In the previous two articles in this series, we took a closer look at what a God-honoring foodview should be, and discussed the two important guiding principles of self control and gratitude. The final area I want to address is the “why” and “how” of eating quality food. In the complex topic of food and health, this area is the most practical.
I think we all agree that the primary purpose of food is to nourish our bodies. So we should not eat food that doesn’t nourish us, right? Of course, we fall short of this principle many times. But one point of this series is to propose that food is not a neutral issue for Christians. Eating well isn’t a core element of our faith—poor choice of food generally isn’t a sin—but it flows out of love for God and the desire to do life His way. In this article I will lay out my thoughts on this matter, and hopefully spark the reader’s own critical thinking about eating wisely and well.
Beyond eating with self-discipline, does it really matter what we eat? The Bible has little to say about exactly which foods Christians should eat, but we’re given plenty of principles to apply. Two of those principles that are prominent throughout Scripture are stewardship of the earth and of our bodies. If stewardship matters, then yes, quality food is important. A person may eat a balanced, moderate diet of commercially-produced food, yet lack real nutrition and resilient health. Going a layer deeper, such a diet might be supporting farming practices that contribute to the earth’s degeneration and ignore the Creator’s original design.1
Living and eating with the current food industry is far from nourishing—because the food on the shelves is usually far from its God-made state. Centuries ago, the food produced for consumers was either completely unprocessed, or processed with non-detrimental, traditional methods. If we blindly eat what is produced for the public today, we’ll likely end up with overall un-wellness, if not a myriad of “health issues.” The times we live in require intentional decisions if we are to eat in a way that honors God and promotes health rather than disease, at every level. I suggest that we reevaluate our daily diet and choose to eat close to nature.
Dr. Richard Swenson, in his book Margin, writes:
“There are two ways to process food: God’s way and the factory way. God has our best interest at heart; the factories sometimes don’t. The ground, taking its orders from God, fortunately doesn’t process food the way factories do. And, generally speaking, the less factory processing, the better the food. Always protect the most direct connection from the Father’s hand to your table.”
If we pay attention, nature itself teaches us God’s way for food to be produced and selected. It would certainly be nice if God gave clear instructions for how we should navigate the present culture surrounding food. Strategic advertising, dishonest labeling, and a merry-go-round of trending health foods make it a challenging task to eat well. Rampant misinformation and dubious “studies show” statements can leave us confused. And may I suggest that not all of the “health advice” offered to us, even from professionals, is trustworthy. Neither is everything in the world of alternative healthcare. This is no time to be gullible. It takes discernment to find reliable information on what helps or hurts our bodies. Our best option is to move as close as possible to the way our Creator meant humans to eat.
Why Eat Close to Nature?
Theologian and agrarian Norman Wirzba says it better than I can, in his book Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.
“Whenever people come to the table they demonstrate with the unmistakable evidence of their stomachs that they are not self-subsisting gods. They are finite and mortal creatures dependent on God’s many good gifts: sunlight, photosynthesis, decomposition, soil fertility, water, bees and butterflies, chickens, sheep, cows, gardeners, farmers, cooks, strangers, and friends (the list goes on and on). Eating reminds us that we participate in a grace-saturated world, a blessed creation worthy of attention, care, and celebration. Despite what food marketers may say, there really is no such thing as “cheap” or “convenient” food. Real food, the food that is the source of creaturely health and delight, is precious because it is a fundamental means through which God’s nurture and love for the whole creation are expressed.”
The farther removed we are from this interdependent system, the more goodness we miss out on. In an environment that is stacked against us, and with a food industry more interested in profit than its consumers’ quality of life, it isn’t easy to be healthy. Modernity has so thoroughly insulated us from nature, (i.e., God’s design in creation), it’s no surprise that many end up unhealthy sooner or later. God intends that the food we enjoy is life-giving, not life-polluting.
Some might argue that “progress” in agriculture and food production is an improvement on the way nature works. All too often, however, such progress has negative results on the earth, animals, and us. Humans are free to experiment with nature, but it is a wrong use of our freedom to mass-produce and profit from experiments that are less than beneficial—GMO’s and the use of glyphosate, for example. Rather than try to commercialize or expedite the earth’s food production as God designed it, we should nurture and protect what He put in place. In real life this will look like avoiding highly processed or modified food and opting for untainted, minimally processed food. And for some of us, this will look like getting our hands dirty and growing wholesome food from the ground up.
