A pastor gets home from a difficult elder’s meeting. It’s nine o’clock in the evening, and it’s been a long day. After a quick greeting to his wife, he beelines for the kitchen to reward himself from the burdens of the day by losing himself in Lay’s potato chips, Red Vines licorice, and Dr. Pepper.
Several hours later, he turns off the television and heads to bed. The stress is gone.
What just happened?
On the one hand, this pastor’s behavior is not particularly sinister or jaw-dropping. It’s not like he’s sneaking out to strip clubs or taking narcotics or gambling away his life savings. But what is happening in this pastor’s heart during this time?
While there is nothing necessarily wrong with these particular foods, binge snacking can function just like more egregious addictions — as an unhealthy coping mechanism that ultimately directs our hearts away from the power and presence of Christ.
Four Strategies to Battle Binge Snacking
I can attest to this. For the last several years, as my schedule and responsibilities have grown more rigorous, I have been regularly tempted to use evening snacks as a way to deal with end-of-the-day depletion. And I have grown more and more convinced that, while alcohol plus adultery may be able to destroy you more quickly and decisively than Nutella plus Netflix, both kinds of temptation can appeal to the same gorging, gourmandizing, gluttonous root — that covetous part of our flesh that cries out like the leech’s daughters, “Give, give” (Proverbs 30:15).
In the course of my struggle to “glorify God in [my] body” (1 Corinthians 6:20) — particularly when I’m depleted at night — I have come up with four strategies that I have found useful. I share them in hopes that they may be helpful for others who are tempted in this area as well.
“God cares about the pace and tone of our work as much as the content and final result.”
Some people seem to think — or at least give the impression to others — that resisting the temptation of sins of the flesh is essentially a matter of spiritual disciplines. If you are snacking too much, you need to read your Bible more, and if you are watching too much television, well, obviously you’re not praying enough.
The last thing I want to do is downplay the importance of spiritual disciplines. Nonetheless, I believe it is a mistake to adopt such a limited approach. God created us as holistic beings with a need for work, relationship, sleep, exercise, and more — and our broader emotional and physical health can significantly affect our spiritual lives.
In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the devil Wormwood gives his junior devil this advice on the subject of gluttony:
Keep your man in a condition of false spirituality. Never let him notice the medical aspect. Keep him wondering what pride or lack of faith has delivered him into your hands when a simple enquiry into what he has been eating or drinking for the last twenty-four hours would show him whence your ammunition comes.
When we are tempted toward binge snacking, or other forms of unhealthy gratification, we need to look underneath the temptation to see where its “ammunition” is coming from. When does the temptation come? What emotions are we feeling when it happens? Why is it here right now and not three hours ago? Is there a “medical aspect” to the temptation, in addition to the spiritual?
In my own life, I’ve observed that the temptation for unhealthy eating typically comes in the evenings, when I’ve worked hard all day and need some kind of release from the built-up stress and pressure of the day. Part of the solution, of course, is to rest from work (more on that below). But I have also found that, when we are depleted, God has given us alternative, healthy mechanisms for attaining that release and “wind down.” And one of the most important — maybe the single most important after sleep — is exercise.
During exercise, the body releases endorphins that interact with receptors in the brain to reduce the sensation of pain and to trigger a mildly euphoric feeling. In other words, exercise can have a similar function as binge snacking: It can act as a countermeasure and release from stress and depletion. But while pumping sugar into your bloodstream is bad for you and has ever-diminishing returns, pumping endorphins into your bloodstream is good for you and has consistent returns.
If you are tempted toward binge snacking, take some time to consider when and why that temptation comes, and then adopt a more holistic approach to fighting it, including a healthy amount of exercise.
2. Enjoy Your Family
God created us not only with physical needs, like sleep and exercise, but also with social and psychological needs, like friendship and recreation. Life is not designed to be intense 100% of the time. There is a healthy place in our lives — even a necessity — for hobbies and various forms of play.
Winston Churchill dealt with the enormous stress of leadership during the war with Nazi Germany by pouring hours into painting. Now, one could say, “Why waste time painting when the Nazis are on your doorstep?” But painting was a healthy distraction for Churchill that ultimately helped sustain his productivity and sanity during an incredibly demanding time. If Churchill needed and made time for a hobby amidst the demands of his job, you and I might need a hobby as well.
One of the most important places to cultivate hobbies and healthy play is in our family life. I believe that cultivating a happy tone in our homes, making the walls of our house a refuge from stress rather than a place of stress, being able to genuinely delight in and enjoy our family members — these things make a profound difference in how we deal with end-of-the-day depletion.
Some of us might feel like we are so exhausted from work that we don’t have anything to give to our families. If so, we need to adjust our priorities. If you give more emotional energy to planning out and executing your daily nine-to-five schedule than you do your six-to-eleven schedule, you may be saying, “Work is more important to me than family.” Those evening hours are a precious opportunity to serve and love your family, and they can provide a refuge for you as well.
3. Stop Idolizing Productivity
When God created the world, he established a pattern of work and rest — a pattern he then called his people to follow in their weekly routine (Exodus 20:8–11). This design means that raw efficiency is not the goal of life. Work is not the ultimate.
In order to fight the temptation toward unhealthy coping mechanisms for exhaustion (like over-snacking), we need to regard God’s design for a weekly rest. If we abuse God’s pattern of work and rest in Genesis 1, we will be more tempted to abuse God’s commandment to glorify him with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20).
For me, this reality means not only regularly taking a day off, but also working at a more measured pace throughout each day. If I reduce my overall expectations, I am not annoyed at distractions, interruptions, and unexpected visits. I am more available to the person God might put across my path. And best of all, I have more to give to my family when I go home at the end of the day, rather than being completely exhausted.
“At the core of every human heart is a deep spiritual hunger and thirst for God himself.”
Working with calmness and mindfulness of God does not always come naturally. It is my default to answer emails in the power of the flesh, rather than the power of the Spirit. But God cares about the pace and tone of our work as much as the content and final result. He wants us to give each moment of the day to him, as an act of praise and thankfulness to him. A frenetic mindset hinders that.
If you approach your workday as if it were a wind sprint, you will be more tempted to abuse your evening relaxation. But if you approach it as if it were a steady jog, you will have more to give to your family in the evening, and be less tempted toward unhealthy snacking.
4. Look to Christ for Your Soul’s Deepest Satisfaction
Scripture teaches that at the core of every human heart is a deep spiritual hunger and thirst for God himself. “Man does not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:3). When Jesus was tempted with hunger, he responded by quoting this verse.
Like Jesus, we need to learn to talk back with Scripture to our temptations, rather than simply listen to the lies they speak to us. One Scripture that I have found helpful in the battle against unhealthy snacking, right in line with Jesus’s use of Deuteronomy 8:3, is Psalm 63:5–7:
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
David is describing here the experience of eating spiritual food — the rich satisfaction in God’s presence of that profound craving we all have, not in our stomachs, but in our souls.
What happens when, instead of simply trying to abstain from physical food, we use that very hunger as a catalyst for seeking the all-satisfying presence of Christ? What happens when, every time food comes into our minds, we use it as a stimulus to cry out with David, “My soul thirsts for you” (Psalm 63:1)?
In other words, when you are depleted, make it your goal not merely to resist the temptation to unhealthy snacking, but to use it to drive you deeper into worship — to convert its energy into adoring and delighting in God’s all-satisfying presence.