But overeating is not the only way of abusing food. Obsessing about quantities is also a sign of bad soul health. Bulimia and Anorexia are not as common as obesity, but they still blight the lives of around 10 per cent of college-age girls in the USA, and in the UK, more young people than ever before are receiving treatment for eating disorders. Suffering from Anorexia, Bulimia or a Compulsive Eating Disorder are not sins, but they are an indicator of something that has gone wrong. Food is not a neutral thing, and in a complex way, our attitudes to food are all bound up with our spiritual and emotional health.
This begins to point us to the reasons why Christianity has found gluttony a sin. Why do people overeat, or starve themselves? Many studies suggest that these disorders often emerge from a sense of lack of worth. We all know the pattern of comfort eating. When you feel a bit low, a slice of chocolate cake or apple pie can make you feel a whole lot better. Ten pints of lager or a couple of stiff whiskies can help you forget why you felt bad in the first place. Similarly, anorexia or bulimia often emerge out of patterns of unhappiness or self-dislike. The Eating Disorder Association says that such patterns of self-abuse are usually caused by such things as “low self-esteem, family relationships, problems with friends, the death of someone special, problems at work, college or at university, lack of confidence, sexual or emotional abuse. Many people talk about simply feeling ‘too fat’ or ‘not good enough’”.
Now these of course are extreme cases. Yet they point to the ease with which we use food and drink to fill something missing in our lives, to comfort us when we feel lonely, to satisfy us when we are not just physically, but also spiritually hungry.
The Ethicist Peter Kreeft puts it well:
“The motivation for gluttony is the unconscious self-image of emptiness: I must fill myself because I am empty, ghostlike, worthless.”
Gluttony is trying to fill a spiritual vacuum with a physical remedy. It is like taking penicillin for a broken heart – there’s nothing wrong with penicillin, but it doesn’t do much good for a restless soul, and too much of it can lead to all kinds of problems.
Gluttony strikes when the connection between food and its proper purpose is broken. Food is given to sustain the body, to enrich our communal life and to give pleasure to the taste. It is not there to comfort the isolated and lonely, to bolster a fragile self-image or to substitute for mediation or prayer. If you begin to recognise that you are regularly eating alone for spurious reasons, for reasons that seem different from the purpose of food itself, that may be when you need to watch out for the place of food in your life, or to get some help.
Gluttony rears its head when we begin to get food out of proportion. They key issue here is control. The overeater loses control over how much she eats. She is unable to stop herself taking the extra large Coke, the extra cream on the pudding, to finish off the packet of biscuits rather than stop at one. She believes the lie that it is impossible for her to control his eating. For the anorexic or bulimic, the issue is the other way round. For many sufferers from such diseases, or those who might have a tendency in that direction, the problem is too tight a control over what they eat, and their very identity becomes bound up with their illness. So here, the remedy is to learn to give up control, to re-form their identity around something other than eating habits, so that food can take its normal place as something to be enjoyed.
If the abuse of food often comes from a deep sense of dis-ease, a loss of self-worth, then the Christian answer to finding a true sense of being worth something can come only from the source of life himself, the one described in the Bible as the ‘bread of life’ - the one who gives food for the soul. Speaking of the emptiness that gluttony tries to fill with food, Peter Kreeft goes on to give the Christian answer to that emptiness:
“Only a knowledge of God’s love for me can fill that emptiness, make me a solid self, give me ultimate worth.”
When our desperate search for love is met by the deepest and most satisfying love of all, the love of a God who is Love, these deepest hurts can begin to be healed.