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“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink...Is not life more important than food?”
– Matthew 6:25 NIV
“Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
– 1 Corinthians 10:31
When I was growing up, my mom was considered by most standards to be a health nut. My friends’ lunch boxes contained white bread sandwiches, greasy potato chips, and Little Debbie cupcakes, while mine was filled with whole wheat bread, carrot sticks, and sugar-free granola bars. In our house, eating “sugar cereal” like Fruit Loops or Captain Crunch for breakfast was akin to cheating on our homework assignments. Kids who ate that kind of garbage, we were told, ended up in detention and remedial reading classes, not to mention frequent and painful trips to the dentist’s office to have their many cavities filled. So to my great consternation, we ate cream of wheat or oatmeal nearly every morning – a habit which my mom assured us would lead to good grades, healthy teeth, and respectable behavior at school.
On the one hand, I appreciated the fact that my mom cared enough about me to feed me healthy food and protect me from the evil clutches of sugar cereal and Little Debbies. On the other, I was envious of all the delectable treats I was missing out on. It’s not that I never tasted sugar. But sugary desserts were reserved for special occasions, and were never included in our everyday fare. Our Easter candy was rationed – we were only allowed two jelly beans per day for several weeks until the basket was finally empty of its bounty. Under no circumstances would my mother allow us to “binge” on candy. “Just look at how other kids act when they’ve eaten a lot of sugar,” she would tell me. “They always get completely out of control and end up getting in trouble.”
I could not deny that she was right. The worst behaved kids at school were the ones who seemed to have an unlimited sugar intake. I didn’t want to become one of those out-of-control, obnoxious, and remedial students who were always being hauled to the principal’s office (and dentist’s chair), so for a while I reluctantly submitted to my mom’s prescriptions for a healthy diet. Yet, I always felt an inner battle between my mom’s wisdom and the allure of the forbidden. The commercials on TV proclaimed that Frosted Lucky Charms were “magically delicious” and made the colorful cereal look oh-so-enticing. I knew that Twinkies were a mouthful of cavities waiting to happen, but they looked so light, airy, and sweetly inviting that it became my secret longing to try one.
One evening, after my parents had forced me to eat an entire serving of steamed broccoli and Brussels sprouts (my least favorite food on the planet), I inwardly vowed that as soon as I was old enough to decide my own nutritional fate, I would utterly forsake such nasty fare and eat all the Fruit Loops and Twinkies I wanted. I was sure that by the time that day came, I would be able to “hold my sugar” much better than those wild children at school. I was certain that I would be able to eat ample amounts of junk food without undergoing a downward spiral in my behavior. And as for cavities, well, wasn’t that what a toothbrush was for?
Somehow over the next few years of my life, I became convinced that it was only my mom who stood between me and the true dietary happiness I longed for. I began to loudly complain about having to eat healthy food and balk at every green item she put on my plate, be it peas, lettuce, or spinach. To say that I was a picky eater was putting it mildly.
By the time I was thirteen, my mom was sick and tired of fighting battles with me over food. In a moment of frustration she declared the fateful words, “Okay Leslie, from now on I am not going to force healthy food on you. You decide what you eat. But you reap the consequences.”
At thirteen, I wasn’t thinking too much about consequences. I was simply overjoyed that my mom had given me the freedom I had been dreaming of for years. Finally I was allowed to buy my own box of Frosted Lucky Charms (I had to use babysitting money because my mom wouldn’t touch the stuff) and eat as much as I wanted. I could splurge on a huge bag of M&M’s and keep them in my locker at school! My mind raced with the endless possibilities. All my friends had grown up eating junk food – but I had been deprived. Now, I needed to make up for lost time. And that is exactly what I did.
Instead of eating my mom’s oatmeal for breakfast, I downed a sugar-laden glassful of Nestle Quik strawberry flavored “instant breakfast,” or grabbed a doughnut on my way to school. Instead of the whole wheat peanut butter sandwiches of yesteryear, I now went to Pizza Hut with my friends every day for lunch (and no, I didn’t order the salad). Instead of snacking on sugar-free granola bars and carrot sticks, my locker was filled with “jumbo-sized” bags of Starbursts and Skittles. I didn’t binge on the candy (I wanted to keep my figure slim) but I ate a handful of it several times a day, basking in the pure delight of unhindered indulgence. And true to my promise, I didn’t so much as touch a green vegetable.
It was so wonderful to have the freedom to eat anything I wanted that at first I didn’t notice any consequences to my dietary choices. But after a few weeks, I started feeling sluggish. I could no longer concentrate at school. I seemed to listen to the teacher in a lethargic daze. I had very little energy. I had to drag myself out of bed every morning and no matter how much sleep I got, I never really felt rested. And I started getting sick a lot, catching every little cold or virus that was going around. Pretty soon, I started getting headaches almost every day, which forced me to keep a bottle of Advil in my locker and pop the little pills several times a week. My allergies became so intense that I took prescription medicine every day.
I lived this way for a couple of years, not really putting two and two together. Life at school was stressful and all my friends were generally tired and sick, just like me. I figured that feeling sluggish and wanting to sleep all the time was just a normal part of being a teenager.
