Hungry, Hungry Hippo: My life as a Glutton

Hungry Hungry DriscollHistorically Lent has been a time where Christians pay attention to where our appetites have led us astray. So I thought it made sense to start my reflections on the seven deadly sins by examining the sin of Gluttony (for information on my approach, track back to the last post). But another reason for starting here is more personal. I am a 7 on the Enneagram which means I enjoy life and all its various pleasures. When I am healthy, I am enthusiastic, imaginative and full of joy, but the sin I am susceptible to is gluttony. I am someone who left to my own devices avoids pain by self medicating. However I am not really alone. We live in a consumer culture which feeds our personal preferences, appetites and desires at every turn. When things are going well we enjoy the sensual pleasures of a well cooked meal paired with fine wine (or beer). When things are going badly we find our favorite comfort foods: ice cream, chocolate, Tapitio Doritos, homemade chili or spam musubi. We feed ourselves to cope with what can’t be changed and we indulge the guilty pleasures of too much far too often. This is personal issue for me but it is a broad cultural issue as well (statistics on obesity back this up). So while I may be tempted towards gluttony my whole culture conspires against me.

The reason that Gluttony is so prevalent in our culture is that we regard it as no big deal. The Christian tradition regarded Gluttony as one of the deadly sins. Today we regard some of the physical problems associated with over-eating deadly but do not really see Gluttony as a spiritual problem.

So how do you know you are a Glutton?

So I am a glutton, are you? How would you know? The assumption is that we all know gluttons when we see them because we’ve stood behind them at Taco Bell. Yet there is so much more to Gluttony than overeating. Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung says that in the Middle Ages Gluttony was described with this slogan, “Too daintly, too sumptuously, too greedily, too much. (Glittering Vices, 141). Overeating is Gluttony, But Gluttony is more than just overeating. How much is enough? It includes any sort of practice which involves letting your personal appetites run wild. Catering to your inner-foody or your delicate tastes is a form of Gluttony. As Deyoung observes, “It is possible to eat healthy and appropriate foods in a manner that betrays desire gone awry. The question is not whether we are fat or thin, polite or impolite, but whether we are eating to satisfy our own wants, in a way that elevates our own satisfaction above other goods (Glittering Vices, 145).”

DeYoung also observes that modern inventions such as chewing gum and Diet Coke are ways that we can give into our appetites and personal desires but minimize the physical impact of our choices. The result is that we eat and drink ‘guilt free’ but we are still eating and drinking for our own personal gratification (147). Sin isn’t just crouching at the door; Gluttony is squatting in the stall because we let it in and regard its presence as no big deal.

What to do about our Gluttony

In the Christian tradition one way to become aware of the ways we are enslaved to appetites and unhealthily feeding them is to fast. Fasting reveals to us the things that control us. This is why many of us give up coffee, chocolate or alcohol during Lent. These are all good things to be enjoyed in their place but fasting from them reveals the ways in which we have allowed our desire and dependence on each to rule us. So fasting during Lent is one way to set the reset button on our appetites so we can freely enjoy all these things properly without being mastered by them.

Kallistos Ware describes the value of a Lenten fast:

The Primary aim at fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence on God. If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food… involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. The purpose of this is to lead us in turn to a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us, that is, to the point where we feel the full force of Christ’s statement, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
If we always take our fill of food and drink, we easily grow confident in our own abilities, aquiring a false sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency. The observance of a physical fast undermines this sinful complacency (quoted in Glittering Vices, 157).

The Virtue of Temperance

The goal of fasting is not simply to eat less but to be content in God. While I agree with Ware and DeYoung above about how fasting breaks the bonds of Gluttony in us, fasting is a step on the journey towards finding contentment in God. A severe fast would be an over-correction and would do little to reign in our appetites. The virtue of Temperance implies appropriate self restraint not heroic asceticism. John Cassian records some sound advice from one of the Desert fathers:

We must rapidly ensure that we do not slide into danger on account of the urge for bodily pleasure. We must not anticpate food before the time for it and we must not overdo it; on the other hand, when the due hour comes, we must have our food and our sleep, regardless of our reluctance. Each battle is raised by the devil. Yet too much restraint can be more harmful than a satisfied appetite. Where the latter is concerned, one may, as a result of saving compunction, move on to a measured austerity. But with the former this is impossible (John Cassian, Conferneces-Classics of Western Spirituality, 76).

