Consuming Our Lusts
An appetite for destruction
When was the last time any of us stopped and really thought about why we eat what we eat?
The current state of the food system suggests we don't put in that thought nearly as often as we should.
For hundreds—if not thousands—of years, we've been feeding our physical and emotional desires for food instead of eating for satiety, optimal fuel, health or even true enjoyment. Our focus on satisfying cravings has led us into a morass of problems, the foundation of which is a food system that keeps the whole machine running to maintain the consumption status quo.
It's turned us into creatures of destructive habit, eating and drinking ourselves into an escalating obesity epidemic and a medical system burdened with the responsibility of treating a multitude of chronic lifestyle diseases.
All for the sake of appetite.
But I believe there's a deeper reason why it's critical to address our modern fixation on being able to eat whatever we want at any time of day (or night): We've put food in the place of God.
And it's killing us. Physically and spiritually.
Lusting to Destruction
Problems with appetite date back to the very dawn of humanity. When we look at the Biblical creation narrative, it doesn't take long—just a little over two chapters—for the human race to succumb to appetite and commit the original sin that shattered the close spiritual fellowship mankind was meant to have with God.
And things have pretty much gone downhill since then.
Today, we're conditioned to want and expect meals that emphasize convenience over nutrition and promise the biggest bang for every buck.
We're tantalized with sensual food imagery and made to feel we're missing out on something if we don't try the latest offerings from iconic restaurants and brands.
We're told we deserve a break, we've earned the indulgence—so much so that we've begun to use the same language to justify the foods we choose:
"I've been good this week; I can have that brownie."
"Work has been terrible. I need chocolate."
"I'd kill for a bacon cheeseburger right about now."
In talking this way, we echo our own appetites back to ourselves and amplify the idea of food as a sensual pleasure, a way to reward ourselves and satisfy our personal desires. And the food system inherently encourages us to keep living in this form of bondage.
Catering to personal desires and physical appetites never goes well in the Bible. At best, it frustrates the connection people are meant to have with God. At worst, it leads to destruction. Literally.
One particular incident from the book of Numbers stands out as a stark illustration of this.
Rejecting Food From Heaven
In Numbers 11, we find the nation of Israel—God's chosen people—making their way through the wilderness on the way to the land God had promised to give them.
Not long before, God had miraculously delivered the entire nation from slavery in Egypt. And He made sure they were taken care of as they moved from one place to another by guiding the journey, protecting them from enemies—and providing food.
But not just any food. Manna, as it was called, arrived every morning like frost or beads of dew that resembled coriander seeds. When it appeared, each family of Israelites went out to gather a specific portion. Everyone had exactly what they needed for the day.
By the time we come to Numbers 11, the Israelites had been eating manna for a year or so, grinding it into flour and baking it into bread and cakes. God Himself was literally feeding them with food from heaven.
And they got sick of it.
Dissatisfaction that Leads to Bondage
In Numbers 11:4-6, we read:
And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?
We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick:
But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.
What do we see here?
The influence of the crowd. The "mixed multitude"—probably people from Egypt who had decided to leave with the Israelites—starts thinking about what they used to enjoy eating when they still lived in Egypt. Their attitude rubs off on the Israelites, who start to complain.
Lusting after a personal desire. Manna, being from God, fulfilled all the health and nutritional needs of the Israelites. Despite the fact that they were traveling through the desert, they never had to worry about where their next meal was going to come from. So their desires stemmed from personal pleasure, not actual need.
Lack of trust. As the same God who created the earth and everything on it, God was more than able to give His people what they needed to survive. And as the same God who created humanity, He knew what was best for them. Their reaction? Reject it and look back to slavery with rose-colored glasses.
It's this last point that has astonishing—and sad—implications for the way we approach food and eating in the context of the modern food system. By seeking after personal pleasures and self-fulfillment rather than trusting in what was best for them, the Israelites were essentially desiring a return to bondage.
Just so they could eat whatever they wanted.
Which is essentially where we are now in the way we approach food and eating. A decades-long slow descent has brought us to a place where we're held captive by our appetites and cravings.
Judgment: Getting Exactly What You Want
In the Numbers account, God chose to give the Israelites the "flesh" they demanded. They didn't need the quail, but they did need to learn an important lesson: What we want isn't always what's best for us.
Sometimes, it can kill us.
This plays out in the latter part of Numbers 11, when God sent so much quail into the camp that the Israelites spent two days and a night gathering the birds in. It was enough meat to feed a camp of over a million people for an entire month.
But the pleasure was short-lived. Before the Israelites had a chance to eat all the "flesh" they'd said they wanted, God sent a plague that killed the people who had desired the meat. The plague was so great that the place was subsequently dubbed "the graves of lust." (See Numbers 11:31-34.)
It's a perfect illustration of where our own appetites can take us—and are taking us as a society.
"I Want to Eat What I Want, When I Want."
Our current consumption patterns—which have led to the epidemic of obesity and chronic disease that plague industrialized nations—stem from the ubiquitous practice of catering to lust.
