Some Thoughts for Politely Declining One-Third of a Barbecued Gopher

Since June of last year, I have been progressivly convicted by the sinful patterns of eating that are more-or-less “the air we breathe” in modern American culture. The ride has been rather bumpy.

While we should all be deeply grateful that our country no longer suffers from the sort of widespread starvation that characterized the United States during the 1930s, it seems as though maybe we ought to balance out that gratitude with some common sense and a renewed commitment to the welfare of others. Is it even possible that some Americans are as yet undernourished even as we Americans have never before been so overweight? The evidence does seem to point that way.

So far, I have yet to meet anyone who considers himself or herself “solidly neutral” on the Joel and Ethan Coen film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? It seems as though nearly everyone either loves it or hates it. What’s particularly noteworthy is that oftentimes those people who really hate the film will point to the identical scenes or characters that fuel another person’s deep, abiding admiration. To this day, I really am at something of a loss to explain why this movie is so mysteriously polarizing.

My wife and I are both enthusiastic fans, and one scene in particular has driven itself especially deep into the DNA of our household. It tracks beautifully with this ongoing conversation I am having with God, myself and others relative to food.

"Not helpful."

“Not helpful.”

Since the storyline is set during the height of The Great Depression (1929-1939), hunger is a recurring theme. This is not the kind of hunger that causes one to drift toward a bag of potato chips between meals; no, this is the type of hunger that occurs when people don’t have regular meals and farmers are killing their horses for the meat. At one point in the story, one of the three men who cooperated to escape a chain gang offers Everett (George Clooney) one-third of a gopher that has been captured, skinned and cooked over an open fire, to which the Clooner character memorably responds:

Delmar O’Donnell: Care for some gopher?
Ulysses Everett McGill: No thank you, Delmar. A third of a gopher would only rouse my appetite…without beddin’ ‘er back down.

In other words, Clooney’s character had deemed that particular offer of food “not helpful;” he surmises that it will not satisfy his hunger, so he decides against taunting his body with even the notion of a decent meal.

Oddly, this same sort of logic has been very helpful over the past several years when seeking to put my own sins to death; a commitment to “go without” is as simple as it is difficult. On multiple occasions, for example, I have mournfully declined a small piece of cake or a tiny scoop of ice cream, knowing that my heart was such that even a little of these things would only increase my desire for more and put me at further risk of poor decisions.

Various forms of temptation are, to me, “one-third of a gopher.” Ultimately, “Not helpful.” And the fact that I can use this scene to make fun of myself is helpful.

The grid that I try to run with regard to eating more than my body actually needs is more or less a process of seeing everything through the lens of helpfulness; Will the short-term satisfaction offset the potential pitfalls?

  • Not helpful to my relationship with God. Am I trying to satisfy a craving that should be rightly satisfied in the context of trusting God? Does my desire in any way reflect a poorly-hidden impulse to believe that I must somehow be “filled” in a way that is clearly outside the boundaries of “healthy?”
  • Not helpful to my marriage. Is this indulgence¬†something that drives me out of relationship with my spouse? Do I “forget” to tell my spouse that I stopped at the gas station and fell victim to a buy-one-get-one poster for Snickers candy bars? Why have I valued food over full-on transparency in my marriage?
  • Not helpful to myself. Is this proffered food really good for me, or will it only stoke my desire for more? Does my willingness to give in accelerate the pace at which I am willing to indulge? Are unhelplful events fewer and farther between…or the opposite?
  • Not helpful to other people, both within the church and non-believers. Is this desire sufficiently selfish such that I would rather pursue my own pleasure than live out faithfulness in a way that encourages others in my church family? Is satisfying this desire actually putting me in danger of hurting my witness to others who have yet to come to know Jesus? Do people take the cause of Christ seriously when they see a lack of control in His disciples?

God created us both to need and enjoy food, and we honor Him when we accept His gracious gifts with a heart of thanksgiving. Sharing a meal with others as a means for expressing love gives Him glory, but I’m pretty sure He is not honored by my penchant for plowing through an entire bag of Hot Tamale candies. Though I’m certain the Coen brothers had no intention of providing a word picture for battling back against sin, I’m grateful to grab any tool that will do the job.

First Corinthians 8:5-13 (ESV)
For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Proverbs 27:20 (KJV)
Hell and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied.

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