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As mentioned in the previous blog, it usually takes someone from outside of our culture to identify various forms of idolatry in our own culture. This implies that there are various sins in our culture that are usually ignored. In our culture, I believe that gluttony is a sin that is typically ignored and/or misunderstood. In the sermon clip posted in the last blog, a statement was made concerning gluttony as idolatry in our culture:

I said, “Where are the shrines of false worship and idolatry in our culture?” She said, “Your god is your stomach and you have restaurants everywhere… And it dawned on me that idolatry is what we often see in someone else’s culture and in our culture we just think it’s the bass pro shop, the steak house… We don’t see it as religion, we don’t see it as spirituality. We don’t see it as idolatry.

In going through the scripture on this topic, I see that there are two basic definitions of the sin of gluttony.

Overeating

The classic definition that most Christians have concerning gluttony is overeating and there are many proverbs that address this (cf. Proverbs 23:1-2; 23:20-21; 25:16; 28:7). One of the consistent themes of Proverbs is to equate gluttony with drunkenness, indicating that the sin of gluttony doesn’t lay with the food, but lays with our appetite. If gluttony and drunkenness are analogous and comparable sins, then Proverbs 23:29-35 should be a sober reminder of what the effects of gluttony can be if they are not addressed.

Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger long over wine, those who go to taste mixed wine. Do not look on the wine when it is red. When it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly; At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind will utter perverse things. And you will be like one who lies down in the middle of the sea, or like one who lies down on the top of a mast. “They struck me, but I did not become ill; they beat me, but I did not know it. When shall I awake? I will seek another drink.”

This passage presents a sober reminder of what drunkenness can do to a person. Many believers will guard themselves carefully around alcohol (some may not even consider having a glass of wine), but have no qualms about gorging themselves at the dinner table. This should not be! This is not only inconsistent, but it is sinful. Many of the effects described by drunkenness in the above passage are similar to the effects of a person who goes through binges of overeating, particularly emotional overeating.  Consider how we treat alcoholics in our culture compared to gluttons. When we find a person abusing alcohol, we are culturally trained to confront that person before alcoholism consumes them. However, when we find a person abusing food, we are generally indifferent, particularly if the glutton happens to be a thin person. Consider the number of times that we have watched people abuse food. In our culture, we just call it “a good meal” or “a buffet spot” or “Thanksgiving meal” or “itis”. We don’t immediately recognize it as sin and idolatry and this is why we allow it to persist without correction.

Dissatisfaction with Ordinary Foods

Another definition of gluttony comes from Israel’s complaint against God in the wilderness. Number 11:4-5 records this complaint

Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all, but this manna to look at.”

Here, the children of Israel complained not about the quantity of food that was given to them, but the quality of food. It is easy to spiritualize this passage and state that their dissatisfaction with the food was symbolic of their general dissatisfaction with God. This is absolutely true, but the actual complaint against God is about the quality of their food. They became dissatisfied with God because of the food that they were forced to eat in the wilderness. The Psalmist recalls this event in Psalms 78:19-22

They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed. Can he also give bread or provide meat for His people?” Therefore, when the Lord heard, He was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; His anger rose against Israel because they did not believe in God and did not trust His saving power.

God gave Israel manna from heaven in abundance, yet they craved the delicacies of Egypt. The essence of their complaint was that they would rather be slaves with great food than to worship God and be satisfied with the food that He provides. Again, it is easy to spiritualize this passage and say that the food that God gives is Himself (cf. John 4:34), which is absolutely true, but the point here is what were the children of Israel actually craving? This is the essence of the secondary definition of gluttony: the seeking of delicacies and better quality of food to satisfy our appetites. In the New Testament, the pagan Gentiles of the Roman world were characterized by drunkenness and gluttonous feasts and festivals (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Romans 13:13; 1 Peter 4:3-4). The Christians of the Roman world demonstrated their distinctiveness and allegiance by refusing to participate in the same debauchery of their day. The challenge is given to Christians in our culture.

