Saying grace.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 October

The most common type of prayer—the one we see most often, and probably the type taken the least seriously—is the prayer before meals. We call it “grace.” Not to be confused with God’s generous, forgiving attitude.

Why don’t people take it seriously? Because it’s dead religion. Christians might pray it as a living act of religion, one of the acts we do to further our relationship with God. But Christians and pagans alike say grace before meals as the dead kind of religion: We do it ’cause it’s just what people do in our culture. It’s custom. It’s tradition. It’s habit. But it doesn’t mean anything.

Nope, not said out of gratitude. Nor love. Nor devotion. Nor even as a reminder of these things. We say grace because if we didn’t say grace, Grandma would slap the food out of our hands and say, “You didn’t say grace!” We say grace because Dad would take his seat at the table, fold his hands like you do for prayer, and give us kids dirty looks until we stopped eating, noticed what he was doing, and mimicked his behavior. We say grace because it’s how people wait for everyone to be ready before the meal starts. God has nothing to do with it—beyond a minor acknowledgment.

You notice in these scenarios, it’s because Grandma or Dad wanted to say grace. Not because anybody else did. Or even cared. It’s enforced religion: Everybody’s gotta participate in their spiritual practice, not to grow our own relationships with God, but because our parents felt it wasn’t proper to eat before a ritual prayer. It’s a formality.

And in some cases, it’s a superstition: If you don’t bless the food, it’s not blessed. Some will even say cursed.

So as a result of all this Christianist junk behind saying grace, we wind up with people who treat it as an annoyance. Or even passive-aggressively mock it. Like the silly rote prayers.

Good bread, good meat.
Good God, let’s eat.
Rub a dub dub
Thanks for the grub
Yea, God!

At one children’s ministry I worked with, we had a rote prayer we used for grace. Actually it was an old hymn, suitable for thanking God for food. And since each line was eight syllables long, it meant it perfectly fit a whole lot of tunes. Like different TV theme songs. The adults would have the kids sing their grace to these silly songs… then wonder why the kids didn’t take grace all that seriously. Well, duh. Obviously they weren’t being taught to.

Okay, so let’s take a more serious look at saying grace. And, believe it or not, whether we oughta drop the practice. Yeah, you read right.

What’s the basis for saying grace?

There are only two instances in the scriptures which bring up praying over food. That’d be these verses.

Deuteronomy 8.10 KWL
10 “Once you’ve eaten your fill,
be sure to praise your LORD God for the good land he gave you.”

Moses was speaking about the Hebrews moving into the land God promised their ancestors, Dt 8.1 but in this verse he wasn’t speaking of any specific instance of eating, like a feast or ritual. He meant eating food in general—in the promised land. Once you’re there, and eat your fill, make sure to praise God for it.

1 Corinthians 10.30-31 KWL
30 If I participate in grace, why am I slandered over what I gave thanks for?
31 Whether you eat, drink, or do anything, do everything with God’s opinion in mind.

Paul and Sosthenes were speaking about Christians who were offended by meat that had been originally part of pagan sacrifice. Lots of Christians (Paul included) figured there was nothing wrong with eating it, Ro 14.14 since pagan gods aren’t real gods. Ga 4.8 They figured since Christians are curse-proof, we could bless such meat—nullifying anything the pagans had said over it—and eat it in good conscience. Not every Christian agreed, and Paul pointed out we need to take their consciences into consideration. Ro 14.15-23 Still, the general idea is that if we eat, God oughta be acknowledged. Particularly his opinion.

That said: Neither of these verses command people to pray over meals.

Nope. Moses’s instruction was for the Hebrews to thank God for their land, not their food. The apostles’ discussion was for the Corinthians to acknowledge God over anything—not merely food.

Yeah, prayer is one way of acknowledging God. But the earliest Christians didn’t command their newbies to say grace at mealtime. They did encourage their disciples to be generally thankful. And as we see in the Didache, they were to give thanks over communion, Di 9.1 and give thanks when they ate together on the Lord’s Day. Di 14.1 Arguably, the early Christians were in the habit of giving thanks for their food, Di 10.3 so there wasn’t much point in commanding it.

