In his Nicomachean Ethics, the philosopher Aristotle claims, famously, that virtue is often the mean between two extremes. One extreme is marked by deficiency, the other by excess. Thus, we can define a virtue such as courage as the honorable middle ground between carelessness (excess) and cowardice (deficiency). Generosity charts a path between profligacy and miserliness. Good humor plays neither the clown nor the melancholiac. And so on.

Aristotle’s account of virtue is more nuanced than the brief picture I’ve given. It has much to commend it, having influenced many throughout the centuries in their attempts to describe the good life. However, for our purposes, I want to take his general observations about virtue and use them as a point of departure for envisioning a distinctly Christian approach to gluttony.

The Sin That Must Not Be Named

Yes, gluttony. We don’t usually like to talk about it. For many of us, myself included, the word reminds us of how easy it is to eat more than we should. Perhaps we call to mind that second (or third) helping of Boston cream pie we had at the family reunion last weekend. Or the bag of Doritos we vaporized during our most recent Netflix binge. Maybe the Little Debbie wrappers in the trash can haunt us like so many Ghosts of Swiss Rolls Past.

And then there is the opposite problem: some of us eat not too much, but too little. Perhaps we are so consumed with work or with worry that we neglect to eat like we should. Or we have so fixated on our body image that we avoid food out of fear. Maybe we have a history of overeating and are crash dieting to shed unwanted pounds.

Whether we fall into excess or deficiency, few of us are paragons of moderation when it comes to what we eat. To adapt the language of Psalm 130:3, if the Lord should mark our consumption habits, who could stand?

Everything in Moderation

If we were good Aristotelians, we would look at our own tendencies with food and try to correct for our imbalances. If we often overeat, we could take steps to limit our portion sizes or cut unhealthy foods out of our diet. If we regularly skip lunch because we are too preoccupied with work or life, we could try to block out a specific time each day in which we force ourselves to eat something nutritious. We could even invite others to encourage us and help keep us accountable. As Aristotle himself acknowledged, “we have our pain lightened when our friends share our distress” (Nicomachean Ethics 9.11.1171a29–30).[1]

In addition to moderating our intake, we would want to cultivate the ability to determine when a particular situation calls for us to adjust our usual routine. For example, it is fitting to eat more than we normally might at a special occasion like a wedding or a Thanksgiving feast. It is also appropriate to abstain from eating in order to mourn a loss or to engage in concerted prayer. There is no pre-established formula that can dictate when we should tuck into or duck out of a meal. We need prudence, as Aristotle would say. Or, in the language of the book of Hebrews, we need our “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14 ESV).

As helpful as Aristotle can be when it comes to disciplining our appetites, we will need more than he can provide in order to deal with gluttony as Christians. Specifically, we will need to consider how sin and idolatry manifest themselves in our relationship with food. 

The Idolatrous Roots of Gluttony

The deepest problem with gluttony is not that it leads to obesity and cardiovascular disease. Those are significant hazards, to be sure, and as Christians, we should take seriously the importance of caring for our bodies. However, we could follow the strictest health regimen; make all the right choices about diet and exercise; become the most free-range, non-GMO, pasture-fed, certified organic version of ourselves—and yet still miss the kingdom of God.

This concern is nothing new. In fact, Jesus addressed it with his disciples in Mark 7. The Pharisees were fastidious about what they ingested and how they ingested it. Perhaps they would have been prime candidates for Aristotelian virtue. In the context of Mark 7, they were scandalized that Jesus did not require his disciples to wash their hands before eating. But Jesus concluded that they erred in prioritizing their cuisine over their souls. He explained to his disciples:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:18–23 ESV)

When we treat gluttony as though it were merely a matter of how much or how often we eat, or of what kinds of food we allow into our bodies, we can easily miss what Jesus wants us to see about the hearts we bring to our tables. Click To Tweet The truth is that our desires are perilously skewed, posing more of a threat to us than any deep fryer or vending machine. We are prone to worship food rather than enjoy it to the glory of our Maker. Instead of calling upon God to deliver us from our enemies, we often call upon our cupboards. We think that a full stomach and a satisfied palette will shield us from the boredom, grief, guilt, vulnerability, and feelings of insignificance that afflict us. We consume in order to avoid being consumed.

Rescued from Our Cravings

Through the death and resurrection of Christ, however, God has begun in our hearts the process of making the crooked ways straight (Luke 3:5). As Peter writes, Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet 2:24). Jesus bore our gluttony so that we might die to gluttony. He took our idolatrous cravings and carried them to the grave. Therefore, as Christians, we fight against excessive eating not with a grim self-reliance or a fearful avoidance of God’s good gifts, but with the sure hope that God will bring to completion the good work he has begun in us (Phil 1:6).

So, by all means, we should use whatever strategies help us curb our excesses at meal time. But in doing so, let’s remember that, as Christians, we are no longer enslaved to our appetite. We belong now to the Lord of the feast, which means that the feast is no longer our lord.


Endnotes

[1]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), 151.