Between ages 20 and 50, the average person spends about 20,000 hours—over 800 days—eating. Our daily schedules are often planned around mealtimes. Business deals are cut among people who "do" lunch together. We have TV dinners, fast-food drive-up windows, and tailgate parties.
Eating is also a problem in our culture. In one poll, 40 percent of the respondents said that "getting fat" was what they fear most in the world. This may be one reason that each day approximately 65 million Americans are dieting, and the sales of diet books outrank all other books on the market except for the Bible.
But few books, even those by Christians, spend much time on the topic of gluttony. In Whatever Became of Sin? (1973), Karl Menninger described how cultural, psychological language has replaced moral language in our culture. The dieting industry, even the Christian version, talks a lot about nutrition and eating disorders while sidelining gluttony.
This is a surprise, for gluttony was for centuries considered a chief sin to monitor, one of the seven deadly sins. It is also a loss, for the insights of the early Christian monks on gluttony, and its corollary, fasting, are more relevant than any dieting fad.
Eating, of course, is crucial in biblical narratives. Our first parents plunged the human race into sin by violating a prohibition against eating. The Hebrews were given a sense of identity in a meal that signifies the defining moment in their history. The second Adam was victorious over a temptation involving bread. Christians celebrate their life together in Christ around a family meal initiated by Jesus—one that anticipates an eschatological banquet marking the consummation of history. Add to these all of the stories many of us learned from the time we were toddlers: Abraham and his three visitors; Esau and his soup; Joseph and the famine; the Prodigal Son and his father's banquet; the feeding of the 5,000; Mary and Martha; the couple on the road to Emmaus; and breakfast on the beach with the risen Lord.
The word gluttony is scarcely mentioned in the Bible, though Paul implores us to exercise restraint in the use of our bodies. In fact, the biblical writers encourage us to enjoy food as much, if not more, than they warn us against it. Food itself is not shunned in the Christian Scriptures (a distinction from other religions, such as Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism), but it is not supremely important either. One is neither to make a god of one's belly nor to be overly concerned about what one eats.
It is not until the fourth and fifth centuries that we find greater attention to gluttony, especially in the writings of early monks. Gluttony was on the earliest lists of vices drawn up by the spiritual writer Evagrius (346–99), the monk John Cassian (ca. 360–c.430), and Benedictine-monk-become-pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604). These lists eventually evolved into the famous seven deadly sins (pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth).
These sins are key because each sin begets "daughter" sins. For instance, Gregory says that gluttony propagates foolish mirth, uncleanness, babbling, and dullness of mind. But each of the seven parent sins can become deadly (that is, "mortal" as opposed to "venial"). In the case of gluttony, a person who occasionally eats more than is necessary or appropriate has committed only a venial sin; becoming so taken by the pleasure of gluttony that the delights of the palate turn one away from God and his commandments is to commit a mortal sin. Gluttony is deadly when a person makes a god of the belly.
Of the seven deadly sins, gluttony seems the least culpable because it is a vice that arises from our nature. We require food to survive, and food usually brings pleasurable sensations to the palate. As Thomas Aquinas put it, "Nature has introduced pleasure into the operations that are necessary for man's life." For this reason, one can never be entirely rid of gluttonous temptations. Early monks nonetheless believed gluttony was the first sin to be faced in spiritual and moral battles. Cassian compares our battle against vices with Olympic qualifying heats. In the "rules and laws of conflict," gluttony is the first vice to be defeated. At another point, Cassian compares gluttony with the Hebrews' leaving Egypt: they must forsake it in order to take possession of the seven nations in Canaan. If one cannot conquer a deadly thought that has to do with the body, he reasons, then how can one proceed to more insidious enemies that attack us only in the spiritual arena?
And as noted earlier, the early monks recognized how gluttony fosters many daughter sins. In a modern context, it might look like this: We work excessively to earn money to indulge our appetites. We envy others who can dine in exotic fashion. We search for the ever-new taste sensations, refusing to be satisfied with God's gifts to us. We spend more on ourselves and thus less on the hungry of the world.