This aspect of gluttony is probably the most overlooked aspect in our culture because we live in a rich society with an abundance (both in quality and quantity) of food. It’s easy to forget that our culture is not the norm among current Christians and throughout most of Christian history. We live in the rare society where Christians are relatively wealthy and are not actively being persecuted. Because of this, it’s easy to complain when we have to live on simpler foods or when our food isn’t done to our specification. Furthermore, it’s easy to expect (and to demand) that we will always have rich foods that satisfy our pallets and it’s easy to believe that there are no consequences to indulging upon food (both in quality and quantity). When we as Christians are called to temperance in this matter in our culture, it’s easy to complain in our heart that we were satisfied more when we indulged our flesh and its passions. This is the antithesis of the virtue of temperance, exemplified in the apostle Paul who was content with just having food (cf. 1 Timothy 6:6-8).

Temperance and Self-Control

Ultimately, when we consider how the scriptures define gluttony, we can define gluttony as having a craving for food that conquers you. This comes out in a very dramatic way in the story of Esau who was willing to give up his birthright to satisfy that craving (cf. Genesis 25:30-34). The author of Hebrews calls that unconquered craving as immoral and godless (cf. Hebrews 12:16-17) and serves as a sobering reminder of the necessity of temperance, which is one of the fruits of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22-23). It is my observation that many of the gifts of the Spirit can be faked (e.g. it’s easy to appear loving, joyful, patience, and kind to others), but in my experience, self-control cannot be faked for a long period of time. Unless temperance has been wrought by God through sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, it’s only a matter of time before the façade of self-control is exposed. For many in our culture, the besetting sin of gluttony serves as a constant reminder that the self-control that we claim to have is nothing more than façade.

The text of scripture that challenges me on this issue is 1 Corinthians 6:12 where Paul says (regarding food and drink) that:

“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.

This challenges me by stating that falling into this sin is akin to being enslaved by my body and its cravings. Moreover, it presents the balance so that I do not fall into ascetism with this issue. Also, in 1 Corinthians 9:27 Paul states he bruises his body and makes it his slave. So the point made by Paul is that the abuse of food in any form leads you into slavery and idolatry (cf. Philippians 3:18-19), whereas self-control and temperance makes your body a slave (cf. Romans 13:14). In addressing the sin of gluttony, John Piper writes

I think we need to recover a large appreciation for the biblical disciplines of self-denial and fasting. That is the discipline side of this issue: “I will not be enslaved by anything,” “I pommel myself,” and “I take up my cross daily.” I think we should esteem, extol, and cherish the biblical teaching that the Christian life is one of confronting our cravings and saying no to them.

But easier said than done, right? So how do you fight the battle? I think it must be fought mainly not with the word “No” but with an alternative “Yes.” It is very interesting to me that there are so many food and taste analogies in the Bible for God himself:

  • “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)
  • “Desire the sincere spiritual milk of the word.” (1 Peter 2:2)
  • “I am the bread of life. Come to me and you will not hunger.” (John 6:35)
  • “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1-2)

The implication here is that if we give ourselves to being satisfied with spiritual bread, wine, and milk, then physical hunger will lose its supreme power.

Piper brings up a great point in regards to fasting and self-denial. It’s easy to state that we are not enslaved by our cravings for food, but it’s another thing to actually test it. The discipline of fasting quickly proves whether or not we are the master or servant of their body. It is also demonstrates that power of this sin is broken only through spiritual satisfaction with the bread of life. For this reason, I don’t think that it is a coincidence that in a culture in which there is an abundance of food that can satisfy our cravings, the discipline of fasting is largely ignored by many professing Christians.

Keep Yourself from Idols

What shall we do with this warning on gluttony? God doesn’t confront us with our idols to make our lives miserable, but rather, He does it so that we may love Him more completely. He detaches us progressively from our idols so that we may be freed up to enjoy God and His creation properly. Once our eyes are opened in regards to this matter, we will see that there will be many occasions to deny ourselves and pick up our crosses to follow Christ. What will we do during the holiday season (Thanksgiving and Christmas) when the cultural norm will be to indulge ourselves? Will we buffet our bodies and honor God or will we be enslaved by our appetites? This is the challenge, and yet there is great hope. Just as much as God was determined to save us from the guilt of sin, He is just as determined to save us from the power of sin in our lives. We keep ourselves from idols because we know that God is working in us and providing the grace necessary to accomplish this work. Let that be our hope.

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