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God Caffeinated His World

Coffee, Tea, and Soda to the Glory of Christ

Unlike money, caffeine literally grows on trees — and not just a shrub or two. More than one hundred species of plant around the world, on four continents, contain caffeine. Even Christians may be surprised to discover how extensively God caffeinated his created world.

One of God’s first instructions to our race is this: “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth” (Genesis 1:29). God means for his image-bearers to exercise dominion over his caffeinated world. That doesn’t demand use, on the one hand, or abstention, on the other, but rather the much harder work of carefully experimenting, observing the effects, making wise judgments, learning proper use (or not), and exercising self-control.

Effects of Caffeine

Scientists around the world have noted the effects of the drug — caffeine is a drug, and a powerful one. Caffeine “sharpens the mind,” and as Murray Carpenter adds in his book-length study Caffeinated, the drug “does not just increase acuity; it can also improve mood.” Unlike marijuana, caffeine (in moderate doses) makes us more awake to the world, rather than less.

John Piper writes,

It is an empowering drug that enables you to be a more alert dad, or a more aware mother, or a more competent employee. . . . Most coffee drinkers hope to stay awake, do their jobs more reliably, and drive more safely. It is certainly possible to abuse caffeine, but, as a natural stimulant, it is most commonly used not as an escape from reality, but as an effort to interact responsibly with reality. (“Don’t Let Your Mind Go to Pot”)

What, then, is moderate, responsible use for the average adult? The USDA recommends less than 400 milligrams per day. That’s about four cups of coffee (about 100 milligrams each), or eight cups of tea or caffeinated soda (about 50 milligrams each). The effects of caffeine typically last five to six hours.

Caffeine is the most popular drug on earth, most often consumed through the most popular drinks on earth — coffee, tea, and sodas. Today some 90% of American adults consume caffeine on a daily basis. How does caffeine work? It is not a direct stimulant but indirect. It’s like putting a block of wood under our body’s brake pedal. It doesn’t actually give us energy, but keeps our bodies from slowing down and getting tired.

The Scriptures do not mention caffeine, but they do give us all we need to observe, learn, and wisely decide how we, as Christians, can faithfully use (or abstain from) caffeine for the glory of Christ — namely, for our pursuit of Christ-exalting joy for ourselves and others. As with other powerful substances, whether naturally occurring in creation or stemming from human cultivation, God made us to search out the prudent, life-giving (rather than life-diminishing) use of his created world.

How should we think about caffeine use or avoidance in the pursuit of joy in God? Consider four principles anchored in God’s word.

1. God Made Caffeine for Christians

First Timothy 4:3 warns against those who would “require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” For now, the main point to observe is that God designed the goodness of this world not just for humans in general but specifically for believers.

Marriage and sex, food and drink, God designed them, even after sin and the fall, “to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” The good that unbelievers, or unthankful believers, may seem to derive from caffeine’s proper use is secondary. What’s primary is the benefit received by conscious, thankful believers in Christ. Which means it’s vital to ask, How has God made caffeine for Christians? How might this common kindness of God serve special or holy purposes in the Christian life?

For any food or drink we put to our lips — indeed for all of life — we begin with 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Colossians 3:17 would have us consider caffeine usage (or abstention) as an explicitly Christian action: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” As we weigh side effects and dosages, we’ll want to ask, Can I partake to the Father’s glory? Can I consume in Jesus’s name? We’ll want to rehearse that our bodies are “a temple of the Holy Spirit,” and aim to glorify God in them (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).

Our society may viciously insist, “I’ll do whatever I want with my body.” But we gladly submit to the call of the risen Christ, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1–2).

Meditation and Prayer

How, more specifically, might caffeine’s wakening and mind-sharpening effects serve the pursuit of Christian joy? Journalist Stephen Braun has observed “the connection between caffeine and religious devotion.” Multiple legends about the discovery of caffeine, from around the world, associate the benefits of caffeine with meditation and prayer.

