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Remember that 1970s TV commercial for Alka-Seltzer? A visibly nauseous man groans, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” His wife chides him saying, “You ate it.”

That commercial can be a useful, if humorous, reminder of the dangers of overeating. Eating or drinking to excess is known to Christians as gluttony. In addition to causing undesirable physical side-effects, such as obesity, diseases, and a dulling of the will and intellect, gluttony also causes serious undesirable spiritual side-effects. This is why Pope St. Gregory the Great called gluttony a “capital” sin, because it causes a variety of other sins to spring up in its wake.

Keep in mind that, although we rightly associate gluttony specifically with immoderation with food and drink, it is a spiritual disorder that can apply to created things in general, not just food. When one excessively indulges his sensual appetite for any thing -- food, wine, sex, entertainment, etc. -- he become gluttonous. And while it is commonly understood that gluttony is not typically a mortal sin (though it is always at least a venial sin), it is especially dangerous because it is often the cause of other, worse, sins.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that, “Gluttony denotes, not any desire of eating and drinking, but an inordinate desire.” It arises from an “immoderate pleasure in eating and drinking.” This means that eating, in itself, is not the problem. We all have to eat to stay alive. Rather, it’s when we willfully give in to an inordinate or immoderate (i.e. excessive) appetite for food that we start entering the territory of sin.

Speaking about people whose focus is only on sensual, earthly pleasures, St. Paul warned, “Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil. 3:17-19).

St. Paul’s phrase, “their god is the belly,” is a good way to describe the fundamental problem with gluttony: It is a tendency to make a created thing -- in this case, food -- into a god. And when this tendency becomes so entrenched and a person becomes so focused on the pleasure of eating food that it has become, in a sense, an object of lust for the appetite, then in truth one can become a slave to his or her senses.

Gluttony, one of the Seven Capital Vices, has as its opposite, temperance, which is one of the Four Cardinal Virtues. The key is to realize that if you have a problem with gluttony, you can, with God’s grace, overcome it by cultivating the virtue of temperance -- moderation -- in your eating and drinking. One Catholic writer explained moderation as “the righteous habit which makes a man govern his natural appetite for pleasures of the senses in accordance with the norm prescribed by reason.”

Scripture contains numerous warnings about the dangers of gluttony and immoderation as well as the beauty of temperance and self-control:

Proverbs 23:19-21 -- “Put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony ... Hear thou, my son, and be wise, and guide thine heart in the way. Be not among winebibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh : For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.”

Sirach 37:27-31 -- “My son, test your soul while you live; see what is bad for it and do not give it that. For not everything is good for every one, and not every person enjoys everything. Do not have an insatiable appetite for any luxury, and do not give yourself up to food; for overeating brings sickness, and gluttony leads to nausea. Many have died of gluttony, but he who is careful to avoid it prolongs his life.”

In Luke 21:34-35, the Lord alludes to gluttony in food and drink when he said, “[T]ake heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth.” The Greek word used here for “dissipation” is kraipale, which can more literally be translated as “surfeiting,” which is a fancy word for “overdoing it” with food and drink. Christ is teaching us here that people who are focused on sensuality won’t be prepared for that sudden and unexpected moment when they die and stand before Christ the Judge to render to him an account of their lives (cf. Mt. 25:31-46; Lk. 12:16-20; Rom. 14:12).

1 Corinthians 6:12-13, 19-20 -- “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’--and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body ... Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

Romans 13:11-14 -- “Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Patrick Madrid is an author, public speaker and the publisher of Envoy Magazine. Visit his web site at www.surprisedbytruth.com

Additional passages:

Deuteronomy 21:20; Proverbs 21:17, 28:7; Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34; Romans 12:1-2; Galatians 5:19-21; Titus 1:12

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