So I recommend for you and for me that we overcome Gluttony through gentle discipline, curbing our appetites so that they do not master us. I personally didn’t give up anything food related this Lent, but in small ways I am looking for ways to guard against Gluttony and enjoy God’s good things without being controlled by them.

This is not Mark Driscoll

Seven Deadly Sins: Pracitices of Spiritual Deformation

Bosch Deadly Sins

You may regard this post as a teaser. I plan over the next couple of weeks to post reflections on each of the deadly sins, but I want to say something about what the deadly sins are and my approach to them. My hope is to probe each of the deadly sins as a means of taking inventory of my own soul(’tis the season to be penitent) but also to offer up some insights from the Christian tradition for those like me who struggle.

The Seven Sins were once eight but because of cutbacks Satan had to lay one of the sins off. Alright, maybe that isn’t exactly the story, but the Seven Deadly Sins did come out of a list of eight that one of the desert fathers, Evagrius of Ponticus(345-399 CE)formulated. These ‘eight thoughts’ were part of a demonic strategy to tempt the faithful (monks) away from their rule and their commitment to God. Evagrius’ buddy John Cassian (360-435 CE) built on Evagrius’ thinking but kept his list: Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Wrath, Sadness, Sloth(Acedia), Vainglory andPride. With Gregory the Great (530-604 CE) pride was separated out from the list and identified as a root sin of all the others. When Aquinas formulated his list these were the sins: Vainglory, Envy, Sloth, Avarice, Wrath, Lust and Gluttony. This is the list I will be interacting with the later list but I think that Evagrius, Cassian and the desert dudes still have important things to say.

Following Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s insightful book, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies(Brazos, 2009), I will be interacting with each of these sins as ‘vice’ rather than ‘Sin.’ What’s the difference? Sin is a term used broadly to refer to either a wrong action or a persisting condition. Vice is a more limited term referring specifically to practiced sin. Through a series of habitual acts the vice (i.e. Gluttony, Lust, Greed) (de)forms spiritual character. Think of it this way: if you overeat you have committed the ‘sin; of gluttony; if you are caught in the ‘vice of gluttony,’ you habitually overeat and thus are a glutton.

By thinking of each of these ‘deadly sins’ as a vice my aim will be to see where our habitual practices have spiritual mis-shaped us and then propose alternative practices which shape us in the virtuous life and our pursuit of God. I am excited by this series of posts, so please stay tuned. They will be Sinsational.

When I saw this book I thought of you (A book review)

Our Favorite Sins Okay sinners, here is a book for you. Todd D. Hunter, author, Anglican bishop, adjunct professor, and authority on sin has written a helpful book on dealing with the problem of temptation (or dealing with the problem of ‘not dealing with temptation).

What makes this book so good is Hunter eschews strategies for handling sin that don’t go to the root of the problem. He isn’t interested in simply helping you modify your behavior; rather he want you to do the hard inner-work of looking at where your desires are disordered and are causing you to be tempted in certain ways. He writes:

Disordered desires are a tyrant. This is why we struggle against them, striving to overthrow them in our hearts like the little despots they are….Our disordered desires are ruling our hearts and minds, and we don’t know what to do about it (7)

Hunter is adamant that we can only be tempted when a desire that we already have inside matches something that comes to our attention. Thus temptation is not an outside problem; it’s a heart problem.

Using research from the Barna group, Hunter addresses the five chief areas where contemporary people are tempted: anxiety, procrastination, overeating, media addiction, and laziness. While he has some practical insights into each temptation, he primarily uses these issues as case studies to explore how various strategies do not really get at the core of our sin problem.

