Instead of going to the cafeteria with the rest of my classmates during lunch period, I bought a can of diet soda from the vending machine closest to my locker and drank it on my way to the library, where I stayed until the bell rang and it was time to go to the next class. It was my regular routine.
The library—or rather, many libraries—had long been my refuge. As a very small girl I spent long, hot summer afternoons in the cool quiet of the air-conditioned public library just around the corner from my home. I read the Betsy-Tacy books, Nancy Drew mysteries, novels by Katherine Paterson, and nonfiction as my curiosity led me: I read about the children raised in the strict residential ballet academies of Communist Russia; about children with leukemia and childhood diabetes; about how to make all sorts of things that neither I nor anyone in my family ever made—quilts and doll clothes, or bread and ice cream from scratch.
My teenage lunchtime trips to the library were not an extension of the insatiable curiosity about other lives (real and imagined) that had driven me there as a child, nor did I pore over books that showed things I could make or do. And even though I was shy and awkward and the lunchroom was loud and overheated, I didn't retreat to the library for a cool and quiet atmosphere. I gulped down my diet soda to quiet the rumble of my empty stomach and headed straight for the periodical racks, where I'd pore over magazines on diet, exercise, and beauty. Before heading back to class, I'd stop in the one bathroom with the long mirror for a quick assessment.
I never, ever measured up.
Although I probably couldn't have articulated it then, I am now quite sure that what I was seeking during all those hungry lunch periods in the library was a cliché: I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. I was a hungry, growing teenager—a teenager who was hungry not only for the wildly diverse and delicious foods available in my native New York City, but for acceptance and approval, not only from other people, but also from God. And somehow, in the warped logic of a culture that offered me abundant food with one hand and retouched images of anorexic models (and tips on how to look "just like them") with the other, I came to believe that I would please God most if I kept my hunger—my appetites, my desires, my longings—on a very short leash.
Afraid of food
Food wasn't a good gift from God to be received and eaten with pleasure and gratitude. It was something to fear, and fear it I did. The original sin, I believed, was a kind of gluttony: a deadly sin. It was better, according to Proverbs, to put a knife to my throat than to indulge in that sin. And in a distorted attempt to please God, I came to regard almost every meal as potentially gluttonous. One day when I was 16, my mother came home from work to find me sobbing on the front stoop, unable to focus on the AP history textbook open on my lap.
"What on Earth is the matter, Rachel?" she asked with alarm.
"I was so hungry, and so I found a chocolate cupcake and ate it."
Later that year, my mom sent me a postcard at church camp proudly announcing my AP test scores—to my embarrassment, the camp director read it aloud before congratulating me and calling for applause. When everyone in the dining hall looked at me, smiling and whooping as only rowdy camp kids do, I nervously adjusted my clothes and looked down at my plate, thinking not of my test scores but only of whether or not I looked like an undisciplined glutton, and whether everyone was judging me for how much food I'd piled on my plate. I was obsessed with food and with my body, and the obsession, which had started almost innocently with a desire to please God and not to be a glutton, threatened to swallow almost everything else in my life. I was starving, and not just physically.
A second helping of Scripture
It wasn't until I'd enrolled in college, as a biblical studies major with classes studying ancient cultures, that I realized my way of thinking about food and my body had a lot more in common with pagan religions and various Christian heresies than anything found in the Bible. I was a Gnostic, and I didn't even know it. Material things—including my body with its insistent need for food—was "bad," a regrettable distraction from a higher and better spiritual and intellectual. All of that, I eventually discovered, owed much more to Plato than to anything in Scripture. As I read and re-read the Bible, I slowly realized that I'd missed the most basic truth I'd been taught all my life: that God so loves the world, this world, the one that God made. God looked at what he made—people, animals, and all kinds of things to eat—and called it good.
My spiritual life, my intellectual longings, and my love for good food were not in conflict. They were in harmony.
Scripture envisions the Garden of Eden as a place of abundant and delicious food. Adam and Eve failed not so much because they were gluttons but because they suspected that God was keeping the good stuff from them. They didn't trust in the goodness of what God had already abundantly provided, and so they looked for something good elsewhere. And that is the story of God's people, as Scripture tells it. No sooner does God miraculously deliver the children of Israel from bondage in Israel than they whine over the good food they've left behind. And then, even when God feeds them with sweet bread from heaven, they can't bring themselves to believe that there will really be enough for tomorrow. They gather more than they need, although that's exactly what God has told them not to do, and it ends up rotten.
What is God going to do with them—with us—those whom he longs to feed, to gather to himself and nurture, but who constantly suspect him of keeping the best things elsewhere, of depriving us of the really good stuff?
We need a Good Shepherd.
It's no accident that Jesus tells his followers that he is the manna that fed the Israelites, that he is the Bread of Life. Even as my teenage efforts to whittle my body down as thin as possible gave way to a young-adult obsession with "perfect" healthful diets (low carb? Raw? Paleo?), I never gave much thought to the fact that I would die one day, despite how healthy my lifestyle was. Only one kind of food could sustain me beyond the grave: the Bread of Life, broken for me. Jesus invites his followers to "do this in remembrance of me," and what he's talking about is a meal. It's not "think this in remembrance of me" or "say this in remembrance of me." No. He invites us to eat—to taste and see that he is good.
What food is for
And that is what food is for: to help us to experience the goodness of our God. Our culture, being worshipful of youth, beauty, and healthfulness, often encourages us to see food as an enemy even as other cultural messages encourage us to consume far more than we need or even desire. In their proper place, food and a good appetite for it are, like the rest of God's creation, very, very good, which is why we should come to the table mindful of our Creator and filled with thankfulness— not focused on calories, fat, restriction, and shame.
There is, of course, such a thing as gluttony—when we pursue the desire of food past the point of pleasure and distort the good gift that it's meant to be. But in this health-and-fitness focused age, I suspect that many Christians need the simple reminder that food is a gift of God to be received with joy more than they need another screed against the evils of gluttony and the dangers of all the foods that we generally enjoy most.
Food sustains our physical life, and, as Ecclesiastes 9 suggests, it is a good and delightful blessing in this life "under the sun." It cannot, however, be our all-in-all—it retains its goodness only as long as we remember what it points to. Our physical dependence upon and pleasure in food can daily remind us of our spiritual dependence upon Christ—and the sweetness of his sustaining love, meant to be enjoyed not alone somewhere in a joyless library, but with others, around a joyful table that anticipates, however imperfectly, the Supper of the Lamb.
Rachel Marie Stone is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's Her.menuetics blog, and is the author of Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food. Connect with her at RachelMarieStone.com, or follow her on Twitter @Rachel_M_Stone.