The god of the Belly
Robert Wurtz II
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body (1 Corinthians 6:12-13).
For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Philippians 3:18-19 ESV).
I’ve taken the unusual and unpopular step of addressing a common issue in the Western World that impacts saints and sinners alike. The world has marketed food and eating so that we are eating ourselves to death, not to mention the spiritual implications. For companies, it’s about turning a profit (1 Timothy 6:10), but the implications for us are enormous. Between slick marketing, false information, and the salting and sweetening of all kinds of processed food items, food has become almost an addiction.
I heard a minister once comment publically about how certain Christians “love to eat.” I’m not criticizing the person but pointing out a blind spot in our spiritual lives. If they made the same statement about lust or theft, the person would have been ostracised and run out of town. So why don’t we blush or think twice when our eating is excessive at best and gluttonous at worst? We are quick to condemn some sins but not others.
Pleasure from Eating
We derive happiness from the satisfaction of our appetites. Eating, for example, is more than a task we perform to stay alive, just like sexual relations are more than procreation. However, if God showed us how much of our happiness depends upon the pleasure we derive from eating, we might be surprised, if not shocked.
In Luke 16:19, the Lord Jesus told a story of a rich man who “fared sumptuously every day.” Notice it didn’t say he fasted. He left that to Lazarus out in the streets. The word “sumptuously” suggests a daily buffet of food. Gildas Hamil, in his scholarly work, Poverty and Wealth in Roman Palestine (in the first three centuries), estimates that to have a three-fourths pound of meat on the table daily, one must have the wealth necessary to pay thirty workers for a whole year (NICNT).
I suggest that by Biblical standards, most people in America are as rich as the man in Luke 16:19 in terms of eating, if not more so. Our diet is known as the Standard American Diet or SAD and it has has long been implicated in contributing to the health challenges experienced in the United States. Significant changes to the SAD have occurred since the 1950s, including a greater abundance and accessibility to calorie-dense and nutrient-poor food and beverage choices (National Institute for Health or NIH).
Abusing the Good
Paul reminds the Corinthians, “All things are lawful unto me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” Eating is not a sin, but it is a sin if we give ourselves over to eating and are enslaved to food. Paul said that all things are lawful but refused to come under the servanthood of anything, including good things, such as eating food.
The world works to make the experience of eating border on worship. People have always loved a good meal, but in modern times we have gone to extremes. A common adjective that describes delicious food is decadent. The dictionary defines it as “characterized by or reflecting a state of moral or cultural decline.” Maybe we would change our minds if we used some of the synonyms for decadent:
gone to the dogs
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Philippians 3:17 ESV).
Our passage precedes the verses above, showing a contrast between Paul’s example and the “lifestyle” or “way” of those “whose god is their belly” (Philippians 3:17-18). Hard workers and those who live disciplined lives keep busy and eat their own food (2 Thessalonians 3:8-12). However, they were moderate in these things and did not allow their appetites to dominate them.
Bringing the Body into Subjection
Paul told the Corinthians that he got under his body and brought it into subjection lest he would be disqualified after preaching to others (1 Corinthians 9:27). How did he do it? He fasted like all other believers in the New Testament. It wasn’t a matter of if you fast but when you fast (Matthew 16:16). Paul taught others to fast and gave instruction (1 Corinthians 7:5).
Imagine thousands of people going three days without eating. This happened twice under the ministry of Jesus. He fed them with loaves and fish both times (John 6:1-14, Mark 8:1-9) lest they “faint” trying to make it home. If we heard of people going three days without eating in America, we would be mortified. Why? The world has succeeded in programming our minds to think we must eat _____ times a day. It keeps the machines moving and the money flowing.
When the Belly Reigns
If we obey our hunger or cravings without discipline, we risk losing control of all of our appetites. Hunger is a powerful urge, but we mustn’t serve it as if it were a god. The belly tries to dominate the body with all kinds of pains and cravings, and we must control it lest it control us.
The Corinthians apparently had a saying, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” that they used to justify eating excessively and committing fornication. Paul rebukes this notion saying, “And God will destroy both one and the other.”
God indeed created the stomach for processing the food we eat. It is an awesome design, and eating is meant to bring pleasure. However, God never intended for our stomachs to rule over us or that we find fulfillment in eating. He never intended hunger or the pleasure of eating sweet and savory foods to control us or dominate our lives, much less interfere with our relationship with Him.
