Longing for the Divine

A Veggie Diet and the Desert Fathers

For those who want to go vegan this January or are interested in making a radical change toward a healthier lifestyle, I want to share my experience with veganism. I’ve been a whole-food plant-based vegetarian for 42 years now, and I can affirm that it has benefited my health tremendously. I love eating and cooking plant-based meals and have never once looked back, though I have suffered some judgment for my vegetarian and health-food mindset. 

My vegetarianism is based in a spiritual perspective on heath, which originated when some of my peers scoured the Old Testament to find support for health-related practices, which was not always easy. Holding up these idealistic statements to those around us only compounded the challenge. If eating meat was so unhealthy, why would the Bible say eating animals should not be forbidden (1Timothy 4:3)? Many of my peers believed that the Bible’s dietary laws were health-related, focused on avoiding sinful foods rather than reflecting the broader concerns of the biblical narrative. These peers were more concerned about being translated to heaven through a strict dietary reform that would return to Paradise those compelled by appetite who God drove out.  

I am often told that good and obedient people who eat right shouldn’t get sick or suffer from disease (Exodus 15:26; Deuteronomy 7:15). To get sick is to fall short of obedience. Some have mocked and ostracized me for sprinkling red pepper on my food and adding tomatoes to my salad, claiming that they would harm my digestive system and impair not only my health but my relationship with God, placing my dear soul in jeopardy of being lost. It was not that I thought healthy eating unimportant, but I disagreed with the judgmental mindset and rigid dogma of those who believed victory over diet would overcome every besetting sin.

Overcoming the appetites of the flesh is, however, necessary to obtain selfless love, and seeking spirituality through one’s digestive system has a long tradition, stretching back to the Desert Fathers. These saints of ancient monastic orders lived under strict food-related rules to overcome the passions of the flesh. Famous Christian author and professor C. S. Lewis makes a crucial point when he notes that “the sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of boasting and patronizing  and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred” (Mere Christianity, 2001, pp.102–103).

When we encounter people we perceive as wrong or as embracing strange practices, including different diets or political opinions, we may label and judge them to feel better about ourselves. One category of sin is yielding to fleshy appetites, but judging and mocking others constitute a greater sin. Regimented dietary asceticism and food tribalism can become dangerously cultish when too much emphasis is placed on the self. It was not until I began listening to animal rights activists and secular vegans concerned with world hunger, water conservation, and ethical animal treatment—fully understanding these healthy naturalists’ concerns for the environment—that I saw clearly the moral value in the biblical concepts of earth keeping and stewardship of creation for lessening suffering in our world (Genesis 1:26-28).

I have realized that we each hold a narrow segment of the healing message. We see the world and encounter others through our own fragmented perceptions. We all have bind spots, often judging others with our narrowly defined ideals. Therefore, even while believing we are right, we can become, as Lewis notes, capable of the worst kind of sin. Like many of my religious peers, some of the Desert Fathers had blind spots, clinging to values and beliefs that I would not endorse today. These blind spots would cause me to discount creation’s cries for mercy because they subordinate everything considered earthly to spiritual virtues. When we encounter such blind spots in the context of cultural problems like materialism and high calorie diets, I think we can learn from calls for moderation and simpler lifestyles, approaches we may have lost sight of. Hopefully, however, we haven’t erred to extreme asceticism. 

While spirituality is not gained by eating and drinking (Romans 14:17), being physically healthy can certainly aid our capacity to be more loving. It is much harder to treat others well when we are making ourselves sick or feeling cruddy. However, focusing too much on our own health rather than on others in the creation community can be monastic and otherworldly. Morality in health is validly grounded in preventing our appetites from controlling our lives, but if we are not careful, we may train ourselves for selfishness instead of achieving true selfless love for others. To achieve real and authentic spirituality and true intention and form—not the dominance and judgment of religion—compassion must prevail over dogma.

