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Father Michael Schmitz: Gluttony is not joy — we can only truly enjoy things when we’re free

It seems like every time I want to do something that I think will be fun, the church has a rule against it. Why is the church so against pleasure? What’s wrong with enjoying yourself and the good things in life?

This is a great question. It is connected to how profoundly misunderstood God’s rules and the church’s teachings are. You mention that there seem to be so many “noes” for those who want to follow God that we can be tempted to think that God dislikes pleasure and enjoyment. But is that really the case?

Father Michael Schmitz
Father Michael Schmitz
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For example, think of all of the amazing things in this world that we are made to enjoy. Consider that we only emphasize God’s noes because if we tried to emphasize all of the yesses, there would be too many. The great Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton once noted, “The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Ten Commandments is evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity.”

God approves of so much joy! He made a good world and then set his beloved humans in the midst of this world and bid us enjoy it!

Our problem is not that God has prohibited joy. Our problem is that we do not know how to enjoy the good things God has given. Every one of us tends towards using good things in the wrong way or at the wrong time. We find something that gives pleasure, and we will binge on that thing until we no longer enjoy ourselves. And then we find that we can’t stop. Isn’t this a common phenomenon in our lives?

Students tell me about the entire season of a television show that they watched over one weekend on Netflix or Hulu. Others will joke about how they started eating some Doritos and didn’t stop until they hit the bottom of the bag. We have all had the experience of enjoying some kind of food or drink so much that, in the middle of eating one piece or drinking one glass, we ordered another, only to find that it was “too much.” Not only did we take in too much, but we found that we were no longer able to enjoy it anymore.

This is a brief description of the rarely- confessed sin of gluttony. We find something that we enjoy. This thing is almost always good in itself. But then we choose to use it in such a way that we a) no longer truly enjoy it and b) become enslaved to it.

Gluttony, or intemperance, afflicts every person who finds it difficult to say “no” to a thing.

Now, you might say, “I don’t struggle with gluttony! I don’t eat too much!” That’s interesting, because we normally associate gluttony with those outward signs of being unable to say no. But things like a lack of fitness or drunkenness are not the only indicators.

When discerning whether gluttony is present, a person could pay attention to four areas: quantity, quality, when, and why. Gluttony is most obvious when it involves a large quantity of a thing — the super-sized meal, the extra large shake, or the entire bottle of wine.

But there is also gluttony less associated with quantity and more associated with quality. C.S. Lewis describes this as the person who needs food to be “just the way I like it.” They might not eat a large amount, but if they are served something that isn’t prepared how they like it, they are unable to rise above that. This is one reason Aristotle called intemperance a “childish fault.” Some children will only eat certain foods or foods presented in a certain way. They will, hopefully, grow out of that through discipline and gratitude, but we all know people who seem stuck in perpetual petulance.

But there is also “when” and “why.” Are you familiar with the term “hangry”? It refers to the fact that some people can’t seem to control their temper when they get hungry. This inability to wait or say “not right now” gets many people in trouble. A famous experiment years ago demonstrated this inability. Researchers placed young children in a room by themselves with one marshmallow on a plate in front of them. They informed the youngsters that they could eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted, but if they waited until the researcher returned, they would get two marshmallows. It was a test of the children’s ability to delay gratification. Some children easily waited for the researcher to return with the second marshmallow. For others, it was (comical) torture. Some covered their eyes (so they couldn’t see the marshmallow), others sat on their own hands and rocked back and forth (trying to distract themselves), and others simply popped the marshmallow into their mouths.

Which of these children were most free? Obviously those who were able to wait. When I cannot wait for a good thing, I am not free. In addition, when I cannot wait for a thing, then I cannot truly enjoy it either. If I must have it now, then I can’t savor it at all.

The same is true for “why.” Many of us eat because …. Well, we don’t know why we are eating. We don’t know what we are hungering for. We don’t know why we are pouring that next drink. We don’t know why we don’t just turn off the device and go to sleep.

Gluttony can be when I consume a good thing, but I am doing it for the wrong “why.” This isn’t freedom, and this isn’t even pleasure. It is merely desperation.

But you are made for freedom. And God has placed you in this world so that you can truly enjoy the good things in life. This is one of the reasons God asks us to say “no” to good things at various times in our lives: Not because he is trying to spoil our fun, but because he wants us to freely and truly live. I invite you to make a regular practice of saying “no” to at least one good thing a day. You will not only find more freedom, you will find more enjoyment of what you say “yes” to.

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.