My friend Toby Sumpter has written a series of posts on food here (starting with his Free Range post), and this has generated some back and forth in various places, both online and off, and I thought I should join the discussion. But first some exegetical background.
In John 6, the Lord fed the five thousand, and when they thought this was a good reason for making Him king, He got away from them across the water. However, some who found His message for the belly particularly compelling tracked Him down. Jesus told them that they were following Him because of the physical loaves, which was the wrong reason. He told them to work for the food that endures “to everlasting life” (John 6:27). Do not work, He said, for food that perishes. And if we should not work for food that perishes, we shouldn’t get worked up over food that perishes.
They asked what they needed to do in order to work the works of God. Jesus told them that the work of God is believing in Jesus. In other words, when people believe in Jesus, God is at work. This is not the work we do for God, it is rather the work that God does in us.
They asked for a sign, and since it was getting close to lunchtime, the sign they suggested was manna from Heaven (v. 31). That would be a good one, one calculated to keep them interested in theology.
Jesus replied that He was the true food and the true drink, and is given for the life of the world (v. 33). They asked for that bread, not yet understanding what He was talking about (v. 34). Jesus says that He was the true spiritual bread and the true drink, and the one who believes in Him will never go hungry or thirsty. He is speaking of genuine faith because He is speaking of those the Father gives to Him, and they are the ones who will never be cast out (vv. 37-40).
The Jews murmured at this because of what Jesus was claiming to be. Jesus told them not to murmur. He said that everyone who has learned from the Father comes to Him (v. 45). Jesus doubled down on His difficult words, and created additional dissension among the Jews (v. 52). Jesus then went over it yet again (vv. 53-58).
And that was the point when He started to lose disciples (v. 60). Jesus said that this was part of the purpose from the beginning (v. 64). This is why He had emphasized that the Father had to give all true disciples (v. 65). “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (v. 66). Jesus then asked the twelve if they were going too, and Peter replied that they had nowhere to go. Eternal life was with Him (v. 68). Hard teaching like this is a winnowing fan.
Now this is a rich chapter, filled to the top with godly relevance to the entire subject of our contemporary food debates. We need to know how carnal food relates to eternal life. The answer is — not at all. But carnal food is defined as food that is thought of carnally. The sin is never in the food because Jesus declared all foods clean. The sin is always in the sinner. This means that we can sin with our food but we cannot sin by food.
These people thought carnally of the miraculous food that Jesus had provided, and wanted to make Him king because of it. They also thought of the manna that came down from Heaven carnally. They thought that Jesus should prove Himself that way. The spiritual source of the food didn’t keep them from sinning with it.
But when Jesus responded with the undeniable truth that He was the food and drink they needed, and that the mouth that receives this food and drink is the kind of faith the Father gives, He lost a bunch of them. A significant number of His disciples threw up their hands in despair and walked away from Him. Now this was not because Jesus was a lousy communicator. It was because He was a spiritual communicator, and idolaters cannot get their minds around spiritual things. The natural man cannot understand the things of the spirit, because they are spiritually discerned.
Now, here is an obligatory caveat. God doesn’t care what kind of food you are eating — tofu or spam from the can — as long as you are eating it with gratitude and peace. “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17). “For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5). This is actually very simple. And if God doesn’t care what food you are eating, so long as you said grace over it sincerely, then I shouldn’t care either. And I really don’t.
But people often don’t believe that I don’t care what people eat — because it is convenient for them to keep misconstruing that particular point. The more we talk about granola — which, by the by, I usually have for breakfast in the morning, mixed with yogurt, look at me go — the less we are talking about heart attitudes, and relationships between actual people, which are the whole point. But I really enjoy the fact that there are people who eat birds nest soup. What a world! And I also enjoy the fact that others eat Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup, right out of a can, while still others eat yogi fogey soup from the co-op, the main ingredient of which is pure thoughts, locally sourced. All that matters to me is that you like it, are grateful to God while you eat it, and don’t have a furrowed brow over it. Just eat your lunch, man!
If you are wound up tight over food — and it doesn’t matter in which direction — then the issue is foodalatry. That is what the problem is, and not the nature of the food itself.
Now it seems plain to me that our generation has a strange fixation with food. This is not an imaginary problem. Food was given by God to provide us with a recurring occasion for joy, gratitude, and fellowship, and many of us have turned it into a recurring opportunity for fear, shame, and guilt. Can anyone honestly doubt this? Even among Christians, it is common to see people fretting constantly about the levels of toxicity in their bodies courtesy of Certain Corporations (fear), the fattening effects of that entirely unnecessary cheesecake they had at lunch (shame), and the fact that the coffee beans for their mocha were picked by an underpaid laborer in the third world (guilt). On top of this, many Christians want us to mix this fear, shame, and guilt into one big casserole and eat it in the name of Jesus. But Jesus isn’t like that. He forgives us our sins, and He does so entirely independent of whatever it is we are putting in our mouths.
This terrible mixture of fear, shame and guilt is so prevalent that it is difficult even to see it — but once you see it, you find it everywhere. Fish don’t notice how wet they are, and people who think about their colon all the time don’t notice that either. This is how idolatry gets into everything — what is the topic of virtually every conversation?
People who are broken by their food issues are not rejected by Jesus for that reason. Whatever your issues are, bring them to Jesus. Don’t stop following Jesus. He welcomes all refugees. If you are fleeing from fear, shame and guilt, then come to Him. But if you are a purveyor of fear, shame and guilt, you are an apostle of that junk, not a refugee. If you are insistent on everyone feeding everyone something other than Jesus, then you are among those disciples are in the process of departing from Him.
