Gluttony: The Most Common Deadly Sin?

John ArmstrongPersonal, Spirituality

Gregory the Great, a sixth century pope whose piety and teaching on spiritual formation have had an enduring legacy in the church, seems to have been the first Christian teacher to create the taxonomy of the "seven deadly sins." One thing is certain. Following Gregory these seven sins stood out as prominent in Christian theology. The seven were: pride, anger, envy, impunity, gluttony, slothfulness and avarice. I doubt many Protestants could name these if their life depended on it.

But what is gluttony? And is gluttony simply synonymous with being overweight? And if it synonymous with being overweight who determines what constitutes being overweight? If it is the infamous insurance tables then the standard has shifted quite a bit in the last decade. If it is the physicians and researchers then the standard is shifting even as I write these words. The most recent medical evidence suggests that excess weight is harmful to your well-being but there are many other factors that contribute to health and longevity of life than weight. In reality, some of these factors are far more deadly than carrying a little excess weight. Personally, I resist churches and Christians who determine their answer to the question of gluttony by referencing it to excess weight for several reasons. Let me explain.

Gluttony is "an insatiable desire [that] produces an unbalanced pattern of living; it defiles the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit with excess consumption" (R. L. Timpe). The central thought here is that gluttony is the overindulgence of human appetites for the sake of immediate pleasures. These excessive appetites usually involve what has been called "a cult of comfort" (Timpe). This cult of comfort manifests a philosophy of materialism in an explicitly physical form. It is, in short, an overindulgent gratification and (quite often) an uncontrollable addiction. These ideas can be seen in the way we commonly use the word: He is a "glutton for punishment" or she is a "glutton for work." What is being acknowledged in such statements is an unhealthy and destructive pattern of extreme and excess.

This should make it clear that being normally weighted, whatever that is, and being slightly over-weighted, depending on what that is, are not the primary issues in gluttony. There are a number of complex factors that play a large part in what a person will weigh; e.g. "their set point," etc. Generally speaking, and I do not wish to be cruel here in the least, most hugely obese people have a medical problem and gluttony likely plays some role in how to deal with their problem. I leave to the human conscience the working out of this point. Gluttony may have contributed to this problem but a compassionate Christianity will not judge our brothers and sisters by what they weigh.

As a personal aside, I have struggled to maintain my proper weight since I was about ten years old. My brother has no such problem. I always thought, at least as a teen, that this was truly unfair. But it is what it is. By the time I was in eight grade my physical size was pretty much what it has been, within about 10-15 pounds, ever since. Through rigorous diet I once got down over forty pounds in my early thirties. I used a crazy diet and hard long runs. After a bout with pneumonia I never was able to get back into the long runs. Slowly, over the years, I gained my weight back, reaching about the point that I think we call "the set point." I have recently dropped about eight pounds by eating better and through more regular exercise, which I try to do following some routine of discipline. My own problem is that I do every thing with passion so I tend to "attack" exercise programs and then quit when everything hurts.
When I reached my lowest point in weight, as an adult, I soon became impressed with myself in a deadly way. I could easily judge others since I now knew what it took to lose weight. I also felt proud of myself for my hard work and my better body. A good friend once told me, with steely honesty, "I liked you better when you were forty pounds heavier." I got the message. The goal, of course, is to not add the weight but to drop the prideful and judgmental attitude. Man that hurt but it helped a lot.
The problem with Gregory's taxonomy is that it has mixed disease with sin. The deadly sins, in some cases, then became crimes. There is no support for such thinking in the New Testament. We are not criminal if we overeat and no laws should ever be passed, by the church or the state, about overeating. But gluttony is a sin. We must be clear about this if we read the Scriptures at all. Modern psychotherapy is right to stress some aspects of how to treat this problem but it is wrong to deny the role of human volition in sin, especially in this sin. I have no doubt that the awful problems of anorexia and bulimia have arisen again in our modern context precisely because this sin is so very real in the way it impacts fragile and deeply flawed humans.

Today gluttony is almost never talked about except by social activists who associate it with the freedom to enjoy a good meal in the West and the absence of good food in many parts of the world. I resist this type of thinking and still enjoy good food and drink as gifts from God. All things can be enjoyed, in this case, "with prayer and thanksgiving." Google the terms "gluttony" and "financial crisis" and you will see what I mean. So many writers now speak figuratively of the markets being driven by gluttony that the term seems almost irrelevant. Perhaps we resist coming to grips with the real sin of gluttony, which can impact normally weighted, thinly weighted and heavily weighted people all three, when we trivialize the way we use the term and then use it so widely to describe so much in popular culture. Interestingly, the word itself comes from a Latin word, gluttire, which means to "gulp down or swallow." There is a lot here to ponder for a serious Christian who eats with too much gusto. (I admit again that I am such a person and have always eaten too fast.)

Make no mistake about it—gluttony is a vice and it is a dangerous one that most of us need to wrestle with far more than we do. This sin will not necessarily destroy your faith but it will chip away at serious spiritual formation and discipleship. I have always found it curious that in my evangelical church background we had rules against drinking, especially drinking a good glass of wine or a rich lager, and yet we ate like we were famished for the worst foods possible at every church social event we ever conducted. The irony was that we laughed about all this and thereby made ourselves feel better for our sinful attitude and gluttony. One thing I know for sure—gluttony is not a laughing matter. Take time to do a biblical word search and you will easily discover this is no laughing matter. And while you are at it stop judging others for their weight and work on your own tendency to commit this deadly sin regardless of what the scales tell you about your weight. I know that I need to do exactly that.