Of Freedom & Foodolatry
ON SUNDAY, 7TH OCTOBER, I will once again tell those who gathered at Therfield Chapel how I used to be a flabby, pudgy boy. At age 29 I was overweight (though not quite obese) and my doctor had me on statins―a medicine that he told me I’d have to take for the rest of my life. Though I went swimming regularly and followed my NHS approved guidelines for what I ate, nothing seemed to change.
Eventually, someone challenged me to experiment with alternative ways of eating. After experimenting with a few, I found one that had dramatic effects. I lost two stones of fat and started increasing muscle mass even though I was working out less than before. I got off statins. My mind is also much clearer and I feel much better and more aggressive at 40 than I did at 30.
Because of my history with food, I feel strongly about the way I should eat personally. (It is beyond the point of this short article to share what new eating guidelines I adopted―but if you ever want to take me out to lunch, I’ll happily fill you in on the details!)
The Bible holds some ancient wisdom when it comes to our relationship with food. This surprises some as they tend to think of the Bible as dealing with ‘spiritual issues’ and avoids practical, every day issues like food and…life.
Sadly, to avoid stirring conflict, many ministers fail to address the subject at all. Afterall, this is because some people feel very strongly about the way and what they eat. But this is cowardice and doesn’t actually serve the church. It is also tragic as our generation has numerous problems with food ranging from anorexia and bulimia to the obesity epidemic that is destroying the health of millions in the UK, the USA, and many other Western countries. Some churches are good at addressing drunkenness. But these same churches lack consistency in addressing food consumption.
Most of what the Bible says about food can be placed in three broad categories.
First of all, the Bible repeatedly instructs us to be grateful for our food. We are to receive it from God as a gift, not a right. We are to ask Him for ‘our daily bread’ and we are to be sincerely thankful when we get it. The Bible says that when Jesus took the fish and loaves, ‘He looked up to heaven and gave thanks.’ God could’ve made our physical absorption of nutrients a boring process. We could be created in such a way as to inject some dull, grey matter once a week to keep us going. Instead, we get to stop our work and have a celebration of God’s goodness multiple times each day by enjoying the food he provides. Let’s do more than say a token prayer of thanks before we eat. Come to the table to celebrate and be reminded of God’s goodness and generosity.
In Eden’s garden, God’s first word to Adam about food was one of freedom: ‘You are free to eat from the trees of the garden’. Only after establishing that freedom did he give the warning about the fruit of one particular tree.
The wisdom of the New Testament goes on to teach that we can now eat whatever food that God has created without fear that it will contaminate our soul. Jesus has fulfilled the dietary cleanliness laws of Moses through his death and resurrection. Paul writes to Timothy, ‘For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude’. You want to eat whale? You can eat whale. Bacon? Yes. So long as you are thankful. Bear steak wrapped in bacon? A double amen. Wash it down with bourbon? Triple amen. We may eat all God-created food with grateful hearts and we are not to judge those who eat differently than us.
Among other things, this means no divisive food philosophies. I may feel strongly about how I should eat. But I have no right to impose my way of eating upon you. You want to eat paleo or vegetarian? Fine, but do not let it interfere with friendship. When offered hospitality we are instructed by Jesus to ‘eat what is set before you’. This means that sometimes I eat something that I would not prefer or consider healthy for the sake of peace and not to give offense. People are more important than food.
We enjoy our freedom, but we are wisely taught by the apostle Paul, ‘Do not use your freedom as an opportunity to indulge the flesh.’ That means that though we may eat whatever good, God created food is out there, we should not misuse that freedom. There are sins of gluttony and food idolatry. Proverbs notes, along with warnings of excessive alcohol, that ‘It is not good to eat too much honey’. If the wise men of the ancient world saw that excessive amounts of natural sugar can be bad, how much more should we pay attention in our day of refined sugar, glucose, and artificially processed crap?
Paul speaks of those whose ‘god is their stomach’ and food-idolatry is as much an issue in our day as it was in his. We often eat too much. We eat man-made foods that have toxins, are addictive, and make our bodies susceptible to disease – all when we have the option of eating healthy. We go to the refrigerator more than to God when we are feeling low and need comfort. It’s not by chance that ‘food porn’ is the banner under which attractive pictures of food on social media are tagged.
Sadly, churches that take a firm stance on drunkenness often turn a blind eye to gluttony. Food is not sin. It is God’s gift. So is alcohol. But the undisciplined use of either brings harm to our bodies and does not glorify God. Ancient wisdom shows us that we should eat to live, not live to eat.
Food is a great gift. But it’s a cruel master. The wisdom of self-discipline will keep this good angel from becoming a taxing devil.
A Meal that Saves?
Food is a big theme throughout the Bible. Mankind first sinned through eating what it should not have and salvation is presented to us a meal―that of bread and wine. At the end of human history, a wedding feast awaits us. May we eat thankfully, freely, and wisely until that day.
Please check out our book Elijah Men Eat Meat: Readings to slaughter your inner Ahab and pursue Revival and Reform