When I go to Starbucks these days, the barista asks me, “Want to make that a venti for only 25 cents more?” This is, of course, a good thing for them because if thousands of customers increase their payment by a quarter, that means loads of dollars for Starbucks. It’s ostensibly a good deal for me too because, well, what’s a little pocket change for four extra ounces of a smooth caramel macchiato? (Who cares that I’m paying four bucks for a coffee.)
The “can’t have too much of a good thing” slogan rings in my ears. But I wonder, is this attitude a mere enjoyment of God’s gifts, or does it betray our addiction to pleasure?
Our tendency is not simple appreciation. We justify a venti caramel macchiato (that is, a 20-ounce treat that nourishes you with 340 calories, 13 grams of fat, 39 grams of sugar, and 150 milligrams of caffeine — all in one paper cup) saying it’s a good deal. It’s only a quarter more!
Yet something else is quietly at play: We want more.
I don’t know how many times I’ve gone out to a restaurant and eaten more food than I would ever eat for dinner in my home — and walked away feeling more sick than satisfied. Then there are holidays. I’ve got to try some of everything, plus seconds on sweet potatoes (the kind with marshmallow on top), and when we pull out pies and cookies, I’ve got to sample each and get extras of my favorites.
My 2-year-old son already has a fascination with more. He loves to see the train go by, so we always point it out to him when we see it coming. He watches with excitement, and as soon as it passes, he doesn’t say, “That was cool!”; he says, “I wanna see another one choo-choo!” The same goes with snacks. When we give him animal crackers, before he even eats one, he says, “I need more animal crackers.” Not “thank you,” but “more.” And even worse, he has learned to distort the distinction between wanting and needing more.
The more problem infects not only individuals. Consumers and businesses have collaborated to create a culture of craving. How often do we hear advertisements say, “indulge yourself,” “you deserve it,” “pamper yourself”? (Picture a big piece of chocolate cake with chocolate icing taking up your TV screen — just for you!) And if they don’t say it outright, they imply it with images of people who indulge themselves on the latest fashion, food or fun — people who, no less, look physically, socially and emotionally healthy.
Don’t expect our capitalist culture to change. Some companies’ profit depends on us buying things we don’t need. They’re not about to stop pushing their cappuccinos or clothing lines because we tell them we want them to give us only moderate options. They leave it to the consumer to make choices. And as long as the consumer keeps buying more, they’ll produce.
A Christian Response
So if the culture shows no signs of curbing its deliverance of more, what’s a Christian to do? First of all, recognize that our cultural (and natural) instinct is to overload. Our society accepts it — just watch some of the carts coming out of Sam’s Club. And even in Christian circles, people say, “Go ahead, you need to indulge every now and then!”
As theologian Robert Pyne explains, “Gluttony, it seems, is the most easily excused of the Seven Deadly Sins. It is as if we have been presented with Six Deadly Sins and One Funny One, but there’s nothing funny about gluttony.”Robert Pyne, Humanity & Sin, ed. Charles R. Swindoll (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 240. Gluttony, taken narrowly, emphasizes overeating, but taken broadly, points to the seriousness of overindulging in anything — food, entertainment, money and more.
Let it be noted clearly that it’s narrow-sighted to assume gluttony only encumbers people who appear overweight. Gluttony doesn’t always show its effects visibly (thin people can overindulge too), and obesity does not necessarily imply gluttony. I’m reminded here of Jesus’ warning about judging others and ignoring ourselves (Matthew 7:1–5).
After recognizing the human gluttonous bent, think and act globally. The me-ism of our culture runs so coarsely in our blood that we often miss how selfishly we focus on ourselves. But fixing our eyes on God’s love for people all over the world, most of whom have far, far less than you and me, helps us to give up something we don’t need so we can redirect our resources of time and money to others with great needs.
One couple I know has stopped eating out so frequently to commit more money to their church’s ministry. Although we’re so used to getting whatever we need or want, they take a broader view of the world and deny some pleasures to give more to others. That perspective sacrifices comforts on this earth to invest in the eternal heaven.
Finally, learn to practice restraint by God’s grace. Proverbs 23:21 says that “the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.” The self-indulgent never find enough. They get more and more, but end up with nothing because satisfaction is only found in moderation, never in indulgence.
Another proverb compares “a man without self-control” to “a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). In the ancient Near East, the walls served as a city’s primary protection against pillage; without walls a city faced imminent attack and loss. Solomon describes here a plundered city left defenseless against attack. Think about the comparison when we indulge ourselves: We make ourselves vulnerable to destruction, tearing down our own walls of protection by failing to control our desires.
