A Baptist pastor friend of mine described a typical Baptist conference as “50 souls saved and 2,000 bodies overfed.” Every few months, a new study seems to indicate that, regardless of their denominational affiliation, Christians and weight gain are as inseparable as the bread and cup at communion.
What’s going on? And does it matter?
Socially contagious weight gain
I once walked into a Pro-Athletes Outreach conference for professional football players and their wives, weighing in at 165 pounds. That stat alone will tell you I was there as a speaker, not as a player. When you see professional football players on the field, surrounded only by each other, you don’t realize just how big they are. When an offensive lineman walked by me, his arms literally bigger than my thighs, I felt like a scrawny half-man in comparison.
Three months later, I found myself in Duluth, Minnesota, to run in the Grandma’s Marathon. Grandma’s is a large marathon with a purse for the winner—which means it draws elite Kenyan runners. On one occasion I took an elevator ride with one. This Kenyan was about my height, but he weighed 25 to 30 pounds less. As the runner moved off the elevator with all the grace of an athlete who is trained to run very fast for a very long time, I looked down at myself and said, “Gary, you’ve got to start passing up the burgers and begin eating more salads…”
In one situation, I felt ridiculously small and thin; in the other, I felt heavy and undisciplined, even though my weight was identical in both situations. The same body created two entirely different impressions. The environment in which I found myself made me look at myself quite differently.
In fact, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that obesity is “socially contagious.” Your social environment has a tremendous impact on your own journey of either gaining or losing weight. When your close friends, siblings, or spouse slowly gain weight, you are likely to follow, and the reverse appears to be true as well: when those around you lose weight, you are much more likely to be motivated to lose weight yourself.
Perhaps that’s what has happened with Christians, especially given recent studies finding that Christians tend to be heavier, even more obese, than non-believers. When everyone around us in our church communities are just as heavy, or even a little bit heavier than we are, we think we’re doing fine—regardless of our true condition. We’ve succumbed to “socially contagious obesity,” and don’t even think to question it.
Yet we serve in a faith that historically lists gluttony as one of the “seven deadly sins.” If gluttony is so deadly and serious, why aren’t we talking about it? And while most everyone would say a lifestyle of gluttony is sinful, does that make being overweight a sin?
Not a heavy witness
I’ve cut my spiritual teeth on the Christian classics—ancient books written throughout the 2,000 years of Christian history— and their witness is so strong against gluttony that, when I began a biblical study on the topic, I assumed I could pick from among two or three dozen biblical passages that scathingly denounce indulgent eating. In fact, the Bible does not say a lot about gluttony. There are a few direct references and several indirect ones, but not as many as I expected to find.
One of the seemingly clearest verses denouncing gluttony is Philippians 3:19: “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.”
The challenge with this verse (for our purposes) is that “stomach” is a somewhat generic term in the Greek; it can refer to the actual stomach, but it can also refer to bodily desires in general. So while it clearly could apply to food, it doesn’t necessarily do that, at least not exclusively.
Proverbs 23:19-21 provides the clearest warning: “Listen, my son, and be wise, and keep your heart on the right path. Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags?
This is a clear and direct denunciation of overindulgence in eating and drinking, but even here, the implication is not necessarily that they’re unhealthy in themselves, but rather that they might lead to poverty.
Proverbs 23:3 says to “put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony,” but in context this speaks as much about demonstrating discipline in front of someone who could hire you than it does indulgence. It’s about social awareness more than it is about healthy eating.
Proverbs 25:27 warns against becoming overly fond of sweets: “It is not good to eat too much honey,” laying down the principle that the quantity of a good thing can become a bad thing. “If you find honey, eat just enough—too much of it, and you will vomit” (25:16).
The writer of Ecclesiastes warns of the insatiable aspect of gluttony and excessive eating: “All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied” (6:7). And Proverbs says it is a disgrace to one’s father to be a “companion of gluttons” (28:7).
That’s the extent of the Old Testament teaching. Keep in mind, most of the Old Testament teaching on gluttony derives from the “wisdom literature,” which, as any first year seminarian could tell you, can’t be treated in the same manner as, for instance, the Ten Commandments or the direct teachings of Jesus. While the wisdom literature is every bit as inspired as the other scriptures, its intent is to offer general principles, not laws, and it needs to be read accordingly.