Hunter’s proposed plan for dealing with sin involves the recovery of ‘Ancient and Fruitful’ practices such as the abstaining disciplines of silence and solitude, retraining your desires to desire the Kingdom first, liturgical prayer & the daily office, the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist and the Lectionary. He urges us to hold on to hope, carry a vision and make a plan to overcome temptation, but also to make use of the resources we have in Christ and the Holy Spirit. The bottom line is that overcoming temptation will require inner-work retraining disordered desires and cultivating a vision and hope for the Kingdom and a relationship with the triune God.

Each chapter closes with a prayer exercise taken from one of the prayers from the Book of Common Prayer or the Celtic prayer book. I really appreciated these prayers (they also feature prominently in several chapters). This made this book more formational than merely informational for me. The book is an invitation into cultivating the sort of inner life which can stand up in the time of trial. There is a lot of wisdom in Hunters words. His reliance on prayer, sacraments and spiritual practices point the way to victory from the sin that so easily entangles us.

One question I would have is what role does the community have in helping us pursue holiness? It is true that some of the practices he commends are communal (liturgical prayer, the sacraments, etc.) but the theme of mutual accountability is underdeveloped. Maybe he’s right that wrestling with sin is personal inner work but I also crave the intercession of the saints, particularly those who know me as I am (not just a general confession). I also have experienced hearing the words of absolution from those who knew my tangled heart in all its tawdry details and it broke the power of my shame. It seems like an important dimension of this.

The appendix of the book includes Barna’s survey which provides the statistic data used by Hunter in the chapters. Frankly I am not sure that the Barna study adds a whole lot. Hunter makes use of the statistical data, but on one level he’s rather ambivalent to it. He hones on the five particular areas of temptation that most of the respondents struggled with but he is clear that even if these are not your areas of struggle, the remedy of inner work, spiritual disciplines, prayer, sacraments and the larger story of redemption provides you the way to freedom.

These small caveats aside I highly recommend this book for you if you are self aware enough to know your struggle with sin and temptation. Otherwise I’m sure you know someone particularly sinful whom you could probably gift this book too. Give it to them and say, “When I saw this book, I thought of you.”

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me with a copy of this book. I was asked to give a fair and honest review, and that is what you just read.

Beyond a Season of Sin Management

Did you give up anything for Lent? If so, why did you? I ask this because I have been thinking about Lent and its practices. Stop Sinning

In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard indicted the church in the West for what he termed ‘the gospel of sin management.’ By this he meant a view of Christian truth which reduced the gospel to ‘just’ forgiveness for sin, making us righteous before God no matter what sort of mess we continue to make of our own life. Willard writes:

History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally. That is where we find ourselves today. (D Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Discovering Our Hidden Life in God, 41).

This has been the temptation of evangelicals: to reduce our proclamation of the good news to Christ’s work on the cross to ‘merely’ dealing with our sin so we can go to heaven when we die. Yet we have few coherent things to say about what God is doing in our life now, the ways in which God is at work in our life and sanctifying us and transforming us into the image of Christ. We focus on our forgiveness before God because of Jesus’s cross, but we fail to see the ways in which we are to enjoy the kingdom of God now, and missionally extend it.

If Willard is right that we have made the gospel simply about managing ‘wrongdoing, wrong-being and its effects,’ then what implications does this have for our Lenten practice? Do we give up chocolate or coffee in hopes of reigning in our bad habits a little more (remembering that Jesus died because of our penchant for extra dessert) and abstain for ’40 days’ because we are more likely to succeed than we were with our New Year’s resolutions? When we are finished with Lent do we go back to integrating our bad habits into our life so that we can give up the same thing next year? Is this season just a season of sin management? What do you expect to get out of Lent? Is it just to rely more on God for your eternal destiny or does it affect the way you live now?

This is a season to enter into a penitent space acknowledging our own sinfulness and weaknesses. We do this not just so that we are really thankful about how forgiven we are when we feel the pay off Easter morning and know that heaven awaits. Walking with Jesus on the way of the cross means entering into a whole new way of life with him and being transformed by it. Our hearts are penitent so that we can make space for Christ to be fully formed in us and we have the strength to turn from our lives of sin and taste more of the good things of God.

We seek not to manage our sin for a season but we fast so that we can experience more of God and the transforming power of the Spirit in our lives now. Yes Jesus came to deal with our sin and Lent is a time when we reflect on that aspect of Christ’s work but there is much more for us here.

