We are in the middle of the holiday season, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it may be unfair to ask this now, but a podcast listener named Jan writes in to ask this: “Pastor John, I was wondering how you would define the sin of gluttony?”
I think it is helpful in talking about gluttony to compare it to other sins and why it is that something good like food and enjoying it becomes sinful.
For example, the existence of sexual desires and the experience of them, per se, is not evil. But there is such a thing as the sin of lust. The enjoyment of someone’s praising you is not necessarily evil, but it can become the sin of vainglory. The enjoyment of God-given rest is not evil. But it can become the sin of sloth or laziness. The enjoyment of proper self-respect can become the sin of pride. And the desire to have something innocent — home, car, computer — can become the sin of covetousness or, even worse, the sin of envy, if you are resentful that somebody else has it and you don’t. And the legitimate desire and enjoyment of food can become gluttony. I think it is helpful to see what is really going on in all of these so-called deadly sins.
Piper: “When our contentment in God fades, food quickly takes its place.”
The larger question is: What happens in the human heart when all of these good things given by God become sinful things? What happens? And that really is the right way to ask Jan’s question, I think, about the definition of glutton. Gluttony is the sinful enjoyment of the good gift of food. So what happened? What made it sinful? So answering that question, I think, is what gluttony is.
One of the historical ways of talking about those sins is that they are disordered loves or, another way to say it, inordinate loves. They start with legitimate love — proper and proportional and Christ-exalting and God-rooted — love for something innocent that God has given for our enjoyment. And then they become improper, disproportionate. They cease to exalt Christ. They cease to have their root in God. And the two passages that have helped me get my head around the biblical way of talking about this are 1 Timothy 6:6–10 and Philippians 4:11–13 and 3:8. So just a quick glance at those.
Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:6 that “godliness with contentment is great gain.” And that contentment is contentment in God. And this is precisely what acts as the governor or the moderator or the regulator or the guide in all of our other desires. So when Paul gets to verse 10 he addresses money, which in itself is not an evil. It is given for our proper use. And he says, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” So what happened? The use of money governed by a sweet, deep, pervasive contentment in God has been replaced by the loss of that contentment and the emergence of a powerful love for money and craving for money as Paul calls it.
So the use of money has been disconnected or uncoupled from contentment in God. And without that tether, a legitimate desire has begun to run rampant and is about to destroy the soul. That is what happens in the use of all good things when they start to go bad. Supreme contentment or happiness or joy or satisfaction in God ceases to be the great guide or ballast or moderator or regulator of our souls. And when that goes, everything goes bad.
The other text is Philippians 4:11–13, where Paul says, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” So Paul is describing the secret of a godly Christian life. And that would include the secret of the proper use of food and money and rest and all the other good gifts of God.
He says that this secret enabled him to be content when he has a lot or when he has little. So, clearly the contentment doesn’t lie in the particular thing and how much of it you have or don’t have. This is the secret of the Christian life. And what is it? The answer is back in Philippians 3:8 where Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
“We enjoy God’s gifts as expressions of God’s goodness to us.”
The secret of Paul’s contentment is the satisfaction that he finds in Jesus — a satisfaction that is so profound and so pervasive that even if everything else is lost, he doesn’t lose this contentment or this satisfaction. When contentment in God or contentment in Christ, as Paul describes it in these two passages, is present in our lives, then it functions as a wonderful governor and moderator and regulator and guide and control on the use of all good things. They themselves remain good things in their proper place, and when they are enjoyed, they are enjoyed as expressions of God’s goodness to us.
So, I would define gluttony, then, as the enjoyment of food that has become untethered from contentment in God as the governing love of our life.
When our contentment in God fades, food quickly takes its place. And there are four evidences that this is happening in our lives:
1) We become indifferent to the harmful effects that the food is having on the temple of the Holy Spirit, our body.
2) We become indifferent to the way we are stewarding our money as we spend unwisely on wrong foods.
3) We start using food as an escape from our problems and a medication for our sadness or our misery or our discomfort.
4) We stop enjoying food as a way of enjoying God. We stop tasting the goodness of God in the goodness of the food, and we start replacing the goodness of God with the goodness of the food. This is gluttony.
So that is what I think gluttony is. That is what the signs are that it is present. And the way back may involve many external controls and disciplines outside. But in the end, the only way out will be when God himself through Jesus Christ becomes our satisfying soul food and contentment in him becomes the governor and the regulator of all our appetites and desires.
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