CULTURE WATCH: Gluttony

Gluttony

By Wendell Cantrell

gluttony

Culture Watch delights in addressing issues that we are often too quiet and complacent about. Two years ago we addressed Faith and Fitness1 and discussed how the church is doing as far as dietary control and basic physical fitness. This month we will focus in on a tactic of our Adversary that was discussed in that series. Gluttony seems to be a sin that Christians like to ignore. We are quick to label smoking and drinking as sins, but for some reason gluttony is accepted or at least tolerated. Many of the arguments used against smoking and drinking, such as health and addiction, apply equally to this sin as well. We will be exploring gluttony, but we won’t be dwelling on the all-you-can-eat version of this vice.

The word gluttony is derived from the Latin word gluttire meaning to gulp down or swallow. The broader definition means over-indulgence and over-consumption of food, drink, or wealth items to the point of extravagance or waste. Church leaders in the more ascetic Middle Ages took a more expansive view of gluttony, including such habits as over-anticipation of meals, the eating of delicacies and costly foods, constantly seeking after sauces and seasonings, and even eating too eagerly. You may be thinking that sounds a lot like my house! Remember the word “ascetic,” which we seldom hear or see today, described the simplistic lifestyle of a monk or hermit. That can be taken too far, as well.

Scripture certainly isn’t silent on the sin of gluttony, particularly in the wisdom literature. Proverbs 23:2 proclaims, “Put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony.” Proverbs 23:20-21 warns us, “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.” Proverbs 28:7 declares, “He who keeps the law is a discerning son, but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father.” We also see a great example in Daniel, who as a young royal servant had the opportunity to regularly sit before a feast. We see that he “resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food” (Daniel 1:8).

As we dig into this, we’ll see that this same principle applies to any good thing that God has created. Surely we are to enjoy them, but we are not to consume them with ravenous gluttony, demanding more from these simple pleasures than is allowed by a Spirit-led prudence. Prudence, by the way, would be the opposite of gluttony. Prudence is the exercise of a wise temperance. This heavenly virtue was modeled for us by young Daniel as he asked for a more simple diet.

Our church fathers weren’t as quiet about this habit as we tend to be. In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas listed five ways to commit gluttony:

  • eating food that is too luxurious, exotic, or costly
  • eating food that is excessive in quantity
  • eating food that is too daintily or elaborately prepared
  • eating too soon, or at an inappropriate time
  • eating too eagerly.

The first three ways are related to the nature of the food itself, while the last two have to do with the time or manner in which it is consumed. Pope Innocent XI stated, “It is a defect to eat, like beasts, through the sole motive of sensual gratification, and without any reasonable object. Hence, the most delicious meats may be eaten without sin, if the motive be good and worthy of a rational creature; and, in taking the coarsest food through attachment to pleasure, there may be a fault.”

You are thinking by now that we need to get current and practical.Thankfully the Nutrisystem has a men’s plan and a women’s plan in the works, a road map to avoid gluttony in the modern world. We will now focus on the third on the Aquinas list. I have created a term I call neogluttony. Don’t bother searching, as it is a made up word.  In The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, the main character, Screwtape is talking about the sin of gluttony. He notes that just as insidious to the human spirit as “gluttony of excess” is something he calls “gluttony of delicacy.” Delicacy is portrayed as a desire to have things exactly the right way. He gives the example of food having to be prepared just right, or in just the right amount. Screwtape says as he is coaching Wormwood, “Mere excess in food is much less valuable than delicacy,” and, “while working your hardest…on other fronts, you must not neglect a little quiet infiltration in respect of gluttony,” for two reasons. First, gluttony of delicacy goes beyond just food, and is rarely noticeable. The second reason is that once in someone’s character, gluttony of delicacy has a potential to jab at his or her spirituality constantly. This type of gluttony is rather unique in that it is something that we as a people generally aren’t trained to guard against, and because of that, it is something camouflaged. We don’t even notice that much when we are engaging in it. Because of this, it has a better chance of not being dealt with as it sinks deeper into our character and habits.

Have you noticed how fashionable it is these days for evangelicals to be “back-to-the-land” types when it comes to diet?  I am all for healthy diets, but can we get obsessive and slip into food-worship? We have all seen the criteria: “Whole foods,” locally grown, organic, pesticide-free, free range, grass-fed, wild-caught, seasonal, slow food, etc. Can we be too focused on every dish being just so? Let’s agree to hold each other accountable in the area of “gluttony of delicacy.” It is one of those respectable sins that every one of us can slip into and basically ignore.

Thanks to God, a heart change is possible. By the enabling power of the Holy Spirit and honest friends, we are able to make some changes. Our Father calls us to a life of self-control and self-denial. 2 For Christians living in the richest country on earth, this could very well be a life-long challenge.

Questions or comments about this article may be directed to culturewatch@dentonbible.org.

(1)  Culture Watch Aug-Oct ‘12

(2)  Gluttony and temperance by Chris Donato