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.

Continue reading “Overeating in Christian perspective”

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Idols in the Church, part 1: when food displaces God

cheeseburgerIdolatry is not a new problem for the people of God. It’s as old as the impatient Israelities – restless when Moses was delayed on Mt Sinai – forging a golden calf and bowing down in worship before it (see Exodus 32). Repeatedly in the Old Testament, the prophets called upon Israel and Judah to return to Yahweh. Righteous kings like Hezekiah broke down the “high places” dedicated to Baal and the poles erected to the worship of his partner, Asherah (2 Kings 18:1-4). The willingness to confront idolatry – no matter how ingrained it had become – was the hallmark of the righteous leader.

The times have changed, but our tendency as the people of God to set up idols has not. One idol that the Church needs to topple in its midst is not Baal or Asherah, but it is an idol nonetheless. I’m talking about the false god of food.

Paul described those who lived as “enemies of the cross” (Phil. 3:19). Among the characteristics of such individuals whose minds were “set on earthly things” was that they made of their stomach a god:

Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven (3:19-20a, NIV).

The apostle was calling the church to be radically different than the world in which she lived. In Eating to Excess: The Meaning of Gluttony and the Fat Body in the Ancient World (Praeger, 2011; available here on Google books), Susan Hill (p. 103) includes a warning from Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-211/215):

There is no limit to the gluttony these men practice. Truly, in inventing a multitude of new sweets and ever seeking recipes of every description, they are shipwrecked on honey-cakes and desserts.

Likewise, John Chrysostom (AD 347-407) compared a gluttonous person to a wild animal. He or she is “a wild beast rather than a human being; for to devour much food is proper to panther, and lion, and bear.  No wonder (that they do so) for those creatures have not a reasonable soul. Yet even they, if they be gorged with food more than they need, and beyond the measure appointed them by nature, get their whole body ruined by it; how much more we?” (Hill, p. 117).

Paul, Clement, and Chrysostom echoed cautions sounded in the Old Testament. Proverbs 23:1-3 (CEB) advises:

When you sit down to dine with a ruler, carefully consider what is in front of you. Place a knife at your throat to control your appetite. Don’t long for the ruler’s delicacies; the food misleads.

So inadvisable was gluttony to the Jew that to befriend a glutton was to shame one’s parents (Proverbs 28:7). Gluttony (along with drunkenness) led to impoverishment (Prov. 23:21).

Continue reading “Idols in the Church, part 1: when food displaces God”

The Fact of Sin: Reflections from Henry Fairlie

Henry Fairlie

I like the book of James. When given a choice in Greek 3 which New Testament book to translate, James was my pick. Its poetic expressions in the King James Version fired  my imagination, phrases like “perfect law of liberty” (1:25).

One can hardly address law from a Christian perspective without dealing with the concept of sin. When we become aware of God’s law, we automatically realize that we are lawbreakers, or sinners. This is apparent from the classical Wesleyan definition of sin as a “willful transgression of a known law of God “(see 1 John 3:4).

This essay is the first in a series of reflections on sin. To help focus our thoughts, we will dialogue with Henry Fairlie’s The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Notre Dame Press, 1978). Fairlie (1924-1990) was British by birth but spent much of his adult life in the United States as an essayist and journalist. He wrote for various publications, including the National Review and was fond of informal debate with the late Christopher Hitchens.

Henry Fairlie, a non-theologian who called himself a “reluctant unbeliever” (p. 6), entitles chapter 1 “The Fact of Sin.” Let us examine three subjects he raises in the chapter by answering these questions:

1) What is “sin” ?

2) What are the “seven deadly sins”?

3) Can psychiatry explain the reality of evil?

As we look at how Fairlie responded to these questions, it is hoped that we will gain greater insight into ourselves and each other. More importantly, we will more deeply appreciate how God’s saving and cleansing grace is the only solution to our sinful predicament.

What is “sin” ?

Fairlie describes sin in several ways. Simply put, sin entails “lapses in our conduct” (p. 3). More insightfully, he calls sin “an act of infidelity and not only of disobedience”; it is the act of “a traitor and not only of a criminal” (p. 9).

To be a sinner is to be a traitor. Scripture resonates with this, from when Adam and Eve betrayed God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22). Sin as betrayal underscores the relational nature of sin: “Sin is the destruction of one’s self as well as one’s relationships with others” (p. 4). When we ask ” Who is it hurting?” we are asking only a rhetorical question. Do we really want an answer? If we are honest, we will admit that by its very nature, sin is never solitary. Its painful consequences touch both God and other human beings. Accordingly, Fairlie (pp. 17-18) explains his reason for writing the essays in The Seven Deadly Sins Today :

They are written from the conviction that, as individuals and societies, we are trifling with the fact that sin exists, and that its power to destroy us is as great as ever; from the belief that much of the fecklessness and triviality, dejection and faintheartedness, wasting and corruption, which we now feel around us, in our personal lives but also in our common lives, have their source exactly where we do not choose to look.

Henry Fairlie accepts the concept of original sin – that we have inherited a “tendency” or “inclination” to evil from Adam and Eve – as long as this concept never becomes a reason to deny moral responsibility for our own actions. He clarifies (p. 19):

We will recognize that the inclination to evil is in our natures, that its existence in us presents us with moral choices, and that it is in making those choices that we form our characters. We may be given our natures, but we make our characters; and it if is in our natures to do evil, it can and ought to be in our characters to resist it. When we say that someone is a “good man” or ” good woman,” we do not mean that they are people from whom the inclination to do evil is absent, but that they are people who have wrestled and still wrestle with it.

Having tipped his hat to original sin, Fairlie (too optimistically) refuses to connect the dots. For him, sin is a “lapse,”  as if sin is an anomaly in our behavior. Yet Christian theology affirms the opposite. Sin is not a “lapse” but a symptom of a sickness. If we have better moments, these are but a reflection of God at-work in the lives of all through the influence of the Holy Spirit, what Wesleyans call “prevenient grace.” Even in the believer, what is good in me is most decidedly not me; rather, it is Christ shining out from me! All glory returns to God, who alone deserves it.

Nonetheless, Fairlie is correct when he insists that sin is not merely individual; it has corporate elements. It is not only persons that sin. Societies are also capable of sin (p. 25). It will be interesting to see if he applies this insight as he takes up the seven deadly sins in the remaining chapters of his book.

Continue reading “The Fact of Sin: Reflections from Henry Fairlie”