Evagrius of Pontus, a Christian monk and ascetic whose ideas may have inspired John Cassian's list of eight sins, gives us a very poetic but comprehensive definition of the sin of gluttony: "Gluttony is the mother of lust, the nourishment of evil thoughts, laziness in fasting, obstacle to asceticism, terror to moral purpose, the imagining of food, sketcher of seasonings, unrestrained colt, unbridled frenzy, receptacle of disease, envy of health, obstruction of the (bodily) passages, groaning of the bowels, the extreme of outrages, pollution of the intellect, weakness of the body, difficult sleep, and gloomy death." Funny but true.
Scripture concurs. Proverbs 23:20-21 warns us not to join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags. Proverbs 28:7 declares that he who keeps the law is a discerning son, but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father. Proverbs 23:2 advises us to put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony. Although that might seem a little too extreme, it is indicative of how severely God views the sin of gluttony, which Merriam-Webster defines as excess in eating or drinking.
Why is gluttony a sin, though? Because gluttony is more than simply overeating (or overdrinking). It is abusing God's gifts. Food, which is one gift, is necessary for good health, but when we overeat, we abuse it and harm our bodies, which are another gift. Sometimes we can abuse them fatally.
Consider legendary singer Elvis Presley. The average human needs between 1,500 to 1,800 calories daily for sustenance. People doing heavy work might need up to about 4,000 calories. Toward the end of his life, Elvis was consuming over 12,000 calories per day, and his exercise mainly consisted of flipping channels on his TV set. He had a particular penchant for meat, peanut butter, and fried foods, meaning his diet was incredibly rich. One of his favorite snacks was "Fool's Gold Loaf," estimated to contain between 8,000 to an insane 42,000 calories! Elvis literally ate himself to death. He was about 350 pounds (158 kilos) when he died.
Or consider legendary actor Marlon Brando? M. Moser, in the book Movie Stars Do the Dumbest Things, speaks of the great star's gluttony. "Like the actor himself, Marlon Brando's eating binges grew to assume legendary proportions. Brando frequently consumed two whole chickens, half a cheesecake, and a pint of ice cream in a single sitting. He was also known to don a pair of sunglasses and a large hat before driving to a food stand in the wee hours to gorge himself on several hot dogs. Food, as the producers of Superman soon learned, was an obsession...
"When the "Godfather of Bellies" was first approached about playing the role of Superman's father (Jor-El) in the screen adaptation of the comic book classic, he was remarkably enthusiastic. In fact, he had several ideas of his own. For example, because he was an alien living on another planet, Superman's father could look like anything: "What if," Brando asked the film's producers, "he was a giant bagel?"
A normal question, perhaps, for somebody whose life had begun to revolve more around food than around work. He weighed over 300 pounds (136 kilos) close to his death! What made him become like this?
Or consider Montezuema II? The last Aztec ruler in Mexico could put away chicken, turkey, songbirds, doves, ducks, rabbits, pheasants, partridges, and quail, followed by tortillas and hot chocolate! Or the ancient Romans? Often given to excess, they crossed all limits during the reigns of Emperors Claudius and Vitellius, overindulging at lavish banquets and then vomiting so they could continue eating! What causes behavior like this? And before we think we can't (and don't) eat like this, look at how we behave at Eat-All-You-Can-Buffets. We eat like we are never going to see food again! A lot of this has to do with the "lust of the eyes" that John warns about (1 John 2:16). We desire what we see and when we see all those platters laden with mouth-watering delicasies, we cannot resist the desire to load our plates with them. True or false?
Gluttony also leads to other sins like sloth. Daniel (of the Lion's Den fame) understood that when he found himself invited to eat food from King Nebuchadnezzar's table.
King Nebu, who once ruled the Babylonian Empire, sent his army marching into Jerusalem one day (see Daniel 1:1-16). After securing a tremendous victory, they returned to Babylon with a bunch of prisoners in tow, among whom was Daniel, a devout, God-fearing teenager. Soon after, Nebuchadnezzar instructed his ministers to select handsome, healthy, and intelligent young men from among the captives and bring them to the palace to teach them Babylonian culture and traditions so that they could be of use in his service. Daniel was one of those who were chosen.
Right off, Daniel faced a problem. Nebuchadnezzar had dictated that the new trainees were to be served the same food and wine that was served on the royal table. While this would have flattered most young men, Daniel was aghast. He was a vegetarian who drank only water, and he resolved to consume nothing the king was offering. Why? Not merely because the food would probably have been offered to idols (a good enough reason for him to refuse), but because the richness of the food would have led to laziness, which in turn would have ended his powerful prayer life. (Ever try praying on a full stomach? Or doing anything else for that matter?)
Why Do We Become Gluttons?
All of us are born with a big hole within us. It's a hole that God himself placed so that we would search for him and find him. However, some of us don't realize this and try to fill the emptiness with food, alcohol, drugs, sex, tobacco, and other things of the world. This hole, however, is a God-sized hole, and the only thing that can fill a God-sized hole is God himself, which means that anything else we do won't compensate.