Why is it worth our resources to purposefully eat close to nature? Simply that it is God’s way proves that it will cause the greatest good. This foodview and the resulting lifestyle are so rewarding. But the calling of Christian stewardship should be our first motivation, and the rewards an added bonus. We have been given bodies, families, bank accounts, even the earth itself, to steward for God’s glory. Eating close to nature is an effective way of stewarding each of those gifts. We need to think less in terms of secular parts of life versus sacred, and instead integrate every aspect of our lives into one focus: Jesus and His new Kingdom in which only the Father’s will is desired and done. And this includes what we eat.
For better body stewardship
We can’t load our plates at every meal with foods that God never intended us to consume, and then complain of whatever “dis-ease” is manifested in our bodies. Foods that have been over-processed, edited in a lab, modified, saturated with toxins, and possibly touted as being healthful, are the very opposite of nourishing. Eating that way, we can’t wonder why we are lacking in energy, sleep quality, skin health, stamina, or are dealing with any other ailment common to Western civilizations. Our bodies can only work with what we give them. So let us for God’s glory give them what He made, not what has been harmed by chemicals or unnecessary factory processing. If we endeavor to do our Father’s will and honor Him in every area, shouldn’t the people of God be the most healthy people on earth? We can expect persecution and spiritual opposition which may involve bodily harm or disease. But it seems we of all people should be among those free from the effects of a detrimental diet. This might not always be feasible as the world continues to disintegrate. But considering the endless options we have today, our aim should be to eat God’s way, which is always the safest and best.
Many non-Christians care a lot about eating just right and staying fit. The health-food industry is massive, and the food movement is going strong. But their motives are often superficial and selfish. Our calling is much higher–we get to glorify God in our bodies, not only with godliness, good works, worship, etc. We get to demonstrate to unbelievers the beauty of living God’s way, under His rule, and in harmony with nature as He designed it.
Ann Wigmore, a pioneer of the natural health movement, said, “The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine, or the slowest form of poison.” In today’s society, truly quality, nutrient-dense food is rare. I propose that we educate ourselves to know which foods are helping or hurting our bodies, and then make informed decisions. For example, perhaps everyone who eats meat should learn what goes into the production of factory-farmed meats. Those who do their research will find it right and reasonable to pay more for grass-fed, pastured animal products. Another benefit of such a choice is supporting small, local farms rather than multi-billion dollar corporations. Doesn’t that sound more like God’s Kingdom on earth? The same thing applies to conventional milk versus local/raw milk, or foods genetically modified to perfection versus homegrown fruits and vegetables. In the words of Dr. Richard Swenson, “God gave us an amazing gift, and all we are required to do is feed it, water it, rest it, and move it. Yet it needs to be the right food, water, rest, and movement.”
In my research for this article, I was surprised to learn that John Wesley was concerned with both the physical and spiritual health of those he ministered to. He prescribed traditional, holistic treatments and lifestyles for better health. He strongly advocated eating simply and moderately. Author Bill Guerrant writes, “Wesley’s attention to health and well-being was not parallel to his interest in the soul and spiritual well-being, but rather was an integral part of it. He was convinced that God’s original plan for humanity included healthy bodies and that we need not await the resurrection to start bringing our bodily health in line with God’s plan. Wesley believed that God intends both “inward and outward healing” and that a properly oriented Christian life should promote both.”2
For better land stewardship
Choosing to eat close to nature is the one of the best ways each of us can steward the earth wisely. Humans are entrusted with the responsibility of ruling creation under God, and Christians ought to be the first to do our part well. We shouldn’t roll our eyes at everyone going “green”, while turning a blind eye to the issues we contribute to when choosing mass-produced, highly modified food.
