The Beautiful God of Health Reform
I have been a plant-based vegetarian for about 43 years. There was a time when my lifestyle choice was primarily health-related, and I believed animal welfare concerns related to diet could be radically divisive. The name calling and moral superiority I experienced when I ran into some animal right activists wearing faux fur coats covered in red paint and calling meat eaters murderers rubbed me the wrong way. I was a committed vegetarian, but I had already developed a distaste in my youth for the churchy health reforming purists who were insensitive to others due to the belief in their moral superiority. It was “health reform” focused on the fear of consuming the wrong things and shaming people for their dietary choices.
I have since included merciful and compassionate reasons for my diet into my health message. Along with my secular animal lover friends, I can now confidently say the activists are right: the way animals are treated in factory farms is cruel. I do not desire to participate in or benefit from cruelty to animals. The concept of living longer in a cleaner, more sustainable, and peaceful environment has become a compelling reason for me to continue my vegetarian lifestyle. I can confidently say that being a vegetarian has also given me a greater sensitivity toward animals and a deeper appreciation for all living things.
Over the years, I have learned the importance of understanding the nature of the health message I espouse. How it comes across to others is important. Sharing information related to the preservation of the planet or caring for the human body is not necessarily trumpeting superiority, but I have learnt that a merciful message should be given as compassionately as possible. I aim for mature reflection in light of God’s love for all creation without the dietary hang ups. Biblically caring for the human body as “the temple of God” is an act of worship (1 Corinthians 3:16). Eating for the Creator is about more than one’s health. It is a positive lifestyle that corresponds with a vibrant and abundant spiritual life. I would include caring for this planet and the world itself as our home as being part of taking care of God’s temple.
Instead of simply eating to be healthy as an individual, eating should be an act of worshiping a beautiful God. Every time I eat, I am invited to celebrate God’s good creation and redemption. My health message should be part of the gospel of how a compassionate God works to heal and restore our bodies and the Earth. I gladly drop the superiority of the arrogant finger-wagging moralist because the message is about a merciful God who heals and cares for all the bodies He has created—both human and non-human. The angry animal activist or the holier than thou health food purist who trumpets self-righteousness loses the ability to have empathy and kindness toward others. Eating a restricted diet can feel like elevating one’s holiness, but the snobbery of supposed advanced spiritual awareness should be cast aside in favor of embracing God’s mercy and compassion. Worshipping the merciful and loving Creator through everyday actions should lead others to see His beauty.
Jesus brought God’s compassion to the concepts of health and wholeness, emphasizing His role as liberator and bringer of a new life embracing the whole person. Without truncating the gospel of a beautiful God, Jesus presented truths in the most attractive form. There was no separation of body and soul for Jesus—no divorce between this world and Heaven. Caring about the body temple and the Earth we call our home is an important part of His life-giving message. It turns the most common and trivial action of eating food into an act of significance. I might go so far as to say those who reject the truths of health reform are rejecting a beautiful and compassionate God.
It disturbs me that Christians have long taken the ritual out of eating. Christianity has viewed the dietary restrictions of the Old Testament as a defunct legalistic religious tradition that needed to be done away with. The stereotype that Jesus did away with materialistic rituals in favor of a more advanced spirituality is sadly mistaken. The way we raise and treat animals for food today should be informed by God’s life-giving words of wisdom. The Old Testament dietary instructions contain a deep concern for bodily wholeness and spiritual purity. These dietary laws were much less about health and hygiene than about bringing holiness into eating and our treatment of animals (Leviticus 11:44–47). They reminded us of our relationship to the Creator as the giver of life and to bring sanctification and illumination to diet, thus making it a worship experience.
Eating according to these life-guiding instructions not only limited meat consumption to only a few kinds of animals, but it also reinforced the idea that life is precious and the act of killing must be remedied in some way. Eating an animal is taking a life, so the death of animals is not to be taken lightly. The rituals themselves are a source of hope that there is a better and higher way in which the life-giving Edenic ideal is preserved and death and violence are entirely abolished. Rather than legalistic rules devoid of spirituality, they present a beautiful God concerned with infusing holiness and love into our meals and the way we care for non-human creations. Our eating should become a way of worshipping a beautiful God who is kind and not violent.
When we do these things, we are reminded of a compassionate God and our responsibility to be stewards of creation, rather than contributing to the problem of callous suffering. These actions are about more mature reflection in light of God’s love and mercy for all His creations. This compassionate and merciful approach would also include not only concern for the exploitation of animals but also for the mistreatment of workers and release of pollutants toxic to the environment. The ultimate goal of existence should be union with a life-giving and beautiful God—not death, violence, and disease. One should embrace a way of life that contributes to the goals of life and wholeness. My hope is that we may all live healthy and long lives full of compassion and empathy.
Craig Ashton Jr.
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