The story of how I first became vegetarian is contested between my friend Siphe and I. She gets to contest it because we started together. My very accurate memory is that we were set to go to a religious camp that was vegan during the December vacation while we were in university, and in our quest to learn how to be vegan and also to generally eat cleaner, we became vegetarian. She claims that we merely planned to prepare for that camp but never actually did, and so we became vegetarian after a month of veganism at this “conversion” camp (trying to convert us to veganism and some cultic “Christian” sect) – she’s wrong obviously.
Whichever story is true, when we became vegetarian, we were set on keeping that lifestyle. During our university days at a self-catering residence, we had not been particularly good at “eating well”. Our plates and meals had revolved around meat and starch, with us seldom prioritising vegetables. Becoming vegetarian therefore brought a new-found prioritisation of the overall plate and not just the meat section. It allowed us to ask honestly, ‘what would we eat if there was no meat on our plates?’ Siphe fell off the wagon the next school holiday, resigning herself to sending me a measly “I ate meat” message to confess her betrayal. I, on the other hand, was still set on continuing the journey, which I did until I ran into health complications. Because of this, I was back to eating meat, but it was not long before I wanted to stop again. I therefore settled on being pescatarian – a reasonable balance for my health and my desire to eat less meat.
Aside from the vegan camp, I had never really thought intently about how my eating and my faith intertwined. I think the “for everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” had been sufficient enough for me. Well, in theory it was. Now in living coram Deo, trying to be healthier for the past year, and because of John Piper’s ” A hunger for God”, I have been thinking about my diet a lot. If you asked me before this book, I would not have said that I love the feeling of being able to withstand not eating meat, and boast in my willpower. I would not have said that I had started to find a sense of identity in my “fasting”, but after some painful introspection, I know to some extent that I have.
Glory in our willpower
The ability to go without something is a highly admirable one. When someone who is trying to get healthier chooses to stay away from their guilty pleasure, we all look on in awe and admiration at their willpower. When someone is so set on a particular goal that they are able to forgo other things that they may desire, we are all left admiring their discipline. Similarly, the Christian life calls us to discipline and the forgoing of our desires for sin. The difference is, the person who does the forgoing is well aware that it is through the spirit that they are able to go without their desires. Therefore, the knowledge of how indulgent and ill-disciplined they may be without God’s help and sustenance causes all boasting to cease. For the Christian, the discipline is not for discipline’s sake. Christians are aware that forgoing, as with all our actions, should be done coram Deo and therefore to the glory of Christ.
Now when my going without suddenly conjures up pompousness and conceit, then it has seized to be done coram Deo. The willpower for willpower’s sake makes us look inward and say “see, I am so much better than you indulgent lot who cannot even control your diet. I am so much more disciplined, I surely am a better human”. We create false narratives about our abilities and boast in our own strength.
Belittling the gift
Another thing I have been grappling with is how the over-glorification of our own preferences may end up maligning all other things that God has created. While we rejoice in that which we have chosen, endeavouring to glorify Christ in how we go about our pursuits, we ought to be careful not to deem them “perfect”. Veganism, eating meat, or whatever is in-between are not ultimate. They’re all choices we make based on our ideas of what it means to be healthy. And those choices are subjective, and are not neutral. They’re influenced by personal and external factors that are outside of scripture. This recognition should help us be humble.
And the choosing of one versus the other should not make us belittle the food we reject. This matters because, while it may seem small and insignificant with food, these ideas seep through to other things. Now you no longer only deem being vegetarian as ultimate, but also your choice of being a homeschooling mom; your decision to be off social media and not own a tv; your choice to not drink alcohol. Suddenly, your choices are the most godly, and sanctified, and you Ozymandias your way through life. This is the danger at the heart of this – pride.
This pride is like that of the Pharisee who proclaimed “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get”. While the content of this prayer may be true – in the actions done by the Pharisee, the heart of glorying in his willpower, and in boasting in his actions proves that he does not see his need for Christ. He has got this law thing under lock. Similarly, our actions may reflect that deep down in our hearts, we don’t think we need Christ in those areas we boast in. We have these areas under lock – meaning we justify ourselves in those areas.
What’s food got to do, got to do with it?
This post is really a note to self as I quit the socials, practice minimalism and seek to live healthier. It isn’t really about food, more than it is about a posture of my heart. I, Sandisiwe Eletu Yengeni [insert your name if you want], need to remember to glory in my redeemer and only him. May all my efforts, all my “self-improvements” be to glorify him and to complete my joy IN CHRIST.
This means that all actions and practices need to constantly be brought under scrutiny. To constantly ask myself “where is my heart at about this practice”. And to be in tune with myself. If someone mentioning my quitting the socials brings too much joy and pride to my heart, then I need to acknowledge that I am in dangerous territory and pray for my heart. Sometimes it might mean having to stop certain acts that I am gleefully taking pride in (only if doing so not betray my conscience). Also, the act of confessing sin – a very very difficult thing for me to do – is so helpful man. So to constantly take my sins to a chosen group of friends, being committed to be honest with them, nomatter how embarrassed I feel about what I have to confess. This act of humility surely deflates the ego.
I am committed to try and try and try. And also to pray and pray and pray… I hope you are too!