Today continues a New Year’s resolution theme for January, with probably the most-frequently resolved issue: food.
Before you put your hopes and dreams in this message, let me be clear: I am not a nutritionist. I haven’t come up with the next diet fad. I am a pastor, and my area of conviction has little to do with your BMI and much to do with your soul. But the state of your soul has something to do with you relationship with food… and that’s what I want to talk about.
Paul starts this passage – this letter to the Christians in Corinth – with a couple “maxims” related to the body, and one in particular has to do with food. Maxims were short sayings that were a staple of Greco-Roman culture; J. Paul Sampley calls them “epitomes of truth, of commonly shared convictions or perceptions… they typically function as a ‘given.’” A good analogy might be the sayings we throw around today, like “don’t reinvent the wheel.” A phrase like that and serves as a kind of proof in and of itself.
If you open up to 1 Cor 6 you’ll easily notice these, because they’re in quotes. Here’s my favorite, one I could easily see us Americans saying: “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.”
YES, Greco-Roman maxims! Food is the best!
I’ve always liked food, but most especially, sweet things. When I was younger I had a maxim of my own: “Every meal should come with dessert.” In the absence of a traditional sweet treat, I was known to substitute a cinnamon and brown sugar Pop Tart for that final course. I prided myself on a second “dessert stomach” that was ready to receive ice cream no matter how big a meal I had just eaten. That claim got me into what might look like trouble when my friends asked me to prove it; for example, a challenge to finish an entire ice cream cake from TCBY. That wasn’t trouble for me, though – that was just permission to eat EVEN MORE DESSERT.
Because “food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”! Food is the best!
Except that sometimes… it’s the worst.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he responds to their food maxims: After quoting, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” Paul says, “God will destroy both one and the other.”
YES. Food is the worst.
During those same food-obsessed years I experienced a strange phenomenon. When I wasn’t nurturing my “dessert stomach” I was engaging in the extreme opposite behavior of counting calories. At the age of 16 I spent the better part of a school year carefully measuring my portions and eating the “low” or “no” fat version of everything. And it worked: my weight dropped, and people with very good intentions complimented me on my swimsuit-ready figure (needed at all seasons of the year in sunny Florida).
When summer came, I jumped into our youth group activities – including a few week-long trips. It’s about impossible to “diet” when the only food choices are pizza and Little Debbie cakes. So I stopped counting and let myself eat… and my body and soul rejoiced. By the end of the summer, some of that weight came back on. Looking back I can see that was not such a big deal, but my teenage self was super discouraged.
And so it began, a strange world of extremes. During the weekdays I kept the dietary equivalent of John Wesley’s exacter diary. I monitored everything I ate, drank nothing but water and Diet Coke, kept my caloric intake to a weight-loss level, and then exercised for good measure. But come Friday… my dessert stomach revolted. All diets were off for the weekend! Huge meals, late night snacks, sweets after every meal! As Sunday came to a close I often found myself running out to get one more milkshake because I knew the next morning… it was back to the ascetic life.
For about fifteen years I had this strange relationship with food, where food was the best and food was the worst.
That doesn’t make much sense, does it?
Which is why that one-or-the-other extreme isn’t what Paul intended. “Paul does not reject the Corinthians’ maxim,” Sampley says, “he qualifies it…” Paul isn’t completely throwing out the idea that “food is made for the stomach and the stomach for food.” God made food for us to enjoy. God could have just given us manna to live on – that “what is it?” bread-like substance from the Israelites’ wilderness experience. Instead, God gave us a literal cornucopia. Food is a good thing.
But food isn’t everything, and I think that’s more to Paul’s point. Food isn’t eternal. Food isn’t the “best” – it won’t fill a void in our souls. Neither is food the “worst” – our self-worth isn’t based on the numbers on a scale.
Eventually, I learned that lesson for myself. I’d like to say it was Paul who taught me, but it wasn’t. It was pregnancy.
When I became pregnant with Eleanor, our oldest, I stopped counting calories. For the first time since I stopped growing at age 12, weight gain was not only OK but expected. Hallelujah!
But I found I didn’t want to eat just anything, for two reasons. One, the What to Expect… book I was reading told me about the ideal proportions of healthy foods my growing baby needed. Before I ever met Eleanor or Reid, before we even named them, I loved them – loved them enough to make significant changes for them. So I ate more vegetables and less sugars, more fruit and less pre-packaged granola bars.
I made those dietary changes for my babies, but quickly it became a more selfish choice. As my stomach got bigger, bad food choices had a fast effect on how I felt. If I over-ate at a meal, I experienced a new level of misery. If I ate a healthy meal in the right proportions, I felt – well, not “good,” because I was pregnant, but at least significantly less bad.
Nine months I lived that way with Eleanor… and then another nine months with Reid. And by the second round, it had changed the way I looked at food.
I’ve never gone back to the habit of counting calories, and I think I’m better for it. Many people keep food journals, and maybe that works for you – it’s certainly a helpful tool for becoming aware of what we eat or making significant changes in our diets. But for me, that practice of counting every morsel I ate had a way of making me more obsessed with food, not less. I also stopped weighing myself – which again, isn’t necessarily a bad habit. But for me, watching the scale meant placing my self-worth in whether the numbers were going up or down. That’s not just a bad relationship with food; that’s a bad relationship with this body that God has given me.
And our bodies, Paul says, are temples.
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you…?” Paul asks. When Paul says “body” he doesn’t just mean the physical body, either. He uses the Greek word soma which means body and soul. They aren’t two separate things (which might give us permission to hate one of them). They’re connected. They’re a temple.
Think of a more literal “temple” you know. Me, I think of our church sanctuary. I wouldn’t trash it by filling it with junk. And I wouldn’t neglect it by not putting enough of the right things in it. At some times of the year, we “treat” it by filling it with extra decorations. Other times, we clean it to keep it up.
In a very similar way, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.
Before you make (or continue) a food-related resolution this year – before you try a new fad diet or throw it out the window – remember this: Yes, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.” And yes, “God will destroy one and the other.” But also: “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.”
Food is good, so good! But food will not fill that eternal craving in your soul. Eating right and being healthy is also good… but hitting your ideal weight will not save you from your sin. Turn to food for nourishment and enjoyment… but turn to God as the only one who can satisfy you and save you.