But when God got a hold of my life at the age of sixteen, He began to gently put His finger on many areas of my life that needed to change. My diet was one of them. I began to recognize how selfish I had been in my food choices. I had shown no respect for the physical body God had so lovingly given me; I was only interested in indulging my fleshly, selfish desires. It didn’t matter to me if I was eating food that would truly nourish me; I only wanted it to taste good and bring me pleasure while I ate it.
I read in Philippians 3:19 that sinful men made “their stomach their god,” blindly serving the cravings of their flesh. And I realized this was the same trap I had fallen into. Just because I was not overweight didn’t mean I was not enslaved and addicted to unhealthy food.
So, by the grace of God, I repented of my selfishness. I purposed to honor Him in my eating habits instead of indulging my selfish whims and desires. With His help, I began to discipline my life and body in the area of food. Paul says, “...I discipline my body and make it my slave” (1 Cor. 9:27 NASB), and that is exactly what I purposed to do in this area of my life. No longer would I allow my physical cravings to control my decisions, but rather, my physical cravings must submit to God’s agenda for my life.
I removed addictive junk food from my diet, trained myself to eat more fruits and vegetables, and developed the discipline of periodic fasting and prayer. Instead of drinking soda, I drank water. Instead of snacking on candy, I chose healthier foods that would truly give me the energy I needed for each day. I asked my mom’s forgiveness for shunning her nutritious meals, and for the first time, began to truly appreciate the healthy standards by which she ran our home. As I yielded this area of my life to Christ, it was amazing to see how God provided me with every bit of discipline I needed to obey Him in this area. I did not need human willpower; I simply needed to depend fully and completely upon Jesus Christ.
In the beginning, my dietary makeover had nothing to do with following a nutrition fad, wanting to lose weight, or attaining better skin. It wasn’t something I did for me; it was something I did for my King. Yes, I did reap physical benefits from honoring God’s pattern for food, such as mental clarity and more energy, as well as the removal of daily distractions such as headaches and allergies. But that was not the reason I chose to discipline my body in the area of food. Rather, my desire was to follow His command, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, do it all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
But what started out as a step of obedience eventually became a stumbling block to my spiritual life. The more I studied nutrition, the more intrigued I became. Pouring through my mom’s many health books, I learned how toxic the standard American diet really was, to the point where I became horrified at the thought of ever eating a hamburger again. I discovered the incredible life-giving benefits of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and began to go to extremes to get these nutrients into my diet – drinking raw vegetable juice concoctions several times a day, eating only salads for lunch and dinner, and forcing myself to drink a large mixture of barley green powder every night before bed. Reading one nutritional book led to another. I began to study all the latest nutritional discoveries and breakthroughs in dietary research. There was the high-protein, low-carb craze, the raw-food-only fad, the ultra-vegan-save-the-animals trend, the eating-for-your-blood-type plan, and the five-small-meals-a-day prescription, just to name a few. All of the nutritional fads were very convincing in their arguments for why this particular diet was the solution for preventing disease, feeling great, and looking young your whole life. Many of them even claimed to be the biblical prescription for healthy eating.
The more I studied these diet trends and read books on the latest nutritional research, the more paranoid I became about what I ate. I had never really worried about heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, but now I found myself believing that if I didn’t fuel my body in exactly the right way, I was destined to end up with one of these dreaded maladies. It was all up to me to protect my health. After all, didn’t God want me to take care of the body He had given me? That’s what all my Christian health books declared.
So I swung from one nutritional fad to the next; first becoming a complete vegan, then becoming a raw-food enthusiast, then eating only organic, pasture-raised meats, then eliminating all carbs completely – and the list of extremes went on and on.
Food was no longer an opportunity to indulge my fleshly cravings. But now, food was becoming an opportunity for self-protection and self-focus. It also became an inroads for fear. Instead of relying on God as my protector, I relied upon my specialized health food and my super-disciplined dietary habits. I became fearful that if I didn’t do everything perfectly, my body would begin to fall apart. Time that should have been spent in God’s presence was now spent in studying health trends. Hours that should have been given to serving others were now spent shopping at the health food store, preparing my own “special” meals, and juicing raw fruits and veggies multiple times a day. I couldn’t travel without bringing an entire suitcase filled with my healthy food. At parties or dinner engagements, I couldn’t eat what was served because I knew how bad it was for me and I was convinced it would make me sick. Whenever I visited alternative medicine practitioners for various health concerns, they only confirmed these ideas and provided me with a mile-long list of foods to avoid at all costs.
I had swung from one extreme to another. In my early teen years I had been a slave to the selfish cravings of my physical body – indulging every desire for sugary junk food and eating only for pleasure instead of for nourishment. But then I had unwittingly become enslaved to a different form of bondage; I was now addicted to health food and nutrition trends.
Once again, God gently put His finger of conviction upon this area of my life. As I turned to Scripture instead of my “Christian” health books, I began to realize that it was not up to me or my dietary disciplines to protect my health. Rather, I was to build my life around Jesus Christ and trust Him to keep me strong. As Paul said, “...for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).
