Monday, April 27, 2009

Here's another tidbit from my work on Paul--denying the flesh

Why did God make food taste good?

The theological significance of that question didn’t hit me until I was forty years old. Skinny all my life, I never thought I’d have to worry about what I ate. Thin mint chocolate shakes. Boston cream pie. Root beer floats. Double fudge chocolate cake. No food was verboten. Then, everything changed after four decades of decadence. It’s like someone flipped a switch in my metabolic rate and ruined everything. I used to think diet cokes were for losers—a waste of money (why pay for nothing? No sugar, no protein, nothing to savor). Now, it’s the only thing that comes close to satisfying my sweet tooth. But, I know better: sugar substitute brings only a vague recollection of what used to taste good. “Tastes like sugar,” blah, who are they kidding? The truth of the matter is, I can’t tell anymore. Sometimes I think the waitress has slipped me the “real thing.” “Would you taste this?” My son or daughter takes a sip, recoils in disgust, and says, “No, dad. It’s not regular coke. That’s diet for sure.” Then, they give me that “poor-old-man” look of sympathy and whisper to each other, “his tastes buds are shot.” “I can still hear, you know?” Then I grumble to myself about how good taste (among other things) is wasted on youthful indulgences.

The tongue is one of the few organs built for more than one purpose. Eyes see, ears hear. But a tongue does more than taste. It is used for communication, both verbal and nonverbal (what the Scriptures call “separating the lip,” Ps. 22:7). So, why would God design the tongue to serve more than one purpose? It almost looks like an afterthought. “Let’s see. Man will need to be able to communicate. A tongue! That should do it. Now, we know he’ll get hungry—his stomach should growl loud enough to take care of that. But, let’s make it more interesting. Why don’t we put some taste buds on his tongue? Then, he’ll get the message. His hunger can never be satisfied by food alone. He’ll want things to taste good, too.” Of course, I don’t pretend to know the mind of God when it comes to divine purposes (although, Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” has given me many possibilities to ponder). But, here’s the part I really don’t understand: it’s the bad stuff that especially tastes good. If God were going to make us desire food for more than survival, then why did He make fat and sugar and starches and chocolate taste so good? Or, turn the question the other way around. Since God wants what’s best for us, shouldn’t broccoli taste like ice cream and chicken taste like prime rib? I’ve never heard anyone munching on brussel sprouts try to talk and eat at the same time, “hmmmmmmm. ‘Dis goooood.” It sounds a little cruel, doesn’t it? “Okay. We’ve turned his tongue into a taste mongering machine. Now, for the icing on the cake: let’s make all the stuff that’s bad for him taste really good—undeniably, irresistibly good.”

A man I admired very much lived to be an octogenarian before he died. He loved to give his advice when someone asked him the secret to a long life. “A simple diet,” he would say. “If it tastes good, I spit it out.” And, he always said it with a smile. But, thinking about his advice doesn’t make me smile at all; such deprivation certainly doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? Besides, aren’t we supposed to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8)? For most believers, the problem of evil and suffering is a perplexing issue. To me, the problem of goodness is just as vexing. Why would God make the world so good, so desirable, and then expect us to deny ourselves of these things that bring such basic pleasure? Why would God engineer sex to feel so good and then tell us, “Ah, ah, ah. Don’t do it.” Why would He make us to feel so satisfied after we’ve stuffed ourselves with food? Why set us up as fleshly creatures, with all the urges and constant cravings, only to make us fall (come on, who obeys all the rules)? Denying fleshly appetites is hard. Constantly telling ourselves “no!” feels like abdication. Self-denial wears a downcast countenance. Giving in, on the other hand, feels so good. Enjoying baser appetites comes naturally. Looking forward to dessert seems eschatological. Smacking our lips always breeds a smile.

Trying to solve the problem of good has led many Christians to one extreme or the other. Some equate the flesh with evil. Fleshly desires seem good, but they’re not good for us. Therefore, denying the flesh is the way we overcome evil. Others draw lessons from the creation account in Genesis: all things were created by God, and He declared them “good.” Sex, food, and drink are natural desires created by God for our pleasure. Therefore, if it feels good, it must be divine. Interestingly enough, both camps call upon Paul in defense of their positions. Yielding to the desires of the flesh is in antithesis to walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-17). And yet, did not Paul say as long as we partake with thankfulness, all things are lawful (1 Cor. 10:30-31)? The truth of the matter is, for Paul, the truth is somewhere in the middle.


Darryl Schafer said...

Although my thoughts were not as "fleshed out" as your's were here, I was thinking about this exact thing the other day. Strange.

JR. and I were talking along similar lines, and he said something rather profound: we think that we have the rightto feel good. I think he's on to something.

NT Wright has a great chapter on temptation in Following Jesus. Check it out sometime if you haven't read it. Your "middle ground" (which is spot-on) brought that to mind.

Jon said...

I have no profound words of wisdom to report, but thanks for posting these excerpts. I look forward to the completed work!