I sighed as my husband and I drove to our annual family reunion and potluck dinner. Images of all the delectable temptations I'd soon be facing taunted my determination to stick with my latest diet program.
As we arrived, temptation began to win. This reunion's only once a year, I told myself. I'm going to relax, eat as much as I want, and not worry about my diet.
Immediately God interrupted my thoughts: What would you say if someone used the reunion as an excuse to drink too much alcohol? I bristled inwardly. Using any occasion as an excuse to get drunk would be wrong (Ephesians 5:18)!
But God wouldn't let me off the hook so easily. I felt him gently probe me, asking me the difference between someone who got drunk and someone who ate too much. Doesn't my Word say both bring me displeasure? he seemed to say.
My mouth dropped in astonishment at this revelation. I'd never equated the two actions! I hated to admit it, but deep within me I knew my excess weight was rooted in sin; I'd allowed my cravings for food to control me more than my hunger for God. It had been easy for me to believe these two behaviors had nothing in common since Christians rarely address overeating as sin, but do address drunkenness that way. Yet both are the result of the same problem: a lack of self-control.
The Allure of Eating
For the first time, I saw my unrestrained eating habits as the sin of gluttony (Proverbs 23:20-21). Filled with this new awareness, I repented of my actions and attitude, and determined to separate myself from this behavior as no diet plan ever had.
Previously when I'd lost weight, I'd felt a powerful sense of self-satisfaction and pride. Not this time. As the pounds fell away, I felt indescribable gratitude and relief, as if I'd been set free from an addiction. This time when thoughts of food filled my mind, I'd pray or think of Scripture I was memorizing, refusing to put food in my mouth until I was actually hungry. Each day I grew stronger, no longer at the mercy of my cravings. Until now, I hadn't realized how much I was driven by external influences rather than the internal influence of God.
Food wasn't my only area of self-indulgence. I soon realized I spent excessively and worked excessively. Excessiveness defined my life, as it does most lives in modern society. It's become acceptable and normal, even considered healthy. We're encouraged to indulge ourselves because we're "worth it" or we've "earned it."
On the surface, I really didn't see anything terribly wrong with this philosophy. I wasn't hugely obese, nor was I in debt from my spending habits. I wasn't on the verge of a nervous breakdown from my fast-paced life. In fact, I enjoyed it, just as I enjoyed food and my possessions.
The harm was that these habits created a barrier between God and me. Instead of turning to God when I was happy, sad, or in the mood to celebrate, I turned to food or to the mallwhatever struck my fancy at the moment. While these things aren't sinful in themselvesnot even my favorite double-fudge cake with Hershey-bar fillingthe excessive attention I gave them was.
As I discovered the freedom that came with regaining control of my eating habits, it challenged me to take on other "acceptable sins" in my life.
The Seduction of Spending
One of the first memory verses I learned as a child was Philippians 4:19, "God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." This was a promise I wasn't letting God fulfill because I seldom practiced self-denial. My closets, drawers, and cupboards stood in direct contrast to Luke 12:15: "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."
Excessive spending is a subtle sin. There's not the shame attached to it that often accompanies obesity. In fact, just the opposite existsa person's success is usually measured by the abundance of her possessions.
This was a hard habit for me to control. I didn't realize the influence behind my excessive spending until I was reading my Bible one afternoon: "For all these worldly things, these evil desires. the ambition to buy everything that appeals to you, and the pride that comes from wealth and importancethese are not from God. They are from this evil world itself" (1 John 2:16, TLB).
I immediately justified my actions as I read those words: It's not my ambition to buy everything that appeals to me, and I don't go into debt. I dismissed the verse as something that didn't apply to me, until I opened my kitchen cupboard. Five sets of dishes stared down at me! Who needs five sets of dishes?
A memory of my earlier missionary days came to mind. The students at the school where I'd taught had torn off palm leaves to use as plates at mealtimes. Opening my cupboard exposed an area of excess whether I'd gone into debt for it or not. And since the desire for extra possessions didn't come from God, it was another area in which I was being controlled by an external influence.
The next Sunday, after reading the newspaper, I turned to the sale ads. If there's nothing you need, why are you looking at the sales? I knew this irritating thought came from God, but surely there was no harm in looking. After all, shopping at sales is prudent, isn't it? If you don't need it, it's wasteful, came another thought. With a resolute sigh, I tossed the ads into the garbage to remove the temptation. There was nothing I needed in them, only things I wanted.
During this time of struggle, however, there was one area of real material need in my life. After losing weight, I needed new clothes. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to see if God would keep his promise to supply my needs.
One afternoon an acquaintance called me. "My grandmother died," she said. "I've been going through her things, and I think her clothes might fit you. Would you like them?"
Knowing her grandmother was elderly, I wasn't too thrilled with God's provision. However, when she brought over several boxes, I couldn't believe my eyes. For three hours I reveled in gorgeous, classic, and pricey clothes, styles and brands I don't even glance at in stores because they're so expensive. Everything fit as if it had been tailored just for me. That afternoon I learned God's budget is much larger than mine.
I was beginning to understand: Self-indulgence results in pleasant but short-term gratification. When I allow God to provide, the process delivers not only material blessings, but spiritual ones as well. Realizing this further motivated me in my determination to rely on God rather than myself.
The Stumbling Block of Busyness
The Bible says, "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands" (1 Thessalonians 4:11). My life was far from quiet, but I'd never thought of that as sin, either. It seemed normal. After all, it's the American way to juggle the demands of family, work, and outside commitments while pushing back guilt because none receives the full attention it deserves. When I was stressed from overcommitment, I'd become impatient and irritable toward my family, leaving them feeling unimportant and unappreciated.
While I searched the Scriptures for an example of the lifestyle God desired for me, I read about the early church: "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people" (Acts 2:44-47).
I squirmed uncomfortably at these words, almost afraid to ask God for help. The lifestyle of the early church sounded nice but unrealistic for today's society. As I meditated on this passage, however, I realized it wasn't their life-style God wanted me to imitate but their life-focus. The early church centered on God and others instead of self. The result of that focus was unity, joy, and favor. That's what God wants for me!
I thought of another verse I'd memorized as a child, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33).
I'd always focused on the importance of seeking God. I'd never paid attention to the latter partthe "all things" that would be given to me. What were those "things"? Looking up the preceding verses, I had to smile. It was a list of what I work hard to provide for myself: food, clothes, health. God wanted me to understand that providing things was his responsibility; seeking him was mine. As with food, every time my thoughts wandered toward some new home improvement or other material distraction, I turned to prayer or Scripture to bring my mind back to God. I deliberately avoided window shopping or anything else that would entice me toward discontentment with what I already had. It was hard. Frequently I'd find myself dragging my thoughts from material things to spiritual things. The result, however, has been a level of contentment I've never before experienced.
I regret my years of apathy, even blindness, toward these "acceptable sins" in my life. I'm sorry it took me so long to realize that any behavioreven "acceptable" behavioris sin when it distracts me from God. It's an ongoing process to release these bad habits and guard against new ones. Each day I examine the motives behind my actions, asking, "Is this to please God or myself?" I've discovered that as my relationship with God grows more intimate, and as I see him provide in new ways, what I give up is nothing compared to what I gain through obedience to him.
Mayo Mathers, a TCW regular contributor, lives in Oregon.