Toward a spirituality of eating

I love to eat, a lot. In fact, I love to eat a lot, a lot. Because of that, I find a certain tension inside of myself.

I love to eat, because food is so good. There are flavors that make my whole body come alive. And yet I eat too much.

There’s a certain tang to my wife’s Caesar salad dressing that I just don’t taste anywhere else. There’s this amazing hoppy bitterness and malty sweetness to Boneyard’s RPM that makes it one of my all-time favorite beers.

And then there’s that mix of salty and sweet to a Snickers bar that will make me over-indulge when Halloween comes. That’s where the tension kicks in.

The slogan “Snickers satisfies” is a ridiculously bold claim. (The Rolling Stones told us “I can’t get no satisfaction” and yet “Snickers satisfies.” I guess Mick Jagger hadn’t had one when he sang those words.)

But there’s the tension. We have the promise of satisfaction with much of the food we eat, and yet we find ourselves unsatisfied. And not just with Snickers.

My Mom’s dad used to say, “I’m 80 years old and I’m still hungry.” As a kid, I didn’t find it all that funny. But I’ve come to appreciate his point. Just think about how big that pile of food would be if you stacked up all of what he’d eaten over those 80 years, it would make an impressive mound, a grocery store’s worth of food. But even after consuming it all, it wasn’t enough. His stomach called out for more.

We just aren’t satisfied. And that’s why I and others over-eat. We want more from our food than it can give us.

As I think this about this tension between the promise and falling short of satisfaction, I turn toward the Scriptures to begin forming a spirituality of eating that fits the realities of our lives.

The story of food in the Bible begins in Genesis 1, with the creation of vegetation for food and then moves to Genesis 2 to the Garden of Eden. The ancient readers would have known of the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and Eden would have made it look shabby. But what the Babylonian pleasure garden was known for wasn’t just its flowers. It was known especially for its fruit trees, with paths wandering among them. It wasn’t just pretty. It was filled with good things to eat. The same was true of Eden.

In the middle of the Eden were two trees, one of which was forbidden. And you know how that went. Sin and death and relational strife enter into the world through an act of eating.

The man and woman weren’t satisfied with being created in the image of God, wanting to be like gods themselves, and so they seek to satisfy their desire by literally grabbing a bite to eat from the forbidden fruit. So, the biblical story of redemption begins with a stolen meal in the garden. And interestingly, it culminates in Rev. 19 with another act of eating — the marriage supper of the Lamb, where God himself is the host and serves us.

And between these bookends, stories of meals fill the Scriptures. In fact, many of miraculous interventions of God have to do with food and drink:

Manna and quail and water from the rock during Israel’s wanderings in the desert.

Elijah fed by ravens and the widow’s jar of oil that didn’t run out.

Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine and his most famous one of feeding 5,000 with five loaves and two fish (and the less famous feeding of 4,000).

I could go on. But I think you get the point.

Food plays an essential part of God’s Story as he takes care of this most basic of human needs in ways that show both his love and his power.

But the food stories in the Bible aren’t limited to the miraculous.

Food was important to the people of God as a lived out symbol of their unique relationship with God.

Only “clean” food could be eaten. So much could be said about the food laws that I can’t go into here, but suffice it to say they helped distinguish the Hebrew people as a different or unique people, just as any ethnic food does even today. And yet this difference had less to do with setting them apart to cater to their own tastes, but as God’s unique people in the world, made “holy” so they could further God’s purposes in the world. And when we get to the book of Daniel, we see that he and his friends were paragons of this kosher purity.

Next, we see that there were feasts that were established in the Scriptures as times of celebration for the people of God as they ate richly while remembering the great acts of God to save them.

Along with Passover, there were the feasts of Pentecost, Tabernacles, and Purim. For Passover, the people were encouraged in the book of Deuteronomy 14:22-26 to set aside a full 10% of their income for the year for that week-long celebration of eating and drinking. And during the feast of Purim, which celebrates the survival from genocide of God’s people in the book of Esther, we have the only day of the year where drinking is allowed to the point where you are lo yadat, where you don’t know the difference between cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai.

At the other end of the spectrum, not eating is as important as eating. The 9th of Ab, which remembered the destruction of the Temple, and other fasts were scattered throughout the year. Fasts of remembrance. Fasts of penitence. Fasts of cleansing. Fasts of devotion.

Hospitality extended by sharing food with strangers is of huge importance throughout the Scriptures.

In Gen. 18, there is a surprising amount of detail given to the preparation of food when Abraham hosts three angels. In Hebrews 13, we read of entertaining angels without knowing it.