Lust in the sense of desire. Lust in the sense of coveting. Lust in the sense of a craving for satisfaction. After all, we want what we want, and we want the pleasure of it now; never mind the future consequences.
Food manufacturers and marketers have played into this for decades, leveraging a cycle that works frighteningly well:
Develop a product (or launch a category)
Convince us we need what they've created
Deeply ingrain the new offering into our daily routines
Many of these products are engineered to light up our brains with a sense of fulfillment and pleasure, and it only takes a few strategic marketing initiatives to convince us we can't live without those sensations. That those sensations are the inherent purpose of food.
The Religion of Food
Most people, including professing Christians, don't think about or realize the dangerous nature of this cycle. When confronted with the potential consequences of their food choices—obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer—they brush it off, ignore it or shout it down. They cling to dietary patterns as if these were religions in their own right, seeming to forget that most, if not all, of these patterns emerged from a food system engineered to support its own best interests, not ours.
It's easy to see, especially on the internet. Food culture has become something of a war between diet "tribes," with the Paleo crowd demonizing half the foods that the vegans eat, the vegans screaming at the vegetarians for still eating eggs and cheese and the omnivores hollering at everyone for being mean and judgmental.
This goes far beyond the type of food culture that stems from ethnic and family backgrounds. The food we eat has become such a part of our identities that we're blinded to any negative effects it might have. We've forsaken rational thought in favor of heeding the siren call of the food system to fulfill the lusts of our brains and taste buds.
Putting our appetites first has created the problems we see (or choose to ignore) in the current food system. Chasing the allure of the latest marketing campaign is what's gotten us to the point where we're producing more calories every day in the U.S. than people can reasonably eat, destroying the soil with intensive monocropping and raising animals in such deplorable conditions that antibiotics are required in their feed to keep them from dropping dead.
We've become accustomed to a food environment with fast food restaurants and convenience stores on every corner, where we can buy snacks everywhere from gas stations to office supply stores, where there's no longer any such thing as meal time because it's always time to eat.
And we're literally eating ourselves into death and destruction as a result.
Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead
Ironically, the root of the problem isn't food or the food system at all: It's our attitude.
We lust. After a lot of things, but certainly after food. We don't think about it that way, but lust is exactly what's at play when we prioritize satisfying our food cravings over taking care of our bodies. When we put rational thought on the back burner and ignore information that alerts us to the negative consequences of our choices.
Going back to the Biblical narrative, fulfillment was never meant to come from food. Food was part of sustaining us (and yes, it was supposed to be enjoyable) but was never meant to become something that we coveted, something we lusted after. Mankind's source of true fulfillment was meant to be God—and still is.
The Biblical writers speak in detail about the dangers of prioritizing the desires of the flesh. It's clear in the account with the quail in Numbers: The Israelites didn't care that they were rejecting what God knew was best for them. They craved, they lusted, and it destroyed them.
Deliverance in Sacrifice
The same thing is happening today. We're encouraged—even told it's right—to indulge our every craving. We're presented with foods that feed our lusts rather than nourishing our bodies. We've turned eating from a way to fuel and support the bodies God gave us into a form of hedonism that's making us overweight and ill.
As fulfilled as we may think this makes us, it really is a form of bondage.
The Biblical narrative is about freedom. The bright light of freedom shines even through the darkest times of humanity's history, pointing forward to the time when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, would die on the cross to atone for the sins of the world. When He would rise from the dead to defeat death and hell.
And with that comes the opportunity to be free from all bondage related to sin. Including bondage to our fixation on food.
It also carries the responsibility of setting aside what we think we want in pursuit of the pattern God has set for us. We're commanded to put our own appetites, our lusts, aside in service of God with all that we are, including our bodies, and seek holiness instead of self-satisfaction.
For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; ... Titus 2:11-13, KJV
Real change requires sacrifice, setting aside personal desires and appetites in favor of making the God-honoring choice instead of focusing on self-satisfaction.
Freedom From the Food Plague
So what do we do?
Learn from the Numbers narrative. We need to come to terms with the fact that feeding physical appetites because we want what we want is a form of lust—and lust keeps us from the freedom and fellowship that God planned for humanity from the start.
Acknowledge that what we eat doesn't just affect us. Every food choice impacts the entire food system, including the people working within it. And if we get sick and die from what we chose to eat just because we wanted it at the time, we subject our families to unnecessary grief—and dishonor the God who created us.
Change the way we talk about food. Moving away from desire and reward language takes lust out of the conversation and takes the focus off self-fulfillment.
While this won't make manna rain down from heaven, it can put us on a path that leads to freedom from the bondage of our own appetites. It is possible to reimagine the food system into something that nourishes and supports us instead of making us slaves to desires that were largely born out of clever marketing.
But we have to be ready to make those sacrifices. And to realize that the choices we make when we choose what to eat should serve a purpose far higher than making our taste buds happy.
“You make countless food decisions in the course of your life. ... Take the time to pay attention, and to understand what is really good for you, instead of breezing through choices that will have a real impact on your body and your quality of life.” - Jack A. Bobo, CEO of Futurity Food