Dangerous Virtues: Satisfaction-Coping With the Hunger that Cannot be Satisfied

I have been bothered by my weight most of my life. As a child, I was heavy, a condition which my mother euphemistically described as being “big-boned.” I was so obsessed with the fear of being fat that even when I thinned out in my adolescence, I did not think of myself as thin. I am no longer thin, and I am still bothered. I am not alone. According to some estimates, forty-five million Americans go on a diet each year. In our weight-conscious culture, you would think that we would have a greater sensitivity to the sin the Bible calls gluttony. The truth is most of us wouldn’t recognize a glutton if he swallowed us whole. We certainly wouldn’t be able to tell whether we are gluttons, and the mirror will not help us. That’s because gluttony isn’t really about one’s weight.

Gluttony is essentially a sin of inordinate appetite. The ancients measured gluttony by the amount of food one consumed. The Christian ascetics viewed hunger as both a virtue and a tool. They seem to have believed that it was better to be hungry than to be full. They thought that hunger and thirst could be employed to bring all the bodily passions into submission. Most moderns do not think that the consumption of either food or drink belongs in the category of sin. We are, however, willing to admit that people have psychological problems in these areas. In the twentieth century, the church’s perspective on eating changed from the ancient practice of fasting for the spirit to the modern habit of dieting for health.

Picture of cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler
John’s latest, Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good, will be released in September, 2020. Preorder your copy today!

Gluttony is not a matter of body size. It is a sin of consumption. Gluttony is to food what lust is to sex. Gluttony distorts and magnifies bodily appetite until appetite becomes an end in itself. Food, drink, indeed, all our ordinary bodily appetites are part of God’s design. But what exactly is His design for our hunger? Functionally, appetite is a means to an end. Proverbs 16:26 says, “The appetite of laborers works for them; their hunger drives them on.” This proverb echoes Genesis 3:17–19, where the link between toil and eating is a consequence of sin. But the proverb reveals the complementary benefit that comes from this connection. Hunger is a motivator that drives us to work. We work because we do not want to go hungry (see 2 Thess. 3:10). Hunger also motivates us to take in the sustenance we require for life. But, similar to the curse of Genesis, hunger has two sides. Like work, hunger existed before the fall. As was the case with the first temptation, ordinary hunger can be a gateway to inordinate appetite. Part of the appeal of the forbidden fruit was that it was “good for food” (Gen. 2:9). Sin has the same effect on all our bodily appetites. Hunger can be a motivation, but it can also be a master. Just as sin distorted God’s design for work by introducing an element of drudgery into its execution, our hunger can make us slaves.

Slavery to food can take many forms. For some, this bondage expresses itself in a variety of eating disorders. Binge eating, starvation, and binge eating followed by purging are destructive coping methods for dealing with perfectionism and low self-esteem often related to body image. By eating (or not eating), those with eating disorders attempt to heal themselves or make themselves feel better. Food plays an increasingly larger role until it becomes the central focus of life. For others, bondage to food is reflected in an unhealthy, almost paralyzing, fussiness when it comes to eating. In Paul’s day, this was usually a result of misguided religious conviction. In 1 Timothy 4:3, the apostle warns that the last days will be marked by false teachers who demand that their followers live an ascetic lifestyle. They will “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.” Likewise, in Colossians 2:21, he speaks of those whose rule of life was comprised mainly of prohibitive regulations, which he summarizes in the three commands: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”

Slavery to food can take many forms.

According to the apostle, a combination of ignorance and pride fueled this bankrupt approach to spirituality. Those who adopted its practices thought that they could obtain eternal life by keeping traditions that focused on “things that are all destined to perish with use” (Col. 3:22). Today’s culinary aesthetes are more liable to be driven by a political and social agenda than a religious one, but their spirit is the same, and Paul’s directive to the Colossian church equally applies: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink” (Col 3:16). Righteousness is not a matter of one’s dietary preferences. The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking (Rom. 14:17).

In an affluent culture like ours, eating is not just a necessity; it is also a form of recreation. This leads to another type of bondage when it comes to food. Some people are fussy about what they eat because they scorn simple fare. Every meal must be a grand experience. These people view their food the way others look at their possessions. Only the rarest and most expensive will do. Their problem is not that they eat good food but that they view ordinary food, along with those who eat it, with contempt. Their diet is a symptom of greed and pride. They are addicted not to food but to luxury. In the book of Revelation, this is the fare of the great whore of Babylon (Rev. 18:3).

