Praying Before Meals: Sanctifying a God-Given Tradition

On more than one occasion while enjoying a meal with fellow Christians I’ve observed the following: a Christian shows up late, asks if the food has already been blessed, and, upon finding that it has been, proceeds to eat without a moment’s hesitation. In fact, sometimes when a guest has arrived late, I’ve seen a host proactively offer, “We’ve already given thanks,” which is a guest’s cue to go ahead and dig in.

Saying a prayer of thanksgiving before meals is a tradition for Christians, but it is a tradition that is rooted in Scripture. After warning Timothy about the false teaching that certain foods should be avoided on religious grounds, Paul said, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5). So, Scripture has us praying to God about the food we need – asking for our “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3) – and then giving thanks for the food we receive.

I was reminded of all this the other evening at the dinner table with my family. Moments after saying a prayer, one of my boys said as we were about to eat, “Oh! We need to say a prayer.” While I’m obviously very glad we’re conveying the tradition that Paul taught to my boys, I saw this as an opportunity to convey the meaning behind the tradition. “We already said a prayer, buddy,” I said, “but if you can’t remember our prayer, you need to say your own. The reason we say a prayer is to say thanks to God for allowing us to have this food.”

Some people seem to lose sight of the gratitude aspect of the prayer before the meal and focus instead on the words that travel with it. Paul said that the food was “sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:5). What did he mean by that?

1 Timothy 4:5 reminds me of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:14 regarding a marriage wherein only one spouse is a Christian. He said, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14). Notice how sanctification and holiness travel together; the former speaks of the process by which God sets something apart from what is common or unclean, while the latter speaks of the product of God having done so. The question left hanging by this reading is this: Is Paul saying that marriages between non-Christians are unclean? And why did he say it at all?  

While you could simply go to Hebrews 13:4 which seems to imply that marriage is honorable whenever it is legitimate, you could just use 1 Timothy 4:4 to help guide your interpretation of both 1 Timothy 4:5 and 1 Corinthians 7:14. “Every creature of God is good,” is true without the sanctification spoken of in the next verse. If the Holy Spirit felt that clarification were needed in 1 Corinthians 7, He could have said, “Every marriage formed by God is good” (cf. Matthew 19:1-6; Mark 10:6-9). In either passage though, it’s important to note that goodness and sanctification are not the same thing.

In both texts, the Holy Spirit is seeking to calm Christians’ fears about their holiness. Does being married to a non-Christian or eating certain food nullify a person’s sanctification? This might seem like a strange fear to us, but to first century Christians living under the shadow of the Law of Moses as well as pagan teachings about cleanliness and godliness, it was very real.

The answer to the question is a qualified “No,” in both cases. In the case of marriage, a sanctified Christian spouse brings holiness into a marriage; a non-Christian spouse cannot remove it. Unlike under the Law of Moses, where Jewish believers had to put away their unbelieving Gentile spouses (Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah 13), the Law of Christ encourages Christians to remain married to unbelievers and attempt to win them over to God (1 Corinthians 7:16; 1 Peter 3:1-2). If Christians married to non-Christians are doing that as well as honoring the other inspired teachings concerning marriage, their sanctification and thus holiness will remain intact. In the case of food, God’s decree made the food good, but, as the text encourages, only gratitude can make it sanctified, as ingratitude is a sinful step away from God (cf. Romans 1:21; 1 Timothy 5:18).

Getting back to the topic at hand, let me put it this way: nothing mystical or magical happens when we pray for our meals. The food isn’t transformed by our prayer. Instead, we could be transformed through ungratefulness.

But what about the “bless” language that so often surrounds our prayers before meals? The reason that we refer to blessing food is because Scripture does. However, it’s important to realize that Scripture uses this term interchangeably with thanksgiving. For example, some verses say that Jesus gave thanks for the Lord’s Supper elements (Matthew 26:27; Mark 14:23; Luke 22:19), while other readings say He blessed them (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 24:30). Further, some say He gave thanks for the loaves and fishes before distributing it to the multitudes (Matthew 15:36; Mark 8:6; John 6:11, 23), while others say He blessed the loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:19; Mark 6:41; 8:7; Luke 9:16).

What can we gather from the fact that “blessed” and “gave thanks” are used interchangeably in these texts, sometimes by the same author? Well, first, we should realize that the two things have something to do with each other. Scripture frequently calls upon worshippers to, “Bless the Lord.” This does not mean that Christians convey blessing to God, but instead, bring Him glory and honor. This means that second, our blessing the food isn’t about us asking God to transform the food for our use but about us praising Him for allowing us to use it.

Food is food before and after the prayers we offer for it. Morally, it is “good” (1 Timothy 4:4), or, more specifically, it has nothing to do with our spiritual state (Romans 14:17). Nutritionally and sanitation-ally (yes, I know that’s not a word, humor me), it is as good or bad for us before the prayer as it is after the prayer. Blessing the food doesn’t make it better in any way, and if all we’ve done in blessing our food is to ask God to do something to the food or to our bodies with the food rather than praising Him for something He’s already done in giving it, we’ve missed the point of the word “blessing.”

So, the next time you sit down at the dinner table, pray. In your prayer, thank God for the food and give glory and praise to God for being such a good provider. This kind of prayer will sanctify your mealtime by driving the sin of ingratitude far from your heart. And, if you’re the Christian who arrives late and someone says, “We already gave thanks,” remember that while someone can lead you in a prayer of gratitude, no one can be grateful to God on your behalf.

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