[Christianity Today, November 18, 1995]
It’s hard to know just how to take an invitation to write about gluttony. “We thought you would be the perfect person,” the editor’s letter read. “Gee, is it that obvious?” I thought, alarmed. “No, no,” I wanted to protest, “that’s not really me. It just these horizontal stripes.” But, if I’m honest, I have to admit that it is me. It’s most of us. Food is an intoxicating pleasure, and it appears superficially like an innocuous one; it’s not one of the bad sins, like adultery or stealing. We wouldn’t do that; gluttony is different. All it does is make you soft and huggable. It’s the cute sin.
But gluttony is not about pleasing plumpness; our inclination to associate it with external effects alone shows how reluctant we are to confront the sin-in-the-heart. The impulse to gluttony is a sign of being out of harmony with God’s provision and creation, and can disrupt the spiritual lives of people of every size. External dimensions are no predictor of internal rebellion.
Previous generations of Christians knew this. Overindulgence in food didn’t just lead to thickened waistlines and arteries; it led to spiritual disaster. These words from a nineteenth-century Russian monk, Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, build to an alarming crescendo:
“Wise temperance of the stomach is a door to all the virtues. Restrain the stomach, and you will enter Paradise. But if you please and pamper your stomach, you will hurl yourself over the precipice of bodily impurity, into the fire of wrath and fury, you will coarsen and darken your mind, and in this way you will ruin your powers of attention and self-control, your sobriety and vigilance.” (The Arena, Holy Trinity Monastery Press, 1991)
If that doesn’t make you take a second look at your second helpings, nothing will.
The key word in the passage above is “self-control.” Gluttony is not wrong because it makes you fat; it’s wrong because it is the fruit of self-indulgence. Gluttony says “Gimme;” Jesus says “Come to me.” When we come to him we give up all claims to be coddled; we come to shoulder our own rough cross. The path to the buffet table and the path to sanctification lie in opposite directions.
Anyone who has tried to diet knows that the will to eat indulgently is surprisingly strong and unruly. Plans to eat reasonably and with an eye to good health may look very attractive on Sunday night, when sketched out on a full stomach. (Oh yes, and we’ll get up early every day to jog, too.) About 3:00 Monday afternoon, however, it’s a different story. The stomach that was placid and amiable has become a bucking, rebellious pony, with a defiance that was never evident until it was made to wear a bridle. Dieters are often shocked at how deep-seated and ungovernable is their compulsion to eat unrestrained; facets of unconverted willfulness never suspected, are being brought to light. What makes gluttony such a hard sin to break?
Of course, food is pleasurable; that alone can make a sin enticing. But while some pleasures can be relinquished with a melancholy pang, the attempt to discipline food sins prompts a ferocious, angry resistance. Something more is going on here. The urge to overindulge in food is powerful because it is linked to a desire for power. A complex net of submerged assumptions teaches us that food grants some limited, but tangible, control over the exterior world. We bite the Apple (or the doughnut) because we have heard a whisper, “You shall be as gods.” This plays out in various ways:
1. Emperor Baby. Eating is the first pleasure. Researchers have found that, if amniotic fluid is sweetened, unborn babies will gulp it more greedily. For a newborn, many sensations are unpleasant or frightening, but food, glorious food, is a constant and dependable comfort. Controlling access to food, crying to be fed and winning the reward of sweet warm milk, is the first task of newborn life. No wonder we retain to adulthood a zeal to gather as much good, sweet food as we can grab; it was the first job we ever had, and it felt like an urgent one indeed.
“I don’t think it’s fair that they changed the rules,” my husband said one day, looking forlornly at the ends of his belt; they would no longer quite meet in front. “I can remember a time in my life—in fact, it lasted quite a long time—when people were constantly saying, ‘Look how big you’re getting to be!’ and ‘My, you’re becoming such a big boy!’” He tried once more to make the belt ends meet. “Now that I’ve gotten really good at it, suddenly they changed the rules. Suddenly it’s not such a good thing.”
His whimsical protest conceals a grain of truth. The baby that focuses all its attention on getting food soon grows to be a child that is praised for eating, indulged with treats, and admired for getting bigger. Not only is getting food our first job, not only is it intrinsically pleasurable, but it’s a talent for which most of us are praised throughout our childhoods. When did they change the rules?
