The Seven Deadly Sins (6) — Gluttony

You may have heard the story about the schoolteacher who invited her students to bring some items that were representative of their faith traditions.  And so the next day, there was a Jewish boy who said, “I’m Jewish, and this is my yarmulke. The men and boys wear this when we go into the synagogue.”  Then, a girl went to the front of the room and she said, “I’m Catholic, and these are the rosary beads my grandmother gave me.” Then there was another girl who stood up, and she said, “My family goes to the Church of Christ, and this is a casserole dish.”  We do like our potlucks, don’t we?


And it’s probably a good thing that we don’t have one scheduled today because, this morning, as we continue our look at the Seven Deadly Sins, we come to the one that I have been dreading the most – the sin of gluttony.   There are a couple of reasons why I’ve not looked forward to this lesson.  One of them should be obvious.  As most of you know, I like to eat, and so I know that Gluttony is a struggle for me.  And so, I’ll just go ahead and respond to the invitation and stand, and stay standing for the rest of the lesson.


But another reason I’ve dreaded this lesson is because there’s not really that much in scripture that deals with gluttony.  In fact, if I’m being honest, when I began working on this sermon, I wasn’t sure why gluttony is considered a sin, much less listed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Nowhere in the Bible does it call gluttony as a sin, and in fact, there are only three verses in the New Testament that specifically mention gluttony, and two of those are talking about Jesus!


You may recall that Jesus’ critics said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” (Luke 5:33).  The disciples of John the Baptist abstained from food on a regular basis.  But, Jesus’ disciples were always eating.  And so, in Luke 7:34, the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of being “a glutton and a drunkard.”  I joked with Sueanne this past week and I said, “If anybody accuses me of being a glutton, at least I’m in good company.”


But, of course, the truth is that Jesus wasn’t a glutton, any more than he was a drunkard.  But it is significant that one of the things that Jesus was best known for was the time he spent eating with people.  And when you look at all the parables of Jesus, you have to be impressed with how many of them made reference to parties and feasts, the most famous of which being the party that was given to welcome home the prodigal son in Luke 15.


And so, to have a Savior who put so much emphasis on food in his ministry, it seems odd to me to find Gluttony listed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.


The ancient preachers who condemned gluttony liked to use Romans 16:17-18 as their proof text.  Paul said, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.  For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites…”  Or as the King James Version translates it, they serve “their own belly”.


A second passage used is Philippians 3:19, which also says, “their god is the belly.”  But the context of both of those passages doesn’t seem to have anything to do with food.  And Paul said other things, like condemning false teachers because they “require abstinence from foods that 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 if it is received with thanksgiving…” (I Timothy 4:3-4).


            Some preachers mention the fact that Paul spoke of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit in I Corinthians 6, but the context there shows that Paul was more concerned with the sin of lust than he was the sin of gluttony.  And, in fact, Paul seems to have had less condemnation for those who ate too much than for those who made a big deal of refusing to eat certain foods.


In the Old Testament, there’s a little bit more on the topic.  There are a couple of passages in Proverbs that warn us not to hang out with gluttons and drunkards (23:20-21; 28:7).  Proverbs 23:2 says, “put a knife to your throat, if you are given to appetite.”  Which sounds pretty drastic, but basically means, “If you’re a big eater, you need to restrain yourself.”  There’s Proverbs 25:16 which says, “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.”


Ecclesiastes 10:17 warns against overindulgence, but Ecclesiastes 2:24 says that “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.”


So, it seems strange to me that gluttony made it to the list of the Seven Deadly Sins.  If indeed it is a sin, it’s a sin that doesn’t hurt anybody.  If somebody gets angry, they can hurt someone.  If somebody is guilty of envy, they can hurt someone.  And if somebody drinks too much, they can do harm to someone else, but not overeating.  Nobody ever got hurt because somebody ate too much, unless maybe there was a fight at the table over who gets the last piece of cake.


The truth is, most of our favorite memories are of time spent with food – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Super Bowl parties.  Life’s most important moments are marked with food — from a nursing mother’s bond with her child, to a wedding cake, to the hospitality of a meal brought after a funeral.  Eating nourishes us not just physically, but also emotionally and spiritually.  As I’ve often mentioned, the sharing of food is at the very heart of church fellowship, and even our Communion.


So why was it that when the first list of the Deadly Sins appeared at the end of the fourth century, Gluttony was the very first sin on the list?  And I don’t know, maybe those monks who lived out in the desert, who compiled that first list of sins, included what tempted them the most — a desire for a good meal.


