Gluttony Position Paper
By Anna Marie Long, MS, RD, LD, CEDS
What is “gluttony”? If there is freedom in Christ, even with food and body image, how do we accept gluttony as a sin? Is overeating a sin? What about binge eating? These words do not all mean the same thing. My intention is to define all of these terms and give a better understanding of what all of these words actually mean, without the lens of diet culture. Gluttony is a sin, but we need to have a better understanding of what gluttony really is (and is not).
Overeating is often lumped in with gluttony, as though they are synonyms, but this is not the case. Let’s first define overeating. Overeating simply means eating in excess of your body’s needs. It is eating past comfortable fullness and ignoring your body’s internal hunger/fullness signals. If you are in eating disorder recovery and in the care of a treatment team including a dietitian, eating past comfortable fullness will likely be a part of your recovery and restoring your body to a place that is free from the disorder. This is a normal part of eating disorder treatment and is not “bad”.
Sometimes, overeating is a part of normal eating. For example, let’s say it’s your birthday and you want to enjoy a nice steak at your favorite steakhouse. You don’t eat that meal every day, possibly because of the cost or because of convenience. You’re almost certainly going to want to eat past comfortable fullness because you’re celebrating. Then, just as you’re feeling a little too full, the waitress brings out a slice of cake and sings happy birthday. At the end of the night, you probably feel a little physically uncomfortable. While this could be considered overeating, it is definitely normal, given the circumstances. In general, this kind of overeating is not an issue because feeling physically uncomfortable is not a pleasant experience. Additionally, the Bible addresses feasting very specifically and often associates it with gladness (Esther 9). Feasting is a good thing and is God-honoring. Celebration surrounding meals honors God, and food is a gift to us that should cultivate gratitude and worship. Jesus’ first miracle was around a wedding feast in John 2:1-12. Because feasting is addressed so often in scripture, I will go into that in detail at a later point.
Overeating can also be done repeatedly in response to dieting. This is normalized by the phrases “cheat days'' and “starting over tomorrow”. We understandably overeat in response to a fear that there may not be enough food to eat later or that you won’t get enough to eat if you don’t eat now. Proverbs 25:16 makes a clear warning about overeating and says “If you find honey, eat just enough— too much of it, and you will vomit.” It does not call overeating a sin, but it does caution us because of our body’s biological response. This wisdom proverb instructs us to eat enough to satisfy our hunger, but to not overeat and make ourselves sick.
Another common reason to overeat is to drown out challenging feelings and emotions. Eating can be a way to cope with feelings (imagine when you were a child getting ice cream if you had a bad day at school). It can become an issue if food is your only coping mechanism.
Second, let’s define binge eating. According to the Diagnostic and and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), binge eating is characterized by at least three of the following: eating more rapidly than normal, eating until feeling uncomfortably full, eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry, eating alone due to embarrassment, and/or feeling disgusted, depressed, or very guilty after overeating.1 Unless the binge episodes are recurrent and persistent in nature, this is not binge eating disorder. Binge eating can be gluttony, but often there is more going on. Unlike the lies that diet culture tells you, food itself is often not the issue when it comes to binge eating disorder recovery. Eating disorder recovery is complex and highly individualized. If you struggle with overeating that feels compulsive or if you struggle with binge eating disorder, there is freedom here too. Full recovery is possible without the shame and guilt of bondage to sin.
Finally, let’s define gluttony. “Glutton” or “gluttony” appears in the Bible only 6 times, 4 times in the Old Testament and 2 in the New Testament. As often as diet culture creeps it into the church, it is surprising that gluttony is mentioned so few times in scripture. Especially as one of the “7 deadly sins'', one would think that the Bible speaks more specifically and directly to this sin. The truth is that every sin is deadly, but the sin of gluttony is often elevated because of diet culture. The Hebrew word for glutton is zálal and it means “to be worthless or lavish, a squanderer; to make light of”.2 The first use of zálal in the Bible is Deuteronomy 21. This passage discusses a young man who is disobeying the fifth commandment by not honoring his father and mother (Deuteronomy 5:16). Deuteronomy 21:20b states “This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Verse 21 goes on to command stoning him to death for his sin. In this context, zálal refers to the young boy as a squanderer. If the adjective “glutton” was not next to drunkard, it would be easy to not use this word to describe potential food behaviors. The issue here is his heart posture, not the food he eats. He is living in the persistent sin of disobedience to his parents, and this is the problem.
In Proverbs 28:7, a “companion of gluttons” is referred to as shameful to his family. Righteous people are an essential component of a just society. This argument is about a heart posture toward the law and has little, if anything, to do with food.
Another example of where gluttony has nothing to do with food is found in Titus 1:12. The word glutton is used to describe someone who is pregnant. In some translations, a different word is used to describe this person, but the Greek root is gastēr, which means “to be with child”.3 The King James Version translates this to be “slow bellies”. This part of scripture is discussing the qualifications for elders in the church and is not the same as the way that gluttony is described earlier in the Bible.
Only once is zálal used in regards to food. Proverbs 23:20-21 gives the following advice:
Be not among drunkards
or among gluttonous eaters of meat,
for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty,
and slumber will clothe them with rags.
