In the first article in this series, we looked at the process by which logismoi, or tempting thoughts, come to control our behavior, and we noted the cataloguing of these logismoi that evolved into the Seven Deadly Sins. These sinful thoughts and attitudes of the heart divide into groups, and there is a logical progression for dealing with them in our lives. The best approach is to work from the outside in, dealing first with the sins of the body—gluttony and lust—before moving on to the more subtle and difficult sins of mind and heart. And of these two, gluttony is the simpler, so we will start there.
As a sin, gluttony is rather unusual. It can be defined as an obsessive and excessive interest in food, and as such, it involves a genuine human necessity. Gluttony thus twists food from its proper use to maintain life and health and turns it into an end in itself.
Further, God intends for us to take pleasure in our food. In Genesis 2-3, we see in the Garden that God made food to be both appealing to the eye and taste as well as nourishing to the body. So, there is nothing wrong with enjoying food unless our enjoyment encourages us to abuse our eating.
Since gluttony is an obsessive interest in food, it covers a much wider scope than just overeating. Whenever food controls us, whenever we live to eat, we are guilty of gluttony. Consider why people eat. Beyond nourishment, some people eat as a means of coping with stress or as a form of recreation. This is no different from why many addicts use their drugs of choice. So, the question is, are you controlling your eating or is your eating controlling you the way alcohol controls an alcoholic? Do you eat out of habit or compulsion or out of true hunger?
Gluttony can also involve being overly picky about foods. Focusing on gourmet meals, organic ingredients, specialty coffees, craft beers, and so on, qualifies as gluttony of a different sort. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with appreciating and preferring fine foods as long as it doesn’t become an obsession. Similarly, eating healthy foods is better for you than eating junk foods, but again, the danger is that this can turn into an obsession where your food choices control your life.
A further danger in being too fastidious in what you will or will not eat is that you can become a food snob: your food can become a status symbol, a mark of superiority over those who eat the “wrong” foods. As Gregory the Great pointed out in his book, Pastoral Care, vices commonly masquerade as virtues. In these cases, gluttony opens the door to pride, a good example of how the logismoi interact with each other.
Another example of gluttony is fixation on food, whether through excessive anticipation of the next meal or, more commonly, through excessive concern about weight and therefore food consumption. It may seem odd to think of compulsive dieters as being guilty of gluttony, but both they and their pathological cousins, the anorexics and bulimics, have an unhealthy and inordinate concern about eating which is the essence of gluttony.
A few caveats are worth noting at this point. If you are on a restrictive diet because of a medical condition such as celiac disease or diabetes, following the medically prescribed diet does not make you a glutton; in fact, not following it would most likely be more of a manifestation of gluttony than following it. Similarly, dieting to lose weight for health reasons is not necessarily gluttony, as long as it doesn’t become an obsession that controls your life.
The goal for us, then, is to learn to take control of our eating rather than allowing food to control us, to be able to enjoy all the good gifts that God has given us without abusing them. To put it differently, we need to learn moderation, consuming neither too much nor too little, without being overly fastidious about our food choices.
The question is, how to get there.
An Important Warning
Before we explore solutions, it is important to note that if you have an eating disorder, whether anorexia or chronic overeating and obesity, consult with your doctor before taking any further action. The suggestions that follow are supplements to medical advice, not replacements, and you should ignore anything here that contradicts what your physician tells you.
Most people assume that the solution to gluttony is found in simple will power. We can choose to say “no” to gluttonous actions and even to turn our thoughts in other directions. The only problem with this solution is that it doesn’t work over the long term. Willpower is a like a finite resource. You can only expend so much of it before it gives out. And if you spend it in one area, it won’t be available in another.
And we all know what happens when willpower gives out: you don’t eat just one cookie, you eat the entire package, showing that food still controls you.
So, if will power isn’t the answer, what is?
Dealing with gluttony is not isn’t simply a matter of eating moderately or making healthy food choices, however important those may be to us physically. Developing good eating habits is valuable and worthwhile, but it is possible to do that and still be guilty of gluttony if those habits control us. Gluttony is a sin of the heart that manifests itself in the body, and the only way to rid ourselves of it is to deal with it as a matter of the heart.
The ancient principle for dealing with logismoi is that contraries cure, that is, to break temptation’s power over us we need to practice its opposite. There is more truth to this than meets the eye. Our actions shape our hearts as much as our hearts shape our actions. The way to change our hearts (or our worldviews!) is to practice in our actions what we want in our hearts. In other words, we obey our way into new worldviews and new heart attitudes. Just as habitual disobedience leads to sin controlling our lives, so developing contrary habits can break its control of our hearts, our thoughts, and our actions.
In the case of gluttony, the object is to break the control food has over us, enabling us to enjoy food as God intended. Thus, for many forms of gluttony, fasting is a good place to start. As Richard Foster, points out in Celebration of Discipline, fasting reveals what controls us. Used properly, with self-examination and prayer, fasting can also help free us of its control.
With care, this can even apply to compulsive dieters: if we find ourselves focused primarily on the weight loss effects of fasting rather than the spiritual dimensions, it can be an indication that food controls us. Self-awareness can lead us to repentance and, through prayer, to develop new attitudes of heart and mind and to replace overly restrictive eating with habits of moderation.
Of course, fasting should not be practiced by persons leaning toward anorexia.
Fasting is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It teaches us our dependence on God and helps us to learn to rely on Him to supply our needs. It also helps us develop the virtue of temperance, that is, moderation and voluntary self-restraint.
Temperance is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). As John Maxwell has pointed out, gifts are given but fruit develops. We are not passive recipients of the fruit of the Spirit, but rather, the Holy Spirit develops His fruit in our lives by working through us to grow our character. In Paul’s words, we are to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us] to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose.” (Phil. 2:12-13)
As the virtue of temperance grows in our life, it helps us with self-restraint in areas beyond food. It gives us increasing control over other forms of compulsive behavior, anger, desire for retaliation against perceived wrongs, and a host of other vices that can mar our lives.
For this reason, the ancient physicians of the soul who analyzed the logismoi argued that the first of the Seven Deadly Sins we should deal with was gluttony. Not only is it the easiest to deal with, but it also lays a foundation for us to deal with the other sins in our life as well.