But many of the ancient fathers really had to stretch to try to make Gluttony a terrible sin.  Chrysostom, for example, said that the primary sin in the Garden of Eden was gluttony, and he said that it was gluttony that caused God to flood the world in the days of Noah.  He also accused the Israelites of being manna-grabbing gluttons in the wilderness. But all of that seems like a bit of a stretch to me.


So I come back to the question, “Why is gluttony a sin?”  And to answer that question, I think we first need to ask the question, “What exactly is gluttony?”


It probably won’t surprise you to know that the dictionary definition of gluttony is “excess in eating or drinking”.  But, of course, that leads to the question, “Who gets to determine what is excess and what isn’t?”


We know gluttony must have something to do with eating, and maybe drinking too.  But, like all other sins, gluttony is a habit.  It’s a routine, a pattern, a groove that gets worn into our character.  But because we can’t see other people’s habits, we tend to identify things by their symptoms.  And so, we tend to identify gluttons by taking a look at how much someone weighs.  If they’re overweight, they’re a glutton.  If they’re skinny, they’re not.


In fact, our stereotypical picture of a glutton is an obese man stuffing his face at Thanksgiving, who loosens his belt after dinner and says, “One more notch.  I’ve got room for dessert”.


But I want to suggest to you this morning that gluttony is not just about eating and drinking.  Gluttony has to do with a focus on pleasure.  Our own pleasure.  Excessive, immediate, tangible pleasure.


The problem is that eating is meant to be pleasurable.  The pleasure of eating food is a God-given gift.  One of the first commandments in the Garden of Eden was for Adam and Eve to eat, and Paul tells us in the New Testament that we should enjoy the food that God has given us.


But when gluttony creeps into our lives, it corrupts that pleasure, and our desire for pleasure gets out of control. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul talks about food in terms of being “mastered” by pleasure, and I’ve already mentioned two passages where Paul refers to making a god of our stomachs (see Phil. 3:17-21).


You see, what’s wrong with gluttony is that these pleasures begin to dominate everything else that’s important. The sin of gluttony degrades us into being mere pleasure seekers. And that’s the problem with gluttony.


And so, the question we need to be asking is not, “How much food is too much?” but rather, “How dominated by the desire for this pleasure am I?”  And the best way to answer that question is to ask, “How difficult would it be for me to give it up or to do without it?”  The trouble with gluttony is that it reduces eating to an exercise in gratifying my own desire for physical pleasure, consuming whatever I think will make me satisfied.  And rather than simply enjoying food, we use food to give ourselves a needed “pleasure fix.”


As I’ve already said, God intends for us to enjoy the food he has given us.  But the problem with gluttony is that pursuit of the pleasures of food will eventually dull our appreciation for the food we eat, the pleasure we take in eating it, those with whom we eat, and the God who created what we eat.   And instead, we become focused on one thing and one thing only – our own pleasure.


Back in the Middle Ages, Christians divided gluttony into five different categories, two of them having to do with what we eat, and three of them having to do with how we eat.  Somewhere along the line, someone put these five categories into the form of an acronym – F.R.E.S.H.  Some of the words represented by these letters are not commonly used, so I’ll need to spend a little bit of time explaining each of them.



F – Fastidious Eating


This is definitely a word that we don’t use a lot.  The word “fastidious” simply means “difficult to please”.


Those of you who are parents probably have children who are fastidious eaters.   Every day, our kids would ask the same question over and over — “What’s for dinner?”  And after a while, Sueanne quit telling our kids because she knew then she’d have to listen to them complain all day about how they didn’t like what she was fixing.


In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes a woman who is a fastidious glutton.


“She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered to her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile, ‘Oh please, please… all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.’ You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others.”


Have you ever entertained a guest for whom nothing is ever quite right or who makes half a dozen special requests about their meal—”Oh, I don’t like that toasted.” “Could I get the pasta dish, but without the sauce and without the mushrooms and with the spinach instead?”  These are the people at a restaurant who send their food back to the kitchen time and again until it is perfect.


Fastidious gluttons are focused on their expectation of getting a certain pleasure and they have an equally focused determination to do whatever it takes to get it.  They may not eat too much, but in the end, their pleasure is the whole focus of their experience.


If your eating experiences are constantly let down because your food isn’t exactly what you wanted or exactly what you expected it to be, you may be struggling with this type of gluttony.



