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.

What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 10 of 10 - The Church and Its Worship

[Editor's Note: Read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7part 8, and part 9 of this series.]

We believe that the church is God’s New Covenant community called by God to worship him together as his people in the ways taught by Scripture. There are five interconnected principles that shape the Reformed understanding of corporate worship: 1) regulation, 2) understanding, 3) simplicity, 4) participation, and 5) gospel-centrality.

The Regulative Principle of Worship

Reformed Christians believe that our consciences can only be bound by God. No man, pastor or otherwise, has the authority to command us to obey from the heart. This principle of Christian freedom and God’s sovereignty has implications for corporate worship. While individuals may worship God through a variety of means in their everyday lives according to their own conscience, when we gather as the people of God, we are in a unique situation where the whole congregation is compelled to worship God in the ways the pastors lead them. Therefore Reformed Christians believe that the elements of corporate worship must be explicitly prescribed or modeled in the Bible. Scripture regulates how we may worship God as his people corporately.

This principle differs from the approach that we may worship God corporately in any way we choose so long as it is not forbidden by Scripture (sometimes called the “normative” principle). By limiting our corporate worship to that which is prescribed or modeled, Reformed Christians avoid forcing all people in the congregation to worship God according to man’s invented traditions. So Reformed Christians worship corporately through songs, Bible reading, preaching, sacraments, prayer, monetary collections, and taking vows, and they refuse to incorporate things such as drama, dance, visual depictions of Christ, and any other element not laid down in Scripture.

Understanding

Because Christians know God through his word and grow as they taste the goodness of the Lord, Reformed Christians place a high priority on making sure corporate worship services foster understanding. Corporate worship, Bible translations, prayers, and songs should all be carried out in the language of the people worshipping, and every effort should be made to make the message of the gospel and the teachings of Scripture (through every element of worship) as clear as possible. Reformed Christians do not believe that anyone is served merely by being present in corporate worship or by carrying out certain actions apart from faith or understanding.

Simplicity

Closely related to the principle of understanding, Reformed Christians worship in ways that are simple so as to avoid distracting the congregation from the content of God's word. Instrumentation, architecture, attire, atmosphere, and written material should all serve to focus the congregation in heart and mind upon God’s word and the beauty of the gospel. Corporate worship should not be a huge production that intends to impress, emotionally overwhelm, or stir up excitement. It should be simple and focused on the worship of God through the word.

Participation

Because the church is the covenant community of God indwelt by the Spirit, Reformed Christians emphasize the participation of all the saints in worship. Corporate worship should not be a performance by some for others. The voices of the people should rise up together in prayers, confessions, and songs. Even the preaching of the word should be done among the people rather than above and beyond them. Likewise, the celebration of the Lord’s Table should be a true act of communion with God and one another.

Gospel-Centered

Since the word should saturate and shape corporate worship, Reformed Christians believe that the very movement or liturgy of the service should present the gospel in its form. In other words, it is not only the content of the service explicitly taught that communicates and teaches but the flow of a service as well. Even though there are differences, Reformed Christians have a common order of service that follows a general pattern of a call to worship, adoration, confession, assurance of pardon, thanksgiving, collection, instruction, communion, celebration, benediction, and sending. This pattern presents the good news of the gospel in content and form.

Blog Series Conclusion

When we at Trinity Church say that we are a Reformed Church, we mean to say that we are Christians who belong to a robust and comprehensive understanding of Christianity. Many people think of the Five Points of Calvinism or TULIP when they hear the word Reformed. We don’t mean less than that, but we mean much more than that. To be Reformed means that we have a particular understanding from Scripture on how salvation was secured and is applied by the Spirit, on God’s holiness and sovereignty over creation, on the Christ-centered covenantal unity of Scripture, on vocation and culture, on the Law of God, and on the church’s nature, governance, ministry, and worship. Certainly, a lot more could be said in this blog series, and there is no doubt that many people object to the beliefs we have laid out here or even this characterization of Reformed Christianity. But this is broadly what we mean when we say we are a Reformed church.

What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 8 of 10 - The Church and Sacraments

[Editor's Note: Read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6, and part 7 of this series.]

We believe that the Church is God’s New Covenant community marked by the preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the discipline entailed therein!

The church is a community created by the will of the Father through the work of the Son on the cross, where people believe in him in the power of the Holy Spirit. Wherever God works to create a people for himself, a particular communal life is formed that we can recognize as a church. Reformed Christians believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ produces a distinct covenant people who belong to God and whose life takes a particular shape.

Therefore, the marks of a true church are three: 1) the gospel is rightly preached from Scripture and believed by a community, 2) the sacraments are rightly administered, and 3) church discipline is rightly practiced. A true church exists wherever these marks are present. Each of these marks is wrapped up in the proper practice of the others, and Reformed Christians believe that no church exists wherever these marks are lacking.

The Right Preaching and Hearing of the Gospel

As discussed in a previous post, the church is a covenant community. For all who believe it, the promise of the gospel—forgiveness of sins and new creation through the atoning work of Jesus Christ—ratifies the New Covenant. In other words, when people hear God so as to believe in his promise in Jesus Christ, they become, along with their children, part of God’s covenant people. Those people not only join his church through faith in the gospel, but they are continually given life as the gospel word is proclaimed regularly on the Lord’s Day and throughout the week as Christians share their lives together.

If a community adopts false doctrines and practices that destroy the sound teaching of the gospel such that people are drawn away from faith in Christ, that community can no longer be considered a church of God.

