Indulge, Diet, Repeat

Breaking the Cycle of Overeating

As any discerning Christian knows, sin doesn’t stay outside — it gets into the house. Sexual immortality creeps into the bedroom and must be fled (1 Corinthians 6:18). Sluggishness slumps on the couch and must be starved to death by mission and meaning (Colossians 3:23–24). Slander and grumbling air through our vents and must be forced out by prayer and praise (Philippians 4:4–6). And one of the most subtle sins walks in through the door and sits at your table: gluttony.

Some of us may associate the word gluttony only with morbid obesity. But as a pastor of a young, relatively fit church, I would not only say that I have known the sin of gluttony, but I would estimate that nearly half of our members would say they struggle with habitual overeating, excessive dieting, food obsession, or another food-related issue. Forms of gluttony can tempt both men and women, whether obese or thin, sedentary or active.

Indulge, Restrict, Repeat

To be clear, when I talk about gluttony, I’m not talking about having a second (or third) helping at a party, or during a holiday celebration, or while hosting close friends for dinner. Jesus’s ministry began with a feast (John 2:1–12), and history will be consummated with a feast (Revelation 19:7–10). Throughout redemptive history, God has invited (and commanded) his people to regularly and rejoicingly feast.

When I use the word gluttony, I’m talking about overeating, not because it’s a feast, but because it’s Friday — or because of any other reason among the many we use to justify our extra helpings.

Many of us begin the day with fresh resolve to “eat better,” only to find ourselves reaching for something we shouldn’t — a kind of forbidden fruit — within mere hours. We have another bite, another piece, another portion, and immediately following the deliciousness comes the bitter aftertaste of shame and regret. From here, we may starve these feelings with redoubled efforts to restrict again (“My diet starts tomorrow”), or we may comfort them with more food. By the end of the night, we go to bed bloated, but deflated; stuffed, but far from satisfied.

“What if the problem isn’t that we enjoy food too much, but far, far too little?”

Those familiar with this pattern may be tempted to think they enjoy food — or at least certain foods — too much. But what if the problem isn’t that we enjoy food too much, but far, far too little?

Decade of Dieting

I know the cycle well. Since high school football, I’ve counted calories, cut carbs, and codified more personal food laws than the Torah has commandments. I have declared foods that are free of fat, sugar, gluten, dairy, and cholesterol as “clean,” and foods that contain high amounts of salt, sugar, fat, carbs, or preservatives as “unclean” — or at least as “bad.”

Countless mornings, I set out with fresh resolve to restrict what would enter my body, and if I transgressed any of my food laws, I felt guilt, shame, and regret. This was classic legalism, and it led to where all legalism leads: “down a path of grinding effort, at the end of which there is no God — only insecurities, mental anguish, and more labor,” as Knute Larson puts it, commenting on 1 Timothy 4:3 (HNTC, 1 Thessalonians–Philemon, 204).

As I have worked through my own sinful relationship with food, and as I have now walked with many down the same path, I’ve learned that deep down, beneath the calorie-tracking apps and diet attempts, beneath the fear of being fat, even beneath the desperate desire to gain control of life by controlling our diet, at the bedrock of our food issues is a vision of God — a severely malnourished one.

To Those Who Restrict

Judging by the size of the diet industry (now valued at around $200 billion a year), many of us are well acquainted with dieting. Go to any gathering with food, and surely someone will not partake because he or she is currently cutting the item being offered. To be sure, much dieting can be good and healthy. But as Tilly Dillehay argues in her superb book Broken Bread, our tendency to excessively diet often comes from a form of asceticism, which she defines as the “belief that God is stingy as we are.” Such a view of God leads us to distrust anything that is “too enjoyable, too luxurious, too free, too unstructured” (13).

For those of us who feel a constant need to diet, we can have a hard time believing that “food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Corinthians 8:8). We struggle to receive the good news that Jesus declared all foods morally clean (Mark 7:19), and that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4–5). Instead, like Peter, we can find our identity in our refusal to eat foods we have deemed unclean (Acts 10:14).

We are, in J.I. Packer’s words, “too proud to enjoy the enjoyable” (“How I Learned to Live Joyfully”). And oddly, our inability to enjoy the enjoyable often leads us to the sin of gluttony.

To Those Who Indulge

Dillehay describes gluttony as a “kind of tastelessness” that doesn’t really enjoy the first bite, and so keeps eating more and more in an effort to grasp the missing pleasure (40, 44). In other words, the reason we must have another bite is because we didn’t fully enjoy the one before it. She continues:

Perhaps it’s not that pie got ahold of you, but that you never properly got ahold of pie. It’s that, perhaps, you never learned to think of life as waves coming toward you directly from God, waves that you must embrace as they come and then put behind you, readying yourself for the next wave. Waves cannot be repeated at will. Neither can the first bite of pie. (42)

“The best way to overcome overeating is to eat — slowly, mindfully, worshipfully.”

And there’s the breakthrough: gluttony reflects not an excessive enjoyment of food, but a deficient enjoyment of food as God’s gift — and of God as the giver. When you binge, the problem isn’t that you’re enjoying what you’re eating too much; the problem is that you’re not enjoying God in and through what you’re eating, and therefore you must have another bite.

For ten years, I thought the way to overcome overeating was to redouble my efforts to restrict. Surprisingly, I’ve learned that the best way to overcome overeating is to eat — slowly, mindfully, worshipfully.

Eating in God’s Presence

Practically, this means put the food on a plate. Sit down. Put your phone away and turn the TV off. And pray. Before you eat, let your eyes look to God, for the food has come from him (Psalm 145:15).

Then, as you relish the contours of texture and manifold layers of flavor, praise him from whom all blessings flow. As you sit and savor, remember what Edwards taught us: the greatest earthly gifts, food included, “are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean” (Works, 2:244).

Freedom from both over-restriction and over-indulgence comes from focusing not on what we eat, but on how we eat — enjoying God in every bite. Again, Dillehay helps us here:

The true answer to gluttony has much more in common with feasting than with dieting. . . . It is becoming more and more a child who receives, and less and less a parent who withholds (from ourselves and those around us). It is sitting quietly and with full presence of mind, glorying in tastes that were created by a good God, instead of fearing and distrusting tastes that were made too good by a good God. The answer to gluttony is knowing when enough is enough, learning the feel of a wave passing, and growing in the wisdom that looks to the next wave from God with satisfaction, contentment, and readiness. (50–51)

Come and Eat

Many of us make food laws, break those food laws, feel immediate guilt, shame, and regret, and then either starve those emotions with redoubled restriction and dieting, or comfort those emotions with food. If we continue down this path, the end result will be hunger — physical and spiritual.

Freedom will come not only in learning how to fast, but in learning how to truly feast (Isaiah 55:1–3). As Michelle Stacey writes, “The true cure for our dietary sins may lie in an almost opposite direction to that prescribed by the nutrition cognoscenti: not in claiming more control, but less; not in taking power away from food, but giving it back; not in fear of death, but in love of life” (Consumed, 206).

If dieting has become a way of life, and overeating has become routine, God is inviting you to slow down and feast — for “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (1 Corinthians 10:26). Slowly, mindfully, worshipfully eat, enjoying the goodness of God in every bite. Jesus, the bread of life (John 6:35) and living water (John 4:10), won’t only fill your stomach; he will satisfy your soul.