Essay / Misc.

On Gluttony and Contentment

As I mentioned in my last post, I will be blogging a series on the virtues and vices. This installment will consider gluttony and contentment. For my understanding of the terms “virtue” and “vice” see my previous post “On Sloth and Vigilance.”

A standard dictionary defines a glutton as “a person who eats far too much” and another says that a glutton is “a person who eats or consumes immoderate amounts of food and drink.” Etymologically this is correct since the English word “glutton” comes from the Latin word gluttio that means, “to swallow, gulp down.” John Cassian wrote that “There are three kinds of gluttony. The first impels a monk to hasten to eat before the fixed and lawful hour. The second is pleased with a full stomach and with devouring any edibles whatsoever. And the third desires more refined and delicate foods” (Conference 5: On the Eight Principal Vices, XI.1). Beyond the mere food- and drink-based nature of these definitions, it is appropriate today to think of gluttony as a consummation of too much of anything. For example, some people are thought of as gluttons “for punishment.” A more recent example of gluttony is those who are addicted to technology, squandering time and money to have and master the latest technological offerings. I believe that the vice of gluttony should not be limited only to food but should be seen as overindulgence in any area: the gluttony of TV and media, the gluttony of work, the gluttony of leisure, etc. As the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Gluttony denotes, not any desire of eating and drinking, but an inordinate desire” (ST, II, IIae, q. 148, art. 1). Or as a recent book title by Nan Lyons states, Gluttony: More is More.

Gluttony is mentioned several times in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the word for gluttony in the Hebrew comes from a word meaning “to shake out,” or “to squander.” Hence, one who is a prodigal, who wastes his means by indulgence. Deuteronomy 21:20 says, “They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard.’” The word translated “profligate” here is the Hebrew word for glutton. Further, Proverbs 23:21 says, “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.” In the Hebrew, this is a play on words since the phrase “gorge themselves” and the word “gluttons” come from the same Hebrew root. The warning here is that too much food and drink leads to poverty. Perhaps this is because all of one’s monetary resources are poured into excessive food and drink but it may also indicate that the ultimate result of gluttony is the inability to work. Proverbs 28:7 also speaks of the gluttonous person, “He who keeps the law is a discerning son, but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father.” In a word, gluttony brings embarrassment. Finally, in Matthew 11:19 Jesus is accused of being a glutton because he came “eating and drinking” (cf. Luke 7:34). Therefore, we see in the Scriptures that gluttony is associated with too much food and drink, but what I am suggesting is that this is a manifestation of the essence of gluttony. We can be gluttonous without overindulging in food and/or drink. Again, whenever we consume too much of anything we are committing the vice of gluttony. In my opinion, this is the sin of the Western world. We are gluttons for material things, gluttons for power and gluttons for superiority – both individually and politically.

In the sixth century Gregory the Great warned, “unless we first tame the enemy dwelling within us, namely our gluttonous appetite, we have not even stood up to engage in the spiritual combat” (Moralia in Iob 30.18). This being the case, having now defined gluttony and identified its essence, how do we counteract this vice? What virtue must we cultivate to fight against the vice of gluttony? If gluttony consists in overindulging, then the solution to this vice is contentment since being content removes the desire to indulge, much less to overindulge. Scripture has much to say about contentment and I will focus on three passages: Philippians 4:11-12, 1 Timothy 6:7-8 and Hebrews 13:5.

Philippians 4:11-12: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Here the apostle Paul makes it clear that though he surely had a need; it was not relief of this need that primarily concerned him. Rather, he had learned to be content with what God provided, regardless of the circumstances. Notice that Paul had to “learn” this virtue and the same is true today. Paul understood what it was to have a need as well as “to have plenty.” His having “plenty” may refer to his earlier days as a rising figure in Judaism (cf. Galatians 1:14) or to the possibility that he had recently received a sum of money. More likely, Paul considered the times he was not suffering privation to be times of plenty. In other words, we always live in times of plenty; a season of plenty is the norm whereas true times of privation are rare.

1 Timothy 6:7-8: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

The real reason for being content is found in verse 7 – we brought nothing into the world and take nothing with us when we depart this world. That is, “nothing the world can give is any addition to the man himself” (White, Expositor’s Greek Testament). If we have food and clothing, we should be content with these things. Interestingly, the Greek word for “clothing” here comes from the verb meaning, “to cover,” so it could refer to both clothing and shelter. If this is true, then Paul is telling us to be content with food, clothing and shelter. Three Christian commentators show us how these verses are relevant. First, “… the world retains its hold on us. On all sides its charms decoy us. We like lots of money, we like splendid honors, we like power to overawe others. We like all these things, but let’s listen to the apostle, ‘We brought nothing into this world, neither can we take anything out’” (Augustine, Sermon 39.2). Secondly, “For those who in appearance are rich, though they have many possessions, are yet poor in soul. The more they amass, the more they pine with longing for what they lack. But the believer, paradoxically, is rich even when poor. Knowing that we have need only of raiment and food and being content with these, he has trampled riches underfoot” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 5.2). Thirdly, “In order, therefore, that we may be satisfied with a sufficiency, let us learn to have our heart so regulated, as to desire nothing but what is necessary for supporting life… [for] all that goes beyond the natural use is superfluous” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles to Timothy).

Hebrews 13:5: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’”

For the writer of Hebrews, the “love of money” is needless since the believer has the promise that God will never leave nor forsake him. This promise points to the complete reliability of God. Since God has promised to help his own, being gluttonous for the things of this world, including money, is useless. As God’s people, we are secure no matter what comes, because God is with us.

These three passages should give us great hope. In clear and unquestionable language, we are told to be content and not to be gluttonous. Contentment should characterize God’s people; therefore, be content!

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