Does this mean that it is a sin to enjoy our food? Are we acting unchristianly if we eat a meal at an expensive restaurant? The Bible teaches that the enjoyment of food is a gift from God. One of the ways God shows His love to the world at large is by supplying us with food.  Acts 14:17 says, “Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

The mistake of gluttony is the error of thinking that appetite is the gateway to satisfaction. In reality, it is the opposite. Hunger by its very nature can never be entirely satisfied. Ecclesiastes 6:7 observes, “Everyone’s toil is for their mouth, yet their appetite is never satisfied.” Satisfy your hunger with a meal now, and a few hours later that hunger will return. There is nothing to be done about it. When eating becomes an end in itself, it turns into a kind of slavery (1 Cor. 6:12–13). Gluttony conflates desire with satisfaction, expecting more from food than it can supply. The glutton does not eat to live but lives to eat. In reality, our appetites are merely signposts which point to a hunger that cannot be filled by any human means. They point out our emptiness and our need for God. When we look to earthly means to fully and finally satisfy ourselves, we become those whose “god is their stomach” (Phil. 3:19).

Jesus’ perspective on eating was personal and practical. Scripture says that Jesus came “eating and drinking” (Matt. 11:19). He taught the church to ask for “daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:11). Ordinary food played an important role in Jesus’ ministry just as bread was a central image in His teaching. The connection between food and Jesus’ ministry should not surprise us. He lived in a culture in which worship and eating were connected. Jesus made communal eating a part of the sacred life of the church. At the same time, Jesus taught that life is more than food (Luke 12:23). Food is necessary for life but is not itself life. We do not live by bread alone (Matt. 4:4). Life is more than food just as the body is more than clothing. Food is necessary for life but is not synonymous with life. The power of Jesus’ teaching on this matter is grounded in His assumption that food is needful. We need to eat, but when we conflate life with the means we rely upon to sustain that life we set the table for idolatry.

When we conflate life with the means we rely upon to sustain that life we set the table for idolatry.

It does not have to be food. We can rely upon our health or finances or even clothing. Like the Israelites who worshiped the bronze serpent that Moses held up in the wilderness, we forget that our life does not come from the things that God uses to sustain it (2 Kings 18:4). How then do we deal with gluttony? The primary method the Bible prescribes is self-denial. “When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony,” the writer of Proverbs warns. “Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive” (Prov. 23:1–3). Self-denial is not an end in itself. By practicing self-denial, we discover how God supplies all we truly need.

The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but food is an important part of our earthly life. Eating has played a vital role in the worship as well as the ordinary fellowship of the church, and it will continue to be part of our experience in the life to come. As important as food is, it was never meant to be an end in itself. The basic rule when it comes to our eating is the same rule that guides us in all of life: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

The Seven Deadly Virtues-Leisure

My first job was short-term employment. I suppose you could say I was a day laborer. A neighbor hired me to weed her lawn. She provided me with a two-pronged weeding fork and promised to pay me five dollars when I was done. At the time it sounded like a fortune. I said yes eagerly, carried away by visions of all the comic books I intended to purchase with the money I earned. Plus this was work I could do in a more or less recumbent position.

But once I was on my hands and knees in the hot sun, my enthusiasm soon diminished. The lawn looked bigger from that angle than I had first imagined. There were more weeds than I thought. As the sweat trickled down the back of my neck, I poked them half-heartedly with the weeding fork, pausing every few minutes to scan the yard and see what kind of progress I was making. The view was not encouraging. The number of weeds appeared to be growing not shrinking.

After a while, I persuaded myself that I had worked long enough. There was still a weed or two left but surely my employer didn’t expect me to pull every single weed? She did. “You’re done already?” she asked skeptically when I went to the door to collect my money. Then she walked the lawn with me, pointing out the weeds that still remained and grumbling about my work ethic. There were more than I thought. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed them. Probably because they were the same color as the grass, I reasoned. With a sigh, I knelt down again and went back to work, this time with even less enthusiasm than before. Eventually, my employer paid me off and sent me on my way. By now more eager to be rid of me than of the weeds.

“A sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth” Proverbs 26:15. I suppose my unhappy employer would have said that a sluggard buries his hand in the lawn, too lazy to pluck out the weeds. The sin that the ancients called sloth or acedia certainly includes laziness but it also involves more. Sloth has many features and manifests itself in many forms. At times it looks like what we call ennui, an immobilizing lethargy that leeches away our interest in those things that ought to concern us. Other forms of sloth are more active and profligate. We squander our time and energy on meaningless trifles at the expense of other obligations.

In our day sloth is often reflected in what is falsely called leisure. Sometimes this involves empty activity that does not provide either rest or pleasure. It is marked by a kind of frenetic busyness whose aim is to distract us from whatever is making us uncomfortable. Theologian Joseph Pieper observes that true leisure has a different character. Leisure is a kind of silence. It is an attitude of contemplation: “Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity, leisure implies (in the first place) an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being ‘busy,’ but letting things happen.”

