Gluttony: Is it a Sin?
The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies and lawful endeavours to preserve the life of ourselves ... by a sober use of meat...The Larger Catechism
The young preacher who wants to bring the sin of gluttony to the attention of his congregation had better be warned. Apart from the general area of marriage, this is about the most touchy subject there is!
You can speak quite bluntly about anger and pride, unbelief and envy, and you can show up the sinfulness of these in quite vivid terms, and, sadly, that can be done without folks getting stirred up; but if you draw attention to gluttony in the same terms, you'll get a reaction!
There was a time when gluttony was thought of as one of the seven deadly sins. But the position has changed and gluttony has not maintained its unpopularity. It just scrapes in to our list of sins: the least of all sins, that is not worthy to be called a sin.
Why does it not occupy a larger place in our thinking; in the examination of our lives; in our expressions of repentance and in our prayers for forgiveness?
There are a number of factors that enter into our thinking:
it is difficult to identify when a healthy appetite passes over into being gluttony;
gluttony doesn't seem to have clearly identifiable consequences, like other sins of the body clearly do;
the spirit of the age encourages gluttony and it is easy to drift with the current tide of opinion.
But I'm sure that a major factor is that Calvinists see this area of life in a different light from what others do.
How Calvinists Eat
Calvinism does not involve an ascetic outlook — it doesn't encourage rigorous austerity in material things. On the contrary, man's chief purpose is not only to glorify God but to enjoy him for ever. That enjoyment of God includes a due delight in and appreciation of the material benefits that God benefits.
Food is one of these benefits. Paul warned against those who "forbid people to marry and (who) order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth" (1 Timothy 4:3). The thinking that lies behind Paul's condemnation of this asceticism is that
everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.1 Timothy 4:4
It is not surprising that, in accordance with these general principles, we find that in the Bible eating is described in terms of enjoyment. It is not merely utilitarian: a stoking up of the energies of our bodies. It is something enjoyable in itself and a means of expressing gladness.
Thus at a routine, daily level, we are told that the early New Testament disciples "ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (Acts 2:46). Similarly, special feasting, associated with that same spirit of happiness, is mentioned in the Scriptures. Jesus attended the festivities of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-10); he participated in what appears to be "dinner parties" in the houses of the wealthy (Matthew 26:6; Luke 7:36) and he used banquets as pictures of the gospel provision (Luke 14:12-14; 15:22-23) — something he could never have done if it was wrong to eat beyond what was strictly necessary for one's physical wellbeing.
In the Old Testament too we have the same attitude of mind. Take an incident from the Book of Nehemiah, chapter 8. Ezra's reading of God's word to the people and the explanation of it, causes them to weep. But the instruction is given not to weep. Rather they are told:
Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our God. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
In other words, sadness is incompatible with it being a holy day: on such a day, joy, mindfulness of others and a first class meal are appropriate. If ever we needed a text to justify a special Sunday dinner, this is it!
The general outlook of the Scriptures fits in with the Calvinistic principle that God's good gifts are to be fully enjoyed. This means we are not so liable to slip in to a false spirit of asceticism. But what we must be aware of is how easy it is to slip from a due appreciation that everything belongs to God into a misuse of God-given resources. Our legitimate delight in God's gifts of material things must be kept in due proportion. Gluttony is the failure to do that.
Gluttony - What is It?
In my dictionary, a glutton is "an excessive eater, gormandizer." And to gormandize is "to eat voraciously or excessively". Which doesn't carry us much further. But it does indicate that gluttony has to do with regular excessive eating.
In the Old Testament that is what is prominent. The word used is connected with "pouring out" or "lavishing" and clearly carries with it the idea of excess.
Gluttony is assumed to be wrong and specific cases based on that assumption are mentioned. As we might expect, Proverbs has a bit to say about the subject — especially bringing out the physical and social side-effects of occasional or habitual overindulgence. "If you find honey, eat just enough — too much of it, and you will vomit" (25:16). "Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor and drowsiness clothes them in rags" (23:20-21). "A companion of gluttons disgraces his father" (28:7).
In the New Testament it is the general spirit of excess that is prominent rather than the particular sin of gluttony. Again the basic word we're looking at implies "not saving", "squandering". Although the focus would seem to be on excess of drink, other forms of overindulgence cannot be excluded. It is the style of life typical of the "Prodigal" son who squandered his wealth on "wild" living (Luke 15:13).
The Bible gives us a very restricted course to steer. On the one hand, there must not be excess — especially habitual excess. On the other hand, eating must not be seen as merely utilitarian: it is right to enjoy food and to delight in plenty of it on appropriate occasions. What this means in practice, each one of us will have to work out for ourselves according to our age, the state of our health, the nature of our employment and our bodily requirements. But in general it surely represents a simpler and more abstemious approach to eating than is usually characteristic of our day and age.
