Going deep into the meaning of a tableside prayer.
By Nathan Brown
Afew years ago New York journalist A. J. Jacobs challenged himself to live literally as the Bible commands for a year. His first task was to comb through the Bible to find as many commands, rules, and instructions as he could. From the Ten Commandments and the golden rule to each detail of the Old Testament’s laws of purity, Jacobs’ list totaled more than 700 specific instructions. Then, with a group of theological and spiritual advisers, he set about putting them into practice. His book—The Year of Living Biblically1—chronicled his experiment.
For a full year Jacobs poured himself into his project, and of course, it made an impact on his beliefs and attitudes. He felt he became a better person, more considerate of others, and “addicted to thanksgiving.”
Indeed, it was the act of giving thanks that he listed as one of the greatest discoveries of his experiment. “The Bible says to thank the Lord after meals,” he explained. “I did that. Perhaps too much. I got carried away. I gave thanks for everything—for the subway coming on time, for the comfortableness of my couch, etc. It was strange but great. Never have I been so aware of the thousands of little things that go right in our lives.”2
Giving Thanks, Asking Blessing
Jacobs stumbled across one of the secrets to living life as a follower of God. The Bible tells us repeatedly that our lives and all that sustains us are gifts from God—and that our best response is gratitude. Most religious traditions around the world and throughout history practice some form of blessing and thanksgiving before or after meals or both. Whatever its form, it is an acknowledgment that both food and life proceed from the divine power we believe in.
However, biblical instructions about “saying grace”—offering a prayer of thanks and blessing before eating—are not as easy to find as we might assume. Perhaps the closest specific instruction is found in Deuteronomy 8:10: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you” (NIV). (See also Deut. 6:11, 12.)
"Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God"
1 Cor. 10:31, NIV
But we also have the example of Jesus, who “thanked God for the food” when feeding the 5,000 (Matt. 14:19, NCV).3 He also “took some bread and thanked God for it” when sharing the last supper with His disciples (Matt. 26:26, NCV). It also seems that there was something so distinctive in this action that it was at this point that the disciples who traveled with Jesus on the road to Emmaus finally recognized Him (see Luke 24:30).
Giving thanks before eating also seems to have been a habit of Paul’s, as this detail is included in the story of his shipwreck (see Acts 27:35). In 1 Timothy 4:3, 4 he describes gratitude to God as the most important ingredient of any meal.
So while we are not given specific guidance for saying grace or how it should be done, the act of saying grace, giving thanks, or asking a blessing before meals is consistent with the Bible’s more general instructions, stories, and examples. But from both spiritual and practical perspectives, this practice also seems worthwhile for a number of reasons.
Many religious traditions have adopted some kind of regular daily pattern of set times for prayer as one way of prompting believers to turn and return their hearts and minds toward God. Saying grace is one simple way of practicing this in our lives. From the description we are given of Daniel’s daily prayers, it’s possible they were based around mealtimes in this way: “He prayed three times a day, just as he had always done, giving thanks to his God” (Dan. 6:10, NLT).4
Whenever we stop our work or other busy activities to eat, we can take the opportunity to remind ourselves of God and His love for us. As we pause for a meal, the food itself is a prompt: “To eat is to see, smell, touch, and taste God’s provisioning care.”5 As we experience this physical reality, we are reminded of the reality of God and our need to respond to Him.
Seeking First the Kingdom of God
There is something right about simply pausing before a meal to thank God. We may be hungry, the food may smell inviting, and we might be quite ready to eat, but still we pause.
While our physical needs are important, in a small but real way we choose to seek first God and His kingdom. We act out—and thus remind ourselves of—Jesus’ teaching: “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ . . . Your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matt. 6:31-33, NLT). When we have food in front of us, we can recognize that He has already fulfilled His promise, and in pausing, we reaffirm our priorities in His kingdom.
When we say grace, we acknowledge that when we eat, we do it, as we do everything else in our lives, in the presence of God. What and how we eat will be affected by our recognition of God and His claims on our lives. When our health and the lives of others around the world are influenced by choices we make at our tables, the acknowledged presence of God will help us make better decisions to live for Him more fully and serve Him and others with our physical strength.
Paul put it like this: “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31, NIV).
Sharing With Others
When we acknowledge God in our eating, we are also drawn toward being mindful of those who are hungry in our world. The blessings we receive are to be shared, sometimes immediately, sometimes by our consistent work to help those in need.
We want others to be able to thank God for His goodness and provision for them, and whatever resources we have give us the privilege of being able to work with God in helping make that happen: “God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. . . . And when we take your gifts to those who need them, they thank God” (2 Cor. 9:8-11, NLT).
“Be Thankful in All Circumstances”
The simple act of saying grace can be profound, connecting and reconnecting us with our Creator, challenging us to live better, pushing us toward our neighbors and helping us practice a life of thanksgiving.
When we think about it like this and “say grace” with a grateful and reverent heart, we are following Paul’s instructions to receiving the blessings of life: “Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18, NLT).
1 A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007).
3 Scriptures credited to NCV are quoted from The Holy Bible, New Century Version, copyright © 2005 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission.
4 Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
5 Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 180.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing Company in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of five books, most recently I Hope.