Pirates of the Caribbean depicts one of the last curses I’d want to endure. Barbossa and his crew have lost all ability to feel, smell, and taste. That big green apple is its most prominent symbol. Barbossa yearns for the day that he can actually enjoy it again.
What a great gift God has given us, that we were made to delight in things! We don’t go through life merely using things for the sake of survival and efficiency. We’re made to enjoy and savor and appreciate.
It’s no wonder that the symbol for the Pirates curse is a piece of food. Our relationship with food has a special place among all the things we enjoy.
Think of any party. It might have dancing or singing or games or music. But there’s little doubt that food will be a part of it. Regardless of time or place in history, food has been a party staple.
I originally thought it was odd that one of the seven capital vices would focus on eating. The category seemed too narrow. Some people have expanded the definition of gluttony to include any over-indulgence––movies, social media, email, even being a “glutton for punishment.” Yet as I’ve considered these more, eating seems to have a special place in our lives. God has given us all a common need for food and the common gift of delight.
What, then, is the problem with gluttony? If you think it doesn’t apply to you because you don’t overeat, stick around…
Good desires gone bad
In my post on lust, I said that every vice distorts or perverts something good. Lust and gluttony are considered two of the three “warm-hearted” vices. They have to do with a distortion of our desires––an attempt to over-indulge them.
Our desire to enjoy food gets distorted in two ways. We could call the mottos for these two distortions “eat to live” and “live to eat.”
Eat to live
You might have met an ascetic––someone who practices severe self-discipline and avoids all forms of indulgence. Maybe you’ve toyed with ascetic ideas in your own mind. For the ascetic, anything that’s not specifically devoted to God is a waste of time, money, and energy. In many ways, the ascetic is the extreme Christian utilitarian. “What’s the purpose in eating anything else when beans and rice can sustain?” For the ascetic, food is for sustenance and nothing more: “eat to live.”
Temporary periods of ascetic living can serve a good and holy purpose. With regard to food, we call that fasting and abstinence. More on that below. But a permanent lifestyle of asceticism risks denying the goodness in God’s creation.1
Live to eat
The more common distortion in our relationship with food is gluttony. We usually associate gluttony only with overeating, but the issue at root isn’t necessarily quantity. You can be a skinny glutton.
Asceticism distorts our desires by denying pleasure. Gluttony does the opposite. It over-amplifies pleasure. For the glutton, the pleasure of eating and being full isn’t one of many pleasures to enjoy, it’s the pleasure. The appetite and tastes dominate: “live to eat.”
I think Aquinas described it best when he called this sort of intemperance a childish sin.2 Imagine a child at the table, unhappy with what he’s been offered to eat. “It’s yucky, I don’t want it.” He complains. He pouts. Because his personal pleasures aren’t being met, he sits through dinner with a scowl.
Or imagine the child ready to eat before dinner is ready, throwing a fit because she’s hungry, pestering her parents for something to eat “right now!”
Adults may handle the same situations with a bit more dignity, but their attitudes may be the same. We all want things to be exactly to our taste,3 in enough quantity, and exactly when we want them. But to what degree will we dishonor and disregard other people and priorities when these needs aren’t perfectly met? When our desires go unfulfilled, does it affect our attitude and treatment of others? If so, gluttony may be at root.
When gluttony elevates the pleasure from eating to an unnatural place, it tries to get too much from food. That may be because of another void that we’re trying to satiate. We use food to dull a feeling of emptiness or pain and, in the process, we ignore the real void.
You can see the vicious cycle at work in this… The root of emptiness goes unresolved, but food’s pleasure doesn’t last. As a result, we go back to food over and over, trying to temporarily fill the persisting void. If you’ve ever watched The Biggest Loser, you’ve seen them identify this cycle in nearly every contestant’s life. The pleasures from drugs, drinking and sex often attempt to do the same.
Seen this way, gluttony turns food into our comfort in times of trouble and distress. We seek refuge in food at times when God should be our refuge. When this happens, we not only distort God’s good gifts, we replace God with them.
As a caution, we should remember what ascetics seem to miss: there’s a time for feasting. Refraining from gluttony isn’t refraining from feasting. It’s about placing our feasting in the proper context––as an occasional special indulgence, one that accompanies celebration and facilitates relationships. That’s much different than gluttony’s regular over-indulgence, often as a coping mechanism or replacement for healthy relationships.
Fighting back against gluttony––Lenten Practices
Join me in two practices in the next week.
First, spend some time in self-examination. Is gluttony evident anywhere in your life? Rebecca DeYoung outlines five forms of gluttony with the acronym FRESH. Are you eating Fastidiously (is it spoiled if you don’t get just what you want?), Ravenously (e.g. loading up at the potluck in case there’s not enough), Excessively, Sumptuously (does it have to be rich and filling to satisfy you?), or Hastily?4
Second, spend a day in fasting. Actually, I’d encourage you to pick a day of the week to fast for the rest of Lent. (See this excellent piece by Jonathan Powers on fasting and feasting and gluttony as the gateway to all sin.)
Why fast? First of all, because God commands it in the Old and New Testaments. Furthermore, through fasting, God forms the virtue of temperance in us. He forms in us the ability to moderate our desires. Fasting claims that we don’t have to have everything that we want, even when it’s accessible to us.
If you can’t do a full 24-hour fast, perhaps you can choose something to abstain from. I recently heard someone talking about a person who was giving up chicken for Lent. He asked, “Why give up chicken for Lent? Is chicken really hindering your relationship with God?” He didn’t understand the purpose of Lent or fasting. Chicken isn’t likely hindering anyone’s relationship with God. But a gluttonous attitude that compels a person to take whatever they want, whenever they want, may very well be hindering their relationship with God. Temporarily abstaining from chicken may be the small next step someone needs to take in learning temperance.
So may you take pleasure in God’s good gifts. May you eat not just to live, but to delight. And may that delight lead you to a deeper enjoyment of God and his creation, not to a replacement for them.
What do you think? Should gluttony really be considered one of the capital vices (those that tend to underly all of our sinfulness)? What do you think about a definition that includes fastidious and sumptuous eating, not just over-eating?
Next week: “Wrath––fighting dirty for a bad cause”
- You’ll see an example of the same outlook affecting sexuality in 1 Corinthians, when Paul has to write to married couples about sex: “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” (1 Cor 7:1) ↩
- Found in Rebecca DeYoung’s Glittering Vices. Again, I imagine more of this post than I know is indebted to insights she led me to. You should read it. ↩
- Sally: But I’d like the pie heated and I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side, and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it, if not then no ice cream just whipped cream but only if it’s real; if it’s out of the can then nothing.
Waitress: Not even the pie?
Sally: No, I want the pie, but then not heated. ↩
- from Glittering Vices, p. 141–142 ↩