Why Pray Before a Meal?

I’m often tempted to ask Christians who I see praying in public before a meal why they pray. Of course I would never be so disrespectful as to actually walk over and ask. I’m not offended by it, Christians have every right to do it and I support their right. But I do wonder why. So I’ll ask my questions here, where I can safely assume that someone reading a blog about atheism would be amenable to a conversation about faith and belief.

Social Aspects of Praying:

Do Christians feel that God prefers that prayers are said while in a certain posture, with head bowed, eyes closed, and hands clasped? Or is the prayer posture meant more as a performance for the benefit of those around them, rather than for God’s benefit? It seems a lot like the ichthus (fish) bumper stickers – it’s used as a public statement, a testimony. Is the prayer before the meal a polite way of witnessing, a way to show those around them that “I’m a Christian” without actually engaging anyone in conversation? On the one hand, I appreciate that most Christians would be respectful enough not to overtly proselytize those around them. On the other hand, statements to the effect of “I’m a Christian” is not much of a witness. For example, it says nothing about the reality of Jesus which is what a Christian witness or testimony really is. Or possibly, prayer before the meal is a display for other Christians, a way to tell other Christians that you’re one of them – sort of like the Shriner’s “secret” handshake.  Maybe it’s both.

Theological Aspects of Praying:

Thank you for this food we are about to receive…

Why do Christians pretend that God gives them their meals? It seems obvious enough where food comes from. The Earth produces food for humans and other terrestrial life. Life on planet Earth has evolved such that there is a food chain.  If I may oversimplify a bit just for illustration: plants consume non-living materials like minerals, water, CO2 and sunlight.  Animals consume plants, and animals higher on the food chain consume other animals.  Humans are near the top of the food chain (yes, we do have natural predators!).  Each of our meals has this natural origin.  If there is a God, then He doesn’t give us each meal, He gives us the entire Earth from which we get our food.  Why not thank God at every meal for the Earth rather than for the meal?  The meal seems insignificant relative to the gift of the whole Earth!

Other Quirks Regarding Prayer:

Why pray only for food?  Why not pray for water?  Water is even more essential to our sustenance than food.  We can survive without food for weeks but we can only survive without water for a few days.

Bless this food to our bodies…

“Bless this food to our bodies” isn’t even grammatically correct – the verb “bless” can take the indirect object, “body”.  You can bless the food, or you can bless our bodies, but you can’t bless food to our bodies.  Nevertheless, this phrase is very wide spread among Christians – try this search on Google (http://www.google.com/search?q=”bless+this+food+to+our+bodies”) and you’ll see what I mean.

My point is not that Christians are guilty of incorrect grammar – we all are.  My point is that Christians make this particular grammatical error only in prayers for the meal and not anywhere else.  So how does a grammatically incorrect phrase become so popular in prayer and only in prayer?  Does it sound more spiritual?

What do you think?

Whether you are Christian or not, what to you think about the Christian prayer for the meal?

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22 Responses to Why Pray Before a Meal?

  1. Michael H says:

    Good Question … My guess is “habit” OR “show”.
    Somewhere in christian mythology it tell them to ” … pray in a closet”; most probably do.

    I moved to the bible belt a few years back and now I see many more people who defy that admonishment with public prayer.

    Judgmental on my part? I guess so, but calling attention to prayer in a restaurant seems a very unchristian act.

    Michael H.

    • Anonymous says:

      Christianity is hardly a myth as recorded in secular history. If you read the Gospels you will see, for example, that Jesus prayed to His Heavenly Father before thousands, 5000 men to be exact, when the disciples had only 5 loaves and 2 fish. If Christ is our example and He prayed before thousands ate, I do believe it to be VERY Christ-like to continue asking the LORD for mealtime blessings. Perhaps you are referring to the Pharisees, who prayed in public to glorify themselves instead of the LORD…this is a big difference. I am referencing Matthew 6:1-6 here, in the event you might search for yourself. Actually, you are right that the Lord created the earth and all that is in it, on it, or above it. So everything that is produced from the earth was provided by the LORD through the hands of farmers who grow the crops (which need that water), that also feeds the animals, and eventually to the hands of those who prepare the food for our consumption. I am sure farmers prayed for water during planting season and still do, although now they often have elaborate irrigation systems. I see no harm to anyone in praying before a meal at a restaurant. Everyone certainly has the choice to look away and really mind the business at their own table, we all would be better off if that were the case.

  2. Ted says:

    I will attempt to answer each aspect of your question about prayer.

    Social aspects
    I prey before a meal to give thanks to God for providing the food that I need to survive. The hands folded and head bowed is from habit and tradition. They can be done as one wishes. If I am with a group of atheist friends I will either pause and say my prayer silently without folding my hands or bowing my head. This takes me about a second or two. Sometimes I will skip the prayer to avoid awkward moments.

