Identity Theft: You are (not) What you Eat

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” -Romans 14:17

Who doesn’t love food? Eating is both a necessity and a joy. We must eat a certain amount of calories per day or we will starve, but eating is more than just fulfilling a practical need. For the most part, eating is an enjoyable experience. After all, God gave us taste buds! We all have our favorite foods and foods that make our stomach turn. Drinking water is essential as well. We cannot survive without it. In fact, we enjoy drinking all kinds of liquids whether they’re the most beneficial or not. We spend so much time in our lives planning and preparing meals, eating, drinking and cleaning up after we’re done. In some ways, it can seem like life is lived from one meal to the next. Since eating is paramount to living our lives, all kinds of culture and customs surrounding food have risen over time. Every country, region, city, people group, community and family have their own specialties in the food and beverage department. America is no different. Americans LOVE food! However, as I’ve traveled around The States, I’ve become aware that no other region has created a more obsessive culture around high-quality health food than the Pacific Northwest. They take this food culture so seriously that they have even given it the name “Foodie.” The word basically refers to a person or people who are connoisseurs of delicious, high-quality, gourmet food. They usually know their way around the dining scene and like to critique restaurants for fun. They value locally-raised, farm-fresh, organic meat and produce, and some even enjoy home brewing their own beer. Of course, this food culture is gaining popularity outside the Northwest, but since it’s in my own backyard, it’s what’s most familiar to me. With healthy living being such a cornerstone value in the PNW, I must ask the question: Is our obsession with healthy eating truly healthy? Should we allow healthy eating to become what defines us? Should we let what we put in our bodies become part of our identity? In Matthew 6:25 during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asks, “Is not life more than food…?” When it comes to identity, you are NOT what you eat!

Although fad diets are popular all over the US, probably no section of the country is more in love with their fad diets than Northwesterners. Some current, highly popular diet trends are: Gluten-free (as a preference not an allergy), Keto, Vegetarian and the Holy Grail of them all… drum roll please… Vegan! In the world of clean eating, no one gains more prestige and honor than the Vegans. They are considered to be the very height of morality in the Northwest, for not only are their bodies “clean,” but they are seen as spiritually “healthy” as well. If you are familiar with this culture, then what I’m saying should be no surprise to you. You see, people here have come to use what you eat or don’t eat as a status symbol. Just as people in other parts of the country might flaunt their expensive car or designer clothes, PNW people show off their elite status by proclaiming what food philosophy they ascribe to. In other words, they are saying, “This is who I am… I am a healthy, moral, good person.” Do we really need to try to impress people by what we eat? Is that really who we are?

The other realm of interest in the Northwest food culture is food allergies. Have you ever seen the show Portlandia? There is actually an episode called “Allergy Pride Parade.” Of course this is an exaggerated comedy, but the grain of truth in it is that for some strange reason, PNW people seem to almost like having food allergies. While you would think having a food allergy would be a real bummer and burden to deal with, it seems to make people feel different and special. A few of the very common allergies that are widely accommodated in the Northwest are gluten, nut and dairy (although some go dairy-free as a fad diet). Now, I am not uncompassionate to anyone who is suffering from pain due to a legitimate allergy, but I am concerned about people owning a food allergy as part of their identity. When a person wraps their food allergy into their conception of who they are, it becomes difficult to let go of that lifestyle or image because you get used to it. You may even get positive attention or sympathy from having it, so having the allergy can boost your self-esteem. This can put people in a rut where they are more willing to shoulder the burden of the allergy, rather than ask God for healing from it. I know someone who Jesus healed of a dairy allergy. When she wondered how she would know she was healed, the Holy Spirit told her to just “eat dairy.” When she did so, she had no adverse reaction and has been able to eat dairy ever since. How many believers just embrace their food allergy as a part of who they are? Why not believe God for healing and be able to live free of having to be so careful about what you eat?

For the record, I am in no way against healthy eating! In America, we are blessed to live in a country where we are surrounded by so many food options, both healthy and unhealthy. I think the evidence is clear that eating more fruits and vegetables over french fries and hamburgers is a good idea in general. Where we have to be careful is taking pride in “where” we grocery shop and “what” we eat. What does it matter if you shop at Whole Foods or Walmart? Of all the things to brag about! Of course, my health food friends will say… it’s higher-quality and organic! I love high quality food too, but here’s the problem: the health food stores are typically more expensive than the cheaper ones. Thus, those who can afford to shop at healthy stores do and those who can’t afford it don’t. If we’re not careful, eating “healthy” can start to feed a self-image of pride and self-righteousness, which produces judgment, in this case, toward the less fortunate in our communities. Is a mindset of judgment really worthy of robbing our identity? Pride is a thief!

