I can think of maybe one sermon I’ve heard on the subject of gluttony. Whether for fear of shaming portlier parishioners, or because our pastors have noticed how much closer the pulpit has moved to their own waistlines, it’s not a subject we address much in church. Yet precisely for that reason our thinking on the issue has become so shallow and one-dimensional, leaving the church, especially our affluent, North American congregations, exposed to a much less obvious, and all the more deceptive form of the temptation.
I have to admit that I struggle with gluttony. Yet those who know me probably wouldn’t suspect it. Indeed, I’m tempted to deny it myself because I don’t tend to have a weight issue, nor do I find myself eating to excess regularly—well, not since the holidays at least. All the same, this is a sin I’m beginning to realize I need to be increasingly watchful against.
Of course, that confession only makes sense when you understand that there’s more than one way of being a glutton. I’ll let C. S. Lewis explain what I mean.
Gluttony of Nice Things
In his 17th letter, Uncle Screwtape corrects his protégé tempter Wormwood’s disdain for the enticement towards a lesser sin like gluttony. While Wormwood is wont to write it off, Screwtape says he has misunderstood both its efficacy, scope, and versatility:
One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled about it in the whole length and breadth of Europe. This has largely been effected by concentrating all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of Excess. Your patient’s mother, as I learn from the dossier and you might have learned from Glubose, is a good example. She would be astonished—one day, I hope, will be—to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern? (The Screwtape Letters, Letter 17)
Lewis here exposes the gluttony of delicacy. He goes on to describe the way the old woman’s “All I want” desires, where all I want is a tea that’s “properly” made, or a dish that’s “properly” cooked, to the point where she makes her own life and the lives of all around her miserable because of her obsession with having her food measure up to her exacting standard. To be a glutton isn’t simply to be driven to overeating, but to make one’s stomach one’s god (Phil. 3:19). And there are a number of ways of doing so.
In this, per usual, Lewis is drawing on the broader Christian moral tradition and contemporizing with great wisdom and perceptive care. You can find the same sort of distinction made by Thomas Aquinas, who distinguished between inordinate desire in eating with respect to (1) “sumptuousness,” (2) quality or “daintiness,” or (3) excess (Summa, 2.2.Q.148, 4). Kevin DeYoung calls our attention to a number of other examples in his recent, perceptive article on the issue.
Which brings me to today.
I don’t know about you, but the area I live in (Orange County), has gone full-blown into foodie-ism (not to be confused with fideism). Everywhere you turn, new specialty food shops and markets are popping up. Chain restaurants are going down in flames, and rising from the ashes are gastropubs with craft beer and burgers made with cheeses whose names seem to recall the fallen houses of the French aristocracy. Besides tasting better, most of it also boasts the merits of being ethically grown, grass-fed, hormone-free, and overall better for you.
Believe me, I’m not complaining. It’s mostly wonderful. For Christians there is a proper place for health concerns—certainly place for buying “ethical” food. What’s more, we can make a strong case for preferring fine cheese to a bag of MSG-laced Funyuns.
That said, I’ve come to suspect the gluttony of nice things, or daintiness, lurking in our increasing appreciation for finer cultural goods. It’s one thing to be careful about how you eat and cultivate your palate. But it’s quite another when you can only drink just the right artisanal coffee (Starbucks isn’t good enough anymore) or can’t cope with a salad made with anything less than the freshest backyard-grown kale.
There are times when, and I say this especially with respect to my young evangelical friends, our newfound appreciation for the finer things can be turned into cover for an idolatry of the palate. While initially innocuous, this temptation easily turns into an obnoxious form of “food righteousness,” by which you are justified (or damned) by your choice of cereal. (True story: my friends have, at times, dubbed me a Beerisee.) Or, for others, it may lead to an excuse for a poor stewardship of funds, justifying excessive spending because it’s on “necessities” like food, as David Brooks has chronicled. Again, this temptation is so brilliant because it’s so easy to write off.
Lewis suggests this gluttony can be “gradually turned into habit,” such that we come to “the state in which the denial of any one indulgence—it matters not which, champagne or tea, sole colbert or cigarettes—“will put us out of sorts, and then our “charity, justice, and obedience are all at your [the tempter’s] mercy.” Indeed, the more I give myself over to the gluttony of nice things, the more the idea of sacrificially taking up my cross and risking discomfort the sake of the gospel on becomes unthinkable. I mean, what if they don’t have my favorite roast there?
Not a Matter of Food and Drink
Once again, there’s nothing wrong with cultivating a nuanced, healthy, ethical taste for God’s creation. These are gifts to be received with thanksgiving and enjoyed to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). And yet, as disciples of Jesus, we must take care not to be ruled by our stomachs, but by the God who made them.
Instead of vainly seeking our joy in the temporary satisfaction of an increasingly persnickety palate, we ought to turn our eyes to the meal Jesus gave us. In the Lord’s Supper Jesus invites us to cultivate a taste for the true food that satisfies the deep hunger of our souls. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:55-56). In the bread, he gives us his own body, broken for us, and in the cup, his blood shed for our sins—indeed, through our union with him, in the Supper, we are invited to feast on nothing less than Christ himself.
In Christ the Father sets a table for his children that allows them to eat food as if they were not famished (1 Cor. 7:29-30), because they are being increasingly conformed to the image of the one whose “meat is to do the will of him” who sent him (John 4:35), not the will of their belly.