Eat. Fast. How does a Christian relate to food?

Self-orientation, in any form is spiritually devastating.

The desire to orient all of life around myself is encouraged by a culture that tempts us to rip the governor off any pursuit of pleasure. In this way a good gift like food becomes a hedonist entitlement; my right to have my palate satiated any time, any place, and in the exact way that I demand, and not as it was intended: for sustenance and celebration. Ironically this same self-orientation manifest itself in a culture obsessed with pursuing the perfect body. Yet, the person who lives for a lower personal record on their mile, or a few more pounds off, or an obsession with trans fats is just as self-oriented as the glutton. Physical exercise has a thousand wonderful benefits, but in their extreme forms an obsession with food or an obsession with diet and exercise are both aberrant forms of living that are not sustainable by a life that is to be filled with the Spirit.

So here is a question especially pointy during the next few weeks of Christmas and the New Year: how exactly does a Christian relate to food? I think I have a good sense of the way culture tries to dictate that I relate to food, and I also understand my innate strengths and weakness, but does Scripture speak to this issue?

To be very reductionist, Scripture says we are to eat and not eat. We are to feast and to fast. Specifically, at least three aspects of our relationship to food are clear from Scripture: We worship God with our eating when we exercise: Restraint (Christians fast), Moderation (Christians are not to be gluttons), and when we Celebrate (Christians feast). We will take the next three posts to deal briefly with each. Let’s begin with fasting.

Christians relate to food with Restraint: Christians Fast

It’s insane to talk about fasting at Christmas. It really is. But bear with me for a moment. There is a lot to say about fasting in Scripture. Jesus didn’t have to command fasting to His disciples because He did not have to. He seems to assume fasting was normative for them, and thus for us (Matt 6:16-17).

However, in the backdrop of our normal Christmas celebration, let’s focus on one aspect of fasting: it is not the absence of food, but rather feasting on the presence of Christ. This is where fasting can be so helpful around this time of year. Fasting allows us to unwrap the marvelous gift of the presence of Christ. And when we do, we find that Christ is enough. Perhaps the best fasting verses in all of the Bible are found in Philippians 4: 11-13. Paul writes,

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

The most profound effect of fasting is that fasting reminds the body of the sufficiency of Christ in all things. My mind understands this. But there is nothing like a visceral growl in the gut to cargo to the mind what is always true: the truth that Jesus is enough. And this is the irony of food: we are encouraged to draw near to Christ through the absence of food, while in the Lord’s Supper we celebrate His sacrifice through the presence of food. Both bring glory to Christ because both the food and its absence draw us closer. And this leads us to contrast what is even starker. For a Christian, everything we experience should make us love Jesus more, whether that was its original intent or not. We wince at the commercial consumerist excess of this season, yet in my mind I try to baptize it with a flood of Scripture and songs that remind of a world that was without the physical presence of Christ, until He entered. What the angels shouted to shepherds is buried in a thousand other things. To extract that truth, we fast a little to remind ourselves. Food for remembering, fasting for intimacy.

So how do you do this in the Christmas and New Year season? The answer is, not much. Really. After all, this is a time for feasting not fasting! However, at least in my world, the temptation is to turn the feast into a multi-week war on my health. So it may be as slight as no dessert at a certain meal, or a walk instead of a lunch. Just enough to remind me that my passions are subject to my soul, and that Christ is quite enough.

After all the opposite of gluttony is not fasting, the opposite of gluttony is contentment. And Jesus is enough.

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