It’s true that God gives some people very strong personal convictions around certain foods and beverages. Some people abstain from meat or alcohol because God knows that’s what’s best for them. In Romans, the Apostle Paul explains, “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?… Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:2-4,6). The key here is to respect one another’s convictions around food and drink and avoid stepping into judgment. However, Paul also mentions here that “all food is clean” and that those who have the freedom to eat anything have a stronger faith than those whose conscience is more sensitive around food (Romans 14:20). Even though we need to respect one another’s convictions and be careful not to cause someone else to stumble by what we eat (Romans 14:20-21), why not allow ourselves to form a new mindset? All food is clean! The vegan is not morally superior to the one who eats TV dinners. Now, one’s physical body may perhaps be healthier than the other, but what you eat is not an issue of spiritual morality.

The Apostle Peter was not just a food snob, but he saw himself as morally righteous and pure according to Jewish food laws. (If you’ve ever read the Old Testament, you know that God gave the Jewish people all kinds of very specific moral laws around food. God’s laws are holy, and before Jesus came and died, the Jews had to try their best to keep these laws in order to stay in a right relationship with God. Of course, they were unable to keep all these detailed laws, so Jesus died as the perfect sacrifice and fulfilled the Law of Moses.) In Acts 10, Peter is hungry and has a vision before dinner of all kinds of animals that were considered morally “unclean” to eat. “Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean’ ” (Acts 10:13-15). Even though this vision was more than just about food, it had to shock Peter that the old laws around eating were no longer applicable in gaining righteousness before God. Jesus made the “unclean” clean!

Under the new covenant, “Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ ” (John 6:35). Our bodies have a physical hunger and it’s great to eat healthy food to fulfill it, but our souls have a spiritual hunger as well. Our spiritual hunger can only be satisfied by Jesus. We cannot earn this “bread of life” with our healthy lifestyle. We don’t receive this bread by our own pride, strength or control, but by humbling ourselves and receiving Jesus. In Ephesians 2:8-9, the Apostle Paul teaches, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.” Our identity cannot be rooted in pride in our own good works! It’s impossible to gain moral righteousness and a positive self-image by what we eat or abstain from. This unstable ground can shift and change beyond our control.

Identity must be rooted in something greater than carnal food and drink. It has to be rooted in something eternal that does not change with the shifting seasons and the availability of resources. Certain foods you’re used to may come and go (especially during the current pandemic). The food and drinks we consume are circumstantial. You can not always choose what you want to eat when visiting someone’s house for dinner or while traveling. We must root our identity in what God says about us because it is fixed and unwavering. Food and drink cannot possibly define our immaterial identity. Romans 14:17 says, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Our God-given identity is then characterized by righteousness (right relationship with Jesus), peace and joy (the fruit of the Spirit). Therefore, pride and self-righteousness have to go if we want to find our true identity in Christ!

How do we lay hold of this kingdom identity of righteousness, peace and joy? First, take out the trash of any pride by admitting it and giving it to Jesus. He will wash away all your guilt because he already paid for it on the cross. In fact, a truly righteous identity is found in walking in humble relationship with Jesus. How do we restore a peaceful identity? Be filled with the Holy Spirit! Choose to put your trust totally in Jesus and not in the food you eat, where you shop, how much money you have to provide, your own strength or what you choose not to eat. When you trust only in Jesus as your “bread of life” and provider, his peace can flood your being in a way that no healthy meal can. What about joy? Joy is not being happy because you’re eating good food. Joy can be found whether you are well fed or hungry! The Apostle Paul looked to Jesus: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). When we trust in God, we begin to see his faithfulness to provide. This should produce in us praise and gratitude for his provision. Thank God for the food he gives you, whether you got to pick it out or not. When you cannot be in control of what you eat, practice grace and humility. Thank others for providing for you, even if it isn’t food you like! A joyful person can be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18). This is my prayer for all of us. May we let go of all pride, judgment and self-righteousness that has robbed us of our true identity. Let us instead embrace the fullness of our identity in God’s kingdom as righteous, peaceful and joyful children of God. Let’s transform this food culture from the inside out. Then we will shine like stars to the world around us… whether we eat kale or fried chicken!

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