Am I supposed to pray to God before eating? Does that come from the Bible, or is it just tradition? I haven’t found a verse that tells us to do it. If it is biblical, how do I need to do it? Does “give us this day our daily bread” in the Lord’s prayer have significance here?
These are good questions to consider. Traditions can become more important than the Word of God (review Mark 7:1-13), so it is good to check our practices periodically. In this case, I don’t know of any direct Scriptural command to pray before eating, but there is a Scriptural pattern for “giving thanks.” Also, I believe that a healthy Christian walk produces genuine thankfulness in a world that prefers to complain.
Is it just a tradition?
When I compare Scripture to Christian practice, I find three outcomes. One is that I have an explicit instruction, or “prescription.” For example, at the last Passover our Lord Jesus shared bread and wine with the request “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19-20). He repeated it through the apostle Paul’s testimony (1 Cor. 11:23-25). Christians sometimes call this “communion.” Every Christian should be doing this regularly, and every Christian who is not doing this should be asking “Why does the Lord want me to do this?” However, I do not find a prescription to pray before eating an ordinary meal. The closest passage is Deut. 8:7-10: “And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you” (v.10). In context, this was a general reminder for Israel to be grateful for God’s provision.
Next, there are things which are not directly commanded, but are implicitly shown. These are sometimes called “descriptions.” Some are very clear, such as believers meeting as a local assembly (church) every Sunday. God’s Word doesn’t contain a command to do it that way, but anyone who reads the New Testament, especially Acts, should see that believers quickly established this pattern by the Holy Spirit’s direction.1
I believe a thanksgiving prayer before a meal is also a biblical description of Christian conduct. Our Lord is recorded as “giving thanks” on at least three different occasions. One was a public setting before a large crowd (Matt. 15:32-29, Mark 8:1-9). Another was a similar setting with a larger crowd. Interestingly, John twice commented on the Lord’s action of “giving thanks” (John 6:1-13, 23). The third occasion was private, at the last Passover meal (Matt. 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:7-18). Paul specifically recalled the “giving thanks” when showing how the last Passover meal formed the pattern for remembrance (communion) in 1 Cor. 11:23-26. Paul also “gave thanks” as a prisoner on a doomed ship before distributing food to everyone (Acts 27:33-37). These examples cover all possible settings: public and private, large group or small, inside or outside, before believers and unbelievers, in good times and bad, and with meager provisions or full preparations.
Finally, there are things Christians traditionally do which are not commented in Scripture. Some are helpful for keeping order, and may reinforce the Bible’s prescriptions and descriptions. We each need to have a good conscience about our own traditions and show grace to brothers and sisters who see differently. Our traditions, useful as they may be, are not required by God’s Word. The action of “giving thanks” is not a tradition, but some of the ways might be traditional. Does that make sense to you? Let’s try and work through my claims by looking at the other parts of your question.
How do I do it?
I have read there was a brief Jewish prayer of thanksgiving offered before a meal. However, God’s Word doesn’t tell us about it. When the Lord Jesus “gave thanks,” and when Paul “gave thanks,” the Greek word means “expressing gratitude.”2 A Jewish prayer may have been used on those occasions, but no particular form is recorded. I acknowledge that God has graciously met my natural need for food.
So, how long should I pray to God while hungry souls wait amidst thoughts and odors of food? My view is, “not long.” On one hand, if something burdens our hearts, the person who prays would be wise to release our souls so we can enjoy the meal. Is someone sick? Has a tragedy occurred? Did someone depart on a journey? Is a family member straying into sin? Let us certainly bring that need to our caring Father, and then “give thanks” for the food!
On the other hand, I believe “giving thanks” should not become a substitute for individual, family, and local assembly (church) prayer times. I suggest that if my “giving thanks” (or yours) becomes a catch-all for all the day’s needs, that might be a sign that my prayer life (or yours) needs re-evaluation. Long prayers carried on before a hungry audience might reduce their thankfulness, rather than affirm it!
Finally, be courageous to “give thanks” even when unpopular! Christians can certainly be thankful in groups, but the examples considered earlier show that it is also a testimony to unbelievers.3
Are there related Scriptures to consider?
Your question asked about the so-called “Lord’s prayer.” It was really a Jewish disciple’s prayer. Although it is not a Christian prayer,4 we can still learn from it. “Give us this day our daily bread” addresses a future need. Later, when the meal is served, it is appropriate to say “thank-you.” Both prayers show dependence, but in different ways.
There is also a passage that is probably not a model for mealtime prayer: 2 Kings 4:38-41. In that case a prophet of God was given power to miraculously remove poison from a meal. But I find no other Scripture suggesting we can be careless and expect God to cure the results. If you are in the habit of asking God to “bless this food to our bodily needs,” I see nothing wrong with that, and He is certainly able to do it. But I have also experienced food-borne illness. Not every prayer is answered with “yes.” The food remains natural and can be subject to natural contamination. Use wisdom: for example, even though Paul had performed miracles, he could only offer Timothy a natural remedy for his natural digestion issues (1 Tim. 5:23).
Finally, consider Psalm 24:1. Can the earth produce anything useful to humans, except that God arranged for it to work that way? Give thanks!
As with all things in the Christian life, outward expression should be matched by inward reality. A mealtime prayer done by habit, rather than sincerity, will become an empty tradition. I want to leave you with this passage:
Do all things without grumbling or disputing [complaining], that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.Philippians 2:14-16
The world routinely grumbles and complains. In their view, nothing is quite right, nothing is good enough, and other people are failing to do their part. The Christian, in contrast, is a “child of God” and should be shining as a “light in the world.” A thankful attitude shows appreciation to God for His goodness (compare Psalm 119:68). With that in mind, I encourage you to “give thanks” before your next meal. Perhaps God alone will hear it. Maybe everyone in the room will enjoy it and express a hearty “Amen.” Or perhaps it will start an interesting conversation. Regardless, God will be glorified as Father, and you will gain more of Christ’s character.
Finally, the team at Patterns of Truth would like to thank all of our readers for considering this answer to another interesting question. What are your thoughts, comments, or questions on mealtime prayer? We would like to hear from you in the comments section below!
1. This pattern would have never arisen unless the Lord gave it to His apostles. The gospel was first preached among Jews by Jewish men, all of whom had strong legal, cultural, and religious reasons to keep the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week. Yet they willingly changed both the day of the week, and its purpose, and continued regularly in the new pattern. Compare Acts 2:42, 20:7; and Heb. 10:25.
2. According to the lexicon I consulted, you might find “gave thanks” (or similar) used elsewhere but derived from different words, depending on the translation. These other verses usually refer to thanksgiving offered with praise and worship. The expression before a meal, however, simply means “showing gratitude.”
3. While in college, I once bowed my head for a brief prayer in the cafeteria and was interrupted when a nearby classmate laughed derisively and said, “You’re ‘giving thanks’ for this?” As it happened, the food was not very good, but it met my need and that classmate recognized my action.
4. There are several internal evidences that this prayer is specifically Jewish. In particular, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). On earth, the coming of the kingdom requires severe judgments. In heaven, God’s will is always done immediately. The connecting of those two is a request for judgment to fall on the unbelieving earth. Before the Lord’s death and resurrection, the disciples were looking for the kingdom to appear, and “the Lord’s prayer” is expressed in that context. But then the Gospel was revealed, and the apostles went out and preached salvation by grace, through faith. The kingdom will come, but God is very patient in the meantime to ensure that salvation is preached to everyone (review 2 Pet. 3:1-10).