Yes, I was to honor the physical body He had given me by not becoming enslaved to food cravings. I was to discipline my body and make it my slave by keeping the desires of my flesh under the control of God’s Spirit. However, honoring God in my eating habits did not mean obsessing over food, following every health trend that came along, and being in bondage to a “special diet” out of fear and self-protection.
In fact, I discovered that God’s Word is quite clear that food should never become a primary focus in our lives:
“...Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach...?” (Mark 7:18-19).
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink...Is not life more important than food...?” (Matt. 6:25).
“Whatever city you enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you” (Luke 10:8).
“One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only...the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him” (Rom. 14:2-3 NASB).
“Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food” (Rom. 14:20 NASB).
“For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15 NASB).
So once more, my dietary habits had to change in order to truly honor God’s pattern for this area of my life. I began to relax about food, and remove it from the center of my universe. My diet was not to be my focus – Jesus Christ was. I stopped reading the books on health and nutritional trends so as to not feed my fearful food obsession tendencies. I began to fill my mind with Christian biographies and Scripture instead of the latest discoveries in disease prevention. Instead of spending my spare time preparing special ultra-healthy meals for myself, I began to turn outward and serve others. When I was traveling or at someone’s house for dinner, I ate what was set before me without stressing over its nutritional content and how it might affect my physical well-being.
No, I did not revert back to my former days of unlimited Skittles, Twinkies, and Fruit Loops, but no longer did I fret over getting enough carrot juice or barley greens in my diet. My desire was to honor God in my eating habits, and not fall into the trap of self-indulgence or the trap of self-protection.
Amazingly, as I began to truly live out Christ’s words, “life is more important than food,” my health became stronger than it had ever been. When I made Christ, not food, my focus, I learned the secret of physical protection and strength. He, and He alone, is the Bread of life. And in Him (not in a special dietary code) is everything I could ever need for life and godliness – including the health and strength I need for the calling He has placed upon my life!
Making it Practical
Neither indulging our fleshly cravings nor becoming a slave to the dietary trends of our culture honors God’s pattern for food. Countless Christian women waste precious time obsessing over what they eat or do not eat. Others trash their bodies and dull their spiritual lives by letting their food cravings become their god.
God’s command is, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.” So how exactly do we eat for the glory of God? Here are a few practical ways to start:
If you are a slave to unhealthy eating habits...
1. Repent of your selfishness and submit this area of your life to God.
He does not expect us to muster up the willpower to discipline our flesh. Rather, as we abide in Him and allow Him to transform us from the inside out, He provides the strength we need to overcome the power of sin and the flesh. When He is in His rightful place, we have both the desire and the strength to discipline our lives around His pattern - including honoring Him with our eating habits. For more on this principle, I highly recommend Elisabeth Elliot’s book Discipline: The Glad Surrender.
2. Write down any practical changes that need to be made in your life in order to bring your flesh under submission in this area.
Determine the moments throughout your day when you could make healthier choices (i.e. grabbing an apple instead of a candy bar) and begin to implement those small changes, by God’s grace. Practice other physical disciplines such as fasting and prayer, regular exercise, and disciplined sleep habits, and allow God to show you what it means to “discipline [your] body and make it [your] slave” as Paul did. Remember, if you try to discipline your flesh in your own strength, you will either fail or become enslaved to self-imposed legalism. But if you allow God’s Spirit (not your fleshly whims) to be the ruling voice in your daily life, victory over sin will be the natural result.
If you are caught up in diet trends and nutrition fads...
1. Limit or avoid reading diet books, health prescriptions, and nutritional research.
Most of these resources, though they contain interesting information, promote an attitude of paranoia and self-protection. Though some modern health books claim to be God’s ultimate dietary prescription, they often bring great distraction and bondage into our lives when we become convinced that we must eat a certain way in order to stay healthy and strong. It is not bad to be informed in a basic way about what foods build up our bodies, and to discipline ourselves to eat those things as much as possible. But books that go beyond just offering simple health principles usually try to convince us that unless we eat exactly the right quantity, quality, or combination of food, we are destined for disease. That is not God’s pattern. Rather, He goes as far as to say that if we are abiding in Him, believing in Him, and doing His work, even consuming poison will not hurt us (see Mark 16:18).
To this day, I discipline myself not to turn to health books (other than for recipes), visit health websites, or follow the latest nutritional research. Most of us already know the basics of healthy eating - fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc. I make wise choices whenever possible, then leave the rest of up to God. It’s that simple. I don’t need to know all the “new discoveries” of the modern health gurus. God’s Word has been around a lot longer than any research of our day - and He alone is trustworthy.
2. Repent of your fear and self-protection, and consecrate this area of your life to God.
Make it your aim to build your life around Him, not what you eat or do not eat. Shift the patterns of your life, and instead of spending loads of time and energy on your own health, turn outward and begin to serve others. Spend more time in His presence and in His Word. You will be amazed at how health naturally flows into your life when your focus is on the true Source of strength, Jesus Christ.
“My son, give attention to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them depart from your eyes; keep them in the midst of your heart; for they are life to those who find them, and health to all their flesh” (Prov. 4:20-22).*
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