True leisure is marked by an attitude of confidence and peace. It is grounded in trust and particularly in trust in God. The essence of leisure is expressed in Psalm 138:8: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your love, O LORD, endures forever—do not abandon the works of your hands.” By this definition, true leisure is as important to our work as it is to our play. Leisure as most people describe it is merely time off. Leisure as God defines it is a state of grace. It is the ability to rest in God, confident that He will bring to completion all that concerns me according to His plan.

If you are interested in learning more about the Bible’s theology of rest, you might enjoy The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap by John Koessler (IVP).

The Seven Deadly Virtues-Prosperity

A while back I noticed a menu option on my retirement account’s website labeled “net worth.” When I clicked on it, the site invited me to upload information about my assets and liabilities. The result was a brightly colored graph which represented the sum total of all my worldly goods. I have looked at it many times since then and it always has the same effect. Rather than making me feel secure about my future, it leaves me feeling anxious. No matter how much I have, it seems I would like to have just a little more. There is a word for this condition. It is what the Bible calls greed.

Greed, like lust and gluttony, is a sin of appetite. While lust is usually associated with sex and gluttony is linked with food, greed is typically looked upon as a similar inordinate desire for money. Most of us are pretty sure that we don’t suffer from greed because we don’t have an inordinate amount of money. The rich are greedy perhaps but not us. The flaw in this reasoning is that desiring is not necessarily synonymous with having. It is certainly possible that a rich person might be greedy but so might a poor person. It is not the having but the wanting that is the problem. The adjective that best expresses the impulse of greed is not “most” but “more.” Whatever I possess will not be enough if I succumb to the influence of greed. I must always have more.

According to Dorothy Sayers the character of this sin has changed with the times. “It was an unromantic, unspectacular sin” she observes. “Unkind people sometimes called it by rude names, such as parsimony and niggardliness. It was a narrow, creeping, pinched kind of sin; and it was not a good mixer.” But times have changed and so has our view of greed. “It was left for the present age to endow covetousness with glamor on a big scale and to give it a title that it could carry like a flag” Sayers explains. “It occurred to somebody to call it enterprise. From the moment of that happy inspiration, covetousness has gone forward and never looked back. It has become a swaggering, swash-buckling, piratical sin, going about with its hat cocked over its eye, and with pistols tucked into the tops of its jack-boots.”

In our own day, greed still possesses some of the cultural dignity that Sayers describes. But the way we tend to legitimize this sin is by viewing it through a more personal lens. None of us is really greedy. We are merely seeking prosperity. Since greed is bad but prosperity is good, there is nothing wrong with our desire for more. The Bible does indeed speak well of prosperity. In the Old Testament, the prosperity of the patriarchs was attributed to God’s blessing (Gen. 32:9, 12; 39:2). Similarly, prosperity is seen as a blessing of God in the New Testament (3 John 1:2). Our giving springs from God’s generosity to us (1 Cor. 16:2).

But we all know that what is good can also be turned against us. Indeed, one way to understand the nature of sin is to see it as a distortion of that which is good. In the case of greed, it is not prosperity itself that is warped by my desire for it. When greed overcomes gratefulness the focus of my devotion shifts from the giver to what is given. This is why Colossians 3:5 calls greed idolatry. This same verse says that the only way to deal with it is by putting to death “whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” This should be a clue to us that we are all prone to greed. It doesn’t really matter what your net worth is.

 

The Seven Deadly Virtues-Satisfaction

I have been bothered by my weight most of my life. I was heavy as a child, a condition which my mother euphemistically described as “big boned.” I was so obsessed with the fear of being fat that even when I was thin, I did not think of myself as thin. I am no longer thin and it bothers me. I am not alone. According to some estimates, 45 million Americans go on a diet each year.

In our weight-obsessed culture, you would think that we might be highly sensitized to the sin the Bible calls gluttony. The truth is, most of us wouldn’t recognize a glutton if he swallowed us whole. We certainly wouldn’t be able to tell whether we are gluttons and the mirror will not help us. That’s because gluttony isn’t really about one’s weight at all.

Traditionally gluttony is linked with food and drink. The Bible associates gluttony with drunkenness (Deut. 21:20; Prov. 23:21). Gluttony is essentially a sin of inordinate appetite. But what is it that makes this hunger inordinate? Hunger is a part of our nature. If we don’t eat, we die. Jesus Himself came “eating and drinking” (Matt. 11:19). Food, drink, indeed, all our bodily appetites are part of God’s design. But what is that design?

