It seems to make sense that God cares about our dietary choices, but can eating be a place of spiritual discipline? Well, I know not to be a glutton. I know Paul released people of his day from strict Jewish dietary laws, but is eating a spiritual discipline?
If there was only one reason for eating to be a spiritual discipline, the reason is in its metaphorical reflection of the great struggle in distinguishing need from want. Some people may experience that struggle in consumerism of other products, but for most, we experience it in how we eat because everyone of us have eaten when we were not hungry or have eaten (a lot) to satiate some emotional need, essentially going to something else instead of God for our needs. To consider eating as a spiritual discipline in this case is to consider why we are eating. Why this bite? Why this food? Why do I want to eat? What am I hungry for? What do I delight in? Do any of our answers cause us to turn towards or away from God?
Jewish dietary rules give us insight into the significance of the way we eat. Most of the Jewish dietary laws serve two purposes. One is that they were actual safety rules. Some foods were unfit for human consumption. The strictest rules, though, revolve around foods which were too closely identified with idolatry practices. Is it possible for us to examine if our eating is related to idolatrous practices?
Gluttony is when a person eats more than they need. The words used in the Old Testament and in the New for gluttony indicate someone who is out of control. In the Old Testament, gluttony is translated from a word that means to shake or tremble, like a person "who must have it."
In America, in modern times, food availability makes gluttony an every day opportunity. It takes a prayerful consideration to participate with God in food selection, especially the amount. We cannot use the culture's standards on how much is enough. Maybe, though, the New Testament standard can help us.
Paul tells Timothy, "Godliness with contentment is great gain...and if we have clothing and food, we will be content with that." The word to concentrate on here is the one translated "have." In Greek, it is "echo," which means, in part, to have something on, which speaks to clothing. It sort of means "the clothes on our back" is enough. "Echo" can also mean to hold oneself to a thing, to cling to it, or to keep it in its appropriate significance, with food as the object. Food is to be sustenance - enough to sustain a person bodily. Maybe it means to understand food's place in God's design: to appreciate it, to see it as a vehicle to approach God. For food can be a vehicle for gratefulness, especially in light of the rest of verse, and to be content with what God has provided.
When it comes to food, have we vacillated between holding food in too high regard or allowed eating to become meaningless? We wolf it down, not only missing gratefulness, but also the appropriate volume of what to eat.
How could we get more meaning out of eating?
Some of the significance of Jewish dietary laws was to create a sense of eating attentively - to think about what a person was eating; to think about how a person was eating. Some of those dietary law's purpose was that a food's source was to be known and that it was to be prepared attentively and consumed with awareness of that attention. As my husband says, "made with love" makes a difference in the quality of the food. This creates an awareness of the quality of the preparation of a meal as part of spiritual discipline, building gratitude and contentment.
Another part of the spiritual discipline of eating could also be in its communal nature and its connectedness to fellowship, as seen in traditions of the banquet, the Lord's supper, the feasts in heaven. To keep an awareness of the company with whom you eat, the etiquette of the meal, and the shared joy of the meal can keep us in awareness of God, too! A joyful, shared meal lifts the community fellowship and moves us to see God!
Have hands lovingly prepared it and contributed to its presentation and quality? Have you savored your bites lately? Have you relished the company which surrounds your meal? The burning question, though, is how do I stay spiritually attentive to eating?
There have been movements in history to slow how fast a person eats. One monk dictated that a bite of food should be chewed over 500 times before it was swallowed. In some cultures, clearing of the palate with water, ginger, wine or an allowance of time causes the taste buds to recovery and enjoy the next "first" bite.
I remember a seven-course French meal that took three hours to complete. The setting was elegant. The pace was slow. The room was quiet. Most dishes were small and followed with an extended time period, water and wine allowed. I remember it as one of the best meals I ever had! Add that it was done in fine company and the memory of that meal is full of meaning. Maybe more of our meals could be filled with the meaning of gratitude and contentment if we savored them, too.
Eating a meal with an awareness of good food lovingly well-prepared, add an awareness of a taste-system that he invented and the awareness of satiation, suddenly the meal can become hallowed ground.
Meditate on the meal. Why the fast? Why the Lord's "supper"? Why heavenly banquets? They all hold spiritual meaning. Even if each of those are symbolic, and especially if they are symbolic, consider how we can participate with God in transforming all eating from mere nutritional necessity or idolatrous gluttony into an act of faithfulness. Eating can be an unexpected spiritual discipline because it gives us a chance to draw closer to God and to become conscious of God in the simplest of ways.