The Right Administration of the Sacraments

Because the church is a covenant community, it is marked out by God given signs and seals of the covenant. In the same way a marriage covenant is signified by the giving and receiving of rings and sealed by the act of sexual intercourse, baptism and the Lord’s Table are signs and seals of the New Covenant community. As signs, they represent to us the work of Christ and his benefits. As seals, they testify to God's faithfulness, assuring us that God will surely do all he has promised. Baptism is the initiatory rite, and the Lord’s Table is an ongoing rite of Christian fellowship.

While Christians debate the exact details of how these sacraments are to be administered (like timing, mode, frequency, etc.) the main issue regarding the right practice of the sacraments involves their meaning. If communities teach and practice that the sacraments confer or infuse grace as though salvation comes through them rather than through faith alone, then the sacraments have been perverted into a system of works and oppose the gospel of grace. So while some Christians baptize infants and others only believers able to give a public profession of faith, while some sprinkle and others immerse, while some celebrate the table weekly and others quarterly, while some use wafers and others a single loaf, these differences do not amount to errors that threaten the right administration of the sacraments. But those who turn the sacraments against the gospel of grace cannot be considered a church. 

Church Discipline

Because the church is a distinct covenant community marked off from the world through the sacraments, discipline is required to faithfully identify who credibly belongs to the church and who does not. Church discipline involves excluding from table fellowship non-Christians and those whose confession of Christ must be questioned. In other words, because the Lord’s Table is an ongoing identification of who is believing in Jesus Christ, it cannot be served to non-Christians or to those claiming to be Christians but living in unrepentant sin. Neither can baptism be applied to those who have no place in the covenant community of Christ. Churches that refuse to apply the marks of the sacraments faithfully cannot meaningfully claim to be true a church.

Jesus did not die merely to forgive the sins of many individuals. He died and rose again to bring a kingdom, and that kingdom is represented and pointed to by the church. Christians are not just saved from their sins but to a new way of life with God’s people. The church cannot be reduced to a location where a pastor preaches and people sing some songs. The church is a community indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus set apart from the world in the preaching of the gospel, its celebration of the gospel in the sacraments, and its loyalty to the gospel in church discipline.

[Editor's Note: Read part 9 and part 10 of this series.]

What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 7 of 10 - The Law of God

[Editor's Note: Read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5, and part 6 of this series.]

We believe that God’s commands are good and play an important role in the Christian life and in society even though they have no power to save us or help us overcome our sinful natures!

Resting on the foundation of covenant theology, Reformed Christians have a robust understanding of the goodness and the importance of God’s law that avoids the errors of legalism and antinomianism. The Reformed understanding of the law provides us with resources to pursue justice and morality in the public square, with a starting point for conversation with non-believers about our need for salvation, and with guidance in the Christian life.

Everyone Has a Conscience

Even though sin has pervasively impacted the world and each individual person, God has not left us without some understanding of our obligations to him and to one another. Each person made in the image of God possesses a conscience. We might describe a conscience as an intuition of our creation covenant obligations to love God and others. Reformed Christians are not surprised by the fact that people in every culture throughout the world and throughout history share basic moral tenants. However, because of sin, we suppress the truth, lie to ourselves, and pervert the law written on our hearts. This is why people disagree about moral issues. But even though we might disagree about the exact moral obligations on this or that issue, and even though some moral issues will carry more weight in certain contexts and eras, there exists a basic moral compass in all of us. This is part of what it means to bear the image of God and to be created in his likeness.

The Ten Commandments

The Reformed understanding of the Law of God interprets the Bible to teach that our consciences are stamped by God’s eternal Law. Therefore, when God made a covenant with Israel through Moses and summarized his Law to them in the Ten Commandments, he was making public what mankind already knew by nature but suppressed in sin. In other words, the Ten Commandments outline the basic moral obligations God has created all mankind to obey. Our consciences can be ignored, malformed, and hardened, but when God’s commandments clearly set forth how we must live as those made in his image, we cannot distort or pervert what we already knew to be true. This suggests that the Ten Commandments do not merely belong to the Old Covenant but set forth the eternal moral law of God.

Three Uses of the Law

The Law of God is a good thing. Scripture teaches quite clearly that the Law is good, holy, and perfect (Romans 7:12). However, as sinners, we naturally use the Law in sinful ways. The Law is not an instrument of salvation. It cannot rescue us from sin. We cannot obey it in order to please God, merit his favor, or transform our corrupted selves. Salvation is by grace alone and not through works of the Law.

But the Law is useful when rightly appropriated. Reformed Christians speak of three valid uses of the Law. First, the Law can act as a mirror. It shows us who we are. It exposes us as sinners and even provokes us to sin. This awareness of sin that comes through the Law can drive us to seek salvation in Christ alone.

Second, the Law serves as a guide to justice for civil authorities and the general restraint of evil in the world. Since the Law of God resonates with our consciences, the Law promotes a culture where people conform outwardly to justice. In other words, the Law shows us what is just, and therefore, we can be guided to make good laws that will promote public justice even if people pursue doing the right thing for sinful reasons.

Third, for those who have trusted in Jesus Christ and received his grace through the work of the Spirit, the Law can guide faithfulness. The Law cannot transform sinful people, whether a non-Christian or a Christian. But it can guide Christians being transformed by the Spirit into faithful living. It can stir Christians to obey God out of joy and gratitude since we have been set free from the curse of the Law and the threat of a death sentence.

When the Law is understood properly, Christians avoid legalism (seeking salvation or transformation through the Law) and antinomianism (throwing out God’s commands altogether as having no place in society or the Christian life).

[Editor's Note: Read part 8part 9, and part 10 of this series.]