The Spiritual Discipline of Eating

by Drew Humphrey

After returning recently from a visit to some ministry partners in Italy, I’ve been asked multiple times about the highlights of my trip. And although there are plenty of great things I could share, what has consistently been my number one answer is this: the meals.

If you’re a fan of Italian food, you might suspect that I say this because of the quality of the food I got to eat. And in part, you’d be right. (I’ll never forget the Neapolitan pizza with buffalo mozzarella that I had for lunch one day in Verona!) But even more than the succulent flavors that were introduced to my taste buds, what stood out to me the most was the fellowship and friendships that I witnessed around the table.

It’s easy for us to think of eating as a purely utilitarian activity. We do it to keep our bodies going. Sort of like putting gas in the car. Maybe that’s why we grab food on the run and frantically stuff it in our faces while hurrying between appointments. Or why we eat frozen TV dinners in our pajamas while binging on Netflix. We eat because we have to.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One of the beautiful things about the community of Christ followers I got to hang out with in Italy was how gifted they were at transforming meals into sacred events. In the numerous occasions I got to eat with them, I didn’t just witness eating. I witnessed people lingering over meals, savoring precious friendships, cultivating a spirit of community, reveling in a raucous, well-told story, and serving one another with Christ-like compassion. Gathered around a table full of delicious food and drink, these brothers and sisters didn’t just refuel their bodies with calories, vitamins, and nutrients. They refueled their souls with fellowship, conversation, and laughter.

And it got me thinking: Why don’t we do more of this in our own lives?

I suspect that much of it can be traced back to cultural reasons. We’re a fast-paced, high-performance, one-the-go society. A prolonged, relaxed meal with lots of people talking simply feels inefficient to us.

But I suspect there might be spiritual reasons too. And to prove this, let me pose a fairly straightforward question: What are the most spiritually significant things you’ve done this past week?

If you’re like many Christians, your list consists of things like praying, reading the Bible, serving in the church, sharing the gospel with a friend, or listening to a sermon on the radio. All of those are great things.

But what probably won’t be on your list is eating.

It’s not that you haven’t eaten. That’s not the issue. The issue is that you don’t see your eating as a spiritual activity. It’s just what you have to do to not be hungry.

But you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to see that the Scriptures present eating as a pretty big deal to God. And therefore it should be a big deal to us.

When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, what did they do? They instituted a meal that would be observed annually. When the prophets spoke of the coming kingdom, how did they describe it? As a feast of rich food and aged wine. On the final night of his earthly life, what did Jesus do? He shared a meal with his disciples. When the early church gathered, what was one of their core activities? The breaking of bread. And these examples hardly scratch the surface of what the Bible has to say.

God knows that we have to eat. He created our bodies such that they require it. But he’s a generous and joyful God, so he allows this necessary part of our lives to also be a delightful occasion for sharing with loved ones, welcoming friends, building community, and celebrating God’s provision. He renews us physically and spiritually through the meals we enjoy.

In his book A Meal with Jesus, Tim Chester speaks to this idea. He admits that church can’t be reduced to meals, but he maintains that “meals should be an integral and significant part of our shared life.” He goes on to assert, “Community and mission are more than meals, but it's hard to conceive of them without meals.”

There are plenty of things a healthy, vibrant local church should be doing. But let’s not overlook one of the simplest and most enjoyable of them all: eating!