We are tempted to think that their function is to point us in the direction of fulfillment and satisfaction. In truth, it is the other way around. Our appetites by their very nature can never be entirely satisfied. Functionally, appetite is a means to an end. When it becomes an end in itself, it turns into a kind of slavery (1 Cor. 6:12-13). Spiritually, our appetites are signposts which point to a hunger that cannot be filled by any human means. They are a sign of our emptiness and our need for God. When we rely on earthly means to slake that appetite, we become those whose “god is their stomach” (Phil. 3:19).

Although gluttony seems to us to be an outmoded relic of medieval culture, those who live in a consumer society are especially vulnerable to it. That is because consumerism plays upon our emptiness by promising to satisfy our appetite. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the culture of marketing. “The consumer culture encourages us not only to buy more but to seek our identity and fulfillment through what we buy, to express our individuality through our ‘choice’ of products” author and activist Jean Kilbourne observes. “Advertising corrupts relationships and then offers products, both as solace and as substitutes for the intimate human connection we all long for and need.” It isn’t the buying and selling that is the problem here so much as it is the false promise of satisfaction.

Consumerism has profoundly shaped the way the church functions today. Not only because we are competing with one another to attract more attendees but because consumerism plays upon our spiritual hunger, causing us to promise more than we can deliver and offering cheap substitutes for those things that the Bible calls “worship” and “fellowship.” Instead of providing a context for encountering the reality of God’s presence, the main is to create a worship “experience.” In the place of koinonia,” we offer atmosphere. In this model, God and the church’s members are pushed to the margins.

The Bible’s warnings about gluttony are not a form of Gnosticism or asceticism. Eating is associated with fellowship with God in both Testaments. This theme was reflected in the many meals that Jesus shared with His disciples and was ultimately captured in the Lord’s Supper. It will find its culmination at the end of the age in the marriage feast of the Lamb. Only then will we find what we hunger for most. It is only then that our true desire will be satisfied.

 

The Seven Deadly Virtues-Love

The first of the seven deadly sins is lust. For most of us, this word is associated with sexual sin. But the Bible employs the term more broadly. In the New Testament, the Greek term that is translated lust is often one that simply means desire. In addition to illicit sexual desire, it can refer to both ordinate and inordinate desire. Lust is as liable to take the form of an illicit desire for someone else’s things or their success as it is an inappropriate desire for sex. John hints at the full scope of this cardinal sin in 1 John 2:16: “ For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” As far as John is concerned, when it comes to lust everything in the world is a potential target.

The opposite of lust is love. But the terms themselves may not be of much help in distinguishing between the two. We often use “love” to refer to a multitude of desires and affections, some high and some low. A couple on a date might declare undying love for one another during dinner and then in the next breath say that they “love” the food that is on their plates. Neither thinks of the second of these as genuine love, at least not in the biblical sense.  Afterwards, they might decide to “make love,” using the same term in a third sense that is really more in line with what the Bible actually means by lust. Not every desire we experience is necessarily lust nor does every affection that we call love qualify as love in the biblical sense.

You would think that sin and love would be incompatible. After all, if the heart of righteousness is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself, then the essence of sin must be the opposite (Matt. 22:37, 39). To sin is to love yourself at the expense of your neighbor. More than that, it is to love yourself at the expense of God. Yet this assertion seems to imply something in addition to this. Namely, that sin has its own version of love.

Sin shaped love expresses itself primarily in the form of narcissism. It is self-absorbed love. This affection is actually a distortion of love which, once it has achieved its full effect, proves to be an exercise in self-loathing. It is hate masquerading as love, compelling us to engage in self-destructive behavior. Sin promises freedom and delivers slavery. It speaks the language of friendship while treating us like enemies. It is a cruel master who promises good wages only to reward our loyalty with hard service, disappointment, and death. Yet for some reason, we return repeatedly to this false lover and expect a different result.

In the Old Testament, David was criticized for preferring his unfaithful and rebellious son to those faithful men who had risked their lives for him. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you” David’s commander Joab complained (2 Sam. 19:6). Similarly, when Jehu the Seer went out to meet Jehoshaphat after the king’s ill-advised alliance with Ahab, the prophet warned, “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the LORD? Because of this, the wrath of the LORD is upon you.” A similar charge might be laid at our own feet in this present age. We claim love as our cardinal virtue. But a closer inspection all too quickly reveals that what we are really celebrating is an infatuation with ourselves.

The alternative to lust is love. It is a love that comes to us, like the righteousness of Christ, from the outside. Adopting the same language Martin Luther coined to speak of that righteousness, we might call it “alien love.” Because it is not our own it is the only love powerful enough to wean us away from ourselves.