I believe that we are called to worship God through our eating and drinking, for our bodies belong to Him (1 Corinthians 10:31), but what about extending mercy to others in God’s creation community? Indulging our gluttonous cravings not only makes us unhealthy and less caring but also prompts needless killing and cruelty. To me, the biblical texts that present the ideal world are less about promoting personal health and escaping worldliness than they are about living in a world where humans and animals coexist in mutually non-predatory ways (Isaiah 11:9). Sadly, in our modern world, people have unhealthy relationships with animals which often enables abuse. The biblical approach is not about adhering to dietary rules and judging others but rather shaping our diet-related convictions according to God’s peaceable vision and expressing what God is up to in our world. 

The uncomfortable truth is that we all have limitations. The activist who speaks to animal treatment and the environmentalist who speaks to caring for nature portray only part of God’s healing vision. The same can be said for those who speak to health and longevity by emphasizing personal wellness and proper eating and for those who want to attain higher virtues and clearer minds through a simple wholesome diet. The complexity of humanity means that we have all botched things up at times, causing needless pain in some form or another. A more significant problem, however, emerges the moment we believe that we have opted out of the system of harm and can determine what is the right direction for everyone else.

None of us avoids creating harm as we stumble along in this world. We all contribute to health problems and to the suffering of creation. Those like me, who subsist on plants alone, must recognize that even harvesting plants for food inevitably results in deaths. Despite a pure health-food mindset, we may contribute to soil depletion and other environmental harms detrimental to our health. We may question why God allows such harms, but God has not yet stopped suffering and death (1 Corinthians 15:26). The Bible acknowledges that eating animals is not the highest ideal to which we can elevate our diet and anticipates a day when sickness and death will be no more (Genesis 1:29; 2:16-17; Revelation 21:22). Though God permits meat eating and allows death and sickness to persist, we should all respond to God’s mercies by participating in the healing of creation in the most compassionate ways possible (Matthew 9:35–36). 

God’s healing rescue for a flourishing creation is part of the redemptive narrative that gives us true meaning and direction in life. The redemption of all things follows a nuanced path that may be hard for us to understand as we fumble along. Sickness, disease, and death are results of living in a messed-up world, but they are often amplified by our own poor eating choices and mistreatment of non-human creation. Human faith alone can compound the difficulties and perplexities we face and therefore must be merged with the faithfulness of God. When we consider the faithfulness, mercy, and compassion we receive from God as gifts, we can then look for opportunities to share them. I don’t think we can truly find temperance and well-being until God’s mercy and grace shapes the ways we think and act. No diet restrictions will save us from our appetites or cure the world, but we are invited to participate in the work of healing and transformation as we trust God to deliver on His promises for a groaning world (Romans 8:19–22).

The biblical vision of a world that produces abundant crops; eliminates all sickness and disease; and fosters flourishing through goodness, peace, and blessing lives on (Exodus 15:26; Deuteronomy 7:15, 8:7–8, 11:13–15). Throughout its pages, the Bible presents such vignettes shaped by God’s broader ideal. The miracle of sustenance through vegetarian manna, providing supernatural blessings and moral strength, is one example that reflects God’s ideal promise (Deuteronomy 29:4-6). Such stories not only shape the ways we think and act but teach us to trust God’s faithfulness, which is the only way to find true happiness and peace. While I believe we should emulate God’s ideal as best we can in this self-indulgent world, I have come to realize that God’s vision of peace requires us to trust His covenant of grace and mercy. 

I long for a theology of divine compassion and love in this world. God cares for us deeply, but His compassion isn’t for us alone. It extends to animals and the earth. What the world needs now more than ever is an ethic of compassion not simply for the suffering of non-human creation but for one another. It needs us to see God’s mercies and compassion as gifts that once received, are meant to be shared with others.

My point is rather simple. It is a hope for compassion, a hope that no one will be judged or offended. I also hope for a revival of open conversations that will remind us of not only our blind spots but also our interdependence and shared desires for health, a healed planet, and more selfless living. We can all work a little bit harder to achieve these. I know I certainly can.

Craig Ashton Jr.

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