2. I have the power. A related aspect of the desire to overeat is that it is a straightforward way to demonstrate power. Life is complicated and fraught with compromises, unmet desires, and nettling disappointments. We can’t make other people do right. Friends, neighbors, spouse, children all may resist our will, but, darn it, that chocolate cream pie is going to know who’s boss. Overeating can become a secret, habitual way to reassure yourself that you are not powerless, that you can subdue and conquer as much food as you choose. Viewed in this light, anorexia has the same root as gluttony: a desire to demonstrate control. Women starve themselves to prove that they are the Empresses of Ice Cream, wieldinga scepter of iron rejection where a plumper sister might choose the tactic of conquering by consuming.
3. Squirrel away. A related impulse is the need to hoard. Perhaps a cream pie this perfect will never cross my path again; it’s only wisdom to tuck away as much as possible before the waiter clears the plates and we must part forever. Hoarding food discloses our need to establish ourselves as independent resources, free from dependence on God. There is an intrinsic mistrust of his ability to provide, though he owns the cream pies on a thousand hills.
4. Boredom. A constant stream of pleasant sensations coming in helps keep more troubling self-confrontation at bay. The continuing work of repentance is life-long, and comparatively less jolly than a bag of gumdrops; those gumdrops may be just enough to keep us distracted one more day. Bishop Brianchaninov, cited above, insisted that an evil of gluttony was its ability to dull the mind. The Rev. Pat Reardon, a Pennsylvania pastor, says, “When people ask me why God seems so distant, I ask them: How much TV have you been watching? What thoughts are you allowing into your mind?” We could add: and how much idle junk food do you allow in your pantry?
5. Big. The title is clumsy and forbidding, but Fat is a Feminist Issue delivers a startling insight. Author Susie Orbach writes that many dieters self-sabotage because they fail to realize that “Compulsive eating is linked to a desire to get fat…Many women are positively afraid of being thin.” This strikes as howlingly counter-intutitive, but Orbach’s research is intriguing. She has women imagine themselves in a social situation; they are to envision every detail of dress, posture, whom they talk with, how others react to them. Orbach has them imagine themselves in the same situation, but immensely fat; then she has them repeat the exercise, but imagine themselves of ideal slimness.
In a culture where slimness equals beauty, women have powerful reasons to want to be thin; but, surprisingly, when they imagined it they found they didn’t enjoy it. Slimness was associated with being “cold and ungiving,” “self-involved,” burdened with others’ expectations, the object of unwanted desire from men and uncomfortable jealousy from women. The fat self, on the other hand, was relaxed, free from unwanted sexual attention and the need to compete, and able to talk comfortably with others.
But, most importantly, the fat self was bigger. This goes without saying, so it’s easy to miss what saying it implies. One woman put it this way: “The fat in the situation [was] making me feel like a sergeant major—big and authoritative. When I go through the fantasy seeing myself thin, what immediately strikes me is just how fragile and little I feel, almost as though I might disappear or be blown away.”
Men have as many reasons as women do—maybe more—to want to be bigger. Our attempts at self-control in eating fail, in part, because part of us really doesn’t want to risk shrinking. We want to be big.
A “Bizarro” cartoon by Dan Piraro ran in our local newspaper. Piraro showed an enormously fat man looking into a refrigerator, while a smaller man stood nearby, holding up a finger of admonition. “You are what you eat,” the scolder said. The fat man replied, “Good. That makes me omnipotent.”
One of the crueler tricks of temptation is that it exacts painful dues while failing to deliver the promised pleasure. A really clever temptation can impose the very opposite of what was promised. This is the case with gluttony. If overeating is about gaining power, the stomach may indeed feel a gratifying, temporary dominance—but the overeater is more likely to feel ashamed and out of control. Overeating may be an assertion of power, but the classic confession is: “I have no will-power.” Far from establishing the glutton as a master, it exposes him as a slave.
This is not a slavery merely to self; it is worse than that. St. Paul speaks of those “whose god is the belly” (Phil. 3:19), and St. John Climacus, seventh-century abbot of the monastery on Mt. Sinai, writes of “that clamorous mistress, the stomach.” Those who succumb to gluttony experience themselves, not as rulers, but as helpless prey. Prey, indeed, we are; this is not just a matter of deficient self-control, but of slipping under another’s control, into another’s trap. “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8). It is in the nature of evil to consume, and those who feast wantonly become themselves morsels.
C.S. Lewis, in his beloved The Screwtape Letters, has the senior devil write to his nephew: “To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy [God the Father] demands of men is quite a different thing…We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over.”