So, saying grace was never commanded. It’s a custom. One of those things which sorta makes sense: Since we humans love and appreciate food, stands to reason we show God, our provider, some appreciation for providing it.

But as a custom, saying grace is optional. You don’t need to say it. Your life should say it. The entire Christian life should be one of thanksgiving to God. Our general thankfulness should more than make up for it… if one day we slip up and forget to pray over our food.

Legalism and saying grace.

Of course the way some Christians behave, if we ever slip up and forget to pray over our food, it’s like we cussed.

Yeah, it’s turned into a type of legalism. This is why I dare to suggest that sometimes we not say grace before meals. The way some Christians behave about the before-meal prayer, there is—ironically enough—very little grace involved in their attitude. I regularly hear people object, strongly and angrily, whenever someone dares to eat before prayer time. They’re accused of sin, of lacking respect for God. And of course they’re threatened that unblessed food is cursed: It can’t be eaten till God’s first been thanked.

Like I said, superstition. A superstition I admit I make fun of: When I’m asked to pray over the food, sometimes I jokingly ask God to take away the calories. Or, if I’ve eaten something before we finally got round to prayer, I’ll ask God to bless the food “and all that is within me.” Ps 103.1 KJV

Yeah, I’m rebelling a little bit. I grew up Fundamentalist, y’know. Legalistic attitudes about saying grace were a regular part of the lifestyle. It’d get nuts sometimes: Pastors used to give five-minute prayers before the church potlucks, ’cause they couldn’t resist the temptation to squeeze a mini-sermon into their “word of prayer.” Wasn’t a brief word. So I overcompensate the other way, and tend to be ridiculously brief: “Thank you Jesus. Amen.”

After all, there’s food to be eaten. Plus something to be said of the wisdom in the Jewish custom of praying after the meal.

But since I know a lot of Christians of Fundie upbringing, I regularly get accused of not saying a proper grace before meals. In their minds, a proper grace is long. Formal. Solemn. Pious. No levity, no enjoyment. No joy whatsoever—which technically means no fruit of the Spirit. Yep, that’s why I object to “proper” prayers before meals: There’s no God in ’em. They’re dead religion.

The very last thing any prayer oughta convey.

How to say grace.

If you’re ever called upon to lead everyone in grace before a meal, here are some ways to go about it.

Same as any public prayer, if you’re worried about praying off the top of your head, go ahead and memorize a rote prayer for grace. Nothing wrong with that. Find one you can say and mean, put it in your brain, and trot it out when it’s time to pray for food. If you wanna hide the fact you’ve memorized it, pick a lesser-known prayer—or write your own. (Oh, and make sure it doesn’t rhyme.)

Keep it less than 30 seconds. Anything you have to say that’s longer than 30 seconds should be said in a separate prayer. Any longer than 30 seconds will also annoy the hungry and the irreligious.

Don’t be inauthentic. In other words, if the people around you believe that all prayers should be formal and serious, you don’t have to adapt yourself to suit them. Don’t be a hypocrite for their sake. Talk to God like you usually talk to him. And if they don’t like that… well, they won’t ask you to lead prayer again, which ain’t necessarily a bad thing.

If you’re praying for a group which isn’t specifically Christian, make it clear you’re talking to Jesus, and not just any generic god. No, I’m not telling you to do this so you can share Jesus with a captive audience; that’d be wrong. I’m telling you to do this because you’re warning them which God you mean. You’re praying to your God, and if they wanna opt out, that’s fine. They’ll respect the warning. I for one appreciate it when neo-Pagans inform the room they’re gonna talk to their gods instead of my God. This way I can pray my own way, privately.

As for when you’re praying for your meals alone: Pray however you want.

But remember: The prayer doesn’t bless the food. God does. Whether we pray or not; whether we pray “properly” or not.

And if we eat in a way which doesn’t honor God at all—when we eat greedily, gluttonously, wastefully, or violate our diets for no good reason—what good is saying grace? It doesn’t cancel out or sanctify bad behavior. Again, we’re to have a lifestyle of thanksgiving. Not dead rituals. Without the lifestyle, not even living rituals mean much.