Overcoming the Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony
Taking gluttony seriously is more than simply wringing our hands about the Western obesity epidemic.
Although the idea of gluttony is often tied to food, it’s much, much bigger. Simply put, gluttony is the act of taking something acceptable, useful, or even necessary and indulging in it in an unhealthy manner.
With this in mind, gluttony includes, but is not limited to, things like:
You can usually tell gluttonous behavior based on how much attention and effort is involved in dreaming about, wishing for, and pursuing something. Or maybe you’re elated upon receiving your desired object, but after indulging in it are immediately disappointed, and reinvigorate with a desire to pursue it again in another form.
“All recreations become blameworthy when extravagant.”—Francis de Sales
As scandalous as it may sound, I have known a few people whose hunger for, and pursuit of, spiritual experiences have bordered on unhealthy gluttony, too.
How we interact with the world around us can contribute to the quality of our lives or diminish it. We miss the boat when we want to place everything in good or bad categories. We generally think, “Okay, this isn’t a bad thing, so I have complete license here.” But this thinking becomes a problem due to our never-ending capacity to misuse, distort, or gorge ourselves on things and people.
The problem is that:
We want to wring more pleasure out of things than they have to offer
My life is full of stuff and people that give me pleasure, but there’s only so much that they can offer. There comes a point where having more of something isn’t giving me the enjoyment it should, or perhaps it’s stealing enjoyment from another important area of my life.
I think of my cell-phone addiction. Here’s a perfectly good tool that’s not only useful, but also entertaining. The more I use it, the more I find myself stealing time and attention from people around me (I shudder to imagine my wife reading this) to indulge it. The more I check every notification, the more I do it out of compulsion and hunger.
We become entitled
Life isn’t comfortable. Sure, there are moments that are better than others—but the world doesn’t cater to our preferences. Just try telling that to us gluttons.
We want our food prepared the way we like it. We don’t want to be inconvenienced, bored, or deal with discomfort.
This is really dangerous because maybe the thing we desire isn’t really big or expensive so how can it be bad? It can be hard to wrap our mind around the fact that our need to have our particular demands met is a form of gluttony.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil instructs Wormwood, his young apprentice, “You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before he, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practicing temperance . . . ; in reality . . . the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.
We become demanding
No matter what we’re overindulging in, we’re eventually going to start placing demands on others. It could be the demands placed on the relationship by our inattentiveness, but it may that we’re actually binging on aspects of relationships. We want them to entertain us. We need them to affirm us. It can be a demand for attention, praise, sex, presence, or other normal, healthy relational expectations.
Eventually our gluttonous behavior will affect our expectations of others (even if it’s just “Will you leave me alone? I’m on my phone”).
So how do we overcome gluttony!?
Those living in the developed world who are serious about spiritual formation need to fight hard against gluttony. Every cultural message we receive is more about indulgence than it is about moderation. Capitalism encourages us to pamper and feed our every desire.
The ancient practice of fasting exists to combat these messages. When we talk about fasting, we’re usually talking about taking a break from food for a period of time to focus our attention on more spiritual pursuits.
It’s important to recognize what that means. Traditional fasting is taking a break from something you genuinely need (food) for a predetermined amount of time. Not only do we benefit from turning our focus in another direction, but we also get to tell our desires that they’re not our boss.
It’s amazing how quickly your body rebels when you tell it no. I can easily go a day without eating when I’m busy or distracted. But the moment I tell myself, “I am not feeding you today,” it’s amazing how quickly my spirit thrashes around screaming like a petulant toddler.
You can fast from anything that is demanding your constant attention. It’s the best practice I can think of for beating gluttony. It’s a good thermometer for how important a certain delicacy has become in your life. The harder it is to give it up for a week; the more important it is to take a break from.
Fasting helps us to identify weakness and gain mastery over the generally good things that we tend to abuse.
Have a suggestion for conquering gluttony? I’d love to hear it.
And don’t miss my post Overcoming the Seven Deadly Sins: Envy