Evagrius, Cassian, Gregory, and Thomas Aquinas outline several evidences of gluttony that we can reduce to six:
- Gorging ourselves and not savoring a reasonable amount of food.
- Eating at any other time than the appointed hour (like snacking). For the hermit monk, this usually involved one meal at noon or later. For the monk in community, this involved eating with the community at prescribed times.
- Anticipating eating with preoccupied, eager longing. The hermit who had his desires under control would not be checking the angle of the sun every 15 minutes.
- Eating excessively costly foods.
- Seeking after delicacies. These last two are especially concerned with being content with what we have (cf. Philippians 4:11).
- Paying too much attention to food. This means it is as gluttonous to be overscrupulous about food (and how our body looks) as it is to overindulge ourselves. Inordinate concern can become idolatry of the creation.
One can see, then, that the evil of gluttony lies not in food itself or in our need to eat it (with accompanying sensations of the palate) but in how we go about our eating and in the thought (or lack of thought) we give to our eating. Ultimately, gluttony refers to a desire or a longing that seeks filling. It is an "exaggerated and misplaced longing"—the "inordinate desire" of which Thomas speaks. Gregory writes, "When the disturbed has lost the satisfaction of joy within, it seeks for sources of consolation without, and is more anxious to possess external goods, the more it has no joy in which to fall back with it."
Gregory also describes a common human experience: "Gluttony is also wont to exhort the conquered heart. … when it says, 'God has created all things clean in order to be eaten, and he who refuses to fill himself with food. … gainsay(s) the gift.' " What follows, he says, is a "howling army. … when the hapless soul, once captured by the principal vices, is turned to madness by multiple iniquities; it is now laid waste with brutal cruelty."
This, then, is the question for the monks and for us: How can we make this natural appetite serve us in our relationships with others and God, rather than our becoming its slave? To put it another way, what cures us of this malady? How can we restore and maintain our health?
I pose the question using a medical metaphor mostly because ascetic theologians do—though they differ from some contemporaries who use that language to discourage people from feeling responsible for their vices. The early monks used such language not to excuse us from responsibility but to encourage us, as would a physician of the soul, to change habits before it is too late. They knew that gluttony is a bad habit that can indeed become a deadly sin.
Ascetic theologians began by describing the healthy soul, one that enjoys apatheia. This is not the leveling of apatheia is an abiding sense of peace and joy that comes from the full harmony of the passions—a habitual state developed through discipline (ascesis).
Through various exercises, what we now call spiritual disciplines, a person trains herself to be in full possession of her emotions and desires so that disordered cravings for foods are held in check and rightly ordered. Only then can one experience deep calm, or "repose" as Cassian calls it.
Evagrius teaches that the offspring of apatheia is agape. Maintaining the harmony of one's passions enables one to love others and God fully because apatheia stamps out anger, sulking, lust, resentment, envy, and all other impediments to self-giving love. Without love, apatheia is of little value. Gregory gives one example: "A man fasts not to God but to himself if he does not give to the poor what he denies his belly for a time, but reserves it to be given to his belly later."
Gregory is referring specifically to fasting, by which we can get control of gluttonous thoughts and redirect the appetite. As such, it is a discipline that leads to apatheia. Evagrius puts it succinctly: "Agape is the progeny of apatheia. Apatheia is the very flower of ascesis [discipline]. Ascesis consists in keeping the commandments."
For the early church fathers, fasting was not what Jenny Craig and Slim•Fast mean by dieting. There are some similarities: controlling what you eat or do not eat; choosing alternatives to eating. But motivation and goal especially make this discipline different: simply put, we fast to become healthy Christians who are able to love God and others.
Dieting tends to put the focus on us (and on our appearance). While Christians might be appropriately concerned about fat, calories, weight, and appearance, we should be driven chiefly to develop attitudes of contentment, gratitude, trust, and patience. These are the aims that radically distinguish the discipline the church has called "fasting" from what our culture calls "dieting."