One tells of an Arabian goatherder named Kaldi who noticed the energetic effects on his flock when it ate from a certain shrub containing caffeine. Kaldi tried the berries of the shrub for himself. A drowsy monk observed his five-hour energy.

Impressed, the monk asked Kaldi the secret of his energy. Kaldi showed him the berries. The monk was delighted to find that he could now pray longer and with more attention. He spread the word to his fellow monks, who experimented with other ways to consume the berries. Eventually, people found that roasting the seeds, grinding them up, and soaking them in hot water produced a beverage that was tasty and gave a greater “kick” than could be achieved by merely chewing the caffeine-containing fruit and seeds. (Braun, Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine, 111)

Caffeine may function as a natural insecticide, helping plants ward off predators. However, according to Braun, this is not “the entire explanation for caffeine’s presence in so many kinds of plants” (113). Christians might see divine fingerprints, and be able to fill in some of the gaps in their explanations. As Piper comments, “If you need caffeine to keep you awake in the morning, I will leave that with your conscience. Maybe that’s why God created it. Staying awake to pray is certainly a better use of caffeine than staying awake for almost anything else” (When I Don’t Desire God, 161–162).

Love and Good Works

But caffeine not only keeps us sharp on our knees and over our Bibles, but also can help in the pursuit of love and good deeds. Braun refers to coffee as “the Protestant potion.” Coffee came to Europe in the middle of the seventeenth century through its most enterprising seaports. Braun quotes James Howell who wrote in 1660 that

this coffee drink hath caused a greater sobriety among the Nations. Whereas formerly apprentices and clerks used to take their morning’s draught of ale, beer, or wine, which by the dizziness they cause in the brain made many unfit for business, they now play the good-fellows in this wakeful and civil drink. (124)

Reformation theology, complemented by caffeine (rather than morning ales), produced “the Protestant work ethic.” Coffee’s usefulness may go beyond assisting morning spiritual exercises (meditation and prayer) and help energetic efforts to serve others’ needs during the day.

However, the natural goodness of caffeine in God’s creation, and the gift it can be to Christians, shouldn’t lull us to sleep regarding the dangers of undiscerning use. To Piper’s mention of conscience, we do have more to say.

2. God Will Judge Our Habits

Carpenter writes, “The caffeine conundrum is this: It can be a fantastic drug — one of the very best — but, like any powerful drug, it can cause problems with real consequences.” Caffeine is habit-forming, and produces mild, though real, side effects when withdrawn. And different individual physiologies handle the drug in diverse ways. The effects are mild in some, and more acute in others.

Declared Clean

Despite what some well-meaning groups would argue, caffeine is “clean” for Christian use. Long before the discovery of caffeine, Jesus taught us, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him” (Mark 7:15; also Matthew 15:11). The apostle Paul confirms, “Everything is indeed clean” (Romans 14:20), and reminds us, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Corinthians 8:8–9).

Acknowledging the dangers of improper use doesn’t grant abstentionists the right to bind others’ consciences. Christ himself (not fellow Christians) will be the judge of whether his servants partake faithfully or not. Given caffeine’s different effects on different people, we should observe its use personally, and be slow to direct others on their habit. Many have good and honorable grounds for abstaining; others have good and honorable grounds for partaking.

Test Your Intake

One question spiritually-vigilant, regular partakers might ask themselves is, Am I masking sinful or unhealthy patterns with my caffeine use? As Matthew Lee Anderson has asked, “Do we use these drinks to compensate for our vices or sub-biblical commitments to rest and sabbath?” Is caffeine fueling a sinful “workism,” or an unholy straining to push beyond the God-given limits of our created humanity? Anderson adds,

Many of us rely on caffeine to fuel our work obsessions. Caffeine abuses reveal an overworked, exhausted culture that refuses to rest. A cup of tea is a wonderful gift. Five cups a day may signify unhealthy dependency.

