In episode 123, you explained how food is made holy by the word and prayer. As a follow-up question, Pastor John, should we pray before meals? Why or why not?
That question — Should we pray before we eat? — might be coming from two different mindsets. It might come from a convert out of paganism who has never seen anybody in their life pray before they eat. Then they see it done the first time at church or visiting a Christian and they wonder, well, what is that? So the question might be perfectly, wonderfully appropriate and innocent coming from somebody who wants to bring their life into conformity to a biblical way.
However, I just have the sense that this question might come from a twenty-something who might have grown up in a home where every mealtime was preceded by prayer, and it didn’t feel all that authentic to him. Therefore, he is having a hard time making that part of his life, and he wonders whether we have to do that.
Not that Kind of Must
So let me just say a few things, and whichever of those applies, I have more the second person in mind because I am just suspicious that may be where it is coming from. Here is my first observation: the question may reveal an unwholesome view of duty. And here is what I mean.
Edward John Carnell — who wrote the book Christian Commitment, one of my favorite books, which is out of print — in that book writes this: “Suppose a husband asks his wife if he must kiss her goodnight. Her answer is, “You must, but not that kind of must.” When I read that thirty or forty years ago, I said, “Wow. That is so illuminating.” Yes, you must kiss me goodnight, but no, no, not that kind of must.
And my statement, then, with regard to praying before eating is, We should, but not that kind of should. In other words, depending on the tone of voice. When you say must, well, what does that mean? What is going on there? There are morally, spiritually fitting things to do and their oughtness rises not from law, but love.
First John 5:3 says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” In other words, yes, we should keep the commandments, but, no, not that way. Yes, we should pray, but not that way.
Our aim is to cultivate a heart that feels a duty like being told, “You must enjoy your hot fudge sundae.” Oh, okay, I will try. In other words, if you eat a hot fudge sundae because you have to — you don't have to eat this hot fudge sundae, but you really should eat the hot fudge sundae. That is number one. The question may reveal an unwholesome view of duty.
Habits for Nourishing the Soul
Here is a second thing that I am afraid a lot of people today don’t think through. Habits of the body nourish habits of the soul, as well as vice versa. A lot of people think that it is a spiritual and life-giving thing if habits of the soul give spontaneous rise to acts of the body, and that is right. They do. That is wonderful. That is life-giving. That feels free.
But in the real world where we live it works the other way, too. And a lot of people don't think about that. Habits of the body, like praying at mealtimes — which sometimes are enlivened by the spontaneous delights of the soul in God and in his goodness, and sometimes are at fifty percent, and sometimes at ten percent and sometimes we are just doing it — should be preserved for the sake of the soul, for the sake of the spontaneity, for the sake of the joy.
I wonder if the person could try this. It is like kissing your wife goodbye in the morning and hugging every kid. Should you do that? And if someone says, “Well, I should do it when I feel like it, then it would be authentic.” I am going to say, “No, no, no, no. I don’t think it works like that.”
If I say I will only kiss her and hug them when I am feeling especially warm, I will destroy a pattern of life that has value not only to express the affection when it is there, but to tip me off when it is not there, and to be there when the affection returns. That is, the pattern of life will be there so that the affection can come down like an anointing on it even sometimes when I am not expecting it.
So I think in family life especially, and single life is getting ready for family life, we should cultivate outward expressions of love that matter when feelings rise and when feelings fall. We don’t need the habit of body at mealtime just because it is always authentic. We need it to be there so that when the authenticity comes there will be something to fill.
A Well-Timed Thanksgiving
Here is a third observation. Giving thanks at mealtime is a wonderful, well-timed opportunity to obey the command to give thanks. The Bible says in Ephesians 5:20, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What better time to build obedience into our lives than at a very moment when God is freely giving us something we need for our very lives?
It is also one of the clearest ways of teaching children massively important truth about where everything comes from. Children, especially little children, are not reading your heart every time. They are reading your body, your faithfulness, your commitment, your steadiness. It is a wonderful time to be teaching them simple prayers about how to be thankful to God.
And I think the last thing I would say, Tony, is why would you not want to? You know, why would that be the question? What would be the new, compelling, modern arguments against a tradition that has gone back two, and probably four, thousand years and is practiced by Christians in every culture on the planet?
What would be the new discoveries people are making today that we say, “Oh, I see. We can have a better view of this than has been had all these years.”? So it is a beautiful Christian tradition. Why would we not want to do it?