Why Evangelicals don’t do confession.

If you had the will or inclination to comb through the Christian blogosphere yesterday you would have seen many Lenten and Ash Wednesday reflections about Sin, Confession and our mortality. Many have observed, and to which I add my voice, that among current Evangelicals there is a discomfort with confession and penitence. I preached a sermon a couple of years back on Psalm 51 and observed that our discomfort with sin, is really discomfort with talking about our own sin and confessing it. My friend Axel tweeted yesterday, “Why does penitence seem so foreign to evangelicals now? It’s certainly in the Bible!” I tweeted back that evangelicals no longer read their bibles, a fact of which we are in sad agreement.

So if we can agree that confession of sin is something that is part of the biblical (and Christian) spiritual life, why don’t we do it?
I can think of several cultural factors which contribute to us getting honest with God and one another about our sin:

1. We’ve over-corrected our bad evangelism

    Years ago Evangelicals thought the way to get people see their need is to show people how bad they were (because otherwise why would they want a God?). There is a certain internal logic to this and people do come to Christ being brought by the Spirit under conviction of Sin. Unfortunately preachers and evangelists have seen fit to do the Spirit’s work and have employed every method they know how to make people feel guilty, sinful and rotten to the core. Evangelicals today look at some of these methods as manipulation, judgmental and they cringe and rightfully so. Unfortunately this has signaled a retreat in addressing personal sin, almost all together.

2. We live in a self-help, therapeutic culture.

    Most of us have not read I’m Okay, You’re Okay but we have imbibed its message (I think, I haven’t read it). Our culture is infatuated with helping people achieve their best, be their best, be comfortable in their own skin and follow their bliss. And the church follows. Do you want to write a Christian book that no one will read? Write about holiness or write about repentance. It won’t make the Christian best sellers list. What does? Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now and books of that ilk. Whatever the merits of books like that are (I don’t know I haven’t read them) they are written to appeal to our longing for self fulfillment but do not face our weaknesses.

3. The church has a leadership fetish.

    Everywhere you look there are books, conferences, speakers, personalities which tell us how to be effective and successful leaders. You can take tests which gage your strengths, your Emotional intelligence, your gifts, your leadership style. I have taken some of these tests and read a lot of leadership books and see their value, but they don’t tell the whole story. Tom Rath’s Strength Finder 2.0 urges you to play to your strengths and leadership and not spend all your time and energy developing your ‘weak areas.’ There is a certain logic to this, but when applied to our moral life and character it is deadly.

4. We live in a culture of tolerance .

    The motto of our current culture is: different strokes for different folks. Nobody wants to be seen as intolerant and judgmental of other people’s decisions (unless they infringe on us personally) so we have grown accustom to not addressing issues of sin in our culture. Is it any wonder that we do not recognize the sin of our own heart?

5. But this is who I am and it feels right

    Without starting a debate on my blog on hotly debated political and theological issues the assumption that activities that feel natural should always be enjoyed is flawed. We live in a culture where personal preferences and desires exert a tyrannical rule over our lives. We all want the freedom to pursue the things we enjoy, but a disordered desire always takes us down a tangled path. With the wider culture, evangelicals have lost the ability to name internal sin. We are still good at pointing out when someone has crossed the line, but we have grown lousy at naming the ways our own passions bring us to ruin.

Put together is it any wonder that evangelicals no longer give much thought to penitence? Certainly there are issues and emphases in the history of evangelicalism that we are wise to not repeat, but naming our own sins is not one of them. As you enter this season what are you doing to reign in the sin of your own heart?

Nothing of Substance to Say

Blank stareI have just finished up editing my two sermons for tomorrow and excited about them. Beware a preacher who is excited about what he has to say! Then again: beware a preacher who is not excited about what he has to say! As I have pressed into the meaning of the transfiguration and the transforming power of the Gospel (as described in Ephesians:1-7) God has wowed me and I am encouraged and hungry for more of his presence and transforming power. My hope is that my hearers catch my excitement!