As Christians, we will be eager to observe the negative effects of caffeine. Does it help me not just feel awake but also feel an artificial hope? Does too much caffeine alter mood in an irresponsible way? Is caffeine a cover up for sinful lack of sleep? Is it masking other disobedience? Why would it help to be more awake today? Is it for idolatrous reasons (Proverbs 23:4), or for soul-strengthening, others-helping outputs of energy?

Let None Pass Judgment

In the end, each Christian will stand before Christ to answer for his own caffeine usage. The Scriptures give grounds for our own careful self-evaluation but not for telling others that they must abstain. “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink” (Colossians 2:16). Perhaps most pointed is Romans 14:3–4:

Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

Christians will make honest, good-hearted differences in choice about whether or not to consume caffeine, and should not judge each other for them.

3. God Calls Us Not to Be Mastered

Christians are indeed free to partake, and into such freedom, the apostle Paul speaks a vital word: “I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12 RSV).

A few years ago, freshly convicted not to be mastered by anything — including caffeine — I went forty days without caffeine. It was, ironically, an eye-opening experience. The first three days were more difficult than I expected. And, after the first week, it was easier than expected.

If you’re used to having coffee every morning, you likely have experienced the caffeine-withdrawal headache and grogginess when you miss a day. Depending on how severe the dependence, it may take several days to break your body of it and reset your mind and energy output to normal levels. The full reset typically takes the body about a week.

Perhaps you may want to consider a caffeine fast. Or at least begin to more carefully monitor how much caffeine you’re consuming each day — whether it’s really a healthy level, and whether you may want to scale back. As with all God’s good gifts, he calls us to self-control and faithful moderation. The wisdom of Proverbs 25:16 applies to caffeine: “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.” As with any of God’s good gifts, other than the gift of himself, we want to preserve the good by challenging our own sinful itch for overindulgence or lust for Encore, as C.S. Lewis called it.

4. God Invites Us to Make It Holy

Finally, if you partake, don’t just consume, but do so with thanksgiving (and faith), in view of what God says in his word. Respond back to him in prayer, and in doing so, sanctify your caffeinated drink, as with all of life. The warning we heard in 1 Timothy 4:3 rests on this explanation and vision in the following two verses:

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4–5)

Perhaps a good first test of our caffeine consumption would be, Do I receive it with thanksgiving to God? (1 Timothy 4:4). Do I drink in his presence, before his face, with faith? Romans 14:23 says that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Do I drink as a Christian, or just like the ungodly?

We have more to say, though, than simply partake with rhythms of conscious gratitude to God. First Timothy 4:5 presses us to go a step further and make it holy by the word of God and prayer. “The word of God” is simply whatever God says about it. I’ve sought to fill this article with biblical texts related to what God says about the goodness of his creation, including caffeine, as well as about the wisdom and gratitude with which he calls us to receive his gifts.

None Drinks to Himself

Prayer is our response back to God in light of what he says. We make caffeine-consumption holy through short, whispered prayers of praise, thanksgiving, and petition. Perhaps something like the following:

Father, I praise you as the one most worth being awake to. I thank you for caffeinating your world and providing this gift for alertness, energy, and joy. Smile on its use to my body and sanctify it. Make me alert to you and your gospel and to the needs of others. Give me energy for acts of love and self-sacrificial service and gospel witness. Empower me, particularly by your Spirit, to make Jesus look good today. In his name, I pray. Amen.

In Romans 14–15, when Paul addresses the secondary issues that were dividing some Christians in the first century, he grounds his teaching on these seemingly small preferences in the massive reality of what Christ has accomplished for us. And it’s not irrelevant to our caffeine use, or abstention, today:

None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Romans 14:7–9)

If we gladly call Jesus “Lord,” and acknowledge that we are his, and genuinely seek to live to him, rather than to self, then the big pieces are in place for enjoying caffeine to the glory of Christ.