The World Health Organization recently announced a gloomy verdict upon bacon.
Morning’s favorite meat is now scientifically linked to cancer. If the Haters of Porkbelly are to be trusted, not only bacon but all cured and smoked meats are said to increase one's risk of cancer.
Without imposing my own view, I will share my conviction. Admittedly, it is based on no heavily-funded studies, but upon quaint personal observations and unfashionable common sense. I am persuaded that my health and well-being would be more endangered by the amount of paranoid stress that is generated in tracking and avoiding every suspect substance, than in moderately enjoying the traditional fare and pastimes of my ancestors. If the past portends of the future, I can be assured of one thing: something, somewhere, will kill me. It is only a question of when and how, and I am happier for having come to terms with this fact.
The bell-curve of average life-expectancy rises like a loamy knoll to a crest of seventy-six years old in the United States. It is fair to assume that those who abuse alcohol, tobacco, meat, or sugar, will plant their headstones a little lower on the hill, while those who are especially moderate in their habits are more likely to lay their caskets on the far side. To be an outlier on this graph has more to do with inscrutable providence or real vice, I believe, than with slightly altering run-of-the-mill habits. Wayward cars and the meth addictions take people young. Trim businessmen can have coronaries at thirty-five. Meanwhile, an old wart with freak genes lives to 114, smoking a pack a day. Most of us, however, will land somewhere near the top of the hill just by moderation.
My ancestors lived more or less seventy years. I can expect to live about the same if I live more or less as they did. But a life entirely and intentionally void of earthly pleasures, as smoked meats and a good glass of wine, however much it extends my paltry existence, what is it but an animated death?
According to the Bible, death is symptomatic of human sin and coming judgment. Mortality is not something to be overcome by the perfect diet, but is a constant, inescapable reminder of the consequences for evil. So when I hear that bacon is linked to cancer, my first thought should be not how to skirt death, but, “am I right with God?” At the same time, God has preserved many sources of good in the world, including food and drink, and shares them liberally:
“I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun (Eccl. 8:15).”
“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do (Eccl 9:7).”
The wise man who authored these lines beheld the vanity of life shattering down around him like countless ceramic plates slipping from an infinite number of trembling hands. In the midst of the cacophony, he thanked God for momentary reprieves given in simple delights. Far from being the “enemies of life,” moderate indulgences are real, tangible allies from God in our struggle against the onslaught of the absurd. They are generous bestowals of common grace meant to lift our spirits. They are all the sweeter if we have the assurance of eternal life in Jesus.
- The apostle Paul warned against false teachers who villify God's good creation, promoting instead a false spirituality that subverts the law of love. See 1 Tim 4:1-5, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” ↩
God asks you to labor for seven or eight decades. In that time, you lose your father and mother, perhaps miscarry a child, suffer innumerable social defeats and ego-deaths. You might serve a local church that collapses or witness close friends abandon the faith. How do we live in this vain world with joy? I do so by two means: first, I behold Christ on the cross, suffering my pain and dying my death with me; second (I say it reverently), I see Jesus pointing to the red wine and the smoked meat, offering them to me just as he once beckoned his troubled disciples to partake of freshly cooked fish on the beach (Jn 21:4-9). I receive life’s simple pleasures with thanks, not in place of Christ, but as his friendly bounty. He offers me a foretaste of the New Creation feast.
What do bacon-fearers gain by all their toil? To abstain entirely from the goods of life for decades on end, merely to forestall the grave by one or two fists of years, is to lock oneself in a small dietary jail. And what is the goal of this ascetic life, except to extend one's unhappy sentence as long as possible? This is what an unhealthy preoccupation with health and longevity does. It tries to live longer by living less. It hollows out the marrow of life and gnaws on the hard bone.
Don't get me wrong. Premature death is always sad, and I would not encourage anyone to aim for an early decease. But to what standard is “premature death” relative? To seventy years old, or one-hundred and seventy? Despite new medical marvels, I believe the Psalmist is on point:
The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Psa 90:10)
Perhaps the preoccupation with longevity is rooted in a misconception of death as something altogether evil. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) addresses the question of why Christians who are forgiven of their sins still have to die: “Our death is not a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life.” In Christ dying is not itself to be shunned. Death is nothing but the last link of mortality’s chain giving way to glory, freeing us for resurrection. Our secular culture has no similar assurance of life beyond the grave, so they go to obsessive lengths to immortalize themselves. Behind the fixation on youth and longevity is a latent fear and loathing of the end. People practically kill themselves in their quest not to die.
For the rest of my life, I am surrounded by agents of my eventual dispatch. The perils of driving, backpacking, or eating dessert, stand like hooded hangmen with ropes in hand. I do not know which will take me. Until then, I have determined not to fear, but to enjoy the company of each of my potential executioners in moderation. Red meat, butter, syrup, beer, tobacco. These noble servants are sent by the King not only to end life, but to brighten the final hour. When the time comes that one of these noble killers steps forward to claim me, I will stand and thank him for his life-long service to my happiness. It is the least I can do to be grateful to God, that in exacting life from a sinner, he afforded some pleasure in the process.
Now, if you will let me do so in peace, I will go prepare breakfast for my wife.
“Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (Eccl 9:9)