I’m so glad January is over. It’s surely the most depressing month of the year. Christmas-related fun has passed, we return to work, it’s cold, dark, and for some reason, this is the month we have chosen to punish ourselves by depriving ourselves of alcohol (‘Dryatholon’), meat (‘Veganuary’) and other wonderful treats. New Year’s diets and resolutions abound — everyone is abstaining from something or feeling guilty that they’re not.
But don’t despair, February is here and we can enjoy the finer things in life again. We’re back on the booze and burgers. And although it’s still dark, at least your colleagues have stopped talking about their seven day juice cleanse and you can go back to enjoying a sugary treat at your desk without receiving their collective condemnation.
The annual ritual of January abstinence was particularly focused on food this year. This is part of a wider trend — food has become more significant to us than ever before. We’ve seen the growth of a health and wellbeing industry which claims that changing our diets and what we eat holds the key to becoming not just healthier, but happier and ultimately better people. Diet programmes like Eat Yourself Clean promise that by eating the right stuff, we can ‘thrive and feel our best’ . We see books like Clean Cakes or The Food Lover’s Cleanse, which promise that by eating their foods we can purify not only our bodies, but our whole lives. Food has become either our saviour (because it promises to change us for the better) or our downfall (because it’s delightful but bad for us).
But are we asking too much of food? While our diets can have significant implications for our long-term health and our general wellbeing, are we expecting too much from our diets? Does food really have such a defining influence on our lives?
After all, even if you do finish that organic vegetable detox, will you as a person be changed? Will you become kinder? Less angry? More self-controlled? As you drink your daily kiwi and kale cleanse, will you suddenly start thinking positive thoughts towards your annoying colleague on the adjacent desk? Can food really cleanse you of your worst habits, and make ‘a better you’ like the diet programmes promise?
Our personalities, our flaws, our habits are hardwired pretty deep, so I’m sceptical that more vitamins or less junk food will really change that.
Actually, this mistaken focus on diet is not new. Religious movements have made what you eat a moral question throughout the generations. I’m from a Jewish background — my people have been doing this for thousands of years with kosher dietary laws; the same applies to Muslim halal principles. Or the Jain religion, which is strictly vegetarian. Some Taoist and Buddhist sects forbid eating garlic and onions. Actually, this modern diet obsession looks like the same historical religious impulse now dressed up in secular clothing.
And this is exactly the kind of religious impulse Jesus came to smash among his fellow Jews.
They were working under this mistaken idea (present in all religions) that you can cleanse your soul by following some fairly strict religious rules. A lot of those rules had to do with the food you ate, and how you ate it. But Jesus said it isn’t a question of what goes into you that makes you good or bad, but what comes out of you — what we think, say, or do.
Anything you eat passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer. But the words you speak come from the heart — that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you .
According to Jesus, we’re defined not by what we eat, but by what’s going on in our hearts. We can change what we consume, but we’ll still be the same people, or perhaps even worse people when you factor in the necessary superiority complex that goes with all these fad diets!
The central problem facing us is not poor diets nor bad habits but the way we behave. This behaviour, the way we treat others, our lack of honesty, our anger, our selfishness, are symptoms of a bigger problem. They are symptoms of a fundamentally unhealthy soul, something no raw juice blend can detox.
What’s the solution? Jesus himself offers humanity a way to be truly changed — not just to simply cut out bad habits, but to be changed from the inside — to heal our unhealthy souls. He offers us an encounter with the living God, and calls us to receive forgiveness for the way we’ve lived. When we do that and choose to follow him, we begin a journey of transformation.
No more futile resolutions, no more fad diets which promise to transform the way we think, but an encounter with God who loves us, who accepts us in our brokenness and starts to change us as soon as we recognise we need him.