Food, Idolatry, and Fighting Sin

Those who know me know that I love food. I love to eat until I am stuffed, so much so that many of my friends often joke about letting me finish up the last bits of a shared meal. On more than one occasion, friends have mentioned that when they invite me and my family over, they plan for the large quantities of food I will eat.

Needless to say, I have a problem with food. As long as I can remember, I have eaten whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. In high school and college, I could get away with this because I was incredibly active, but once I got to graduate school, I started to gain weight fast. I gained so much weight, that at one point, my friend’s Wii Fit classified me as morbidly obese! That was embarrassing and led me to start dieting. This was 7 years ago or so, and I did lose 30 pounds in about 4 months. But I put it back on again over the next year. I tried dieting again a few years later, and again I lost about 25 pounds only to gain it back.

Food has regularly played the role of savior in my life. In hard times, no matter what I have going on—stress, pain, anger, disappointment, etc.—food has always promised to offer me a little comfort. In good times, food becomes the icing on the cake (literally) that culminates my enjoyment of life. So in both the hard and good times, I have consistently turned to food for comfort and joy.

Now that may seem harmless, but there is a real dark side to my love of food. My love for food has led to over eating, extra stress on my body (particularly my knees), and the possibility of future health problems. But beyond the negative physical effects of my diet, my love of food has led me to be downright unloving to those around me. My wife in particular has been the object of my wrath when I am disappointed about the quantity or quality of the food she lovingly and graciously prepares for my family and me. I have not been a good steward of my money because I have regularly opted for eating out instead of being content with a simple homemade lunch. I am sure there have been many occasions that I have not left enough for others when we have shared a meal. And my excess weight has definitely resulted in lethargy when I should be actively and energetically engaged with others (like my kids) or with work.

When others have tried to point out my food problem, I have often responded with some version of the line delivered by Chris Farley’s character in one of his SNL skits: “Lay off me! I’m starving!” Other times, I have acknowledged the problem, but I have lacked the motivation to do anything about it, even when I felt like a “fat guy in a little coat.” (He who has ears to hear, let him hear!) For years I have recognized my habits and my love for food are unhealthy. And even in the seasons where I actively fought to cut back, my love for (addiction to?) food roared back with matching strength.

Idolatry

I share this not as some form of public catharsis but to provide a living and personal example of the way idolatry works in our lives. Idolatry is the worship of a created thing rather than the Creator. It is turning a good thing God has made into the ultimate thing. It is turning to some part of God’s creation for our identity, comfort, salvation, hope, security, or happiness. Idolatry is at the heart of all sin. In my case, the love of food because of the comfort it offers results in me transgressing God’s law in numerous ways, particularly with gluttony, greed, unkindness, and poor stewardship.

The thing about my sinful idolatry of food is that it looks fairly harmless and less sinful when compared to things like murder, sexual immorality, drunkenness, and all the other “scandalous” sins. It’s easy for gluttonous pastors to rail against the sin of drunkenness (or the supposed sin of drinking alcohol at all) while at the very same time dreaming of the comfort of the potluck after church. But the reality is, those of us who turn to food as a constant comfort without restraint are in bondage like ever other sinner.

While I tend to idolize food, others idolize being skinny and treat food as evil rather than the good gift God intends it to be. There is a lot of talk these days about obesity, body image, redefining beauty, and accepting our bodies. But without diving into all the complexities of that discussion, it needs to be said that an idolatrous love of food isn’t healthy or godly. It’s just as sinful and powerful as hatred, greed, envy, and pride. So we should not celebrate the idolatry of food and overweight bodies any more than we should celebrate the idolatry of being skinny and unhealthy in the other direction.

Fighting Sin

Recently, I have been able to lose a lot of weight, but this is the third time I have tried to get healthy and to deal with my idolatrous love of food. I feel great, and I am more optimistic that I have turned a corner. But I also don’t want to get ahead of myself because I know the power of sin and the hold it has on my heart. I have lost weight before by taking some drastic steps in my diet only to see my discipline fade over time as I returned to old habits. Like all sin, we can try “starving” ourselves for a season, but if we have nothing else with which to feed our hearts, we will eventually run back to the banquet in the grave.

This time, I have greater hope that I am on the road toward a proper and healthy love of food. Not because I have some power or strength in myself but because Jesus Christ died and rose again to set me free from the power of sin. In the gospel, Jesus has given me a greater comfort and a deeper satisfaction than any food ever could. Because Christ rose from the dead, he has given me new life and the promise of a future banquet in his kingdom. He has offered me himself, the true bread of life. He has invited me to drink of his living water so that I will never thirst again. These are the deep resources of the gospel that I consistently have to turn to in my battle with the love of food. And I’m glad to say that I’m seeing change in my heart and in my habits.

And let me be clear, habits do matter. It’s easy to talk about fighting sin by addressing the heart, but if we never get to our habits, we aren’t really fighting sin. Sin starts in the heart, but it always works itself out in our lips and fingertips. In my fight with gluttony, I have used tools that help me monitor what and how much I eat. I have invited others to help me monitor what I am eating, and I have picked up a few routines that require me to be a bit more active. My struggle with the idolatry of food is long from over, but I believe God’s Spirit is working. I have not triumphed. I may fall into old habits once again. I am not what I should be, but I am not what I once was.

You may not be struggling with the love of food, but I am confident that you are struggling with some disordered love, misplaced trust, or false hope. Perhaps this struggle has been going on for years. Maybe you have tried over and over again to deal with it, seeing temporary results, only to see it roar back to full strength once again. But there is hope. Jesus didn’t rise from the grave to leave us in our sin. We may try and fail again, but slowly he is at work to bring us into the freedom of the new life of his kingdom.