Your home and your table were to be the safest places according ancient rules of hospitality. So, we see Lot protecting the visiting angels in his home from the men of Sodom. In the recent movie Lone Survivor, we see this at play in Afghanistan, where a whole village puts itself in danger in order to fulfill the requirements of hospitality to strangers.

On the other hand, Daniel and his friends didn’t eat the meat from the king’s table, not just because it wasn’t kosher, but because it would have signaled agreement with the violent king of Babylon who destroyed Jerusalem, the temple, and many of the Jewish people. And likewise, in the shortest book of the Bible, 2 John, we are told not to invite in and share meals with false teachers, since that would signal agreement with their false teachings. Meanwhile, in 3 John, Gaius is lifted up for his gracious hospitality to traveling Christians.

And, of course, there’s Jesus, who ate with notorious sinners and tax collectors which seemed to signal agreement with their sins but was actually the hospitality of God offered to all.

And always, feeding the poor is a vital element of any true religion.

Jesus, Moses, the prophets, Proverbs, and James are all death on any kind of spirituality that lets the poor go unfed when we have the means to deal with their hunger.

And finally, there is the Jewish sacrificial system, which offered food (not money, as we do) to God as an offering of self and wealth and hospitality and love to our Lord.

Eating. Not eating. Feast days to celebrate. Fast days to remember. Unclean foods to avoid. Strangers to feed. Sacrifices to offer. Food is an essential part of any biblical spirituality.

And so, too, is drink. Wine brings light to the eyes and in Jesus’ first miracle is created from water as a sign of eternal life. And yet causes Noah and many others to get drunk.

So, the tension remains. Along with the sacredness of eating throughout the Scriptures, we face all kinds of problems:

Whining Hebrews in the desert, who want to go back to Egypt because the food was better there. Legalistic Pharisees with their regulations and hand washings. “Knowledgeable” Corinthians with their meat sacrificed to idols. Pious Peter refusing to eat with non-Jewish Christians and thereby dividing the new community of God.

There is as much sin wrapped up in the biblical stories of the table as there is joy and celebration and hospitality.

But where the people in the Bible were aware of their dietary and hospitality missteps, most of us stumble around blindly when it comes to a spirituality of food.

Along with our biblical illiteracy, one problem we have is our simple disconnect with where our food comes from. Wendell Berry notes that when our country was founded a full 97% of Americans were farmers. Now, the number is reversed.

Our meat comes packaged in parts that are unrecognizable as coming from animals. And much our fruit and vegetables come to us out of season and from the other side of the planet.

According to an article I read in the venerable Atlantic Monthly, most of the flavor in processed foods has to be added in, since the processing leeches out most of the original flavor.

We actually call some food products “junk food.” And we’re happy about it.

We have ghost foods that lack calories — and flavor.

And how many of us are addicted to sugar? I know I am.

We over-eat. We under-eat. We have painful disorders associated with food.

Then there’s all of the eating without thinking that goes on. I realized that I was doing this years ago, when I used to read the newspaper while eating breakfast. By dividing my attention, I was hardly tasting what I was shoveling in my mouth, which led to over-eating. We also do this when we’re rushing from one place to another, eating in the car. Again, barely tasting anything in our haste.

So, we’ve tried to only eat at tables and to never read anything while eating — no books, no emails, no cereal boxes. We want to respect the plants and animals our food came from by actually paying attention to is.

And then there is the epidemic of eating alone. The most community-forming thing we ever do is sharing meals and our increasing tendency to eat alone highlights loneliness and isolation in our increasingly lonely country.

How much of our loneliness would be dealt with if we rediscovered hospitality?

And then we’ve got the problem of Gnostic eating. Gnosticism is a form of ancient Greek thinking that divides the world into the physical and the spiritual, with the spiritual being good and the physical being bad. Much of our culture’s infatuation with health food and vitamins and fad diets, where we beat our bodies into shape and feed them with pills and bars and shakes that taste horrible if we’re honest, comes from a form of Gnosticism.

I mean, kale chips? You’ve got to be kidding me!

I know way too many people who are afraid of certain foods because of what they’ll do to their waistlines. My wife was telling me about an old friend of hers who hasn’t eaten any carbs for a decade. Can we agree that that’s crazy?! That that’s a twisted way of living in a world that God made good.

The psalmist has called us to “Taste and see that the Lord is good!”

There’s something about tasting that connects us with the goodness of God. And if we’re eating foods that are tasteless, how are we to taste the goodness of God?