Like any other sin, gluttony isn't simply wrong in itself. It is so interrelated with other sinful attitudes that it is to be seen as part of a large and intricate web. We would do well to examine the web of guilt which gluttony weaves.
Where it Comes From - A Compensatory Mechanism
What makes us overeat is a complicated matter and one which probably takes us outwith the sphere of the pastor.
At the simplest level, gluttony can be a failure to restrain our natural appetites, especially under the sway of relaxing influences such as social occasions. In a happy atmosphere it is more difficult to say "no" and the result is overindulgence. That applies to Weddings or Birthday Parties just as it does to informal meetings at Communion times.
But there's something more subtle to be on the lookout for. A full stomach brings a sense of wellbeing. When a sense of wellbeing is missing, we may overindulge in food with a view to producing it. Some folks overeat because they are lonely; others because they are worried or upset over some crisis; others, out of a sense of frustration and inadequacy. Gluttony is a mechanism used to compensate for some inner sense of loss or to mask the real problems that confront us. In that respect it is just like drunkenness — it has the same initial impetus and the same enslaving power. It may not have the same disastrous consequences, but we'll look at that in a moment.
It is not therefore surprising that gluttony and drunkenness, go hand in hand in the Bible. In reality, they are twins. Why aren't they twins in our way of thinking? Why don't we hate the one as much as we hate the other?
What it Involves - Indiscipline
In its most basic form, gluttony strikes at the very root of what Christian living means. We are disciples and our actions have to be disciplined; but gluttony is an act of indiscipline.
Jesus tells us to deny ourselves (Mark 8:34) — something that involves among other things that we should not let our natural bodily appetites rule us but that we should rather rule them. Gluttony involves our bodily appetites running out of control and so it is disobedience to a clear command of Christ.
Paul, too, tells us to keep the body under (1 Corinthians 9:27) and to act like soldiers (2 Timothy 2:3). He lists self-control as one of the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:23: AV "temperance"). Through gluttony, the body rules us, we are unfit to be soldiers and we fail to produce one of the fruits of the spirit.
What it Leads to - Distorting the Priorities
The most obvious result of overeating is the damage it can do to the body. We do not want to belittle that. We all have a God-given duty to care for our bodies and not to ill-treat them, especially as, for believers, they are temples of the Spirit of God. But the bodily consequences of overeating are largely outwith a pastor's competence to deal with. Our interest is in gluttony's spiritual side-effects.
From what we've just said it is clear that gluttony represents the voice of self-interest and it declares us to be materialists. It is the contradiction of the command of Christ that we should seek first his kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). It is opposed to the spirit of the Psalmist who said: "Your love is better than life" (Psalm 63:3), for in it we are setting the demands of our physical life before the demands that our Lord makes upon us.
It is not surprising if the sin of gluttony is accompanied by an all-round slackness in the practice of self-discipline and by a general tendency to subordinate spiritual matters to the demands of materialistic considerations. There can be an alarming connection between one's bodily weight and one's spiritual temperature: the more the one goes up, the more the other comes down.
Moreover, if gluttony is indulged in as a compensatory mechanism, we have to ask what is food being used as a substitute for? The matter can be put simply thus: if we are lonely, what should we turn to for support and relief? Should it be overindulgence in food or should it be fellowship with God, the companionship of his people and the service of others?
If we are upset and troubled, where do we find support? There's a Spanish proverb that says: A full belly; a happy heart. It means that the one produces the other. But the Christian that acts on that proverb and overeats in times of special stress is setting the use of food above the use of prayer and dependence on the promises of God.
In other words, this "innocent" sin, which doesn't seem to affect us very much, actually strikes at the very heart of our Christian faith. It involves us giving way to attitudes of mind and thought that are destructive of true spirituality.
How come there is such a close connection between this "innocent" sin of the body and the wellbeing of our spiritual lives?
Well, clearly because of the natural constitution of man. In man, the bodily and the spiritual are so closely connected that the wellbeing or otherwise of the one affects the other. You just can't overindulge the body without ominous rumblings being heard in your spiritual life.
Are you on a diet? If so, did you identify the circumstances that led to this necessity? Did you go to the root of the matter and did you humbly repent of anything that you found associated with the sin of gluttony?
Feeding folks is a God-given service. But engage in that service wisely. Don't press food on an unwilling recipient: you may be offending their conscience or leading them into sin. Take "no" for an answer.
If folks aren't prepared to recognise that overeating is a sin, then they are hardly likely to accept that abstinence from food (fasting) can lead to blessing in our spiritual lives. The corollary of the position that gluttony is an impediment to spiritual growth must surely be that fasting is an impetus to spiritual development.