In the New Testament, Paul indirectly addresses gluttony and overeating in his letter to the Corinthians: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). I say “indirectly,” because Paul is primarily talking about whether it is lawful to eat food offered to idols rather than addressing self-discipline. Earlier in this same letter, he writes, “‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food’—but God will destroy them both” (6:13). However, this is in the middle of an argument against sexual immorality, and is likely responding to one of the Corinthians’ own quotes. Paul is emphatic in this verse, however, that our bodies are for the Lord, not our own abuse.
In another indirect example, Paul describes the Cretans as “lazy gluttons” and correspondingly says they should be “rebuked sharply” (Titus 1:12). At the very least, we can safely say that Paul was not a fan of those who overindulged with food.
That’s about it.
Clearly, the Bible looks with disfavour on gluttony and indulgence, but it doesn’t denounce it as consistently or as directly as it denounces sexual sin, laziness, idolatry, materialism, or many other personal and social ills. It’s a fair assessment to state that the biblical witness warns us about gluttony and indulgence, but the teaching is relatively brief and somewhat indirect.
Keep in mind that for much of the period during which Scripture was written, people fought against starvation. They simply did not live in a land that has the abundance of food that we enjoy today. It would have looked foolish to warn a people who lived in a time of scarcity not to overeat. I suspect Paul would more directly address overeating if he was writing his epistles today, but that’s speculation. On the other hand, we have to trust God’s providence that His Word contains all the moral instruction that is vital for the health of our souls. We don’t want to do what the Pharisees did—create concrete new “laws” based on scriptural principles.
Given this, I believe it’s reasonable for the Church to focus on sexual immorality and lack of empathy toward the poor (materialism) over gluttony and a lack of physical fitness. We might be erring in our silence on one issue, but at least we’re silent on the issue with which Scripture has less to say.
Given the biblical record, I don’t believe it’s appropriate to say that being overweight is a sin. For starters, what constitutes being overweight? The Body Mass Index (BMI) isn’t found in Scripture and shouldn’t be treated as such. Secondly, is being an alcoholic a sin? Of course not! But getting drunk is. Consistently gorging on food could, indeed, be considered sinful, but the state of carrying too much weight might not be due to that and it would be misleading and unkind to categorically declare it a sin to be overweight. I’d summarize it this way: sin can lead us to become overweight, but being overweight is not, in and of itself, a sin. It’s far more beneficial to discuss body care in terms of “wisdom” and “stewardship” than sin.
However, in the history of Christian spirituality, gluttony and indulgence receives an abundance of attention, and we’d be foolish to ignore it. If Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and Arnold Palmer all gave you the same advice about how to improve your golf swing, it would be foolish for you to ignore them. In the same way, when so many of the Christian classics tell us to “be careful” with gluttony, we would be wise to pay heed.
The ancient witness
The early Church father Chrysostom set the stage for others who followed when he warned, “The god of the belly overwhelms the whole body. Set self-constraint as a bound to it as God sets the sand to the sea.” Jerome (a contemporary of Chrysostom) added, “[In] the eating of meat, and the drinking of wine, and the fullness of stomach, is the seed-bed of lust.”
The ancients believed gluttony and sloth weaken us and make us more vulnerable against other sins, particularly lust. John Climacus, who wrote the most widely used guidebook for ascetics in the seventh century, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, called gluttony “the prince of the passions,” and the belly “the cause of all human shipwreck.” One of the great dangers of gluttony, in John’s view, was that “To be unfaithful in the small things is to be unfaithful in the great, and this is very hard to bring under control.”
Climacus also agrees with Jerome in seeing a special connection between gluttony and lust: “The man who looks after his belly and at the same time hopes to control the spirit of fornication is like someone trying to put out a fire with oil.” That’s a valuable lesson. Lust can be attacked “indirectly” by addressing other weaknesses that diminish our overall self-control.
