As I write this, we are just waking from the sugarcoated dream of the Christmas season. We have tried and tasted every delectable culinary bite we could. Salt-and-pepper-crusted medium-rare steak. Racks full of drying homemade pasta. Mugs of rich hot chocolate piled high with whipped cream and peppermint marshmallows. We have not held back. We’ve feasted. We’ve celebrated and raised our glasses in cheer. We have given thanks for the sweetest joys the Lord gives us in his mercy.
And yet, after we have consumed nearly every good thing we could, all-American hunger still lingers in the air. I speak of the kind of hunger that is fixated on our next meal, the gluttonous drone beneath every feast, every diet, every advertisement that reminds you of what you could be eating, should be eating, wish you were eating.
No matter the feasting, it’s never enough.
It’s easy to spot sinful patterns and behaviors when they’re messy and obvious—or let’s be honest, when they don’t hit so close to home. So gluttony? Well it doesn’t really get many headlines or Sunday sermon series graphics, does it? In fact, we’ve made gluttony a whole line of entertainment in our culture.
For example, YouTuber Nikocado Avocado has made his living off of eating whatever and however much food he desires. His style follows a South Korean trend known as mukbang—eating a massive amount of food while broadcasting the consumption of said food. We, as a global society, have paid through ads and views to watch men and women eat excessive amounts of food. Our waistlines and bottom lines tell the truth—our fixation with excessive abundance is actually starting to kill people.
Because the problem isn’t the food itself. Gluttony doesn’t call to us any more from a bag of Oreos than it does from a bag of romaine lettuce. The siren song that seems to hum through all of our eating is that it’s simply never, ever enough.
Consider feasting, which is a part of humanity, something God commanded his Old Testament people to engage in on a regular basis (Deut 14:26; Exod 34:22), and something God promises to all the church when we finally sit at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9; Isa 25:6). Feasting is good; it is something that we should build into the rhythms of our lives. And yet, for most of us, feasting is just a normal Tuesday night. We have no limits to our feasting, and when we finally have a reason to feast, we fixate so much on the food itself that we miss the reason for the spread all together. The food becomes the reason to feast. The food becomes the glory itself.
We no longer feast to celebrate. We celebrate the feast. And then we continue, hoarding and stockpiling what we can on our plates and in our pantries with the silent but gorging hope that maybe this food will save us.
Maybe enough food will save us from any pangs of hunger. Maybe more food will save us from depression. Maybe the true source of joy is in the next fast food order, the next bowl of pasta, the last bag of salty chips. Maybe if we measure, count, read, and purchase correctly, the right food will even save us from death.
And so we raise our glass to the god to our bellies, day after day, meal after meal, praying that this food will finally satisfy our insatiable appetite for more. But this god is never satisfied. Not with a feast, not with a famine. Not with boxes of prepper meals, not with a full fridge full of every possible health food. The god of gluttony wants our allegiance, our souls on a platter, our commitment to bow the knee every time it demands we eat, fear, or think about consuming more.
And lest you take comfort in thinking “Well, I don’t do that,” thinking that excessive feasting is the only symptom of a gluttonous heart, take note of what Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian, defined as the “five species of gluttony”:
- Hastily—We wake to eat and consume. It’s the first thing we think about. (Coffee dependence, anyone?) We cannot get there fast enough—the food we’ll eat, the drinks we drink, the kind of consumption that steals our thoughts, our time, our pause to wake and give thanks to the Lord. We eat it fast, swallowing before tasting, the food over the flavor. Aquinas points to Proverbs 23:25: “When shall I awake? I must have another drink.” The kind of haste that overrides every other good and reasonable and enjoyable thing—even the food and drink itself.
- Sumptuously—Charles Pope describes this aspect of gluttony as “demanding rich foods more so than healthier fare … ; consuming sweets and fatty foods rather than fruits and vegetables, or expensive foods rather than more moderate ones; fine wines and liquors rather than water and juice.” This is the mindset that insists on dessert every night, or only the “elite” food and not what we can afford, what can be found, or what is already in our pantries.
- Too Much—Eating in excess, all of it, all the time.
- Greedily—The desire to consume all of it, to not share, to consume it completely. To insist on it your way, always, and enough to be more than you need. The bag of chips, just for you. The bag of candy, hidden for your pleasure alone. The wasted food we refuse to eat and toss into the landfills.
- Daintily—The demand for food to be the centerpiece and always prepared a certain way, insisting on the pomp and circumstance of how it’s prepared, served, enjoyed. (Domino’s? Wow, you obviously don’t understand what pizza should taste like.)
In light of Aquinas’s five ways that gluttony manifests, we discover that we have five fingers pointing right back at us.
And isn’t this what our bent is in most things? A sufficient amount of something is never enough. We want more, and mind you, not to share! This more is a self-serving, self-loving kind of more. The kind we try to find peace in. We are consumers by name and we consume everything that we can get—food, media, Instagram reels, the attention of others, excess in every direction. Instead of feasting, we gorge ourselves on whatever can be consumed and we’ll consume it until it rots in our mouths. Then we move on to the next serving. I can’t help but have a flashback to Britney singing “Gimme more, gimme more, gimme more,” as I lift my own head from whatever it is I’ve also chased, pursued, and consumed. I am no further along than the nation of Israel shoving manna into their pockets and baskets, even though it would rot into mold and stench by the next sunrise (cf., Exod 16:20).
In C. S. Lewis’s classic Perelandra, he writes of how the protagonist Ransom tastes the foreign fruit of the new planet for the first time:
As he let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do. His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favour of tasting this miracle again; the child-like innocence of fruit, the labours he had undergone, the uncertainty of the future, all seemed to commend the action. Yet something seemed opposed to this “reason.” It is difficult to suppose that this opposition came from desire, for what desire would turn from so much deliciousness? But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.1
Maybe this is our problem: we want the medium rare steak, piled high hot chocolate, and the buffet of pleasures over and over again, every single day. We have forgotten what moderation and sufficiency look like. Early church father John Chrysostom wrote, “Sharpen your sword and your sickle which has been blunted by gluttony—sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven, rugged and narrow as it is. Lay hold of it, and journey on it.”2
Let us sharpen our swords. There is a way out of the madness of our culture, and Christ has given us this directive himself in Matthew 6:16–18, saying, “When you fast …” not “If you fast …” Perhaps we’ll never know how good a feast truly is because we refuse to fast.
Maybe we’ll never truly know the joy and flavor of moderation with food because we’ve divided our dining into gluttonous binges and restrictive, bland diets. You either eat fast food and hate yourself, or you eat nothing but salads and—hate yourself? This is an impossible solution—one that’s bound to send us into a spiral of self-loving or self-loathing, bending us more and more into ourselves and away from our Savior who knew both feasting (even Jesus was accused of being a glutton; Matt 11:19) and fasting. I wonder if freedom for our never-enough bellies isn’t found in more rules, diets, and restrictions, but on the other side of finding that everything our souls crave can truly be found in Christ.
Maybe enough Christ will save us from fear. Maybe enough Christ will save us from despair. Maybe the true source of joy is putting gluttony to death and letting Christ untwist us from ourselves. Maybe even enough Christ will save us from death completely.
And so with him and in him, the god of our belly can finally die. A death we can truly celebrate together at the final feast.