John Newton's Letters
On eating and drinking
April 11, 1795
"Whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do—you must do all for the glory of God!" 1 Corinthians 10:31
"There was a rich man who would dress in purple and fine linen, feasting lavishly every day." Luke 16:19
A sinner, considered as such, is not only destitute and incapable of spiritual blessings—but has forfeited all right to the comforts, and even the necessities, of the present life. It is of mere mercy that he is permitted to breathe the air, or walk upon the ground. But Jesus the Savior has not only brought life and immortality to light, and opened the kingdom of heaven to all who believe in his name—but he has removed the curse which sin had entailed upon the lower creation. And now, to them, every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if received with thankfulness and moderation; for all is sanctified to their use by the Word of God and prayer. But these, which, in distinction from the communications of his grace, we call common mercies, are equally derived from his bounty, and the effects of his mediation.
We are therefore bound by gratitude, as well in the ordinary actions of life, as in those of the most importance, whether we eat or drink—to do all with a regard to his love, and with a view to his glory.
It is to be feared, that this apostolic rule is too much disregarded by many professors of the gospel. However they may seem to differ from the world, by a stated and orderly attendance upon the ordinances, they are not easily distinguished upon many other occasions; particularly at their meals. The people of the world can scarcely exceed them in the cost, care, profusion, and variety with which their tables are covered. I am willing to allow some regard to a person's situation in life; but perhaps the excess is more frequently observable among people in trade, or, as we say, in the middle classes, than at the tables of the opulent.
A friend of mine, since deceased, told me, that, when he was a young man, he once dined with the late Dr. Butler, at that time Bishop of Durham; and, though the guest was a man of fortune, and the interview by appointment, the provision was no more than a simple meal. The Bishop apologized for his plain fare, by saying, "That it was his way of living; that he had been long disgusted with the fashionable expense of time and money in entertainments, and was determined that it should receive no countenance from his example." The economy of this truly venerable prelate was not the effect of stinginess; for I have been assured, that, though he was some time possessed of the princely revenue of Durham, he might be said to die poor, leaving little more money than was necessary to discharge his debts, and pay for his funeral. But we may accommodate to him, what the apostles said of themselves on another occasion, "He did not think it fit to leave the Word of God, and to serve tables."
And at the tables of some gentlemen of very respectable characters and affluent fortunes, who do me the honor to notice me, I have often seen little more than I would have thought it right to have had at my own, if they had favored me with their company. It is at least certain, that the waste and parade of which I complain, are by no means confined to those, who, according to the common phrase, can best afford it.
When ministers of the gospel are invited, they may sometimes have reason to suppose, that some part of the reception they meet with, may be intended as a mark of regard and attention to them; and it has the appearance of ingratitude to blame our friends for their kindness.
But some of us would be better pleased to be treated less sumptuously, and in a way more conformable to the simplicity of our Christian profession! We would not wish to be considered as avowed epicures, who cannot dine well without a variety of delicacies—and, if we could suppose, that such cost and variety were designed to remind us how much better we fare abroad than at home—we might think it rather an insult than a compliment. I have known, in some families, the mistress of the house has been, like Martha, too much encumbered with cares and anxieties in making preparation for her friends. They could not see her so soon as they have wished, and, when she has appeared, she could not wholly conceal the discomposure she has felt from some unexpected incident, which has more or less disconcerted the projected arrangement of her feast.
Such things may be common among those who live without God in the world; but they should be carefully avoided by those who make a profession, that, whether they eat or drink—they do all for his glory. Often we cannot avoid the thought, "This dish, unnecessary in itself, or unnecessarily expensive, might have been well spared, and the money given to the poor!" For there is not a day, in which some of the dear people of God do not find a difficulty in providing bread for their children.
Perhaps there is no one circumstance in the history of our Savior so little laid to heart, so generally overlooked, by those who acknowledge him as their Master and their Lord—as that state of poverty to which he submitted, while upon earth. He had no home, he had not a piece of silver to pay his tax; he was hungry when he went to the fig-tree; and when he sat, like a weary, obscure traveler, by the well-side, he was thirsty; he asked for a little water, and seemed upon the point of being refused. He wrought no miracle solely for his own relief; but he felt for the necessitous, and miraculously fed them by thousands; not with dainties, which would have been equally easy to him—but, finding a few loaves and fish among them, he satisfied their needs without changing their diet. Yes, after his resurrection, when he had taken possession of all power and authority both in heaven and in earth, he condescended to dine with his disciples upon broiled fish and bread, which he likewise provided for them.
Alas! the rich followers of this poor Savior have more reason to be ashamed of their gorgeous apparel, their fine houses, their elegant furniture, and their sumptuous feastings, than to value themselves upon such trifles! They are unavoidable appendages to people in some situations; but, I believe, those who have drank deeply into our Lord's spirit, account them rather burdens than benefits.
I know several people, whose ability to do much more in this way if they pleased, than they do, is not disputed; and whose acknowledged benevolence and bounty secure them from the suspicion of being restrained by covetousness. I have often wished that a number of these would form themselves into a society, for the express and avowed purpose of discountenancing, by their example and influence, that sinful, shameful conformity to the world, which spreads like a gangrene, is the reproach of the gospel, and threatens the utter extinction of vital religion in multitudes who profess it.