Saturday, August 17, 2013

Gluttony: The Church’s Best-Kept Deadly Sin

The classic list of seven deadly sins is: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.

Now, quick quiz: Which of these haven’t you heard a sermon about in the past year (or, like me, the past 22 years)? If you were ranking these in order of relative badness, which one would end up at, or at least near, the bottom?

Let’s disregard the fact that you were predisposed to answer gluttony because of the title of this post. And maybe your experience is different than mine, but from what I’ve seen, Christians tend to conveniently ignore the sin of gluttony.

The questions is, why? Maybe we’re trying to get away from the stereotype of stern legalists who can’t appreciate the pleasure of enjoying a good meal. Maybe we too closely associate eating with “fellowship”—basically talking with other Christians over some form of food—to think of it in a negative context (long live the potluck!). Maybe we’re too busy posting pictures of the cheesecakes we just made on Instagram or pinning bacon recipes.
I made and ate this cheesecake last week. And I don't think that was gluttony.

Or maybe we’re really not sure what gluttony is, exactly. Only those people on Biggest Loser struggle with it, right? It’s about being grossly overweight and making poor life choices in regard to how much you shove down at once (except at Thanksgiving, because that’s a holiday where we thank God for the ability to shove down too much at once, so he’s got to be okay with it).

You have to wonder, though: if we don’t struggle with gluttony at the time in history when we have more resources, food and otherwise, available than we ever have in the past, should we just erase this one from the Big Seven?

I’m going to say no, and here’s why: I am a glutton.

For one of my classes, we had to take a detailed personality test that focused more on our weaknesses than our strengths, which I like, because all Myers-Briggs tells me is that I, as an ENFP, am a wonderful person who everyone should want to be friends with. As I read my profile, I found myself nodding along at everything that it said about me, good and bad. Until I got to the major sin I was supposed to struggle with: gluttony.

Sorry, but someone in the research department got this one messed up. Out of the Big Seven, gluttony would be last on my list. I’ve always taken a bit of pride in the fact that I don’t obsess over my weight or dress size. Sure, I have those moments where I look in the mirror and wish I could be X pounds lighter, but the rational part of my brain kicks in instantly and reminds me not to be an idiot. I exercise regularly even though I hate it. I grudging eat my vegetables, have pretty good self-control when it comes to that second brownie, and have recently discovered that my stomach no longer has much tolerance for grease in any form, even Chick-fil-A sandwiches.

I am many things, I decided, but I am not a glutton.

Except then I actually thought about it and looked at my life (always a dangerous thing), and decided that maybe I am.

There were several things that jumped out at me, but here’s one: I realized that there was a pattern to the meals where I bypassed dessert. When I was with my friends, particularly the residents of Gerig Hall—the ones who knew me and loved me in spite, or perhaps because, of my many quirks—I felt accepted, knew I would have a fun conversation, and rarely got frustrated or bored. I would pass the desserts on the way out and not snag one, because self-control was easy on those days.

When I ate with others, half-friends and sort-of acquaintances, I would tell myself that I deserved dessert, that I needed it to make up for the half-hour of conversation about some movie I hadn’t seen or some drama I didn’t care about, peppered with significant glances at couples and supposed couples around the dining commons. There was a refuge in that simple chocolate chip cookie that I went to, without fail, when I needed a friend and couldn’t find one.

Same thing when it had been a long and frustrating day, when I was angry at someone and couldn’t resolve it, or when I just plain felt tired. I knew that mint chocolate chip ice cream wouldn’t fix everything, but at least it would make me feel better. Looking back on it, I am convinced that self-medicating with sugar and fat in an attempt to fix spiritual problems is a simple, benign-looking form of gluttony.

I just finished reading Steve Almond’s book Candyfreaks, which I secretly and entirely without official approval call Chocolate Ecclesiastes. The book is part nostalgic tour through candy factories and part critique on our monopoly-based consumer culture. But it’s also about Mr. Almond looking for—and not finding—happiness through candy. Several melancholy sections take you away from the cheery wrappers and salivatingly beautiful descriptions of the chocolate-making process to say that candy, in the end, can’t make the problems go away. It can’t make up for a dad who didn’t care, for lovers who walked out, for dreams that never became reality. But we turn to it anyway.

Food fills our stomachs, but not our souls. It’s not meant to, and when we become dependent on it, when we trust in it, even in little ways like using it to help us cope with the disappointments of life, it becomes an idol. That’s gluttony. So is cramming our lives full of fun or success or academic knowledge or popularity or bucket list experiences and expecting that to make life worth living, or at least less lonely. Gluttony is taking a good thing that is not God and expecting to either find yourself or lose yourself in it. It’s the excess of chasing after heavenly goals with earthly things.

So, there you go. If you were expecting me to blast away against the fast food industry or make you feel guilty for enjoying a brownie sundae, sorry to disappoint. But I don’t think that’s where the real problem is.

Let’s talk about gluttony as idolatry. Let’s think about it. Let’s fight back against it, because it has the same slowly corroding effect on our relationship with God as any other sin.

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