In episode 123 you explained how food is made holy by the word and prayer. And 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 mind sets. It might come from a convert out of paganism who has never seen anybody in their life pray before they eat. And then they see it done the first time at church or visiting a Christian and they wonder, well, what is that. And 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 20-something who might have grown up in a home where every meal time was preceded by prayer and it didn’t feel all that authentic to him and, therefore, he is having a hard time making that part of his life and he wonders whether do we have to do that.
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. So 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 30, or maybe 40 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 eat is we should, but not that kind of should. In other words, depending on the tone of voice. When you say must we 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.
1 John 5:3 says: “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.
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 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 50 percent, and sometimes at 10 percent and sometimes we are just doing it. That, too, should be preserved for the sake of the soul, of 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, 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.
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, Ephesians five: Give thanks always and for everything to God. And 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, they are not reading your heart every time. They are reading your body, your faithfulness, your commitment, your steadiness. And 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 not be the question. What would be the new, compelling, modern arguments against a tradition that has gone back 2,000, probably 4,000 years and is practiced by Christians in ever 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?
Thank you Pastor John. And thank you for listening to this podcast. Please email your questions to us at askpastorjohn AT desiringgod DOT org. At desiringgod DOT org you will find thousands of free books, articles, sermons, and other resources from John Piper. … I’m your host, Tony Reinke. Thanks for listening.