R – Ravenous Eating


Ravenous eating is greedy eating. This type of eater wants to make sure that he gets enough, especially when there may be competition for some of the food.  I think of the fellowship meals that churches have, and how often I find myself guilty of this way of eating. You go through the line of food, and you’re not sure that everything you want will be there the second time you come through, so you pile your plate up high to make sure you get everything you want.


Because your greatest fear is the disappointment of going back for more later and finding out that someone else beat you to the last piece of chocolate pie, or that the box of pizza is empty. And so, to prevent this (if we don’t pile our plate high the first time through), we make sure we get back in line before everyone else has had a chance to go through the first time.


This more or less makes eating an act of competition. We become afraid that someone else is going to take away our ability to fully satiate our desires, and they will keep us from experiencing the full amount of pleasure that we could have had if we were only able to get one more spoonful of our favorite dish.


And this is a dangerous way of eating not only because it leads us to only look at food as a way to bring us pleasure, but because it also pits us against other people and leads us to view them as a threat to us getting what we want.



E – Excessive Eating


This is what we usually think of when we think of gluttony, and it’s definitely one that I’m guilty of.  The excessive eater is exactly what it sounds like – this is the person who eats too much.  He eats more than he needs to eat.  An excessive eater will choose his meal at a restaurant based on what’s going to give him the most food on his plate.  Buffet restaurants are the very best.  And a Mexican restaurant is also good because you can get all the chips you want for free!


Have you ever eaten a meal and said, “I’m so full I could burst, but I just can’t resist one more bite!  I’ve just got to have a piece of that chocolate cake”?   And when we go to a fast food restaurant, we make sure that we “supersize” our meal, because we just wouldn’t be able to survive on the meager amount of food they provide on the regular size menu.


This is what Solomon was referring to in Proverbs 25:16 when he said, “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.”


An excessive eater doesn’t intend to do harm to his body, but he is willing to risk or overlook the consequences in order to have more pleasure.



S – Sumptuous Eating


This type of glutton is probably the least common among us.  A sumptuous glutton is all about the food having to be “good enough”.  You won’t find a sumptuous eater eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, or a simple dish like rice and beans for dinner.  It’s got to be sumptuous.  If they go out to a restaurant to eat, it’s got to be a fine restaurant, a Michelin star restaurant, not a McDonald’s or a Taco Bell.


I think of the Israelites in the wilderness who were guilty of this kind of gluttony.  “Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving.  And the people of Israel also 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.’” (Numbers 11:4-6).


We don’t normally think of this as gluttony, but remember that gluttony is all about gratifying my own desire for physical pleasures.  That’s all that matters.



H – Hasty Easting


Here’s another one that I’m guilty of.  You might describe hasty eating as “shoveling it in.”  I don’t know how many times we’ve sat down to eat a meal, and my food is gone almost before Sueanne even gets started.


Hasty eaters will often put another spoonful of something in their mouth before they’ve even finished chewing the previous bite. You can’t be patient and enjoy what you’re already chewing, but feel the need to shovel more in so that there isn’t a break between bites where you’re left without the pleasure of that taste.


The hasty glutton is also seen in the person who is constantly snacking.  And again, I can relate to this one when I go and pick through the fellowship meal food when it’s set out, just to “get a taste” because I can’t wait five minutes until the meal officially begins.  Or maybe when we know a meal is coming up, we need a snack because we just can’t wait that long to satiate our desires.  We need that feeling of pleasure, and we need it now.



So, these five categories describe how gluttony affects our life.  In all of this, the question is not whether we are fat or thin, but whether we are eating simply to satisfy our own wants, in a way that elevates our satisfaction above anything else.  God does want us to enjoy all that he has created for us, including our food, but when we are focused on how much pleasure we can get from eating, there are a couple of problems.



(1)  Any pleasure we find is only temporary.


It doesn’t matter how much you enjoy a meal, you will always get hungry again. The pleasure doesn’t last. There’s a whole book of the Bible devoted to making this point (Ecclesiastes), and in that book Solomon says plainly, “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied.” (Ecclesiastes 6:7)


Which is why our desires tend to escalate. We need “more and more” of the physical pleasures we have in hand in order to continue to make us happy.  Gluttony’s insatiability is the opposite of godly contentment and gratitude (1 Tim. 6:8).



(2)  Eating doesn’t fill what we need filled the most.


God has given us food and drink to for us to enjoy, but what an insult it must be when we forsake food as a way to help us love God more deeply for all that he has given us, and instead make it all about our pleasure. We begin to be what Paul described to the Philippians when he wrote, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” (Philippians 3:19).