When Screwtape’s nephew finally fails in his mission, the senior devil gloats in a fashion that any glutton would find chilling: “I think they will give you to me now; or a bit of you. Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on.” This last letter is signed, “Your increasingly and ravenously affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”
“He is full and flows over,” Lewis’s devil wrote. The flowing over by which God would fill us extends from Genesis to Revelation. He does not merely decline to devour us, he feeds us. Eden was planted with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9); in the New Jerusalem there is “the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month” (Revelation 22:2). In the Song of Solomon we sing “He brought me to the banqueting house” (Song of Solomon 2:4) and at the end we hear “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). We are invited to ask, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He feeds us; safe in his pasture, we will not become food. The task is learning to eat the food he gives, in the measure he gives it, for our whole lives consist in learning what he meant: “I have food to eat of which you do not know” (John 4:38).
Satan came to Adam in Paradise; he came to Christ in the desert. He came to two hungry men and said: eat, for your hunger is proof that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. And Adam believed and ate; but Christ rejected that temptation and said: man shall not live by bread alone but by God. By doing this, Christ restored that relationship between food, life, and God which Adam broke, and which we still break every day. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “On Fasting at Great Lent,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1969)
“Which we still break every day.” How to restore that relationship? Mastering gluttony is a tricky task, because you can never be sure you have arrived. With the broader sins, you can swear off the behavior and know with certainty at the end of the day that you either kept your promise or did not. The thief does not wonder whether or not he stole. The person struggling with homosexual longing either went out and picked up a date, or spent the evening in beseeching prayer. With some sins, there’s not much gray area.
With gluttony it’s almost all gray. You can’t simply swear off eating, and learning to eat aright seems such a slippery, indefinable goal. The standards we concoct for ourselves seem to mock us. Sallie Tisdale wrote of dieting: “Eating became cheating. One pretzel was cheating. Two apples instead of one was cheating—a large potato instead of a small, carrots instead of broccoli…Diets have failure built in, failure is the definition. Every substitution—even carrots for broccoli—was a triumph of desire over will…I saw that the real point of dieting is dieting—to not be done with it, ever” (Harper’s Magazine, March 1993).
Yet overcoming gluttony must mean getting a handle on our intake of food, and Christians through the ages have discovered various helps. For example, St. John Climacus, the seventh-century abbot mentioned above, gave his monks specific, concrete advice (though he admitted that “As we are about to speak concerning the stomach, as in everything else, we propose to philosophize against ourselves. For I wonder if anyone has been liberated from this mistress before settling in the grave.”)
“He who fondles a lion tames it, but he who coddles the body makes it still wilder,” St. John warned. But he cautioned against excessive discipline, criticizing one who advised taking only bread and water, “To prescribe this is like saying to a child: ‘Go up the whole ladder in one stride.’” St. John recommended, rather, varying one’s discipline: “Let us for awhile only deny ourselves fattening foods, then heated foods, and only then what makes our food pleasant. If possible, give your stomach satisfying and digestible food, so as to satisfy its insatiable hunger by sufficiency, and so that we may be delivered from excessive desire.”
Learning to eat rightly usually means, in our modern age, dieting. But dieting can merely be a substitute of one of the Seven Deadly Sins for another: forsaking Gluttony, we fall into Vanity. Christians have, from the earliest times, wrestled with the temptation to misuse food, but the weapon they used wasn’t dieting. It was fasting.
Many Western Christians, particularly Protestants, think of fasting (if they do at all) as a tool for intensifying prayer; Richard J. Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, says that “The central idea in fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.” Narrow-focus fasting like this can powerfully enhance intercession, repentance, and other spiritual undertakings.
There is a broader use of the discipline in the history of the church, however: regular, corporate, extended fasting, as a means of broader spiritual growth. The earliest existing Christian document outside Scripture is the Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (dates vary; perhaps as early as 70 AD). The Didache reminds believers that the Jews fast on Tuesday and Thursday—remember the Publican in the temple: “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12). But it doesn’t say, “So avoid that foolishness, because we don’t need it.” No, this earliest of church-discipline texts instructs that Christians should fast as well, but on Wednesdays (the day of Judas’s betrayal) and Fridays (the day of the Crucifixion).
Doesn’t this veer uncomfortably close to salvation by works? Southern Baptist minister Dallas Willard writes in The Spirit of the Disciplines, “We have simply let our thinking fall into the grip of a false opposition of grace to ‘works’ that was caused by a mistaken association of works with ‘merit.’” This confusion means that we don’t know how to live spiritually pure, healthy lives; we don’t know how to harness the power that made Christians of other ages spiritual giants. “Faith today is treated as something that only should make us different, not that actually does or can make us different. In reality we vainly struggle against the evils of this world, waiting to die and go to heaven.”
