Baxter on Gluttony: Choosing Selflessness Over Selfishness this Christmas

This may be not only the most unglamorous topic to write about, but perhaps even a bit insensitive at this time of year, when eating and drinking a lot are part of everyone’s weekly plans. Perhaps seeing a Puritan name in the same sentence as the “g” word raises even more hairs on the back of your neck. But just as the stereotype of the Puritans as killjoys is incorrect, so is nervousness surrounding the topic of gluttony. God doesn’t give us instructions about how to live in order to do away with our celebrations, but to help us celebrate in the best way—with concern for others above concern for ourselves.

This is what Baxter shows in his Christian Directory, which deals with countless aspects of the Christian life (including eating and drinking) in order to inspire the reader to do all things for God’s glory and give them practical advice for doing so. Like a good teacher should, Baxter starts with a definition of gluttony and explains each part:

“Gluttony is a voluntary excess in eating, for the pleasing of the appetite or some other carnal end.”[1]

The concept of excess can refer to quantity, frequency, cost, deliciousness, or unhealthy-ness. This standard of excess will be different for everyone depending on what kind of work they do, when they are able to eat, how much money they have, and how healthy or sick they are. In other words, someone who is overweight does not necessarily struggle with gluttony, and a skinny person is not necessarily free from this sin. Finally, carnal ends could be to please your appetite (individual desire) but not help your heath, or any other sinful desire.

Baxter then lists the causes of gluttony: inordinate appetite, habit, laziness, the pride of being rich, not understanding the benefits of abstinence, not understanding health, following cultural norms, and coping with life problems. Baxter’s diagnosis of social problems is shockingly relevant for us today. Under the categories of pride and customs, he reflects on the fact that people often use food to show their wealth or popularity by doing things like hosting lavish dinner parties, and he denounces society for making gluttony so normal that it is not longer seen as something disgraceful. Sound familiar? I can think of a plethora of memes about food that communicate ideas like eating until you’re sick is a cool thing that the popular kids do. We’ve even coined a new term “Netflix binge” to help us brag about our intemperance. If you’re starting to realize that you might view excess as a good thing, keep reading to see Baxter’s advice for you.

What comes next is my favorite part: Baxter’s explanation of the odiousness of gluttony. Perhaps that sounds morbid, but I like it because I know that seeing the nastiness of my sin is a great deterrent to do the same things in the future. If Baxter’s arguments don’t convince you to think twice about your eating habits, then you may have more serious spiritual issues. Gluttony is odious because it:

  1. Is contrary to God’s love and mercy, since it is idolatry (i.e., taking more pleasure in eating than in godliness, and using God’s gifts for yourself rather than God’s glory)

  2. Is self-murder, in that though it may not kill you right away, you will eventually die of a painful disease related to bad eating habits

  3. Is an enemy to the mind, reason, and diligence because over-eating makes your mind and body lethargic

  4. Makes you a consumer and makes you care less about people (because it makes you used to getting what you want)

  5. Wastes your life (Baxter says, think about it this way: if your life is all about earning money to eat, buying food to eat, preparing the food to eat, sitting down for a long time to eat, cleaning up after you eat, and then doing it all over tomorrow, you are living to eat and eating to shorten your life—this is vanity!)

  6. Does not take into account the necessity of the poor because you could rather be using some of your resources to provide for others (Baxter says this should especially affect Christians when they think about those who are being persecuted for their faith and need help)

Now that Baxter has shown us why we should care about gluttony, he lists several ways to fight against this sin. The first and most important is to kill this sin like you would any other: think about Christ’s sacrifice (and how he did not die to save you from sin so that you would keep sinning) and practice denying yourself. You could also try to find delight in God, see food as a gift to steward, learn about health, and make healthy choices a habit (rather than trusting your appetite, which is deceptive).

Baxter claims that if you teach yourself to be indifferent about what you eat (i.e., whether it tastes good or not) and not make a big deal out of it, you will be less stressed and more satisfied.

This is immensely practical and could help us avoid countless family squabbles. Wife, are you frustrated because, for umpteenth time, your husband didn’t get a ripe avocado when he went to the grocery store? Husband, are you frustrated because your wife put too much salt in your eggs? Teenager, are you frustrated and refusing to eat dinner because your parents made that meatloaf you hate? What a waste of our lives! Consider your life more important than what you eat, because it is.

A recommendation from Baxter that hits home for me is to not make your own table a temptation for others as if over-feeding people is a sign of true friendship. Baxter boldly states: this is not what real friends do! I can relate to this exhortation for two reasons. First, as someone with health issues that are exacerbated by over-eating, I am constantly faced with the problem of always being pushed to eat more than I can handle and I wish my hosts would understand this and not be offended. Second, as someone who has no skill in making fancy meals and feels self-conscious about having people over for dinner, I’m reminded that fellowshipping with others around food isn’t about showing off but about serving them and spending time together.

Baxter also suggests not sitting at the dinner table too long, not spending more money on food than is necessary and giving the rest to the poor, thinking about how one day you’re going to die and your expensive food wouldn’t have done you any good, and learning about how Christians in the past have practiced fasting. Finally—and perhaps most relevant to the Christmas season—Baxter suggests visiting a poor person’s house in order to see what they eat. He claims that seeing poverty will do more for you than just hearing about it and will make you want to help. In this Christmas season, helping at a homeless shelter or church event where the cranberries are canned and the gravy is from a mix could do wonders for your own Christmas dinner stress.

Overall, Baxter is not concerned about being fit and lean as a result of trying to get a hot bod, or being scrawny and under-fed as a result of practicing asceticism, but using what you need and giving the rest to others because everything is a gift from God.

You commit the sin of gluttony when you let food control you or concern you more than loving and pleasing God, who wants you to love other people.

This will look different for all of us, but I hope that this Christmas you’ll consider starting a new family tradition of getting what you need, thanking God for it, and giving the rest to those who need it—those for whom God has given you your resources.

 

[1] Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory: Volume 2 (London: Printed for Richard Edwards, 1825), 369. A free digitized version of this edition of Baxter’s Christian Directory is available on Google Books.

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