Thursday, February 14, 2008

dieting and gluttony (3) in search of self-control

Mention "self-control" in a seminar for women, and someone will share their struggles to be more self-controlled in their eating.

I have always wondered whether this is Christian-speak for "I feel a bit over-weight, and wish I had more control around chocolate." A statement I thoroughly identify with, and could echo with complete honesty.

But I was never sure whether "self-control" in the Bible really had anything to do with eating, let alone dieting. Partly because I knew that some argue "self-control" in the New Testament has more to do with sexuality than anything else. So I decided to find out for myself.

Little did I know this would involve coming face-to-face with New Testament Greek, which I have no familiarity with except for the α, δ and θ of high school mathematics (how I wish I studied Greek instead of New Testament during the year I deferred uni!).

But I summoned up my courage and dived into the strangely compelling world of New Testament Greek, armed only with a lexicon (quite hard to navigate if you don't know the order of the Greek alphabet - yes, laugh, all you Greek scholars), a Greek-English concordance, and a pile of commentaries.

What I found was that when you read the word "self-control" in the New Testament, it could be one of several Greek words. Some would be better translated "right-minded, sensible, level-headed", and don't have a lot to do with controlling one's body in the use of food. But some are definitely about controlling bodily desires, for example:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23

[M]ake every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 2 Peter 1:5-7

These lists of virtues are similar to the lists found in Greek literature of the time. While "love" was pretty unique to Christian writings, "self-control" was a typical Greek virtue. Plato and Aristotle defined it as avoiding excess indulgence of physical desires, like sexual incontinence and gluttony. So it's likely that the Bible's call to "self-control" includes food as well as sex.

There you have it! The Bible definitely teaches that, with the Spirit's help, we should control our bodily desires. This includes exercising control over the food we put in our mouths.

Of course, we can't assume "self-control" in eating means the same for Christians as it did for pagans. The New Testament rejects Greek philosophies which taught asceticism (extreme self-denial) and hedonism (devotion to pleasure). To work out what "self-control" in eating looks like in practice, and whether it has anything to do with dieting, we'll need to look at the Bible's teaching on issues like the body, pleasure, self-indulgence and gluttony.

But we'll leave that for next time.

You can follow the thread on dieting here.

The small print:
There are three main word groups often translated as "self-control" in the New Testament.

The first is sophron (n) and its derivatives, often translated as "self-controlled" but probably generally better translated "level-headed, sober, sensible, thoughtful, in one's right mind, prudent" (the various forms are sophron [n.] - "self-controlled" NIV, ESV perhaps better "sober-minded, reasonable" - Tit 1:8, 2:2, 2:5, 1 Tim 3:2; sophroneo [v.] - translated variously including "self-controlled" NIV and ESV, better "right-minded, of sound mind" - Mk 5:15, Lk 8:35, Rom 12:3, Tit2:6, 2 Cor 5:13, 1 Pet 4:7; sophronizo [v.] - "train" NIV, ESV literally "bring to one's senses" - Tit 2:4; sophronismos [n.] - "self-discipline" NIV, "self-control" ESV, better "prudence" - 2 Tim 1:7; sophronos [adv.] - "self-controlled" NIV, ESV, better "sensible" - Tit 2:12; sophrosyne [n] - "propriety" NIV, "self-control" ESV, should be "good judgement" or "propriety", and has application mainly to women- 1 Tim 2:9, 2:15; in Acts 26:25 means "reasonable").

The second is nepho, often translated "self-controlled" in the NIV but better translated "sober-minded" (1 Thess 5:5, 5:8, 1 Pet 1:13, 4:7, 5:8; 2 Tim 4:5). The related word nephalios means temperate, mainly in the use of wine, 1 Tim 3:2, 3:11; Tit 2:2).

So these two word-groups have more to do with being level-headed, sober-minded and prudent than with controlling one's body in the use of food.

The third, enkrateia (n.), is found in Acts 24:25 (where it might be a sly dig at the sexual irregularies of Felix and his wife) and in the lists of virtues in Galatians 5:22-23 and 2 Peter 1:6. Enkrateuomai (vb.) appears in 1 Corinthians 7:9 ("if they cannot control themselves" NIV, "exercise self-control" ESV) where it clearly relates to sexuality, and 1 Corinthians 9:25 ("goes into strict training" NIV, "excercises self-control in all thing" ESV) where it refers to the athlete's strict training. Enkatres (adj.) is found in Titus 1:8, where it's the "disciplined" not the "self-controlled" in the list! You also get its opposite, akrasia (n.) translated as "lack of [sexual] self-control" in 1 Corinthians 7:5 and "self-indulgence" in Matthew 23:25; and akrates (adj.) in 2 Timothy 3:3 ("without self-control"). Some of these clearly refer to sexuality, but others include various forms of control over one's body, including eating - see the discussion of Greek lists of virtues in the main text above.

I used lots of references for this post, including W.F.Arndt and F.W.Gingrich's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament; The NIV Exhaustive Concordance; L.T.Johnson's The Acts of the Apostles; D.Williams' NIBC on Acts; C.K.Barrett's A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians; R.N.Longenecker's World Biblical Commentary on Galatians; A.Cole's Tyndale commentary on Galatians; F.F.Bruce's Commentary on Galatians; B.Witherington's Grace in Galatia; R.A.Ward's Commentary on 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus; and R.J.Bauckman's World Biblical Commentary on 2 Peter and Jude.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for researching this Jean. My head is still spinning at the small print but I will make myself slow down and digest it.
Since you've established that self-control also applies to our bodily desires, I guess the next question is 'Does dieting help us to control our eating habits?'
There's no denying it helps most of us to lose weight quickly but then it rarely stays off in the long term. We've exercised self-control in the short term only. If, however,the diet has developed good habits around food which will aid our self-control in the long term, then maybe that's Christian?
Of course we need to continually yield to God's Spirit for Him to produce the fruit of self-control in us but making wise and informed choices would have to play a part.


Jean said...

Thanks, Cathy, for your thoughtful response. I wouldn't worry too much about the small print - suffice it to say that two of the Greek word groups had more to do with "sober thinking" or "right mindedness" than with controlling bodily desires, but the third definately involved this.

I may not have time to write more on this topic this week, so you may have to wait until next week. But at least you can see where my thoughts are headed...