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 3 of 10 - By Grace Alone through Faith Alone

[Editor's Note: Read part 1 and part 2 of this series.]

We believe that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone! 

Salvation by Grace Alone

From start to finish, salvation is a gift of grace from God in Christ and in him alone. Every story we adopt to narrate our world puts us at the center as the protagonist and requires our efforts to bring about salvation through some idol. But Jesus is the actual protagonist of history who brings salvation to us as a gift of undeserved favor. Our efforts at self-salvation will fail, and only when we lay down our attempts to save ourselves through our efforts by submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ can we be saved.

One important implication flowing from the doctrine of salvation by grace alone is the need for individual conversion. Conversion describes the application of grace upon an individual, whether gradually or in a dramatic and immediate way, such that they respond to the gospel in faith as they are born again into new life. Many believe themselves to be Christians because they were born to Christian parents or in a nation or community largely influenced by Christianity. But Christianity is not an ethnic label or set of communal values one is born into naturally. Each person must be born again by the Spirit and individually be converted through repentance and faith in Christ. Only by God’s grace does this occur. It is not a work of man.

Salvation through Faith Alone

Reformed Christians insist that salvation from sin to God comes in Christ alone. He is the only mediator between God and man. He is the only sacrifice for sin that can atone. But Reformed Christians also insist that this salvation is applied to individuals through faith and only through faith, not through works. In other words, the salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection comes to sinners as a gracious gift of God by the Holy Spirit when he gives sinners faith in him and his good news. Salvation does not come to sinners through good works.

Salvation is a gift of grace received through faith, not acquired by participating in religious rituals (even good ones like baptism, communion, Bible study, or prayer). Believers receive salvation through resting in the promise and announcement of God that sin has been defeated by Jesus Christ.

Through faith in Christ, sinners are united to Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and justified before God. This means he declares us righteous before him on account of Christ. Through faith, we possess a righteousness that has come to us from outside of us and not because of us. Jesus’ death becomes our death because we were truly present through our union with him when God’s judgment was poured out on him. His resurrection becomes the guarantee of our future resurrection.

This faith through which sinners are saved should not be confused with intellectual assent or knowledge of a historical fact. The faith through which sinners receive the grace of God in Christ is a trust in, hope in, and love for God that transforms a person’s life such that good works are produced. But salvation itself comes through faith and not through works.

But why is salvation in Christ through faith alone? There are at least two reasons, both relating to the Reformed Christian’s understanding of sin.

Because Sin Has Pervasively Corrupted Us

Reformed Christians believe that there is no aspect of our humanity that has not been corrupted by sin. Each descendent of Adam’s race is corrupted in body, mind, will, spirit, and whatever else we possess as humans. Because of this pervasive depravity, there is no aspect of our being, of society, or of creation that we can draw upon or act out of that can merit God’s pleasure or achieve righteousness. Apart from God’s grace, sinners are cut off from God, unable to seek, know, or desire God or fellowship with him. Sinners need to be made new before they can have fellowship with God and enter his kingdom. Faith is a disposition of the total person which can only be exercised if God the Holy Spirit makes a person new, giving a person new birth. Creation itself must be remade into new creation for God to dwell with his people. This leads in to the second reason why salvation is through faith alone.

Because Sin Makes Us Completely Unable Not to Sin

Apart from new creation, sin and death will reign over this world. Despite all our attempts otherwise, apart from the new birth, sinners are not able not to sin. This doesn’t mean we cannot ever do anything good and that our every action is as evil as can be. Certainly, we sometimes love and seek to bless others. But everything we do, even the best things we do, are always tainted by sin in some way. Nothing meets the righteous requirements God’s character and design for creation require. Our motives are mixed. We take pride in our good works. We lack wisdom and act immaturely.

So sinners are pervasively corrupt, and we are not able not to sin. Therefore, no work of man can ever be the instrument through which salvation in Christ can be received or the foundation upon which salvation rests. Salvation is a gift of grace from beginning to end, and it is received through faith in Jesus Christ and only through faith. The Holy Spirit makes us new creations and gives us faith in Jesus Christ according to the plan of God the Father.

Reformed Christians believe that salvation is in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. This is the fundamental matter, the central doctrine, of the Christian faith.

[Editor's Note: Read part 4part 5part 6part 7part 8part 9, and part 10 of this series.]