The New Testament follows this same wisdom. In Galatians 5 Paul describes the struggle between the desires of our flesh and the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. Many of the “works of the flesh” that Paul lists are sins of wanting or pursuing more — sexual immorality, jealousy, envy, drunkenness and orgies (vv. 19–21). In contrast, the Spirit of God produces different fruit in our lives: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (vv. 22–23).Emphasis added. Similarly, Peter charges Christians to “make every effort” to implement self-control, amongst other qualities, into their lives to be effective for Christ (2 Peter 1:5–8).
Self-control is one mark of a Christian. We follow the One who said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself” (Luke 9:23). If we take that call seriously, how can we not bridle our pursuit of pleasure?
G. K. Chesterton explains that wanting more of a good thing perverts the gift of pleasure. To refuse any restrictions on pleasures such as sex doesn’t harmonize with a fitting use of the gift. According to Chesterton, “A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once.”G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; repr., New York: Image Books, 1959), 55. Be thankful for the one gate you have!
Philip Yancey, commenting on Chesterton’s views, “came to see sex, money, power, and sensory pleasures as God’s gifts which, in a fallen world, must be handled with care, like explosives.” In our world, each of these good gifts holds “the potential for abuse. Eating becomes gluttony, love becomes lust, and along the way we lose sight of the One who gave us pleasure. The ancients turned good things into idols; we moderns call them addictions. In either case, what ceases to be a servant becomes a tyrant.”Philip Yancey, “G. K. Chesterton: Prophet of Mirth,” forward to Chesterton, Orthodoxy, xvi.
In handling these good gifts rightly, then, Chesterton offers a model not of abstinence but of moderation, limiting ourselves by appropriate boundaries. He suggests that “the proper form of thanks … is some form of humility and restraint: We thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them.”Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 63.
And therein lies the rub. It is much easier to say “no” to everything than to say “yes, but not too much.” Whatever the pleasure — whether wine, sex, money, power, TV, iPods, computer gadgets — we generally want more than we have, thankless for God’s gifts, perpetually dissatisfied. And thus we become gorged with ourselves, not with God.
Hope in Sufficient Grace
We need most to realize that God gives us enough, and that when we indulge ourselves anyway, his mercy adequately covers our sins of excess. We fall on our face at the foot of the cross with all our drunkenness, lust, and gluttony, and Christ says, “I forgive you. My blood cleanses you and makes you clean like white linen.” And we cry, “Thank you! Thank you for giving me the pardon I don’t deserve!”
But Christ continues: “Go and sin no more. My grace is sufficient for you.”
Being the greedy Christians we are, we respond, “But, Lord, I need more grace. Give me more grace.” He replies, “My grace is sufficient.”
We don’t need more grace. We need God’s grace. The grace of Jesus Christ, infused with divine power that overcomes sin and death — that grace is enough, and there we find satisfaction. It is in the sufficiency of God’s grace that we learn to thank God, as Chesterton suggests, by not taking too much. We learn restraint by living the sufficiency of God’s grace in every area of our lives.
The Other End of the Table
Our extremist tendency pushes us to respond to this discussion by adopting asceticism. Obviously I don’t deny that denying ourselves has benefit for embracing the sufficiency of God’s grace and learning the discipline of Christ. But that doesn’t necessitate asceticism, the extreme denial that renounces even God’s good gifts.
Instead, we must pursue a moderation across our lives that demonstrates dependence on Christ and thanks God by not taking too much.
I’m not saying, “Drinking a venti caramel macchiato is a sin!” If only reducing sin to such black-and-white categories were that easy. Rather, we need to study in the school of God’s wisdom and learn proper ways to apply moderation to varying situations. But the venti coffee drink does represent the tendency of Americans to super-size, to overdo so many areas of our lives. As followers of Christ, we need to reflect carefully on how we respond to the cultural excuse to indulge ourselves whenever we want.
So enjoy God’s gifts — a caramel latte, an entertaining film, the fruits of your labor. But thank God by curtailing your craving for too much. And remember the billions of people around the world whom God loves, and let that motivate you to give up your indulgences (and more) so you can give to others. Resting in the sufficiency of God’s grace, learn to make wise, moderate choices and to exercise restraint.
If you do, you may not always get all you want. But you will find rich satisfaction in Christ.
Copyright 2007 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.