The god of the Belly (koilia)
In 1 Corinthians 6:12-13, Paul used the Greek word koilia, translated as stomach in the ESV. Koilia is elsewhere translated as belly or womb in the KJV. The belly, as a creaturely organ, is necessary to maintain earthly life, but it is corruptible” (TDNT emphasis added).
To tell someone, “Your god is your belly,” is very strong language. Adding to this statement, Paul says, “They glory in their shame.” In other words, they should be ashamed of how their belly has been corrupted through indulgence, but they glory instead. If we boast of our love for eating, we risk rejoicing (glorying) in something we should be ashamed of.
Gluttony in Crete
One of them, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12 NKJV).
In Titus 1:12 NKJV, we have the word glutton, which in the KJV reads, “The Cretians are always brute beasts and slow bellies,” meaning lazy gormandizers or gluttons. Such in Ancient Greece were called gastródouloi, slaves of their stomachs. Our English word gastritis and gastric are derived from gastḗr (TCWSD).
The island of Crete had no wild animals living there, but Paul agreed with one of their prophets, who referred to the people themselves as evil beasts. What do wild beasts do? Much of their life is spent satiating their appetites. This ought not to be of a Christian. Paul commanded Titus to “rebuke them sharply that they may be sound in the faith.”
Serving the Belly
Hunger is one of our most powerful urges or instincts. Craving food is like having our belly seek to dominate us. We must learn to say, NO! Again, eating is a good, natural desire. However, when this desire becomes a means of finding satisfaction and fulfillment in this life, we end up serving our belly rather than Christ. Like the divisive people in Romans 16:18, “serving their own belly” was at the root of their problems.
When we indulge in eating, we are adding strength to the natural man. We cannot serve two masters. We cannot obey our bellies with the same force that we obey Christ or put our bellies before Christ. Some will argue that the word “belly” should be used metaphorically for appetites in general. Well, what is our strongest appetite? It is eating and drinking.
The Belly’s Power
It’s okay to eat and drink, but we mustn’t allow our Western culture that “fairs sumptuously” daily to delude us into thinking this was how Paul or Jesus ate. I struggle to find examples of anyone eating for pleasure in the New Testament in the way we do in the West. We don’t even think about it. We have normalized it.
The belly has provoked people to act against all natural feelings and instincts. God warned the Israelites that if they turned to sin, they would eat their own children (Deuteronomy 28:53-63). This was fulfilled more than once in 2 Kings 6:29. Moreover, the story of Mary of Bethezuba is a story of cannibalism told by Josephus in his “Jewish War” (VI,193). She went mad with hunger during the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. She reportedly told her son, “Poor little mite! In war, famine, and civil strife, why should I keep you alive?” She then killed, cleaned, cooked, and ate him. Half one day and then the rest later. This is the POWER of the belly over a person who is hungry. Think controlling your hunger is easy? Think again.
Breaking the Belly’s Control
But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:27).
Fasting works to break the power that the belly wields over our lives. If we can control our appetite for food, we can control all of our appetites. Paul called it “bringing the body into subjection.” Literally, “hitting it under the eye.” Is the appetite subject to me, or am I subject to it? Paul made sure he maintained the upper hand.
It’s not unusual for people in the world to go days without eating because they have no food. Again, Jesus fed the multitudes after they had fasted for three days listening to Him preach (Matthew 15:32-38). He fasted for 40 days in preparation to start His ministry. The time would fail to describe famine-induced hunger and self-inflicted hunger in the Bible.
And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares (Luke 21:34).
Jesus warns of the excesses that will characterize the last days. Some scholars see the excess of eating food and drinking wine in these verses (Pillar NTC). However, we mustn’t release ourselves to unbridled indulgence.
Preparing for Tough Times
When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come and see.’ So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine (Revelation 6:5-6).
Some commentators suggest that when the third horseman rides in Revelation, food will be twelve times as expensive as in normal times. It seems that almost daily, we hear of something happening to threaten our food supply. Starvation has often accompanied persecution and apocalyptic times. The day is coming. Are we preparing for tough times? The time may come when we must choose between eating and serving Christ. Are we so addicted to food that we would sell our souls for a single bowl of beans as Esau did? (Genesis 25:33)
When Titus destroyed Jerusalem, people starved to death. Under the Nazi regime, millions of people starved to death. What would happen if we had to choose between our faith and food? Have we “brought our bodies into subjection” enough to be able to say no to our appetites?
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