Now given this complicated reality, if someone gives a clarion blast that reveals exactly what is going on, as Toby did, it is hardly to the point to say that quite a few people “didn’t understand” what you were saying. That is exactly what happens when you attack this kind of seeping idolatry — people think you need to brush up on your rhetorical skills, they want you to stop mumbling, and they want you to make all your points to the satisfaction of those who have a vested interest in not being satisfied by them. When the apostle Paul preached in Athens — remember, he was one of the greatest minds in the history of the world, and Athens was one of the most idolatrous cities in that same history — he was dismissed as a dilettante, a dabbler, a seed picker (Acts 17:18). “Tear down your idols!” “What did he say? Dare the clown sidles? What kind of sense does that make?”
Now some might respond that if we are simply addressing the attitudes only, and not the foodstuffs in themselves, why does it appear that we are focusing most of our attention on “alternativey” stuff? The answer to that is simple. It is the same reason why surfers ride the wave that is headed toward the beach right now, and they never try to ride yesterday’s wave in. Yesterday’s wave isn’t here anymore. There was a time when the up-to-date and most Modern way in Scientific Progress was the idol du jour, and it was the hot new thing among regular folks, and it worked in all the same terrible peer pressure ways. And at that time, it was the duty of intelligent pastors to attack all that stuff, and for all the same reasons.
In the fifties, if a woman breastfed her baby, she was thought to be acting like a savage, like she wanted to get photographed for National Geographic or something. Why didn’t she do the right thing for her baby and give her this scientific formula in a can? That modernistic hubris really was something — just as bad as the postmodern hubris we are dealing with now.
In the fifties, the woman who breastfed her baby was a woman who got the stink eye. Today it would be the woman who uses formula who gets the stink eye — whether or not she had reasonable grounds for doing so. Now as a pastor my concern is with the stink eye part, and not with monitoring how many calories the babies are getting. But when I deal with bad attitudes, this creates an optical illusion, as though I am taking sides “on the merits” with those who are currently getting the treatment. Not at all — if there were a band of imperialistic formula feeders in my church who were giving major grief to a beleaguered breast feeder, I would admonish them all sharply, so that they might be sound in the faith. And then, having admonished them, I would donate the whole lot of them to the Smithsonian so they could be put into an exhibit.
High-techy modernism is still an idol, but it is now an establishment idol. It doesn’t rely on exuberant proselytizing to grow. It doesn’t ride on peer pressure (the way it used to). It is just as sinful to bow down to this idol of Science as ever it was, but the idol of Science is not causing tension in the fellowship of the saints the same way that the alternative stuff is currently doing. This is not because of anything inherent in any particular alternative treatment, but rather because as a social movement it is on the ascendant and is growing by proselytizing. The old idol is like a liberal mainstream denominational church, chock full of bad doctrine, but which hasn’t proselytized anyone for seventy-five years. But the devotees of new idol are going door-to-door, literature in hand, and are making themselves the topic of conversation.
You can still see the modernist idol at work in television advertisements for the newest Big Pharma drugs. You know the kind — where the fine print ad copy was written by lawyers with a gruesome turn of mind? “Side effects may include writhing on the living room floor, chewing on the coffee table leg, and vomiting up blood.” I can’t really say I have felt enticed to try MadcowMyrica myself.
Side effects may also include sitting in two claw foot bathtubs in odd, open air locations.
Because the earth is the Lord’s (and the fullness thereof), I may take medication my doctor prescribes, and I can do that lawfully, or I might lawfully try something my sister tried and liked. What I may not do in either case is bow down. In other words, there are people who eat things I don’t eat, and who treat themselves with medicines that I wouldn’t use, who are not in the grip of the problems I am talking about. The thing I am insisting on is that such things ought never to become a barrier to fellowship. That’s it. Now, despite this disclaimer, if someone comes up to me angrily and says, “I don’t care about all those disclaimers . . . you really are talking about me!” Well, yes, I guess I probably am.
So, then, bring this full circle — back to John 6. There are many people who — because they are not feeding on Christ — are disrupting fellowship over food and medical issues through their imperialism, bad manners, unteachable spirit, insecurity, thoughtlessness, provincialism, and dogmatism.
Here is a composite picture, one I will fill out in greater detail at some other time. Picture a young, married couple with a fairly rocky relationship. She is the one with eighty percent (or more) of the manifesting troubles that they are seeking to resolve. He is being a weak husband (which is not necessarily the same thing as being a weak man), and he supports her fully in her health research and food pursuits because he believes (because of their other recurring conflicts), that he owes her support, and because he thinks a good way to make compensatory peace with her is to have a common foe that they can battle together. She is overwhelmed with her responsibilities with the littles, and gets together regularly with other women who are very much in the same position that she is in — and they talk about their issues a lot. The presenting issues become a corporate and social matter this way, and it all spills over into social media. She and her husband are not diligent Bible readers, but to the extent they interact with the Word, they use a way of interpretation that is more a “free association of images” method than it is a “follow the reasoning closely” method. They are not “close” Bible students, and this way of reading Scripture carries over into their way of reading the world. One other symptom is that they have very sloppy entertainment standards that they both share together, and which frequently slops over into a private porn problem that he has.
Now if someone “eats healthy” and that is where the similarity with the preceding paragraph ends, then the reason is simple. None of this is about you, and nobody is upset with what you had for lunch. But the fact it is not about you does not mean that it can’t be about anybody. There are many who do fit this description, and the need of the hour is for them to work through John 6 in search of the liberty that is certainly there. And liberty is there because Jesus is there.