Writing in the 18th century, Fenelon warns: “But the most dangerous thing is that the soul, by the neglect of little things, becomes accustomed to unfaithfulness.” How subtle temptation can be, that our hearts only gradually grow callous, in an almost imperceptible way, slowly, over time, as we ignore the steady erosion of our heart’s godly passions to the unrelenting force of gluttony.
The real question is, are my eating habits slowly pulling me away from an intimate walk with God? Is food serving me by providing necessary nutrition, or is it holding me back by gradually making me increasingly insensitive to God’s voice and presence? Is food shaping me into a man who lives solely for his own gratification, rather than nourishing me to look after the needs of others?
William Law warned, “A person that eats and drinks too much does not feel such effects from it as those do who live in notorious instances of gluttony and intemperance; but yet his course of indulgence, though it be not scandalous in the eyes of the world nor such as torments his own conscience, is a great and constant hindrance to his improvement in virtue; it gives him eyes that see not and ears that hear not; it creates a sensuality in the soul, increases the power of bodily passions, and makes him incapable of entering into the true spirit of religion.”
A moderate approach
As many of us have discovered through painful experience, heroic fasting and iron-willed discipline, all done for the sake of piety instead of purpose, usually leads to the dead end of condemnation and guilt. John Calvin appropriately, and I believe wisely, challenged the ultra-asceticism of John Climacus in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and what he called the “superstition” of the Roman Catholic tradition (which saw heroic fasting as earning merit and favour on its own), but he still upheld the value of reasonable and limited fasting for spiritual health. I’ve read, but haven’t been able to verify, that Calvin ate just one meal a day. Some of Calvin’s followers, unfortunately, focused more on his denunciations of “superstitious” fasting and ignored his writings about healthy abstinence.
Two centuries later, John Wesley was a tireless advocate of responsible eating, as was the English evangelist George Whitefield. In fact, Wesley’s book on responsible eating became one of the best-selling medical guidebooks in the late 18th century.
Wesley’s general words of advice are helpful: “Many of those who now fear God are deeply sensible how often they have sinned against him by the abuse of these lawful things. They know how much they have sinned by excess of food; how long they have transgressed the holy law of God with regard to temperance, if not sobriety too; how they have indulged their sensual appetites, perhaps to the impairing even their bodily health, certainly to the no small hurt of their soul…. To remove therefore the effect they remove the cause; they keep at a distance from all excess. They abstain, as far as is possible, from what had well nigh plunged them in everlasting perdition. They often wholly refrain; always take care to be sparing and temperate in all things.”
Wesley’s phrase that this overeating goes beyond bodily health “to the no small hurt of their soul” sums up a healthy, balanced, classical view of the danger of overeating. Centuries of Christian thinkers have testified to the negative spiritual consequences of gluttony.
Granted, the classics are not Scripture. They must be tested, discussed, and occasionally set aside. But when so many, throughout all ages of the Church, testify so clearly, passionately, and exhaustively about the spiritual dangers of over-eating, we would be wise to pay heed.
Going to war against gluttony
So, whether or not it’s a sin, I go to war against gluttony; not because I want God to love me more, but because God, who already loves me perfectly, warns me that gluttony and excess are my enemies—regardless of how good they may sometimes feel. I go to war against gluttony not to build a body that others admire, but to maintain a soul “prepared for every good work” that God can use to bless others.
I go to war against gluttony because those who have walked closely with God—from the early fourth century all the way through the 19th—warn me that overeating dulls me to God’s accepting presence, makes me more vulnerable to other sins, negatively affects my relationships with other people, and robs me of the joy rightfully mine as an adopted, deeply loved, and accepted child of God.
To borrow the line of thinking Andy Stanley uses so well, the question may not be “Is it a sin to be overweight?” but rather, “Is it wise?” The classics respond with a resounding “No!”
Gary Thomas is a Writer in Residence at Second Baptist Church, Houston, and an adjunct faculty member at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches on spiritual formation. He is the author of numerous books, including Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul, from which this article was adapted. You can follow him on Twitter at @garyLthomas, or Facebook at www.facebook.com/authorgarythomas
THE ARTICLE ABOVE WAS FEATURED IN THE MAY 2013 ISSUE OF SEVEN MAGAZINE.