Posted in pastoral care, reflections

Overeating in Christian perspective

forkIt’s the beginning of the new year and lots of people are making promises to lose weight. As Christians, how can we overcome the sin of gluttony (overeating)?

Disclaimer: This essay does not look at the medical side of obesity, only gluttony as a spiritual issue. It is always appropriate to consult with medical professionals and to learn to choose healthy foods.

Bear with me as we take what may seem like an unrelated detour. I promise to bring the plane in for a smooth landing.

Addressing the question of why we eat too much requires us as followers of Christ to ask another preliminary question:

Who am I?

As human beings, we are not accidents, a random conglomeration of atoms and cells. Rather, we are purposefully and lovingly molded by God, the One who creates and sustains all that is.

The Psalmist affirmed:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (Psalm 139:14, NIV).

Who am I? I am the exquisite creation of God, so I have great value.

A second answer to the “Who am I?” question emerges from the story we find in Scripture. Not only did God fashion us as part of a wonderful creation. Importantly, we are created for relationship with God and others. This is beautifully symbolized in the first two chapters of Genesis. God placed Adam and Eve together in the garden and they had fellowship with each other and with God.

Third – and this one ties most directly with our topic of overeating – God created me as an embodied being. God fashioned Adam out of the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7). The “dust” symbolizes substance or matter. At the end of each creation day, God stepped back and beheld various parts of creation, pronouncing them “good” (Gen. 1:3, 9, 24, to cite a few). Only when God at last had created Adam did he call creation “very good” (1:31).

Our bodies are excellent!

This has implications for how we view ourselves. For all of his merits, more than any other theologian, Augustine of Hippo (b. 354 AD) did much to make Christians feel guilty about sex. While Paul had advised that self-control must characterize all our behavior, including our sexuality (Galatians 5:23, 1 Cor. 6:18-20), Augustine posited that it was the sex act itself – even between spouses – that was sinful, the way that original sin was transmitted. Augustine’s influence has led in the West to a preoccupation with sins of a sexual nature, making them first order sins even as we ignore what a neutral observer might conclude we judge to be lesser sins (if sins at all), including eating too much.

To say we are embodied is not to imply that we are immortal souls living inside mortal bodies. That’s dualism, a Greek philosophical weed that (unfortunately) has blown into Christianity’s garden and taken root. The soil in which Christianity grew up is Hebrew soil, Old Testament teaching. Genesis 2:7 explains that human beings are matter (“dust”) into which God has breathed the breath of life. This is called holism; we are unities. I don’t have a body; I am a body animated by God.

Evangelical diminishing of the body’s importance

As related to our view of our bodies and how we treat them, are we seeing some of the negative outcomes of Christianity’s majority adoption of Greek philosophy as opposed to sound biblical teaching? Included in the Greek vision is the understanding that spirit is good while matter is evil. “Salvation” is the escape of the soul from its “prison,” which is the body.

Evangelical teaching has promoted this misconception in various ways. The late D. James Kennedy popularized an evangelism plan where he asked individuals whether they knew for sure that if they died tonight they would go to heaven. This plan and any other that speaks about “soul winning” prioritized the “soul” over the body, making one infinitely more important than the other. After all, if the soul is immortal and the body only temporal, how could it be any other way? The “sinner’s prayer” becomes a sort of “heaven insurance” and seems to have little to do with how we live our embodied lives down here. But if Kennedy’s view was closer to Plato than to the New Testament – where resurrection is the emphasis, not a disembodied afterlife – then the stage was set for a diminishing of our bodies, making them irrelevant to the pursuit of spirituality.

So sex is often sinful, but not gluttony?

In recent social media discussions, some have questioned why Christians are so quick to condemn sexual sins but so slow to speak of the danger of gluttony. Our heritage from Augustine (as discussed above) has assured that sexual sin always gets top billing, but I wonder whether that influence is waning? If it is, then what are we left with?

We are left with dualism.

The monks that emerged in the early centuries AD represent one response to the belief that human beings are made up of a temporal body and an immortal soul. To save the soul, make the body suffer. This is known as asceticism. Yet there is a second and opposite response to dualism, and that is the response of hedonism. In this view, bodily pleasure is the ultimate good. The soul as pure and spiritual is unaffected by the actions of the body.

Does it matter if I become obese by eating too much? If “salvation” is focused on what happens in the next life – and that is like a bus ticket I’ve purchased and safely tucked away in my wallet – then how does what I eat matter? Will not my soul (saved by Jesus) go to heaven even if – to use the colorful expression of Mike Huckabee – I’ve dug my own grave with a knife and fork?

From the Bible’s perspective, gluttony is shameful. The company of both drunkards and gluttons is to be avoided (Proverbs 23:20). Enemies of the cross – according to Paul – are those whose “god is their stomach” (Phil. 3:19). Our manner of eating and drinking is to glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31). If we’re going to quote Scripture on sexual matters – and we should – then let’s at least be consistent and see what the Bible has to say about eating too much.

Moving forward, together

As together we battle this sin that so easily entangles us (Hebrews 12:1-2), two important reminders are in order:

1) Let us see our bodies not as a part of us but as simply us, an excellent creation of God worth keeping fit and healthy.

Exercising is taking care of me. My heart? That’s me. My brain? That’s me. To eat too much red meat and added sugar is to damage my health. Likewise, to view pornography is to flood my brain with addictive hormones. There’s no escape clause to think that the “real me” (my immortal soul) is somehow exempt from what I do with my body. It’s all tied up together, flesh and breath. It’s all me.

2) Let us commit ourselves to God as an act of sanctification.

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul gets radical. He urges us to present our bodies (i.e. ourselves) to God as a living sacrifice. The image is from the Old Testament when priests would burn animals upon the altar as a means of worshiping God and atoning for wrongdoing. Don’t be too literal; God is not calling us to pour gasoline on ourselves and light a match. Rather, this is an image of sanctification. Besides allowing the Holy Spirit to purify us, we are to let God set us apart for divine purposes. Translation? We don’t belong to ourselves. Our loving God owns us since we have voluntarily ceded ownership to God.

Summing it up

So how do I overcome overeating? The answer is many-faceted, but we’ve clarified two important areas. First, human beings are unities, not substance and “soul.” To mistreat my body is to mistreat myself. Secondly, I am not the “boss of me.” As a follower of Jesus Christ, sold-out to God’s purposes for my life, all that I am is no longer mine. It belongs to God. Eating too much is abusing the me that belongs to God. If my life is cut short due to diabetes, a heart attack or other ailments resulting from obesity, then I am short-circuiting the plans that God had for me during this life. In a soccer match where the coach desperately needs my skills, I’ve sidelined myself. The team will suffer.

Are we ready – with God’s help and together – to overcome the sin of gluttony?


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Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

3 thoughts on “Overeating in Christian perspective

  1. Great post again. I read these every time you post. Enjoy your writing and appreciate your theological perspective. Thanks for these words, they matter. One of the guys in our network is developing something in this area for our district…something that in the social media world we live in he’s labeled #CCDfit (I’ll be forwarding this post to him) It’s an important conversation and leadership from people like you is so important. Thanks again.

  2. This reminds me of a discussion that I heard recently on the happy rant podcast. It came about from a listener asking why it is that around the holidays we suddenly dismiss gluttony and even go so far as to celebrate it. Their take was good but funny. Yours was good and much more exhaustive and thanks for sharing this.

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