Should Christians have second helpings?

By Ellen Painter Dollar

Some years ago, I made a spinach and bacon quiche to serve for New Year’s Day breakfast. It was loaded with butter and cheese (not to mention salty pork fat—yum), and boy, was it good. Some friends were visiting from out of town, and as one contemplated whether to go for seconds, he wondered aloud which is the proper way to approach dietary indulgence as Christians. Should we exercise tight control, understanding that our body is a temple and that one does not smear temples with butter, cheese, and bacon? Or should we go for the gusto, knowing that this earthly life, the one we navigate from within these mortal bodies, is neither the whole story nor even the most important part of the story? If we’re all going to die and be with Jesus anyway, what does a few more grams of fat matter?

My friend’s question of how we are to view and treat our bodies in light of our Christian faith has stuck with me. It has stuck with me as I, who have a genetic bone disorder that has led to significant pain and limitation, figure out how best to care for my body and parent my three kids (one of whom also has the disorder) in a culture that celebrates athleticism and a narrow definition of beauty. It has stuck with me as I navigate the judgment-fueled arena of modern suburban parenthood, where some fellow parents view Capri Sun juice pouches as nearly equivalent to cocaine in their poisonous tendencies, and our schools subject parents to annual lectures on the evils of birthday cupcakes.

I’ve decided that, as with most significant questions of the Christian life, the answer is not this way or that way, not either/or. The answer is both/and. We are to honor our bodies as God’s gifts. Honoring our bodies means taking good care of them, fighting our tendencies toward sloth and gluttony. And honoring our bodies means recognizing them as imperfect and limited, and therefore as inappropriate objects for worship or an overly intense focus that considers everything in light of how it will make us healthier, thinner, or stronger.

Our culture has an odd relationship to food these days. On one side is the obesity epidemic, fueled by reliance on industrialized, portable, chemical-laden food requiring minimal cooking time or skill—or none at all. On the other extreme are those who see food as something to be feared and tightly controlled, who believe that non-organic produce, white flour, and sugar are evils to be avoided at all costs.

These two extremes have something in common. In both cases, food is simply a means to an end. It is fuel—something to be inserted into one’s body to achieve a particular goal, whether that goal is hunger relief or good health. America’s growing waistlines are in part the result of people eating on the go, at their desks, in their cars, and in front of the TV, grabbing food out of take-out bags or plastic packages and consuming the food quickly, alone, so they can move on to the next thing. Super health-conscious folks begin to see food as medicine, something we consume solely for its nutrients and health benefits, to stave off not only those dreaded extra pounds, but also cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and even death itself. (Several years ago, I read about people who severely restrict their caloric intake because such diets have been shown to slow aging. The wife and daughter of one man reported that his diet made him flatulent and irritable. Sounds like just the kind of guy I want to have around for an extra 20 years.)

Food is more than fuel, and our bodies are more than machines that we manipulate to give us what we want, whether that be a caffeine boost to get through the afternoon’s work or a few extra years of life. When it comes to healthy eating that honors our bodies as both God’s gifts and mortal flesh, nutrients matter, but other things matter too. Context matters. Intention matters. Place matters. The same goes for all the other ways that we daily choose how to treat our bodies—our sleep, our exercise, our response to pain and illness. We can honor our bodies with both discipline and indulgence, with work and rest, with decisions to pursue experimental treatments and decisions to let illness take its course. The tricky part, of course, is figuring out which path honors God and our bodies most in the daily mix of temptations, opportunities, blessings, and burdens. This both/and stuff does not lend itself to neat decision-making flowcharts—if this, then do that; if that, then do this.

My friend decided to have seconds that New Year’s morning, which seemed the right decision for a holiday morning in the company of friends. There is a big difference between having a second piece of quiche on New Year’s Day and scarfing down a bag of Oreos while watching Law and Order reruns. I’m still working out the balance, particularly as a mother. We belong to a community-supported agriculture farm, so my kids are familiar with all kinds of greens and squash and fresh-picked berries (not that they’ll eat them all, except for the berries). And alongside the organic produce in my fridge you’ll also find superhero popsicles, bright blue and green yogurt and, yes, Capri Sun juice pouches.

We’re still figuring it out. But I am clear on one thing: Our bodies matter. And, thank God, they are not all that matter.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

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