To Hell on a Cream Puff
It is 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, that's not really me. It's just these horizontal stripes."
But, if I am 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. What is so bad about engaging in a little gluttony, anyway? It's not one of the bad sins, like adultery or stealing—we wouldn't do that. All gluttony does is make you soft and huggable. It's the cute sin.
But gluttony is not about appearance; our inclination to associate it with external effects alone shows how reluctant we are to confront the sin in the heart. The gluttonous impulse is a sign of disharmony with God's provision and creation, and it 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 did not just lead to thickened waistlines and arteries; it led to spiritual disaster. These words from a nineteenth-century Russian monk, Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, build in 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."
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 is 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.
Yet 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 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 p.m. on 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 their deep-seated and ungovernable compulsion to eat, as facets of unconverted willfulness, never suspected, are being brought to light. What makes gluttony such a hard sin to break?
FOOD AS POWER
Of course, food is pleasurable; that alone can make a sin enticing. But while some pleasures can be relinquished with a melancholic 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, I think, 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 into 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.