As human beings, we are more than just material beings. Satisfying our desire for the pleasure of eating doesn’t “fill us up”, because our spiritual needs are still left empty.  And if we leave our spiritual desires unfilled long enough, we will tend to lose sight of them and become preoccupied with only physical desires in an endless cycle of indulging ourselves physically.


Lysa Terkurst has written a book and I think the title of her book sums it up well.  It’s called “Made to Crave:  Satisfying Your Deepest Desire With God, Not Food.”


We need to remember that true and lasting joy doesn’t come out of a perfectly cooked steak, or the most filling meal, or eating until you can’t eat anymore.  Rather, true and lasting joy comes only from God through His Son.


But, when gluttony becomes a habit, we train ourselves to pay more attention to our physical desires than our spiritual needs.  And I think that’s why, traditionally, a glutton is portrayed as being more animal-like than human.  In fact, we often refer to a glutton as a “pig”.  Animals go straight for food without any thought for manners, conversation, or health.   It’s all about one thing – getting what they want.


And so, when gluttons feel empty, they turn for comfort, not to resources that can satisfy them deep down, but to that quick fix of chocolate, a nice meal out, that bag of chips that’s in the cabinet.  And because gluttons don’t restrain their desires for their own physical enjoyment, eventually that’s the only kind of pleasure they are able to appreciate, even though it will never fully satisfy them.



So How Do We Deal With Gluttony?


As we have looked at gluttony, we have found that it may not be as easy to identify in others as we might have thought, but at the same time, we have come to realize that it may affect us in more ways than we realized.  So, what do we do about it?  How do we combat the vice of gluttony?


And before I give the answer to that, I think we need to acknowledge that balance needs to be part of the solution.  While we don’t want to be gluttons, we also don’t want to approach our food with a lack of appreciation, denying ourselves what we need.


We don’t need feel guilty about any pleasure we might take in eating.  Calling gluttony a sin doesn’t imply that food itself, or eating it, or even enjoying it, is sinful.  God is the one who made food good.  Eating and drinking were meant to give us pleasure.  So how do we distinguish between the right kind of enjoyment and the wrong kind?


And that’s difficult to do, because our judgments of what is good and appropriate are often shaped by our desires, and our desires are shaped by cultural forces.  Sometimes we have such a deeply entrenched habit of self-gratification that our judgment about what is “normal” or good is distorted.


So how do we distinguish between the right kind of enjoyment and the wrong kind?  I want to go back to something I said at the beginning of this lesson.  The question we need to be asking is not, “How much food is too much?” but rather, “How dominated by the desire for this pleasure am I?”  And the best way to answer that question is to ask, “How difficult would it be for me to give it up or to do without it?”


The best way to deal with gluttony is through fasting.  I don’t necessarily mean fasting in the sense of not eating anything, but in the sense of giving up something for a period of time.


If we suspect that eating for pleasure is a part of our lives that needs attention, one way to find out is to see how hard it is to give something up for, say, a month.  Maybe give up sugary foods, snacking between meals, caffeinated drinks, chips. You may find it exceedingly difficult to do without some of these things, even though none of them is necessary for our health.  And that says something about how attached we are to certain pleasures associated with eating and drinking—how attached we are to having our own comforts and cravings attended to.  As Richard Foster has said, “Fasting reveals the things that control us.”


Fasting will do a couple of things for you.  First of all, by giving up certain foods for a time, and by not eating to the point of being full, we can learn to appreciate food again.  Who do you suppose will appreciate a simple piece of cheese more — someone who eats several Big Macs every day, or someone who has just gone through a fast, abstaining from cheese for several weeks?


Some people believe that fasting is a practice that devalues eating and food and regards it as evil.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Fasting heightens our appreciation for food.  Think of it this way – when do you most appreciate electricity in your home?  It’s after it’s been out for a few hours.  In the same way, we will appreciate food more if we give it up for a while.


A second benefit of fasting is this — fasting increases our appetite for spiritual things, and makes us more aware of our dependence on God.   You see, if we always take our fill of food and drink, we can acquire a false sense of self-sufficiency.  Gluttony is not only about pleasure, but also about being able to find our happiness in a pleasure we can provide for ourselves.


Rather than looking to God to fill our spiritual and physical hunger, we do it ourselves.  With food, we can comfort ourselves, fill ourselves, provide pleasure for ourselves — if only physically, and if only for a short while.  And so, a glutton’s pursuit of happiness is found in what he can do, not in what God will give him.


So, it turns out that gluttony is indeed a sin, and a serious sin at that.  “Search me, O Lord, and see if there is any gluttony in my heart.”

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