How empty is your heart? Your eating habits may reveal a lot. What do you do when you are seated at the dining table? Do you pile your plate with food, then, without a glance to see if everybody else has served themselves, begin attacking your food and don't say a word until you have finished eating? Do you take third and fourth servings?
Do you eat at the wrong time or when you aren't hungry? Are you fussy about the food that is laid on the table? Does everything have to be made just the way you like it? Does rice, for instance, have to be the best of Basmati, with each grain unbroken and separate from the next? Do you insist on having the best of everything when it comes to food?
Do you snack constantly? When you are at a friend's house, and the snack tray goes around, do you pick something from it every time it passes you? Do you try to ensure it ends up close to you?
Do you tell yourself that it is okay to overindulge sometimes? For instance, do you let yourself go crazy at a wedding party where a huge buffet is laid out with an array of mouth-watering delicacies, each more tempting than the next? Or when you are at a restaurant with a special "All you can eat" offer like we just spoke about: do you believe it is okay—nay, necessary—to eat three times more than you usually would simply because you want to make the most of a good deal? Do you ever give a thought that there may be consequences to your health because of what you do, even if it is rarely?
We probably don't read too much into some of these things, but they all indicate gluttony, which may reveal the emptiness within us, which could lead to all sorts of trouble. Have you heard it said the way to a man's heart is through his stomach? This could very well be true, but not only for a woman to exploit; Satan takes advantage of this too. He used food to tempt Adam and Eve! When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it (Genesis 3:6).
He tried to use food to tempt Jesus too. After his baptism in the River Jordan, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, where he fasted. After fasting for forty days, he was obviously hungry, and Satan, who is ever ready to exploit a situation to his advantage, was right there next to him: "If you are the Son of God," he tempted Jesus, "tell these stones to become bread." Jesus knew better than to fall for his tricks. He answered, "Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). He was saying that it isn't only food that fills us, but God's Word too. Do we fill ourselves with it?
It is not only reading it and memorizing what God says that fills us, however, but doing what God tells us to do as well. One day Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman by a well while his apostles had gone off to get food. When they returned and offered him some, he said he had already eaten. Confused, they wondered who might have brought him food. Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work" (John 4:34).
Because it is socially acceptable and because it actually fills us — although it's the belly getting filled, not the heart — food is the preferred choice. Have you noticed how often we reach for a bag of chips when depressed? Or for the tub of ice cream when we feel low? However, although the belly might get stuffed, the heart remains hollow. So, how do we deal with this problem? By temperance.
The Virtue: Temperance
The meaning of temperance is moderation in action, thought, or feeling, which is essentially restraint.
The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess, helping us to control and moderate our appetites, be it for food, drink, or anything else. Intemperance brings about an arrest of emotional development. Have you ever taken a little child into a toy shop? They will drive you crazy with their demands believing they need everything they see!
Jesus tells us to be like children, but not like spoiled little children. There is nothing appealing about a spoiled child. That's what we become like when we are intemperate, demanding our desires be fulfilled. When we are slaves of our desires, we cannot exercise our free will, which leads to an inability to cultivate other virtues. Temperance, however, allows us to become the people God created us to be: spiritually and morally beautiful.
Temperance can be cultivated. When it comes to eating, we have our meals at set intervals and avoid snacking in between. We serve ourselves a reasonable portion once, avoiding a second helping, much less a third. If we enjoyed one of the dishes and cannot resist the temptation to eat some more or are still really hungry, we take a small helping and then stop! This may take some effort in the beginning if we are not used to exercising moderation when it comes to food, which is why we also need the accompanying gift of fortitude.
Fasting also helps, and if we do it properly, it can be done without damaging one's health. In fact, going on a diet that comprises only fruit juice for a week can actually be beneficial to health, as also giving up meats, sweets, and other things that we might be very fond of and think we can't live without.
What really helps, however, is addressing the primary root of the problem, which is the emptiness of the heart that only God can fill. He has something beautiful to fill it with—the Holy Spirit. We have already met the Samaritan woman at the well (see The Seven Deadly Sins: Lust). She was emotionally empty and tried to fill herself with the love of men, but she went through five husbands without getting what she craved for. She was hoping number six would do the trick, but as Jesus told her: "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:13-14).
In other words, we can do whatever we want to fill the emptiness in our lives, but the only thing that truly can is God. The best way to do this is by spending time with him and allowing him to love us. He can do this in many ways, but a way that has always worked best for me is sitting on his lap as a child would sit on his father's lap.
The Gift: Fortitude
There is a very powerful passage in Paul's letter to the Corinthians where he speaks about "beating his body," a euphemism for getting his body under his control.
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize" (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Many of us are slaves to our bodies. The instant we feel hungry, we look for something to put into our bellies. The moment we feel a little warm under the collar, we turn the air conditioner on. The minute we feel thirsty, we reach for the soda can. We need to make our body our slave, bringing it into subjugation to us. The gift of fortitude helps us in this task.
I have already suggested some things we can do to control our bodies, but I am sure you can think of a few more. As the saying goes: Where there is a will, there is a way. If you have the will, you will find the way.
May the Spirit be with you.