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But Daniel was determined not to defile himself by eating the food and wine given to them by the king. He asked the chief of staff for permission not to eat these unacceptable foods. - Daniel 1:8 (NLT)
Well, they let the twenty-something write for you all on the subject of health. Promise to not try to convert you all to veganism by Friday! Jokes aside, I think a millennial strength is our conviction about overall health -- in general, our generation looks at things holistically. We realize different aspects of our health are not isolated and affect the other areas of our lives.
And I think Daniel, who we’re looking at this week, was similarly convicted about the little things. The first chapter we’re reading outlines the tension as he and his friends (whom you might know -- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) struggle to find hope and not conform under the pressure of Babylonian culture. As they are recruited to go through training to serve in the king’s palace, they have a specific diet given by the king. The issue, which we see in this verse, is that these foods were not permitted by the Jewish food laws that Daniel and his friends would have lived by. Seems like a minor detail in light of a king’s demands, but Daniel was determined.
Of all the spiritual principles we herald as Christians, a determination to be healthy is typically not at the top of our list. Does God really care about that anyway? But Daniel knows well that God does care. We may not live under Jewish law, but what this tells us is that just like God made food to be enjoyed, He also made our bodies and He knows how they best operate.
Do we hold our health and the little things in high regard as our Creator does? Not in a salads-only, fad-diet, workout-cult kind of way. But He wants us to live full and healthy lives because He knows that brings freedom -- to serve Him, to live many years loving the people around us, to glorify Him with everything we’ve been given, our bodies included.
Now God had given the chief of staff both respect and affection for Daniel. But he responded, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has ordered that you eat this food and wine. If you become pale and thin compared to the other youths your age, I am afraid the king will have me beheaded.” - Daniel 1:9-10 (NLT)
We all probably have a few opinions culture would deem unpopular. The most currently relevant of mine is my love for the snow; this combined with my lack of concern for stocking up on bread and milk is a bit of a give-away that I’m from the North. The ways we stand out -- trivial or significant -- say a lot about who we are and what we believe.
As much as our faith in Jesus means a lot of our way of life is set apart, the way we as Christians approach our health tends to be pretty similar to the rest of culture. Health culture can become obsessive, shame-centered, and control-driven; and I think we can do the same and find it excusable because, in a sense, we appear healthy. But when we become overfocused with our bodies, it can be as damaging to us as when we are neglectful.
In this passage of our story, Daniel stands firm in his convictions and gets some life-threatening push-back from the chief of staff. Understandably -- what he was proposing was culturally very uncommon. But for Daniel, it wasn’t about conforming to a cultural standard. It was about adhering to what God has set before him for his own well-being, and ultimately, for His glory, as this story proves.
The difference between pursuing health and pursuing an image is a heart issue: Are we acting on a need for control? On a fear or shame? Are we seeking identity from something God never intended for us to? Our society worships and obsesses over a lot of good (or not so good) things that were never meant to be ultimate things; the truth of a God who has set us apart and cares deeply for His creation means we can approach our health with a different kind of freedom.
“Please test us for ten days on a diet of vegetables and water,” Daniel said. “At the end of the ten days, see how we look compared to the other young men who are eating the king’s food. Then make your decision in light of what you see.” - Daniel 1:12-13 (NLT)
A gift the Internet age has brought us is that of the ever fear-inducing WebMD, which makes hypochondriacs out of all of us when it proposes our runny nose could, in fact, be cancer or a number of other incredibly rare diseases. This is a worst-case scenario example of a simple principle: every part of our health is connected.
Daniel’s confidence in this passage is unwavering -- he proposes a test of his health based on the principles he knows to be holy and healthful. He knows that, even in ten days, this commitment will visibly prove his point because he knows the effect of a wise change.
When my mental health starts to waver or my stress is high or my emotions run wild, one of the first questions I’ve learned to ask myself is what kind of health habits I have been keeping. When was the last time I rested? Have I been eating healthfully? Moving my body? Essentially, am I keeping wise habits?
We’re not so much in Daniel’s shoes of being put to the test on a life-threatening basis (or at least I hope not) about how we’re taking care of ourselves, but the consequence of our habits is the same -- life abundant or life in chaos. How we care for our bodies can be life-giving, a source of energy, more peaceful sleep and a clearer mind; and how we neglect them can do the opposite, it can be a drain. In John 10:10, we read that the Lord wants “a rich and satisfying life” for us, and setting healthy habits is a good place to start.
So after that, the attendant fed them only vegetables instead of the food and wine provided for the others. God gave these four young men an unusual aptitude for understanding every aspect of literature and wisdom. And God gave Daniel the special ability to interpret the meanings of visions and dreams. - Daniel 1:16-17 (NLT)
For the last couple years, I was driving a 2002 Camry -- old and quirky, but so faithful. One of the quirks required me to constantly add oil to the car, which I did to the best of my abilities until the engine problems became too far gone, and I had to part ways with my beloved and janky Camry. Ultimately, adding the oil was a quick fix, but it wasn’t a sustainable solution.
In this passage we see Daniel and his friends starting to reap the benefits of their healthful choices -- their test proved to be successful, and with time, they were thriving in the habit they’d committed to. We live in a culture that’s much more quick-fix than sustainable-rhythm. Particularly when it comes to our health habits; we’re all about results, evidenced by a myriad of diets and workout programs and promises to help us lose the pounds. But just because something is short-term successful doesn’t mean it’s long-term healthy.
Beyond the need for quick results, making goals for sustainable health will be where we reap the most benefit. If we know we can’t keep up with that super intense diet plan or that workout regimen long-term, we can opt for something we will enjoy but still be challenged by. For example, I know I wouldn’t do well trying to eat mostly salad and banning all dessert, but I know I can pack vegetables into my diet and treat myself every once in a while.
Daniel’s example shows us God created our bodies to thrive in a steady rhythm, and being able to find consistent habits we enjoy instead of a quick-fix that will burn us out will lead us to lasting health.
The king talked with them, and no one impressed him as much as Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. So they entered the royal service. Whenever the king consulted them in any matter requiring wisdom and balanced judgment, he found them ten times more capable than any of the magicians and enchanters in his entire kingdom. - Daniel 1:19-20 (NLT)
As kids, we are so quick to claim responsibility for the cool thing we did. In my early years I drew and wrote and made little newspapers for my family, and my mom was always faithful to make room on the fridge. And as endearing as my little creations were, it was very obvious they were created by a child. Even as adults, our best efforts may be great or dazzling or exceptional, but they are nothing compared to when God intervenes with something God-sized, and we can happily say, “I didn’t do that.”
This ending to our passage is just that -- that Daniel and his friends impressed the king, he consulted them, he found them to be extraordinarily capable beyond comparison. And I’m sure Daniel was incredible, and I know vegetables do us a world of good, but when I read this story I mostly see God’s hand on His faithful people. Daniel simply honored and served his God, and God did the rest.
And that’s truly why this conversation about health matters -- because when we honor God in the little things and when we steward what He has given and spoken, we are freed up to live by His power. Living in health means we are more available to love people deeper, to serve more freely, and to glorify God in every minute or grand aspect of life. We aren’t striving, we aren’t living in chaos or tripping ourselves up. God gives instruction throughout Scripture not to squash us with rules, but to lay the groundwork for a free life, because it’s the life He designed us to live. And it’s on that groundwork where He can start writing the impossible stories.