Willard proposes that we take seriously the disciplines of the spiritual life: “Disciplines of Abstinence” (including solitude, silence, fasting, chastity, and sacrifice) and “Disciplines of Engagement” (like study, worship, service, prayer, and confession). If we want truly changed and empowered lives, we must be as self-disciplined, and as constant in our disciplines, as an athlete. Willard says that it’s not enough to be like the boy who, admiring his baseball hero, imitates the way he holds his bat. The athlete did not win success by holding the bat a distinctive way, but by living a fully disciplined life.
Willard is not the first to use this analogy, of course; St. Paul wrote, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air, but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (I Corinthians 9:24-27).
Fasting is a key, not only to overcoming gluttony, but to other self-discipline as well. Willard writes: “Since food has the pervasive place it does in our lives, the effects of fasting will be diffused throughout our personality. In the midst of all our needs and wants, we experience the contentment of the child that has been weaned from its mother’s breast (Psalm 131:2).”
This psalm had always puzzled me; it was only in researching this article that it came clear. I had seen the contentment of a nursing child, and wondered why the psalmist didn’t use that image. I believe the point is this: the weaned child has learned to be satisfied with another food. We do not live by bread alone.
While the discipline of fasting has gone through seasons of use and disuse in the West, Eastern Christians have maintained it consistently. In fact, from the date of the Didache to this, Eastern Orthodox Christians still abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. In the weeks before Easter, Orthodox heighten their fasting; for those seven weeks they eat no meat, fish, or dairy products. It is a rigorous discipline, one eased by the knowledge that millions of other Orthodox around the world are fasting at the same time. It is not seen as a way of earning salvation or anything else; the recurrent metaphors are of “exercise” or “medicine” for the soul.
In the midst of Lent, I spoke with several Orthodox Christians about the experience of that discipline. Because several had previously been members of other churches, they were able to contrast this extended, corporate discipline with individual, one-day fasting. Among the comments:
“There’s definitely strength in numbers.”
“Because it’s not just intensely focused on one day or one prayer need, it can spread through all your life and change you.”
“We all fast together, just like we all feast together. It wouldn’t be fun to feast by yourself.”
“The first year I did this, it was like ‘Let’s hurry up and get through this and get to Pascha [Easter], get back to regular eating.’ Now its more like a chance to get back on track, to try to bring the rest of the year up to this mark of discipline.”
One woman had been Orthodox for all her 86 years. She said, “My mother taught us as little kids to thank the dear Lord for the opportunity to have this fasting. I feel like it cleanses my body. I look forward to it every year.” In fact, many Orthodox I talked with agreed: somewhat to their surprise, every year they look forward to the Lenten fast. An athlete, on arising in the morning, may look forward to going for a jog.
Is regular, corporate fasting for only one unfamiliar corner of Christendom? The benefits have been described and valued by brothers and sisters in the faith for two thousand years. There’s nothing to prevent a congregation, or a Bible Study group, or even a circle of prayer partners, from attempting such a project. The discipline could be tailored to particular tastes, or could merge with the ongoing fast of those around the world who follow the ancient custom of giving up meat on Wednesday and Fridays. Only by testing can believers discover whether it bears fruit for them. Taking on fasting means pursuing self-discipline through some irksome trials, an ability many modern-day Christians can well afford to learn. But heed St. John’s advice: don’t attempt too discouragingly much at once; don’t try to go up the whole ladder in a single step.
The law of the jungle is “Eat or be eaten.” Indulging in gluttony seems like a private vice, a “cute sin,” a matter between only the tempted diner and the eclair. But undisciplined indulgence in the pleasure of food costs us more than we dream: coarsens and darkens our minds, ruins our powers of attention and self-control, of sobriety and vigilance. It hobbles and confuses us. It makes us prey for another Eater.
The one who bids us to His marriage supper will not devour us, in fact he promises to feed us. But there is more; he does not feed us only with the good things he has made, or even the goodness of supernatural food like manna. He feeds us his very self. It is this other bread we must learn to eat, not “bread alone” but the Word of God himself. At the Communion table this becomes, not just theory, but a true encounter—a feast that binds hungry sinners together, and links us to the One who alone can feed our souls.
“Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will life forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh…Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:48-51, 53).
“Lord, give us this bread always!”