Have you ever baked sweets with nothing more than agave and coconut flour? Have you ever fermented your own kombucha and sauerkraut in the comfort of a college dorm? Have you ever attempted to dehydrate your own flax bread? (Despite what some bloggers might say, it is no substitute for a sour, crusty loaf.) Have you ever broken down in the middle of a grocery store aisle, overwhelmed by the ever-changing wisdom about what will make your body thrive?
Throughout my years as an undergraduate student, I attempted a variety of eating plans in the quest for optimum health. For one semester, I ate low-glycemic—cutting out all carbs, starches, and sweeteners. I then went raw vegan for the summer, and moved to a paleo-like plan following that. I shifted from eating only uncooked plants to a diet of primarily meat.
I scoured websites and forums; I read cookbooks cover to cover. Every food guru made a convincing argument for why their mode of eating was the best. “Our earliest evolutionary predecessor survived solely off uncooked leafy greens!” the raw-vegans would say. Others claimed that human brains began to develop when we used fire to cook our meat. Some explained why grains are unnecessary for the human body to survive; some would point to Bible’s many mentions of barley and wheat.
Through it all I simply wanted to take care of the body God gave me. But conflicting recommendations about what that meant led to confusion more than anything else. After a few years of trying different “lifestyle plans,” I discovered that perhaps I was starting in the wrong place. I was treating my body as a problem that needed to be fixed rather than the form God chose for me to delight in the world.
Perhaps I didn’t need to fight against fat or overcome desire. Perhaps I didn’t need to wrangle my body into submission to cultural standards of health or beauty. Perhaps caring for my body could be mutually supportive of resting and delighting, in communing with God and his creation.
In his book Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Norman Wirzba writes about eating in terms of Sabbath. All of creation was formed as an outpouring of God’s overwhelming love, he says. At the culmination of this creating work, God stopped to rest and enjoy all he had made. Our need to eat is emblematic of God’s desire that we taste, and smell, and find sensory delight in the goodness of the world. And so, Wirzba says, the purpose of this sacred day is not to take a reprieve from life, but to put an end to the restlessness that prevents us from delighting and engaging in the beauty of all that God made.
I’ve long been a master at restlessness, which makes Sabbath a gift but also a difficult feat. With so many competing ideas about health, there is no better place to channel restless anxiety than in searching for the best diet plan. Yet, in all of my varied attempts to find the best way to eat, I always believed my responsibility was toward my individual body alone.
However, God didn’t create us as autonomous beings. God created humanity in a garden—formed out of the very soil that sprouts the plants and trees from which we eat. God called almost everything good, muttering only one critique in the process of creation:
It is not good to be alone.
God tasked the first humans with the responsibility to name and care for all that dwells on the earth. He offered the first humans almost-boundless options of food to enjoy. Then God took the time to rest and delight in the world he’d so carefully made, and he commanded Adam and Eve to do the same.
Our triune, communal God created out of his overflowing love, and the humans he made in his image shared the need to live in community as well. In God’s ordering of creation, the call to care for and tend the earth works hand in hand with our Sabbath practice of resting and delighting. When we view our eating as independent from our community or the rest of creation, we cannot fully grasp what it means to be made out of soil in the image of a triune God.
The harm in Genesis 3 began when Adam and Eve treated eating as an independent act. When they ignored the call to use creation within God’s limits, all of creation became subject to the consequences that we feel to this day. The brokenness that followed complicated the mutuality of delight and care—our bodies ache as we work the soil, they react to the foods we long to eat. We contend with thorns and thistles, with droughts and floods, with pests and viruses. We desire to consume what harms us, or perhaps we loathe the very things our bodies need.
The restlessness of searching for the optimal health plan is a symptom of the brokenness of our world. But even as creation aches, God asks us to rest. We can still seek joy. The ability to delight is not reserved for the day we’ve overcome our weight, or allergies, or sickness, or these broken bodies in a broken world. It comes in orienting our lives toward abiding in God’s world, drawing near to the Creator, as Wirzba might say, through the tastable manifestation of his overflowing love. Our ability to delight begins by viewing our health through our human responsibility to contribute to the flourishing of creation.
Through this framework, our eating shifts away from questions about calories or cleanliness. Instead, we ask how any given food will make the body feel. We examine how the foods we eat build community with those in our midst, or if it keeps us from dining at a table with family and friends. We work out in a quest for joy found in movement of the body, or for communion with God as we walk, run, dance, hike, garden, or swim.
The specifics of how this framework plays out will be different in each person’s life. There is no single dietary plan that will guide us back into the garden. Even as our choices exist in the midst of community, learning to delight in the bodies God gave us is a deeply personal process too.
But when we view our primary calling as one to abide in God’s world in community, the restless search for the top health plan begins to fade away. Instead, we find the freedom to hold our emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical well-being together as necessary pieces in the flourishing of the world.
Rather than ask ourselves what the best health plan might be, we praise God by loving our bodies through the mutuality of delight and care.
Cover image by Lily Lvnatikk.