Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
ALCOHOL. POWER. MONEY. FOOD. SEX. All of these are capable normal appetites which can morph into full-blown addictions. From a personal perspective, my desires were out of hand, and were causing ruin in my life. As hard as I struggled, getting my problem appetites under control had proved out of the question. Desire had literally taken over my body. Depression and anxiety grew to be increasingly debilitating. Euphoria was unreachable, so I began to find my “warm and fuzzy” through booze, opiates, cannabis, and cocaine. I was chasing a “feel good” release through chemicals, yet the chase proved to be extremely unfulfilling. Appetites once held in healthy balance were now compulsions. I was living in Hotel California—I could check out any time I’d want, but I could never leave. My original God-given appetites were now painful addictions.
Although the apostle Paul was likely not an “addict,” he said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15, ESV). He added, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (7:19). This passage became my mantra; unfortunately, it also became a huge loophole. I would often say to myself, “How can I expect to win out over my ruined appetites if Paul couldn’t?” Paul, an apostle, a converted Jew, who received direct discipling from Jesus Christ (see Gal. 1:11-24) was unable to control his appetite for sin; or so I thought. And voila, instant loophole! (See my blog article “Do You Look for Loopholes as a Christian?”).
Gluttony is “habitual greed or excess in eating or consuming.” From the Latin, gula, “to gulp down or swallow,” gluttony is over-indulgence. In this instance, greed involves an intense or selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food. The most common type of gluttony, uncontrolled eating, leads to obesity and a litany of related health risks. Because gluttony is closely related to drunkenness, drug abuse, greed for money, or a desire for excessive power, it is considered a sin in Christian theology. Gluttony involves living for self, putting all others second. It can be said that gluttony shows contempt for society and for one’s own body. Paul said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” ( 1 Cor. 6:19-20, ESV).
Unfortunately, gluttony seems to be a bad habit Christians like to ignore. Some teachings say the word “gluttony” cannot be found in Scripture. Yet, we read “…and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard'” (Deut. 21:20). John states in his first epistle, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16) [italics added]. Paul said in Philippians, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil 3:19) [italics added]. Proverbs 28:7 says a glutton “shames his father.” Paul writes, “One [of them], a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons'” (Tit. 1:12) [italics added]. Ben Giselbach of PlainSimpleFaith.com writes, “…’gluttony’ does not appear in any of the Bible’s big this-will-keep-you-out-of-heaven lists… New Testament writers are particularly nonchalant about one’s diet and portion control. Food neither commends nor condemns us before God” (1).
It is likely Giselbach is referring to the “legalistic” approach of dietary matters, indicating New Covenant Christians are not bound by dietary laws. However, gluttony, as addressed by Scripture, is not a dietary concern; rather, it is an orientation of the heart toward an excess appetite for the desires of the flesh (1 John 2:16). Let us examine Paul’s language in Romans 7 and see how it relates to a lack of control over one’s sin nature. He first establishes a truth for all believers: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (7:14). This is the springboard for Paul’s rant: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me… For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (7:15-17, 19-20).
The following is from Peterson’s translation The Message:
I can anticipate the response that is coming: ‘I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this your experience?’ Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise… I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge (2).
I cannot share accurately enough how convicted I felt as I typed the above quote, realizing my tendency in the past to look for excuses for my behavior rather than changing it. Some biblical scholars believe Paul is speaking about the sin dilemma in man rather than a personal struggle within himself. However, studies during my master’s in theology and collateral readings have convinced me otherwise. Paul, as depicted in the motion picture Paul, Apostle of Christ, directed by Andrew Hyatt, became very humble following his conversion to Christianity. He counted his rabbinical education as nothing; rather, he wanted now to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). His ministry to the non-Jews of the world was critical, and his lessons on God’s grace in face of our sometimes deliberate sinful rebellion (clearly presented in Romans 7) was necessary for his ministry to the Gentiles.
After becoming a Christian, Paul was painfully reminded often of his past persecution of Christians, even having some of them executed. Now, he was a member of the Body of Christ, and an heir to the promise God made to Abraham. Paul taught often on the true purpose of Mosaic Law and subsequent rabbinical laws—to reveal the sinful nature of man and his inability to obey God under his own power. Although the Law was good and holy (Rom. 7:12), it did not provide salvation for the nation of Israel. Paul wrote, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:20-24). Paul’s central argument in his letter to the Romans is the eternal plan of God for the salvation of sinners.
What purpose, then, is the Law? The extent of sin would never be fully known apart from the Law. We would not know sin except through the Law (see Rom. 7:7).
We read in the Recovery Devotional Bible, “[It is a myth that] Christians have victory over sin, [making sin] a problem only for those with weak faith. All Christians struggle with sin… we see believers throughout the Bible struggling with sin. We find special comfort that the apostle Paul described his struggle as a war (Rom. 7:23) [italics added] and agonized over it” (3). Paul was not, however, avoiding responsibility. He was not saying, “Hey, I didn’t do it—sin did.” Paul realized we only find freedom from our sinful nature when we accept the fact that we will never be completely free. The urge to sin will live in our flesh until we come into the fullness of our redemption and receive a new glorified body. These urges are sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker. As a minister of the New Covenant, Paul never once indicates that his status as a Pharisee among Pharisees provided any assurance of his salvation or his standing before the Father.
