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All sins are not created equal.
Some moral failures are clearly worse than others. Our consciences may nag at us for rolling through a stop sign at 3:00 am, or cutting the little tag off a Sealy mattress, or smiling at Aunt Gertie and saying, “Why, of course, I’d love nothing more than to have another helping of your Brussel sprouts and baloney casserole.” But let’s face it. Those are Little League infractions.
Because Jesus says that the most important tasks on Earth are loving God and loving people, the worst sins inevitably become those that disable our capacity to bow before God or that fill our hearts with loathing for others.
Medieval theologians contrived a list of such failures. They singled out Anger, Pride, Lust, Greed, Sloth, Gluttony, and Envy as the so-called Seven Deadly Sins – a rogue’s gallery of deep-seated alienations from the heart of God that effectively cripple life’s most important relationships.
Hollywood and TV news channels provide never-ending reminders that our world is much worse off because of human malpractice in the realms of money, sex, and power. But one of the deadly sins seems laughably overrated.
We’re talking about gluttony. I mean, honestly: What does over-eating have to do with shipwrecking human spirituality?
The answer is…not all that much. That’s because the original sense of gluttony is far wider and deeper than the notion that every mealtime ought to look like Thanksgiving.
Gluttony, according to the church’s best teachers over the centuries, is the pervasive human tendency to seek greater pleasure from possessions, behaviors, and relationships than God intended. Or to put it more simply, gluttony is the misguided overuse of otherwise good things.
We live in a culture that is captivated, as author and theologian Richard Foster puts it, by “muchness and moreness.” If a particular pair of jeans turns out to be just what I needed, I should probably buy a second pair. If travel brings me delight, I should take longer trips. If having a full bank account helps me sleep better at night, I should devote myself to making more money.
Those are common-sense, middle-class propositions. Who could argue against them?
Somebody who did just that was Agur the son of Jaketh, an otherwise obscure figure in the ancient world who authored the statements in the 30th chapter of the book of Proverbs. He says in verse eight, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’”
It seems odd to ask God to give us less. But Agur is saying, “I know my own heart. I know that if my closets start overflowing with stuff and my calendar is packed with distractions, I might forget God. I might start thinking that I can create my own happiness.”
Gluttony is the insane belief that we might actually be able to pull that off. All we need is just a little bit more.
More than a few people have looked longingly toward retirement with the thought, “When that day comes, we’ll finally be able to play golf every day. And take those trips we’ve put off for so long. And transform our garden into a landscape masterpiece, and work a jigsaw puzzle any time we want, and…” fill in the blank. In less than a year, however, it begins to dawn on most people that human beings were not made for golf alone. Even an Everest-sized mountain of experiences and travel and jigsaw puzzles will fail to satisfy our deepest yearnings to love and be loved by God.
Which leads many of us to think, “That’s so true. Which is why we will never count on pickleball or bridge clubs to scratch our spiritual itches. We’ll plunge into more and more Bible studies and community volunteering.”
Gluttony is what deceives us into thinking that more Bible study and more volunteering automatically equal more God – as if such a thing were even possible.
I enjoy reading books. It can be argued that I am book junkie. Let’s put it this way: Right now there are tens of thousands of innocent books being held captive in Amazon warehouses all over North America, not to mention Amazon Audible recorded books yearning to be downloaded, and my VISA card is the only way to set them free.
Gluttony is what makes me think that if reading a book is a God-given pleasure, then more books will bring me more pleasure. And reading generates all kinds of ideas for new reflections – which is a good thing, right? So I will read more and more and more, and congratulate myself for doing something wonderful.
But I have come to realize that a significant aspect of this behavior isn’t wonderful at all. Obsessive reading is a great way to push God away.
I know that I have often used my reading – even when I tackle so-called “great books” by the likes of Martin Luther, Max Lucado, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Tim Keller – to build a wall that prevents me from listening to God. “Go away, Lord, I don’t want you to speak to me right now. I’m busy learning about you – isn’t that awesome? – so I don’t have time to listen or pray or be still and know that you are God.”
That’s gluttony. Too much of a good thing becomes an idol. Then it becomes not a pathway to God but a barrier to the work of God’s Spirit.
Music is a good thing – a very good thing. So is physical exercise. And rooting for our favorite teams. And sex. And yes, delicious foods and drinks. But these good things are not more important than the One who gave them to us in the first place.
Gluttony leads us to conclude that if the appreciation of good things brings joy, then we should immerse ourselves in more and more of those good things.
Here’s the irony. Most of us already have so much that we can’t possibly handle any more.
We’ve already enrolled our children in so many sports and after-school activities that when it comes to the simple pleasure of seeing our kids at play, we are well past the point of diminishing returns. But we keep suspecting that more would be better, if only we can figure out how to make it happen.
What can we do?
Agur’s voice may be 3,000 years old, but it’s still spot on:
Settle for less stuff. Be content with fewer distractions. Settle for God and what he alone can provide.
Otherwise, we may just end up becoming gluttons for punishment.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.