So obviously I think I have something of substance to say, but not here and not today. Instead I thought I would give y’all a heads up on what I will be posting here in the weeks ahead:

    -I’ll link these sermons I’ve blogged on, when they are posted online.
    -Expect more book reviews, starting with the book I will be using as my prayerbook through lent
    -Speaking of Lent, I will take this season to press into the nature of sin and hope to blog my thoughts on the subject and interacting with writings of contemporary authors, desert saints, and puritans (or if you have any other suggestions, happy to oblige)
    -In the same vein, I will blog the so called penitential psalms
    -Expect to see some more of my commentary, my cranky cynicism and small graces

Stay tuned, sooner or later I will have something substantive to say.

What if the Evangelical Obsession With Sex Keeps us From Admitting Our Sins?

In an election year, like every year, you will here a lot of Evangelicals talking about sex. Recently prominent Evangelicals threw their support behind Rick Santorum. This is probably because of Santorum’s strong opposition to gay marriage, abortion and his integrity in sexual relationships (unlike Newt Gingrich who is on his third marriage). But of course Evangelical obsession with sex goes far beyond the realm of politics. Practically everything Mark Driscoll says about sex goes on the internet and goes viral and books, software and conferences directed at helping Christians have sexual integrity is a huge industry. I bet you are reading this because I’m talking about sex. We like sex, we love to talk about it, we want to have more satisfying sex and we want to be free from sexual sin. And yes, some of this is quite appropriate, though not all.

The Temptation of St. Hilarion
But what if our obsession with sex keeps us from examining other areas of our heart and life where sin has been crouching at the door?

My thoughts on this come to me as I am preparing a Bible Study on Galatians for my church small group. I have been reading through No Other Gospel: 31 Reasons From Galatians Why Justification By Faith Alone is the Only Gospel by Josh Moody. Josh Moody is the pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. Whenever I prep something I check more technical commentaries (for Galatians I always look at Richard Longnecker’s Word Commentary and
Jimmy Dunn’s Black’s New Testament Commentary) but I also want to know how it preaches. This is what Josh Moody provides. For the most part he has solid exegesis (with a Reformed Evangelical bias) which attends to the text, but as a preacher he proclaims and draws out the implications for life. In his exposition of Galatians 1:11-12 (verses that are not about sex) he says this:

The gospel of sexual liberation is a gospel of man that hasn’t worked. Why are our inner cities facing great difficulties? Why do our men cave in to the addiction of lust? Why is there rising risk of abuse? The gospel of sexual liberation is running its course. We are told that the Victorians were too strict and prim with their sexual repression, but now we have the fire of sexuality let out of the fireplace and running rampant through the house and setting ablaze and burning out and destroying people in our society.

This is a fairly typical conservative Evangelical interpretation of where society has run amiss. Sexual freedom leads to the breakdown of marriage which in turn causes all hell to break loose. But really? Sexual liberation is why the inner city faces such difficulties?
Or is it that we as a church have failed to take care of the most vulnerable members of our society?

    Could it be that we talk about sex so that we don’t have to take an honest look at where we as individuals and as a church have been complicit in injustice?

    Have we done our part to care for widows and orphans (James 1:27)?

    Have we cared for the resident aliens (Exodus 22:21) in our land or have we ghettoized them?

    Are we guilty of racism? Are there those in our suburban congregations (like, lets say in Wheaton, Illinois) who engaged in ‘white flight’ leaving the inner-city when minorities moved in? Did we as a church combat housing policies which discriminated against African-Americans and other minorities (essentially creating the ghettos we have today)?

    Are we doing all we can to combat injustice in our neighborhoods and society or are we turning a blind eye?

Does society’s libertine attitudes towards sex contribute to problems in society? Yes. But my problem with naming this as the sole cause of problems in the inner-city is that it doesn’t name our sin. It talks about the sins of those sex-crazed poor folk and not about the sins of an educated, mostly white evangelicalism which has failed to care for the poor.If our obsession with sex causes us to look in judgement on others, maybe we need to also look inward at the ways where our actions (and inaction) have contributed to societies ills.

I am absolutely in favor of sexual purity and fidelity to one’s spouse. Let’s just not end our discussion of sin there.