    Theological aspect
    You make an interesting point here. God does give us the whole earth. But at each meal we are only partaking of a part of the earth, that is the fruits, vegetables and meats that we are about to eat. By extension we are thanking God for the earth that God created, and that produced the food we are eating. Ultimately God is the source of our wellbeing. Thanking God for the food or the Earth recognizes God’s provision.

    Other quirks
    I do pray for water. I pray for the whole meal. As for the phrase “bless this food to our bodies” I have never used it and do not know anyone who says that. I cannot tell you why some would say that.

    I think that God deserves recognition for the provisions that He provides for us. I am not concerned whether they are provided directly or indirectly because God created the universe that all of these things exist in and He maintains the universe He created.

    Michael, you are referring to a passage in Matthew ch6 vs. 5-6.
    “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
    Jesus is speaking to a crowd. He is addressing a practice that the Pharisees used to do to display their status in the community. Jesus is not condemning prayer in every sort. A Christian praying for a meal is praying quietly and would rather no one notice. He is praying but not putting his holiness on display.

    • Moises says:

      Muito bom Ted, acrescento mais, hoje percebemos como funciona nosso organismo, atraves do avanço das ciências, e sabemos que muitas doênças, se não todas, são geradas por nos alimentarmos de forma incorreta, tais como:
      Comemos apressados;
      Comemos com a atenção voltada para alugum dispsitivo eletronico;
      Comemos estressados;
      Comemos rapido;
      A açào de nos alimentar deverá ser um momento “sagrado” do ponto de vista material mesmo, pois todo o processo de alimentação começa na seleção dos alimentos corretos passando por seu preparo e finalmentoe a mastigação processo qeu deve ser feito de forma adequada, sendo fundamental para digestão e absosrção dos alimentos e sua transformação nos diversos nutrientes necessários a nosso corpo. Assim a oração nos tras a calma e o equibrio necessário, tanto espiritual, orientando nossos pensamentos para o alimento, quanto ao fisico dizendo claramente ao nosso corpo e orgãos se preparem adequadamente para receberem aquele alimento. Neste ponto quem garante que, se não oramos, o alimento vai nos beneficiar ou prejudicar.
      Gloria a Deus nas alturas para todo o sempre.

    • The Atheist says:

      Prayer simply for the sake of slowing down for the health benefits seems to miss the mark of why Christians pray before the meal. I doubt that that is why most Christians pray.

  3. Susan says:

    From the outside, here’s what I think. When people are members of any group, the customs of the group usually involve large & small gestures designed to identify group members to each other, & to quickly evaluate the health of the group as measured by percentage of participants & their enthusiasm level. Getting everyone around the table to pray before meals is a quick & convenient way to enforce group behavior & increase feelings of inclusion & rightness. What better way to do a thrice daily check on potential mutineers?

    Of course that me, the cynical chick. For believers, I rather doubt they see any of these features. They probably find comfort in ritual, those moments to come back to center, & feel right with god, which is another way of saying better than or holier than thou.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Personally, when I was a Christian I do remember doing this anytime we went out but that’s because it’s exactly what we did at home. It was simply to ask for thanks for the food and we did it at every meal. At the time, I agreed with my parents that it was important to still ask for thanks even though we were out in public and others might find it weird- seemed it would be hypocritical not to do it in public, actually. since we were doing it to give thanks, we would still be thankful whether we were eating at home or at a restaurant. I’ve never heard any Christian I’ve been friends with (or related to) mention doing it to influence others, although some certainly could be.

  5. kathryn says:

    I thought this was a great post.

    It’s a good question. To be honest, most of it is done out of habit, it’s what our parents did, what our grandparents did, so our generation of christians does it too- folds out hands, bows our head, and prays for our meal. Mainstream church (not a criticism of mainstream traditional church, but nonetheless) teaches us that it is a sort of “witness.”

    I actually asked my friend the other day about this, she was talking about being on a date with a guy and she was really impressed that he asked to pray before their meal. As if the meal prayer was some indication of the caliber of christian man she had found. I asked her why that was such a big deal to her? It seems to me that more than a meal prayer- the way he lives his life, loves others, gives of his time and resources would be better indicators of a relationship with the Lord.

    I loved your- “why don’t they pray for water”… I may start doing that now :) ha.

    I am thankful for my life, I am thankful for the food I have to eat, the way I believe God has provided for me in many other areas. But I don’t pray before meals, and that may partly be out of a desire to question the things we do nonsensically as christians… but I do pray. Most of the time, not with my head bowed and eyes closed. But because I do believe prayer touches beyond a material reality.

    To get back to the original question though- I know a lot of my friends do it because it’s what we’ve always done. Haven’t ever questioned it.

    Love the blog.