Other good things result when we stay close to nature. Rural communities are strengthened when neighbors share or purchase homegrown food among themselves. With the majority of food on store shelves no longer an option, shopping trips involve fewer and easier decisions. We find that real food tastes better, and we feel better after eating it. It takes less food to feel satiated and energized, because the original nutrient density has been protected. It’s a pattern of eating that is sustainable for any length of time; there are no bad repercussions to the soil, environment, or our bodies.
Being more natural, health-conscious, and earth-friendly has become a subculture of its own. However, it’s mostly made up of the “fringe,” hippie, New Age-ish stereotypes. It shouldn’t be this way, when we as Christians have a much larger purpose than trying to save this earth as if it were our mother. Rather, our Father has entrusted us with its stewardship for as long as we’re here. We should be leading the charge to steward creation for God’s purposes, instead of mocking the misguided earth-lovers. By making good choices we can manage well whatever part is within our jurisdiction. Some have hundreds of acres to steward; others have basic choices in their weekly grocery run. Some join a local CSA co-op for quality food; others turn a portion of their yard into a garden, and do what it takes to grow their own good food. In an issue like this, the question is not if, but how far Christians should go in sticking close to nature. Should we all go completely zero-waste, eco-friendly, and off-grid? It wouldn’t hurt us, to be sure, though such extreme measures aren’t practical for most of us. We need to balance our priorities and keep first things first– and food isn’t a first thing. But every single household has a part in the many-layered ecosystem of food.
This isn’t always the cheapest lifestyle, especially when we’re used to average supermarket prices and convenience. Are we excused from doing our part well because we insist on being frugal with our income? My observations indicate that we specialize in using finances responsibly for the Kingdom, but overlook responsible handling of our bodies and of the earth’s produce. I believe even such quotidian matters as our choice of meat and vegetables and snacks have implications in Kingdom-focused living. And I think it’ll actually be cheaper in the long run.
There’s room for many different applications of the principle of eating close to nature. For example, some choose to buy only organic produce. Some go further and buy directly from local organic farms. Some learn that even the “organic” label is owned by the USDA (and is full of loopholes for conventional agribusiness to get their product to market), and choose to support honest small-scale regenerative agriculture. Others decide it isn’t practical to eat close to nature in their specific circumstances. (And I applaud the busy mothers who still prioritize serving real food to their households!)
Because I’ve developed an interest in health overall, I enjoy learning more about God-designed ways to eat and live. But to some it could seem like a chore to do your own research in order to make informed decisions. Is it worth it? Here’s how I see it. At some point in life we will each have to put time, effort, and money into our health. We can do it now, proactively and holistically, or later, when obvious problems demand that we take better care of our bodies. And in my understanding, the Lord would have us do the best we possibly can with everything He has given us right now, not wait until His gifts require extra attention because we mismanaged them for years. In all of this, we must have our priorities straight, or eating well can be a form of idolatry that leads to pride. In his excellent article on the subject, Brandon O’Brien reminds us that “focusing too narrowly on food… can distract us from other important aspects of Christian service.”3
If we take the stewardship of our bodies seriously, recognizing that they aren’t our own but belong to God, it will show. It will affect our daily choices and attitudes about food. We will acknowledge His design for the earth by raising or choosing food grown sustainably. Love and fear of God will restrain us from gluttony. We’ll be taught by God’s grace, and given grace, to deny fleshly lusts. Recognition of His blessings will inspire gratitude for every meal. For God to be glorified through our eating and drinking, may we use the energy and health from our nourishment to do good works; to love all, serve all, and continue Jesus’ work on earth. All the while looking forward to the day when we can share a perfect, heavenly feast with our King in His Kingdom!
Let us remember that food is a gift from God. It can be a tool for good or bad– sometimes it’s used as a tool for profit, or a tool for gratifying the flesh. We can use food as a tool for glorifying God, if we handle it with discipline, thankfulness, and wisdom.
Bibliography & Further Reading
Bahnson, Fred and Wirzba, Norman. (2012) Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation. InterVarsity Press.
Berry, Wendell. (2009) Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food. Catapult.
Davis, Ellen F. (2009) Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Cambridge University Press.
Fick, Gary W. (2008) Food, Farming, & Faith. State University of New York Press.
Salatin, Joel. (2016) The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs. FaithWords.
Wirzba, Norman. (2011) Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge University Press.