Meditating on Scripture is part of the discipline of fasting. According to ascetic theologians, gluttony and lust both require bodily abstinence as well as a "fast of the soul," a double remedy for carnal thoughts. In such a process (especially with Psalm 119 and Matthew 6 as the focus of meditation), people often discover that underlying an anxiety about food is a lack of trust in God, a fear to live according to his commandments, and a fear to be content with the way he has made us. When it comes to the spiritual disciplines, especially fasting, temperance is critical. Cassian, Benedict, and Gregory denounce monks' attempts to become spiritual superheroes. "Frequently, when the flesh is restrained more than is just, it is weakened even for the exercises of good works, so as to be unequal to prayer also or preaching," Gregory says. "Often, whilst we attack an enemy therein, we kill a citizen also whom we love."
Anticipating Gregory, Cassian voices a similar insight: "A reasonable supply of food, partaken of daily with moderation, is better than a severe and long fast at intervals. Excessive fasting has been known not only to undermine the constancy of the mind, but also to weaken the power of prayers through sheer weariness of body."
Ascetic theologians know that gluttony is often incited by severe fasting. Though it requires a detailed look at monastic and eating-disorder literature, this is precisely the pattern of binging and purging seen in eating disorders. Obsessive dieting and self-restraint often result in compulsive eating, not in response to physical hunger but in response to stress and anxiety. The one who is overly scrupulous about caloric and fat intake and weight loss is more often the one who compensates by overindulging.
Mary Needs Martha
The monks employed many more strategies: finding spiritual direction and the support of a community, for example. Nonetheless, the ascetic theologian knew the battle would never be won in this life. Cassian is adamant that while we must cut out the roots of the other principal faults, we cannot possibly cut off all occasions of gluttony. We need food to live.
As Dallas Willard argues throughout The Spirit of the Disciplines, we were created to be embodied beings; everything we do spiritually involves the body. Though the ascetic theologians were sometimes suspicious of the body, they did not disparage it or adopt some gnostic dualism that might have ignored the body's need to serve the soul. As one Desert Father story puts it:
A brother went to see Abba Silvanus on the mountain of Sinai. When he saw the brothers working hard, he said to the old man, "Do not labor for the food that perishes. Mary has chosen the good portion."
The old man said to a disciple, "Zacharias, give the brother a book, and put him in a cell without anything else."
So when the ninth hour came, this brother watched the door expecting someone would be sent to call him to the meal. When no one called him, he got up, went to find the old man, and said to him, "Have the brothers not eaten today?"
The old man replied that they had.
Then he said, "Why did you not call me?"
The old man said to him, "Because you are a spiritual man and do not need that kind of food. We, being carnal, want to eat, and that is why we work. But you have chosen the good portion and read the whole day long, and you do not want to eat carnal food."
When he heard these words, the brother made a prostration saying, "Forgive me, Abba."
The old man said to him, "Mary needs Martha. It is really thanks to Martha that Mary is praised."
An adequate strategy for gluttony must neither oversacralize nor desecrate the body. It is not wrong to attend to the needs of the body or to enjoy sensations from what touches the body. At times it is difficult to discern when our enjoyment exceeds necessity, particularly, as Gregory suggests, when we think of inordinate pleasure as a necessity: "Those things must therefore be taken which the necessity of nature requires and not those which gluttony suggests." Gregory admits that this is easier said than done.
Still, the disciplines are a spiritual angioplasty that keeps a person open to God's life-transforming grace so our lives can eventually flower into the love of God and neighbor.
Dennis Okholm is a professor of theology at Wheaton College and a contributor to Limning the Psyche: Explorations in Christian Psychology, Robert C. Roberts, Mark R. Talbot, eds. (Eerdmans, 1997), which contains a fuller version of this article.
Read more about monk John Cassian and his study of the seven deadly sins.
Previous Christianity Today articles about gluttony and fasting include:
The Weigh and the Truth | What deeper messages are diet programs sending about faith and fitness? (Aug. 25, 2000)
Hungry for God | Why more and more Christians are fasting for revival. (April 15, 1999)
How Healthy Is Fasting? | Physicians and clergy alike say fasting is as good for the body as it is for the soul. (April 15, 1999)
The Fatted Faithful | Why the church may be harmful to your waistline. (Jan. 11, 1999)
Adventures in Fasting | I tried fasting, and instead of insights I got irritable. (March 2, 1998)
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