From time to time I wonder if I will ever run out of suitable topics to address in our Window on the World. But not to worry: before I get a chance to panic I run across a book like What Would Jesus Eat? by Dr. Don Colbert. And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not making this up.
I started preparing these remarks on Wednesday night while eating a yummy piece of chocolate chip cookie pie. I turned on my computer, took a large bite of dessert, and then picked up the book. As I chewed my pie, the words on the cover sounded confrontational: What Would Jesus Eat? Well, what would Jesus eat? Would he eat chocolate chip cookie pie, or not? And if not, then would it still be okay for me to have some?
At the beginning of his book, Dr. Colbert refers to the recent WWJD fad in the evangelical church: What Would Jesus Do? If we’re supposed to love the way that Jesus loved and live the way he lived, shouldn’t we eat the way he ate? As Dr. Colbert points out, “We seek to follow Jesus in every other area of our lives. Why not in our eating habits?” [Don Colbert, What Would Jesus Eat? The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great, and Living Longer, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2002, p. ix]. Well, I’ll tell you why: Because whereas the Bible explicitly tells us to live like Jesus (e.g., Phil. 2:5; 1 Pet. 2:21) and love like Jesus (e.g., 1 John 4:7-12), it says nothing about eating like Jesus.
Dr. Colbert disagrees. In answer to the question, “[D]id Jesus actually teach anything about nutrition or how we should eat?” he writes, “My contention is that He did—not necessarily by what He said, but by what He did. There are hundreds of examples throughout the Bible of practices related to healthy eating. Jesus embodied them fully in His lifestyle” [p. x]. To be specific, Jesus drank water and wine, ate only whole grain bread, abstained from pork and shellfish, and ate large quantities of healthy foods like olive oil, grapes, figs, pomegranates, various kinds of vegetables, and fish. This is “the Jesus way of eating” [p. xv].
The author draws some obvious contrasts between the foods that Jesus ate and all the unhealthy things we eat today, especially fast food. Before we dig in, we should ask ourselves, “Would Jesus eat this?” By way of answer, Dr. Colbert says, “Let me assure you, Jesus did not eat processed foods, too much sugar, or food additives… . [I]f dietary laws… were being issued by God today, there would be a ‘thou shalt not’ attached to processed foods high in sugar, hydrogenated fat, salt, or additives” [p. 7].
The real question is whether Jesus intended his eating to be exemplary. I think the answer is no. Of course Jesus didn’t eat hot dogs or Tasty Cakes, but that’s beside the point. He didn’t wear Birkenstocks or drive a Jaguar, either. He traveled, dressed, and ate in ways that were common to the people of his time and place. If Jesus had come in our day, he probably would have ridden the subway and worn khakis. He might even have eaten at McDonald’s, sometimes. But these are not matters of absolute moral principle.
One way to prove this point is to consider all the people in the world who don’t have fig trees or who don’t live by the sea. How are they supposed to eat what Jesus ate? Then there all the healthy foods that Jesus didn’t eat, but that we probably should, like soybeans. This is a source of consternation for Dr. Colbert, who writes, “Unfortunately, soybeans were not available in Israel at the time of Jesus. Had they been, I feel certain that Jesus would have eaten them regularly” [p. 77].
There are some general biblical principles that should affect the way we eat. The Bible warns us not to eat like pigs. It says, “Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags” (Prov. 23:20-21). The Bible also tells us to exercise good stewardship, which includes taking care of our bodies. To that end, it would probably be healthy for us to follow most of Dr. Colbert’s advice.
However, like a lot of things in life, God leaves what we eat pretty much up to us. We need to understand that God does not give us detailed instructions for every area of life. He has given us basic moral principles to guide our conduct, but many of the things we do day by day are left to our own judgment. What Would Jesus Eat? would be a better book if it realized this and simply presented its findings as sound nutritional advice, without using Jesus to market the diet.
It would be tempting to dismiss What Would Jesus Eat? as another passing fad. However, it is important to point out that as Christians we are not required to follow a special diet. There were food laws in the old covenant. Presumably, the things God told the Israelites it was okay to eat were healthy. However, good nutrition was not the purpose of those regulations. Instead, they were designed to teach people the holiness of God.
Now that Christ has come, all foods have been declared clean (Mark 7:19). There are no food laws in the gospel. Everything is for our enjoyment, provided we “receive it with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4). This gives us the freedom to make our own decisions about what to eat, and what not to eat. But if we make our diet a matter of spiritual principle, we run the risk of adding a human law to the grace of God. This is why the Bible warns us that teachers who order us “to abstain from certain foods, which God created” (1 Tim. 4:3) have abandoned the faith.
So what would Jesus eat? I don’t know, because with relatively few exceptions, the Bible doesn’t say. The one thing I know for certain is that whatever I do eat—including, on occasion, chocolate chip cookie pie—should be eaten to the glory of God.
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