Food represents a gigantic fraction of Biblical teaching, yet in 19 years of weekly church attendance, I have never once heard a sermon on it. In a time when unhealthy food choices are literally a public health epidemic— when celebrities from Michael Pollan to Jamie Oliver have made their careers warning about the dietary dangers— why do the Biblical teachings on the subject seem all but forgotten? And, what does the original “diet book” have to say that is still relevant in our time?
The power of food
In December, I signed on for a 21 Day Sugar Detox with a group of old friends. The day before it started, our church made a plug for 21 days of prayer and fasting. Whether it was a God-wink or just good timing, I decided my detox could do double duty. I posted in my friends’ private Facebook group, asking if anyone else was thinking of the emotional/spiritual benefits of the cleanse. At the time no one was, but then we got into it. Suddenly there were multiple posts about powerful emotions unexpectedly unleashed. What was happening?
Anyone who has ever struggled with food addiction will tell you: what fuels the addiction is not the taste of the food or the feeling of being full. Rather, like any addiction, it is the emotional attachment. It’s psychological self-medication. I would argue that food has this power because what we eat is inherently emotional. A New York Times editorial about sugar summed it up: “We mean addictive, literally, in the same way as drugs. And the food industry is doing everything it can to keep us hooked.”
A greater power
When anything gains mastery over us, the world (and our own instincts!) urge us to “try harder” or “resist temptation”. By contrast, the tonic of scripture is humility, submission, and grace. Scripture talks often about breaking the power of that which holds us captive, so that God’s redemption can begin to work in us, to restore us to wholeness, but our own efforts are not the most important element in that.
Indeed, in the case of food, stringent self-denial (basically, unhealthy fasting) is a symptom of the disease. The Bible often talks about fasting, but it is always in the context of turning us outside of ourselves (toward God), not as some sort of “will to power” self-actualization.
The larger point is that we, as human beings, have a higher calling than hedonistic self enjoyment.
- For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. (Luke 12:23)
- Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction. (Galatians 6:8)
- You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. (James 5:5)
So much of our “foodie” culture nowadays is focused on our own experience. But if our lives are nothing more than seeking our own pleasure— a pleasure that is inescapably bounded by our own mortality— then ultimately, they are nothing at all.