The entire book of Proverbs contrasts wisdom and folly. In this context, this means “to be a lavish or worthless eater of meat”. This is a warning to not associate with people who have given in to and are at peace with lustful living. Again, while food is the tool used to sin, the sin here is the heart posture. When studying scripture, it is important to look at the entire chapter to gain important information about the context and the bigger picture. In Proverbs 23:1, we are given the warning that when you sit down to eat with a rich ruler, you need to be aware of the situation. Verse 2 goes on to instruct us to “put a knife to [our] throat[s] if [we] are given to appetite”. This is a warning against sensuality and indulgence. The rich host here is using his luxuries to entrap his guests to do his bidding for him. He buys them nice food to take advantage of them. The warning here is to be sober-minded and not be easily won over by expensive luxuries. A modern-day example would be of Libby going on a first date with a young man she met on a dating app, Joey. Joey takes Libby out to a nice dinner and at the end of the night, pays for the check and makes it very clear that he is expecting something from Libby in return. Joey is using paying for Libby’s dinner to put Libby in his debt so that she feels obligated to “return the favor” later on in the night. This scenario is what Proverbs 23 warns about. The wise thing for Libby to do would be to pay for her own dinner and leave, or just decide to go home alone after dinner. This advice has nothing to do with food itself or the physical appetite, but the heart, which is easily deceived (Jeremiah 17:9).
In the New Testament, the Greek word for glutton is phagos, which means “to devour or consume. To take food”.4 This is a little more in line with how diet culture defines “gluttony”, but it still doesn’t hit the nail on the head. When discussing the messengers from John the Baptist, Jesus describes the criticism that both He and John received:
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” - Matthew 11:18-19.
The people criticized Jesus for eating and drinking. The people of ancient Jerusalem had an understanding of phagos, and because Jesus was not the king and conqueror coming in on a throne with a white horse, they criticized him, calling him a glutton. We know that Jesus was the only person who ever lived without sin, so this inaccurate assessment of Him was intended to be an insult. The parallel passage in Luke 7:34 also uses phagos to describe what people were saying about our Savior. Again, when we revisit the word zálal, this was their understanding of gluttony. They were accusing Jesus (falsely) of having a lavish and squandering heart posture toward food.
Often, gluttony is placed in scripture next to drunkenness. This makes sense when you consider what sets eating and gluttony apart as well as drinking and drunkenness apart. Drinking alcohol is not a sin. In fact, scripture states in Psalm 104:15 that wine “gladden[s] the heart of man”. The point is that consuming alcohol is not sinful, but drinking to the point of drunkenness is. Drunkenness in itself is a response to what is going on in the heart. In the same way, eating is not a sin (Matthew 15:11), but eating in a lavish and squandering way is. The root of both sins is the condition of the heart. To help illustrate the heart condition in question, let’s take a look at another modern-day example.
Laura was a hard-working wife and mother of 4 children ages 10-18. Laura tried every diet in the book when it came to losing her baby weight after her fourth child. She was on and off diets for several years. After her final attempt at lasting weight loss, she threw in the towel and decided to give up. Since she couldn’t sustainably lose weight, she decided to eat “whatever, whenever”. She would leave work in the afternoon to pick her kids up from school and go through the drive through and order a meal then finish it before she made it to the school. She would eat a snack with her children after school, then, despite not being physically hungry, would often get seconds of dinner that she prepared for her family. While this pattern didn’t happen every day, it was always in response to her frustration that she couldn’t lose weight. Sometimes after her family was asleep, she would go to the refrigerator and have an additional snack, despite not being hungry. Before this habit started, Laura would spend her evening hours alone in her personal quiet time reading scripture and praying to God with a grateful heart. Since her frustration around lack of body change started, her heart was set on her body and she was actively ignoring the Holy Spirit in her life (Colossians 3:2). When she talked to her friends from her Bible study, they acknowledged that this was a sin, but advised her to “just try harder and stop eating so much”. Instead of asking her about the condition of her heart, they gave the unhelpful advice to simply stop sinning. When she eventually sought professional help, she couldn’t remember the last time she personally prayed to the Lord, outside of a family or group context, giving thanks for her meals or even thanking him for the blessings that He had provided for her family. She was using her overeating and gluttony as a tool to turn away from God. Once her heart posture was addressed, she could finally begin to address the behaviors.
Behavior change without heart change is never lasting. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. We are not under the power of sin, but under grace if we are in Christ (Romans 6:14). If you are stuck in the seemingly endless cycle of sin and gluttony, there is grace for you too! God is rich in mercy. You don’t have to live in bondage. We are saved by His grace (Ephesians 2:1-10). Walking in His grace means repenting of sin and turning toward Jesus as our helper.
We must ask ourselves: are we being wise and going to the Lord with all of our burdens? Or are we turning to food and overeating as a band-aid to fix the burdens of our souls? If your heart is postured toward squandering or indulging in food, the food itself is not the sin. The way we eat can be sinful, but is the product of a sinful and broken heart. To address the behavior without addressing the heart is to live in bondage to sin and guilt. Where the world would say to feel guilty and “just try harder to eat less”, your own best efforts cannot change your heart, only God can do that (Jeremiah 20:12) through His Son, Jesus Christ (Acts 15:8). To be abundantly clear here, gluttony is a sin, AND there is freedom in Christ. There is freedom to eat, but when eating becomes a sinful coping mechanism or a tool to ignore the Holy Spirit in your life, grace and forgiveness abound in Christ, and healing is possible. Romans 6:1b-2 says “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”. If you are living in the sin of gluttony, there is abundant and never-ending grace. By turning from our sin and toward our loving Father, we can live in the fullness of His grace.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed., American Psychiatric Association, 2013. DSM-V, doi-org.db29.linccweb.org/10.1176/ appi.books.9780890425596.dsm02.
H2151 - zālal - Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (kjv). Blue Letter Bible. Accessed November 14, 2022. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h2151/kjv/wlc/0-1/
G1064 - gastēr - Strong’s Greek Lexicon (esv). Blue Letter Bible. Accessed November 15, 2022. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g1064/esv/mgnt/0-1/
G5314 - phagos - Strong’s Greek Lexicon (kjv). Blue Letter Bible. Accessed November 15, 2022. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g5314/kjv/tr/0-1/