Love, Rebuke, and Community

Here at Trinity, we are constantly learning what it looks like to grow as disciples together in community. By sharing our lives and doing everyday things together with gospel intentionality, we inevitably come face to face with the sin struggles of our fellow brothers and sisters. This is one of the reasons we believe discipleship must take place in deep community. A church that organizes fellowship and programs discipleship in ways that allow people to manage their identity and hide what is going on in their every day life is unlikely to make disciples since few people will be in a position to confront one another’s sin patterns. Discipleship requires that we share our lives deeply with the other Christians in our church, and at Trinity, we are learning to do this.

But this isn’t easy. Once we are faced with the sins of others, and once they begin to see ours, we have to learn not just how to “handle” each other but how to encourage one another and rebuke one another in wise ways that promote godly repentance, heart change, and renewed faith in the gospel. Here are a few passages that instruct us on how to do this well.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. – Galatians 6:1

The first thing necessary is humility and self-examination. We cannot confront and restore others in sin if we have not first examined ourselves to make sure we are both seeing the situation rightly and have a humble attitude toward them. As we live in community with others, we must ask ourselves several questions whenever we think someone else might be acting sinfully.

 

  • Why am I bothered by this person right now? Are they sinning or are they interfering with my own idolatry? Is this an issue of wisdom or is there a real problem here?
  • Am I guilty of this same thing in other situations? Am I guilty of something else more severe?
  • Do I feel the urge to confront them because I want to put them down and show my superiority? Do I really understand what is going one here?

 

We have to learn to keep watch on ourselves before we can be faithful to watch over one another.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. - 1 Peter 4:8

Once we have examined ourselves and sought to make sure we are seeing the situation rightly, we ought to think about the most loving response to the person’s sin. To love someone well we have to consider the effect of our action on them. There is a difference between being right and being wise. Love drives us to act wisely for the good of the other. So we need to ask ourselves more questions:

 

  • Is this sin a habit? Is this an example of a deep rooted and unidentified sin pattern or is this a rare instance of this sin?
  • Does the person already recognize their sin or has it gone unnoticed?
  • Is this the best time to confront them or should I wait until later?
  • Does this person need a rebuke or do they need to see me graciously overlook it and shower them with kindness?

 

Peter suggests that love covers a multitude of sins. This is a way of saying that we need to develop what Tim Chester calls “relational generosity.”[1] Some people call this social grace. The idea here isn’t that love minimizes wrongdoing or acts like it doesn’t matter. Sin always does some sort of damage. Love bears that damage and doesn’t exact payment. Sometimes when we confront sin, we are actually exacting vengeance by shaming the person socially or by subjecting them to an emotional outburst. Sometimes we don’t confront sin because we hide it away deep down and bear a grudge that impacts the way we treat them in the future. But love covers the sin by forgiving them and responding with kindness and a good example. This response itself can be a form of confrontation, one that invites them to turn from their sin and live to righteousness. So not every sin needs to be immediately pointed out and openly addressed since love covers many sins.

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. – Hebrews 3:13

Finally, sin does often need to be explicitly addressed. This may be one of the most difficult aspects of living in community and sharing life. It is much easier to ignore the sins of others or to avoid future interaction by moving on to other groups of people. This is the most common way churches deal with sin. When people start getting close and begin seeing each other’s sins, they move on to another bible study, fellowship, or ministry in the church so as to avoid dealing with one another. But growing as a disciple involves living with others such that our sins are being confronted and we are confronting others in love and humble self-examination.

The author of Hebrews tells us two things that demonstrate why Christians must live in deep community with their church. First, sin is deceiving us all. Sin blinds us. We don’t always see what we are doing wrong, but others can. Second, we should exhort one another every day. There is no possible way to obey this instruction unless we are sharing our lives deeply with Christians in our church. Discipleship happens in everyday life.

All three of these passages assume that Christians sin regularly. The church is a community of broken and sinful people. But the church is also a redeemed and forgiven community that through repentance and faith are being renewed in the power of the Spirit through the ministry of God’s word in every day life. Christians living in community are to examine themselves in humility, forgive one another, bear with one another, and finally, graciously confront one another. We can do this because we remember that we have been forgiven much and that our righteousness is not our own, so any boasting is excluded. It is the gospel that makes this sort of community possible.

 

[1] Tim Chester, Everyday Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 142.