Apr 17, 2023

What Is Gluttony?

4 Min Read

“Curiouser and curiouser” (from Alice in Wonderland) seems an apropos response to our culture’s relationship to food. At one polar end, there are eating competitions to assess who can down the most hot dogs or slices of pizza. At the other, there is a growing movement of the practice of intermittent and prolonged fasting, apart from the Christian practice of prayer and fasting.

In between overeating and not eating at all, there is evidence of moral weight assigned to dietary choices. Recipes are commended as “virtuous and simple,” and invitations are made to cook and consume foods in line with “nature’s self-organizing perfection.” Ethical vocabulary may be noticeably absent from other spheres, but not so in the context of our eateries. A pilgrim following in Apostolic footsteps may well conclude after watching all the cooking shows and reading the gastronomical magazines: “Modern Western denizens: I perceive you are very religious!”

Gluttony, biblically speaking, can be summed up as laboring “for the food that perishes” (John 6:27). It is not only found in over-consumption, but an idolatrous expectation that looks to eating and drinking to provide sating and fullness for the soul (the inner person). To be gluttonous, then, is to carry “broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). After all, food as a created reality is a gift, but not to be regarded as having the character or potency of the Creator and Giver (cf. James 1:17).

To be sure, gluttony is to be distinguished from proper feasting. The calendar of the old covenant church was punctuated by days of worship and feasting: “Keep your feasts, O Judah; fulfill your vows” (Nah. 1:15). The communion of saints following the day of Pentecost included “receiv[ing] their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). A Christian abiding in Christ, who has the Spirit-given fruit of self-control, thus should be able to enjoy daily bread and feast in the presence of God. But believers must also be on guard, lest anxiety over what to eat or laying hold of edible goods as holding supernatural power enter into the equation of their lives (see Luke 12:22; 1 Cor. 8:8).

One of the keys to grasping gluttony and mortifying this sin is to know from the get-go that it starts in the heart, not in the stomach. Gluttony certainly involves the body, but it’s not limited to the body and cannot be reduced to bodily appetites and cravings. At the root of gluttony is what you are asking of what you are eating, what you are expecting of what you are taking in, in how you view and value what’s on the table in front of you. Is your belly your “god” (Phil. 3:19)? In other words, are your taste buds and the hankering of your stomach what you are seeking to satisfy at all costs?

Gluttony is not only found in over-consumption, but an idolatrous expectation that looks to eating and drinking to provide sating and fullness for the soul (the inner person).

Kim Chernin, author of The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, wrote, “What I wanted from food was companionship, comfort, reassurance, a sense of warmth and well-being that was hard for me to find in my own life, even in my own home.” She confessed her own disappointment in discovering that, in the end, no cuisine translated into soul-food. All of us can likewise resonate with this: we are hungering beings as human beings, but what we take in our hands or forks for our filling—whatever delicacies or victuals there are—cannot match our deep-down need.

All sins are deadly: participating in the realm of death and leading to the place of death. What, then, is the healing medicine for gluttons by nature like you and me? It is not found in a new list of rules and restrictions, which “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23). Rather, it is to seek the fullness of life in the only place it resides: the fullness and super-abundance of Christ Jesus (Col. 2:9–10). He is the Living Bread who promises eternal life for all who feed upon Him (John 6:51).

Remarkably, the Lord Jesus was accused of gluttony: “Look at him! A glutton and drunkard” (Luke 7:34). While this accusation was defamatory and untrue, it arose from the observation that Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners. We could even say our Savior dined with those guilty of gluttony not in order to endorse it, but so that those with whom He reclined might feast their eyes (and hearts) on Him. “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).

Truly, “the grace of God has appeared . . . training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:11–12). When we delight ourselves in the Lord, we are freed to enjoy those appetizers, main courses, and desserts—now in their proper place as “goods” but not as “gods.” Liberated by our risen Savior, the domination of created entities and events is broken for us (1 Cor. 6:12). In Christ are stored all the resources needed to be freed from all the vices that before had a vise-grip on us—gluttony included.

This article is part of the Virtues and Vices collection.