  6. The Atheist says:

    Kathryn, thanks for the insightful comments and the very pithy introspection. It makes sense that public prayer is something many people do out of habit without ever thinking about what they are doing or why they are doing it. That’s probably true of much of what we do in general, and also true of what we believe. For example, how many people ever consider why we shake hands when we meet?

    If you start praying for water, you might consider praying for every breath of air! :) …which actually might be sort of meditative!

  7. Laura says:

    I am and always have been an atheist, but I like the idea of saying grace, depending on what you say. To address your questions:

    Social:
    Bowing one’s head is a gesture of humility and submission to a higher power. Bringing one’s hands to the center of one’s heart is a gesture of love and loyalty. Holding hands offers comfort and connectedness with loved ones as well as strangers. It makes everyone feel included and special. Exercises in humility are good for everyone and we should all practice some daily.

    As for why Christians do in public what they do in private, I would bring up two points. One, they would feel guilty and cowardly for not doing it. Two, most of them do it with great difficulty because they know they will bring attention to themselves for it and set themselves apart from the rest of the diners, possibly even hearing snickers or rude comments, too. They do it not out of superior influence, but against uncomfortable attention.

    Theological:
    Feeling and expressing gratitude is necessary to be healthy and we should all practice more gratitude! Thanking the Divine Provider makes sense to them, but the best Christians, I think, are the ones who also thank the cook and the one who paid for the meal (the Earthly Provider). Grace leaders who do not thank the cook, after all their hard work, really make me made.

    Also, grace leaders usually thank God not only for the food, but almost always thank God for the fellowship of those eating with them, their other blessings, etc.

    Quirks:

    Why not thank God for water? It would lose all meaning to say it every time you take a sip during a bike ride, etc. The fact that we make more of a ceremony out of eating meals together makes it a nice time to add to the ceremony, pause and reflect on our blessings.

    Why not thank God for the whole Earth? Why not thank God for everything in the process? That would take a while… Maybe you could start your Christian friends highlighting a different step each grace. Like “Tonight I would like to thank the local farmers, who toil night and day to provide us with this grain and fruit. We bought this locally to show our thanks to him…”

    As for grammar, things do look and sound more special when they are wrong. Think about how popular the backwards R became after Toys’R’Us, or how popular it is to add a “z” to the end of words instead of an “s”. It may be dumb, but it sticks in the brain easier. Besides, isn’t the point that once upon a time all of these phrases either were grammatically correct, or came from a time that had no grammar rules? It’s historical! It’s tradition! Lay off : )

    PS I’m thinking of starting a trend toward atheist grace. Like I said, gratitude is the attitude and I, for one, could use a reminder of this three times a day. Cheers

    • Anonymous says:

      You don’t really appear to have the heart of an atheist. You definitely have a heart for God.

      • Anonymous says:

        Thank you for reading my posting, but no, I don’t have a “heart for God”, and I am offended that you are incorrectly telling me about myself while dismissing/ disbelieving what I say.

        I hope that you meant your comment as a compliment, but it really made me mad. If I seem like a believer, it’s just that I can see two sides of a situation better than some and can find the value in some religious practices even while rejecting the major beliefs around them.

        Reread my posting with more acceptance and trust, please, instead of with dismissive doubt about my beliefs. The heart of an atheist can be just as grateful, loving and reflective as the heart of a believer and understanding is not synonymous with agreement.

  8. Laura says:

    Wow, I should have reread that a few times. “really make me made” should be “really make me mad” and “show our thanks to him” should be “show our thanks to them”

  9. The Atheist says:

    That’s interesting that you enjoy praying. Dr. Robert Price of Jesus Seminar fame says he enjoys regularly attending church services. I personally enjoy church services on occasion, and I enjoy Christmas celebrations and music, Easter Vigil, and High Holy Days services.

    What are some examples of what you might say when you say grace?

    I’m not sure I agree that the expression of gratitude for say, air or water, would necessarily make gratitude lose it’s meaning, though I can see how it might. I think it would be a rather spiritual experience, somewhat akin to how I personally feel when I take a step back at various times during the day, and marvel at my own existence and my miniscule place in such an infinite cosmos. Perhaps to a believer it would feel as though God was more present or more real. It might also be spiritual in that giving constant thanks could become something of a chant.

    The problem for me with “bless this food to our bodies” is that it doesn’t seem to have real meaning. My quibble about the grammar was to illustrate that it’s a nonsensical saying that people mindlessly repeat without giving it much thought. The closest meaning I can derive from it is that it is a request that God cause the food nourish our bodies. But when it’s stated in such a clear manor, it just sounds silly – akin to asking God to make the Earth’s gravity hold us down. Perhaps it’s a way to ask God for something that you know will happen – and therefore makes the supplicant feel as though God is real because He answered the prayer?

    I think it’s a good thing to question the reasons for what we do and think, including the prayers we (collectively) might say. It’s one way to recognize when beliefs we hold are inconsistent with other beliefs we hold.