And then there’s 1 Timothy 6:17, where Paul writes that we don’t need to grab after riches in this world, because — and here’s the quote — “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” Let that sink in. Our God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

When it comes to developing a biblical spirituality of eating, the first hurdle we face is believing in the goodness of God.

God loves us and this incredible world that he created. It’s good. We’re good. Because God is good.

That Genesis 1 repetition after each day of creating — “And God saw that it was good” — culminates in his verdict over his whole creation — “And God looked, and behold, it was very good.”

That Hebrew word translated as “good” is tov, which has not just a moral value to it, but an aesthetic value to it. “And God saw that it was very beautiful” is another way of translating it.

This world isn’t just functionally good. It’s beautiful. This is because our God is good. And beautiful. And one of the most basic ways we experience his goodness is through our mouths. He gives us good things to eat.

So, how do we get in on this goodness? A return to Old Testament food laws? Rigorous diets? No. It’s much simpler than that.

The key to a spirituality of eating is through the simple act of prayers before meals. Many of us don’t even do them and those of us who do often rush through them. But these prayers are possibly among the most significant ones that we pray.

As Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:4-5, our prayers before eating turn our meals into holy events. Here are six ways they do so.

1. Prayers before meals acknowledge God in the mundane, everydayness of life.

There’s nothing as basic and ordinary as eating. Hunger and thirst are our most elementary urges, from day one of our lives. So, speaking God’s name into our eating and drinking is the most basic practice to turn our lives in a Godward direction.

If I can pay attention to God in this most common part of my life, then every other area of my life is open to him as well. Longer prayer times are great and I encourage them. But if you’re feeling out of touch with God, meal prayers are foundational.

2. Prayers before meals celebrate the goodness of God by calling us to rejoice in the bounty of the earth.

Eating dessert is essential to true faith! And I’m not even kidding.

Our God is extravagant in his creating, extravagant in his giving. We are surrounded by abundance in creation. The heavens are filled with billions of stars that we’ll never visit. Our forests are filled with billions of trees we’ll never harvest or even see.

We aren’t just barely saved by Jesus. We receive an overflow of abundance in grace and love and God’s own presence by his Holy Spirit.

Tasting the sweetness of God’s goodness in our eating can be an act of worship to the one who has shared all good things with us. And it can call us to be generous and gracious with those who do not share in our abundance.

3. Prayers before meals recognize that we live by the mercy of God.

If we don’t eat, we don’t live. It’s as simple as that.

It wasn’t long ago, as I mentioned earlier, that we were a farming people, living by what our hands produced and dependent on the weather. That’s why most of the major gods of the past were weather and fertility gods. There was a recognition that we can’t control the conditions of our lives, especially the conditions for growing our food.

Prayers before meals remind us that the food on our tables isn’t there because of the money we earned, but because of the common grace of God, who makes the sun shine and the rain fall on the just and unjust alike. If he were to withhold his goodness, we would all perish.

Which is why meal prayers are called “saying grace.”

4. Similarly, prayers before meals humble us, reminding us that we are not sustained by our own hands but by God’s covenantal word.

When tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread, Jesus quoted from Deut. 8:3 — “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

We may feel self-sufficient when we pay for our food at the grocery store. But we’re not. For just as our bodies rely on the food we eat to live, so our souls rely on God’s one-sided faithfulness to live. He has given us his word and we live by that promise.

5. Prayers before meals lead to prayers after meals.

It’s been suggested that we pray after we eat so that we can know whether we should be thankful or not. That’s not what I mean here.

As those who have received, gratitude is the most fitting response. We’ve received life and salvation and food!

In Deut. 8:10, Moses wrote, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.”

6. Finally, prayers before meals remind us that Jesus, not Snickers, satisfies.

In John 6, Jesus feeds 5,000 people. And in the conversation about it afterward, he ties it to the story of manna in the desert and then surprisingly to his own body. Five times, he calls himself the truly, living bread of heaven.

And then he shocks his listeners by saying (in John 6:53-58),

I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.

Wow! That’s intense. Really intense.

First off, Jesus is saying that when we eat, we remember that we’re like those who ate manna in the desert. They died. Eating is a reminder of our mortality.

When we eat of Jesus, we eat and drink into life. When he becomes our life, we have eternal life. His life becomes our life. He actually satisfies.

Because of this, every meal can remind us that our lives are bound up in Christ’s life. And in a way, every meal can become a Eucharist meal, a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

All of this to say what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, which was struggling over what to eat and what not to eat: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

So, what questions arise from this for you? Where does this challenge your approach to food?