Personal trainers and diet experts love the month of January, when millions of Americans inevitably resolve to lose unwanted inches and get themselves in shape. The motivation doesn’t derive simply from the promise of a fresh start and an unmarked calendar—by January 1 many of us will have eaten about five hundred extra calories every day since Thanksgiving, gaining us an additional five pounds. All the magazines in the grocery checkout line will have advised us about holiday diets, but we may still identify with the anonymous woman who wrote at hometown.aol,
‘Twas the month after Christmas,
And all through the house,
Nothing would fit me,
Not even a blouse.
My family and friends can attest that I enjoy holiday feasts as much as anyone. I always look forward to the sweet breads, cookies, and pumpkin pie, and I wasn’t excited the one time we had a “low-fat” Thanksgiving. I missed the gravy, the stuffing, and the real whipped cream, and I didn’t like being reminded that those things weren’t good for me. After all, it was a holiday, and a little careless indulgence always seems like part of the fun.
During the Christmas season even more surprising than a fat-free menu would be any serious consideration of gluttony. For most of us gluttony is the most easily excused of the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s the one we don’t talk about except in jest, almost as if we have been presented with Six Deadly Sins and One Funny One. But we do need to take it seriously, both in the way we view the holidays and in the way we live throughout the year.
The Bible often treats an abundance of food as a sign of God’s blessing. Just as thorns and thistles reveal His displeasure, full harvests and lavish banquets come as a consequence of God’s favor (Num. 14:8; Ps. 81:10, 16; Isa. 25:6; Ezek. 36:29–30). Proverbs 28:25 states that the one who trusts in the Lord “will be made fat.” That verse does not appear on refrigerator magnets in a society obsessed with fitness and beauty, but many cultures still regard a few extra pounds as an indication of prosperity, especially when most of the population is poor.
However, prosperity may also be a sign of hardness of heart. Asaph described wicked men in his own day as obese, wealthy, and arrogant. “For there are no pains in their death; and their body is fat. They are not in trouble as other men; nor are they plagued like mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; the garment of violence covers them. Their eye bulges from fatness; the imaginations of their heart run riot. They mock, and wickedly speak of oppression; they speak from on high. They have set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue parades through the earth” (Ps. 73:4–9).
These people gave no credit to God for their prosperity, regarding themselves as “self-made.” They maintained their proud position by oppressing the poor, many of whom, like the psalmist, were far more righteous than they. Amos addressed the same kind of people when he wrote, “Therefore, because you impose heavy rent on the poor and exact a tribute of grain from them, though you have built houses of well-hewn stone, yet you will not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine” (Amos 5:11). He also wrote, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure in the mountain of Samaria . . . who recline on beds of ivory and sprawl on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who improvise to the sound of the harp, and like David have composed songs for themselves, who drink wine from sacrificial bowls while they anoint themselves with the finest of oils, yet they have not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (6:1, 4–7).
These people were not condemned for enjoying good things; they were condemned for enjoying those things independently of God and at great cost to the poor. As Jeremiah wrote, “They are fat, they are sleek, they also excel in deeds of wickedness; they do not plead the cause, the cause of the orphan, that they may prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the poor” (Jer. 5:28).
That is the pattern of the glutton. Oblivious to the role of God’s grace, and uncaring about the needs of those around him, the glutton obsesses on the delights of his table, indulging his ever-increasing appetites.
Though gluttony has traditionally been regarded as an individual sin, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that entire societies demonstrate gluttony when they gratify their appetites apart from God while ignoring the needs of the poor. Describing the corporate gluttony of our world’s wealthiest nations, Ron Sider wrote in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, “Over a billion people lack access to elementary health services, and 1.6 billion people do not even have safe water to drink. The cost of such services is relatively small. The World Health Organization has reported that if we would only increase our annual investments in preventive care by 75 cents per person in the Third World, we could save 5 million persons every year. That would take less than $3 billion. Surely the people of the wealthier nations can help find $3 billion to save the lives of 5 million people. U.S. citizens alone spend $5 billion a year on special diets to lower their caloric intake.”
Since nations inevitably act according to their own interests, we should not be surprised when the wealthier ones are reluctant to change their lifestyles for the sake of the poor. However, we should have higher expectations for the church. Indwelt by the Spirit of God, Christians should break the pattern of self-interest that so naturally prevails among unbelievers. The fact that we follow the rest of our culture in justifying our gluttony does not speak well of our condition.
As a pattern of self-indulgence, gluttony has more to do with annual budgets and daily choices than with cookies in December. After all, celebrations are by their very nature more extravagant than the norm. The question is, How excessive is the norm? Have we indulged our own appetites while neglecting the poor? Or have we learned both to enjoy God’s provision and to “be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:17–18)? Those would be good questions to ponder—perhaps while riding the StairMaster this January.