  10. Moises says:

    The importance of prayer in the meal
    Very good Ted, I add more, now we realize how our body, through the advancement of science, and we know that many diseases, if not all, are generated by the feed incorrectly, such as:
    We eat in a hurry;
    Attention turned to We eat a couple some electronic device;
    We eat stressed;
    We eat fast;
    The Action on food should be a time “sacred” of the same material point of view, because the whole feeding process begins in the selection of the right foods through its preparation and finally the chewing process that must be done properly, and essential for digestion and absorption of food and its transformation in the various nutrients needed by our body. So the prayer behind the calm and balance needed, both spiritual, guiding our thoughts to the food and its energy function and functional, after all we eat is not like the eyes, as the saying clearly to our physical body and organs properly prepare to receive that food. At this point who knows that unless we pray, the food will benefit us or harm. Since this is an aspect of Christian faith, that is, food as daily replacement without abuse.
    Glory to God on high for evermore.

  11. Daniel H. says:

    I would like to say that sometimes saying grace is more than just thanking god for the bounty that is about to be received. For the newly religious it can be a powerful way to publicly profess your beliefs. I’m pretty much as atheist as they come, but I am from a traditionally Latin Catholic family. I love religion and the voyage that religious people take on their way to find a spiritual peace. So when I say this, it is out of respect for their journey and is not a criticism, but I’ve noticed that the people in my family who have converted to Protestant Christianity need to show the rest of the world that they are committed to their new found religion and one of the ways they do this is to say grace in public.

    Many of my other family members who, as “Joe blow” Latin Catholics, probably wouldn’t pray at their last meal before being hanged, never say grace. Mind you, they believe in god, they just don’t ever say grace. But the newly revitalized religious people in my family make it a point to drag us all into praying before dinner. I do think that they honestly want to thank god for their meals but I also feel like they are making a statement about their beliefs and that our family should be more religious than it is. This sort of offends me a little until I consider that they are proud of their new found faith and believe in it strongly enough to make a scene at thanksgiving.

  12. The Atheist says:

    I love religion too. What fascinates me most is the history of how it has evolved, and also the reasons different people offer for holding the religious beliefs they hold. You make some very interesting observations, especially because they are about members of the same family who behave differently with regard to public prayer, depending on whether they have remained Catholic or have become Protestant.

  13. Amy Harrison says:

    I am an athiest that performs a liitle ritual in my head before each meal. I like to touch on three things. 1). It is only in recent history that having 3 squares a day is given for the majority of people. 2) i remeber that there still are those now who starve and i pledge not to forget them. 3) i reflect that this food did not appear magically, that food comes from a complicated supply chain.

    I do this to keep myself from taking food for granted and to keep myself motivated in my meager quest to help those who need help. It helps me keep the mindset to choose food that was ethically raised. On a much more shallow note.. It keeps from eating like a pig and gaining weight

  14. Gracie says:

    It is, as Christians to ask Jesus to bless our food. God made it for us so we bless it in his name

  15. laarni says:

    I will make this simple. We are praying simply because we are thankful for all the blessings. Actually it is not only the food that we are praying during meal time,it;s true right?! I am hoping that we should always be humble and thankful to God our Father for everything. And to Lord Jesus for his blood and life. Godbless

  16. Jared Fowler says:

    I’m a Christian and I rarely pray before meals. Theoretically, if I’m thankful for food, then I should pray after I receive everything….right? But I don’t, why? Did you, as a child, thank your parents every day for paying the light bill, for having a roof over your head, the food they prepared, etc etc. I think not. As a child, your relationship with your parents (assuming it was good), exemplified your thankfulness as a whole. By your obedience, doing things for them without asking, etc, your thankfulness was displayed. In theory, I should have to stop and pray every time my car starts, rain falls, blah blah blah. I don’t and I won’t. God knows by my attitude toward Him that I am indeed thankful. But that doesn’t mean I should never be thankful in prayer. I do go to Him with prayers of thankfulness, but not for every little itty bitty thing.

  17. Anonymous says:

    The concept of prayer is both simple and complex, like God. So, let me continue to confuse you even more. Let me present the idea to you that God, wouldn’t be God if he couldn’t be anything and everything. He is without limits and beyond contradictions. Let me throw in another fun morsel for you to chew on, he made us in his image.

    We crave solitude as well as company. When we pray, we are meditating, focusing on the scripture of the Bible as well as conversing him. Prayer is part of the relationship with him. Sometimes we do this in privacy and other times with others. Group praying is like group meditation, supporting each other through love and faith.

    Please never feel afraid to as a Christian about our faith or why we do the things we do, no matter how logical or illogical it may seem. It done with purpose and meaning. Knowledge is power, right:). With Christ’s love, I hope you find the answers you’re looking for!

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