Their God is the Belly

For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. Philippians 3:18-19

“Their god is the belly,” Paul says. Thinking about this phrase has taken me on a journey.

Gluttony and Ambition

It sounds as if Paul is talking about people who like to eat too much and the sin of gluttony. Overeating and obesity is a real problem in the United States. In general, Paul’s audience was not likely to suffer from that problem. Food was often scarce, as was the money to buy it. Only the relatively wealthy classes had easy access to food. The extremely rich showed off their wealth by hosting extravagant banquets with scarce delicacies from around the world. Those who were not quite as rich and powerful wanted to be invited to their dinner parties. Not only was the food tasty (and the wine free flowing and the entertainment divine), eating at the table of the rich and powerful improved one’s own social standing. Of course, if your primary concern in life is being invited to the right parties, you dare not offend your potential host. As Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Maybe Paul is scolding the rich and those who sought their favor.

Emptiness and Neediness

It turns out, however, that the word translated as “belly” doesn’t simply mean “stomach” in the digestive sense. The word is “koilia,” and it can refer to the stomach (and digestion), the womb (and conception and birth) or the gut more generally. At some places, it’s even translated as “heart” or “body.” The context usually makes it clear. Maybe Paul isn’t talking about eating at all.

The noun “koilia” is related to an adjective, “koilos,” which means “empty” or “hollow”. When I discovered that fact, my inner Henry Nouwen kicked in and I started thinking about all the empty spaces in peoples’ lives: anxiety, fear, loneliness, rejection, despair and self-doubt. There are many kinds of neediness and brokenness that create hollow spots in the soul. Many of our empty spots are echoes of things that happened to us long ago, perhaps even in childhood. How common it is for our lives to be driven by attempts to fill our hearts’ empty spots? For the most part, this happens on an unconscious level. This is a much kinder way to look at peoples’ bad behavior, I think. It’s also a very modern way and probably very far from Paul’s mind. Early in my training and ministry, psychological theories and models played a much larger role than they do today. While it’s true that Christ meets our needs, on further reflection I don’t think that’s what Paul is trying to say here. In my tentative grasp at “emptiness,” I committed the “etymological root fallacy” in Biblical interpretation.

Appetites and Passions

The belly could be a metaphor for self-indulgence and worldly desires of a more general sort. Many of the more modern translations use “appetite” instead of “stomach.” This is exactly John Wesley’s take. He says that Paul is referring to those “whose supreme happiness lies in gratifying their sensual appetites.” An appetite for beauty, comfort, approval, status, possessions, wealth, art, knowledge, power, sex, entertainment, sports, hobbies, drugs, fine wine or cheap beer – any of these things can control one’s life. Any appetite – even for something good – can become a god.

In one of my first classes at chaplain school, I was warned to watch out for SAM – Sex, Alcohol and Money. An inordinate appetite for SAM, they told me, has ruined many chaplains. Unfortunately, despite the warnings, some continue to fall prey to their appetites.

A number of Greek and Latin writers compared the belly to a god. More generally, ancient writers looked at the belly as the source of ignoble passions. One source put it this way,

The Greeks spoke of the passions: the feelings that emerged from the “gut” or koilia. These were described as the impulsive, sensual and even animalistic urges and appetites. Amongst these might be lust, envy, cowardice, rage, hilarity, gluttony, laziness, revelry, and so on.

In some Greek writings, the base passions flowed from the belly, while the noble and honorable affections flowed from the chest or the spleen. Paul more commonly makes this distinction using the words “flesh” and “spirit.” Galatians 5:19-23 makes this kind of contrast:

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Colossians 3:1-17 contains a similar list of vices and virtues, this time built contrasting that which is from “the earth” with that which is from “above.” If Paul is drawing on the Greek writers’ understanding of koilia, then having the belly as one’s god may simply be the parallel of gratifying the desires of the flesh or walking in one’s earthly nature. Noble and ignoble behaviors don’t have their origin in two different parts of the body, but in two different sources of life, one divine and one fallen.

Idolatry of The Self

In the play Cyclops by Euripides, Cyclops defies Odysseus’ appeal to Greek piety by saying that his belly is his god:

Wealth, manikin, is the god for the wise; all else is mere vaunting and fine words. . . . I shudder not at Zeus’s thunder, nor know I wherein Zeus is a mightier god than I . . . The earth perforce, whether she like it or not, produces grass and fattens my flocks, which I sacrifice to no one save myself and this belly, the greatest of deities; but to the gods, not I! For surely to eat and drink one’s fill from day to day and give oneself no grief at all, this is the king of gods . . .

Euripides’ Cyclops predates the rise of Epicureanism, but the character of Cyclops appears to share many of the same philosophical components. The gods are irrelevant for daily life. Satisfying one’s needs and living in tranquility are the highest good. That which causes pain is bad. One’s own pleasure and pain were the only moral criteria that mattered. How many confessing Christians are practical Epicureans?

None of the Above

In his article “Womb Worship” at First Things, Peter Leithart notes that “stomach” and “womb” are both common translations for “koilia.” What would happen, he asks, if we swapped the words, substituting “womb” where we find “stomach” and vice versa. In many cases, it’s nonsense. In the case of Phillipians 3:19, however, we might be on to something. Paul might actually be speaking sarcastically of those whose “God is the womb.”

He begins by noting that Paul uses “koilia” in a similar way in Romans 16:17-18

Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.

Leithart says:

At the end of Romans, Paul warns against those who cause divisions and offenses by teaching contrary to the received truth of the church (16:17), and adds the charge that these dividers serve their bellies rather than Jesus (v. 18). Gluttony would be an odd thing to introduce at this late stage in a letter that has given no hint that self-indulgence is a problem. Perhaps koilia here is a trope for something like “bodily desire,” but if so that would be unprecedented in the New Testament. What would it mean, on the other hand, to say that Paul’s opponents worship their own “womb”? Given Paul’s frequent charge that his enemies, particularly those who judaize [sic], are infatuated with “flesh,” and specifically the flesh of bodily descent and the flesh of the circumcised foreskin, it seems natural for him to say that they are obsessed with the womb, with bodily descend [sic] and ancestry and genealogies.

He then turns to Philippians 3:19:

Again Paul charges that his opponents worship their koilia in a context where gluttony and bodily indulgence has little purchase. The chapter (vv. 2-3) begins with Paul’s claim that Christians are the true circumcision (peritome) and his warning about the false circumcision, the castrati (katatome). Paul reviews his own fleshly standing only to declare that it is all nothing (vv. 4-11). The issue in the chapter is confidence in fleshly identity and fleshly descent and fleshly achievements. People who pursue flesh worship the “womb” when they find their standing and identity in the mother who birth them [sic], the fleshly mother, the earthly Jerusalem.

The rest of Philippians 3:19 fits the translation of koilia as “womb.” They glory in their shame – that is, they seek glory in the shameful katatome, the fleshly mark in which the Judaizers glory. Their minds are on earthly things, the things of the old world rather than on the heavenly Christ.

In short, it seems plausible to think of belly-worshipers as womb-worshipers instead, and to identify the womb-worshipers with Paul’s Jewish opponents.

So there you have it. Was Paul speaking against those who were motivated by their desire to achieve higher social standing? To meet their psychological needs? To satisfy their appetites and desires? To follow their unredeemed and ignoble passions? To engage in practical idolatry or self-worship? Or was he speaking, as he did in this letter and others, about those who were obsessed with the wombs that bore them and the circumcision of their foreskins?