Is gluttony a less serious sin?

Some sins are worse than others. I mean, that's not theologically correct, but in practice it seems to be true. Modern Christianity has created a hierarchy of sins which, while not strictly found in the Bible, makes some failures of morality much worse than others. Of course, while the eternal consequence of all sin is the same, the earthly consequences vary massively, and it's right that we're more concerned about murderous dictators and massive tax-evaders than we are about habitual litterers and the people who make Mrs Brown's Boys.

Still, it seems fascinating to me that aside from those acts which we would count in our Christian-founded legal system as actual crimes, there's such a wide variance in how we regard the other things that the Bible speaks against. Sexual sin, for example, seems to be at the very top of the pile – abhorrent and shameful, a total disqualification of good character. Greed, by comparison, seems to get a bit of a free pass – judging by the earnings and net wealth of some of the world's most popular pastors and Bible teachers.

PixabayThanksgiving is an appropriate time to consider whether we are guilty of the sin of gluttony.

But there's one sin that is almost never, ever talked about, and of which many of us are regularly guilty. It's encouraged by our permissive culture, but for some reason we don't see it as some dangerous mark of our descent into moral ruin. Quite to the contrary, we even run Christian events at which it is joked about and encouraged. Because the trouble is, gluttony tastes so good...

The Proverbs warn us: 'Do not join those who drink too much or gorge themselves on meat (23:20),' and even more viscerally: 'put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony (23:2).' Paul talks in Philippians 3:19 about how the wicked's 'God is their appetite', while both Jesus and Paul talk about 'every kind of greed' in Luke 12:15 and Ephesians 5:3 respectively. And repeatedly when evil people are described in both Old and New Testaments, over-indulgence is part of the description.

One popular defence is that the word 'gluttony' doesn't appear in any of those big lists of sins that would put you in big trouble at the Pearly Gates. Yet self-control is repeatedly mentioned as a virtue and a sign of closeness with God, and gluttony represents the opposite. It's making an idol of momentary pleasure, just as with sexual promiscuity. The Bible speaks against the bigger picture behind both – yet we're always much more concerned about one expression of this idolatry than another.

Which means we can often find ourselves at men's ministry curry events (where the talk is ironically on battling porn) with fourteen types of carbohydrate and a joke made about portion size. I once attended a men's breakfast event in New York where the food was served in vats, and some people went up for 'seconds', four times (yes, there may be a subtle common thread in these two stories). Pastors joke from platforms about their tendency toward cake, or devouring an entire cheeseboard. Could you imagine a joke about a different kind of lapse in self-control?

This is not about weight, by the way. I was at university with a guy who ate a pizza and chips every day for four years and never had an ounce of fat on his body. People put on weight at different speeds and for different reasons, and I'm not suggesting for a moment that we should judge each other on the basis of our waistlines. But if we're prepared to be soft on one kind of self-control, why are we hard on another? Or conversely, if we're going to make Christians feel ashamed for idolising one kind of pleasure, why don't we go the whole way and start persecuting people who eat too much? (Just to be clear, let's not do that).

It's also important to recognise the link between emotional health and physically healthy choices. It's a modern joke that we can sometimes 'eat our feelings', but there's a reality behind that which again deserves a bit of grace. In fact, we shouldn't really be persecuting anyone for their life choices – it's really between them and God. The Bible speaks of 'restoring each other gently' (Galatians 6:1), not offering judgement and disdain.

It's far more helpful that each of us considers whether gluttony – or any other kind of lapse in self-control – is getting in the way of our relationship with God, and our own flourishing as a result. Is this something we need to reconsider? Is it a blind spot that we've left unchecked?

It seems quite appropriate to have written this on the American festival of Thanksgiving. There is so much good in that celebration, but from Black Friday sales to double-portions of creamed potatoes, self-control is rarely part of the story. If we're going to leave it out, than we should be aware of our hypocrisy in de-criminalising certain sins while we bring shame through others. And if we're not, then the really big test is whether you can say no to that extra helping of turkey that you don't need, but just looks so good...

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.