whether we might not find ourselves having fewer problems with the deadly sin of gluttony.