The Choice Factor
Choice is an interesting word. It implies free will. Augustine of Hippo rightly believed evil cannot exist within God, nor be created by God; rather, it is a by-product of man’s ability to choose his behavior. Augustine maintained that it is vital for us to have free will because we cannot live well without it. Admittedly, no greater question has been raised (both for and against the existence of God) than the freedom to do evil. Why would God permit evil to exist? According to Augustine, human nature was originally created blameless and without any fault [Latin, vitium]. As a result of sin, everyone born of Adam “requires a physician, because [he] is not healthy.” Augustine clearly states that the weakness which darkens and disables the good things did not come from the blameless maker but from original sin, which was committed by free will. He said, “For this reason, our guilty nature is liable to a just penalty” (4).
According to Gonzalez, Augustine concluded that evil, though real, was not a thing, but rather an orientation away from that which is good and toward that which is not good. This seems to help Augustine understand that God did not create evil. He believed only that which man decides of his own will (rather than that which is dictated by circumstances or directed by a separate entity) is properly called “free.” It is the will that is created by God, not evilness itself. This is no mere matter of semantics. Free will allows man to make his own decisions. As Gonzalez notes, “The origin of evil, then, is to be found in the bad decisions made by both human and angelic wills—those of the demons, who are fallen angels” (5). Augustine’s position is akin to theological determinism, but not in the manner we might expect. He argued that man prefers the joy of “doing good.” Origen of Alexandria thought that affirmation of free will distinguishes Christianity from deterministic accounts of the human condition and constitutes the basis for man’s moral responsibility. Suffering comes from human choice, not from a cosmic clash between good and evil. In this manner, free will is a rational capacity to choose between what is good and what is not good. Admittedly, freedom is likely an attribute of the agent rather than of the will itself.
Regarding our God-given appetites, the danger is not in seeking to fulfill them; it is when we choose to fulfill them with something that does not belong there. Attempting to fill one thing with something that does not fit causes our appetites to begin the cycle of becoming unhealthy or dangerous. To satisfy an appetite completely, we need to choose the actual thing that is being desired. A great example is the choice to view pornographic images for satisfaction of one’s sexual urges outside of an established reciprocal relationship with someone. Pornography provides an inroad for something utterly destructive. Under control, appetites help us to exist; an out-of-control appetite destroys everything in its path like a runaway brush fire. Consequently, there is a battle between flesh and spirit; man and God; self and others. The flesh wants to feel good no matter the cost. Frankly, we want pleasure and we want it now.
Our enjoyment of food, music, sex, drugs, alcohol, affection, all stimulate a common pathway in the brain that leads directly to our “pleasure center.” This reward center, physically located in the lateral hypothalamus, causes us to feel pleasure when stimulated. This is a good thing; life without pleasure or reward would be rather daunting. Yet, when pleasure becomes the thing we are searching for, we soon find ourselves crying, more, more, more! We learn that there is never enough to satisfy. Sin is the result of an appetite going astray and being filled by something other than what God intended it to be filled with. There is a hint of idolatry in this concept. For me, poor choice was rooted in self-indulgence and obsession with self-entitlement. I indulged in pleasure to avoid pain. I was concerned only with reducing my physical, emotional, or psychic pain, and did not care about the consequences of my choices. Self-indulgence is the excessive satisfaction of our sensual appetites and desires for the specific purpose of pleasing the self.
In the second of this two-part lesson we will examine change: how it begins; how to take responsibility; how to stop blaming everyone else. Change cannot happen until we stop making excuses. We need to stop believing our own lies! We will look at “purpose” over mere “existence,” which will aid in our developing and nurturing healthy relationships. We will learn how to cultivate “divine” desires, let go of guilt, and live a surrendered life. It is through this surrendered life that we become the arms and hands and legs and eyes and ears and mouth of Jesus. We yield our will in service to our neighbors. It is not possible to be like Christ while maintaining an I am first position. God is the key to any success we may have in learning to control our appetites. Jesus Christ must be the force behind all we do; the one directing and controlling where we are headed; the foundation upon which we build our life.
(1) Ben Giselbach, “The Evil of Gluttony, and Why You Might Not be Guilty of It,” PlainSimpleTruth.com (July 13,2015). URL: https://plainsimplefaith.com/gluttony/
(2) Eugene Peterson, The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress: 2006), 1653.
(3) Recovery Devotional Bible: NIV Edition, Verne Becker, general editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973, 1978, 1984), 1241.
(4) Augustine of Hippo, “On Fallen Human Nature,” in The Christian Theology Reader (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 349.
(5) Justo L.Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: Harper One, 2010, 247.
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