It is not good to eat much honey, Nor is it glory to search out one’s own glory. (Proverbs 25:27)
As a parent, I fight a losing battle with sugar. I don’t need a dietician, dentist or documentary to explain to me the evils of sugar, I can experience for myself the alarming transformation that takes place in my children when they have too much sweet stuff. They become hyper, then angry, then irrational, then mean, hot-tempered and explosive. As much as I try to control their sugar intake, there are people all around them—not just the grandparents who have earned the right to spoil their grandchildren, but teachers and classmates, soccer parents, hair dressers, waiters—who give out suckers and sweets with a blithe smile, free of any sympathy for, or understanding of, the harm they are causing. It is built into the fabric of society that the way that we celebrate is with something laden with the white stuff. I can’t even begin to count how many times we have ended birthday parties, end-of-the-year festivities, special family trips and vacations, or Christmas get-togethers with kids screaming and crying because their sugar-addled minds have skimmed over all of the beauty of the day to fixate on one injustice, one grievance, one frustration. As my husband notes, it’s difficult to even justify getting angry with them. We’re enablers, or at least complacent, in their consuming an excess of a substance that we know brings them to this place of misery.
I have my own relationship with sugar with which to contend. I have gone entirely sugar-free for periods of time. Once I get over the hump of craving and withdrawal, I actually lose my taste for it. When I am on the bandwagon, I notice keenly how even small amounts of dessert affect me, how the cloying sweetness of so many of our favourite treats fills my mouth in an unpleasant way, how they give me a buzz of energy and then a crash of fog and dopiness. At times, I have been so convinced by my sugar-free existence that it has become easy to turns down treats, easy to resist temptation, easy to name the clear-thinking, energy-filled benefits of my chosen lifestyle. I know that I am a more patient, even-tempered and productive person without sugar in my life.
Unfortunately, even abstinence comes with an unpleasant side-effect: judgementalism! I become frustrated by the choices others are making around me. I look at menus on fast food boards, or casually glance at the shopping carts of others when at the grocery store, and my mind automatically leaps into that finger-pointing stance. People all around me are poisoning themselves, and they don’t even realize it.
Admittedly, that sugar-free version of me would also be standing in judgement of the current me. I can finger point with the best of them, and ultimately I am brought down a few pegs by the vulnerability of my own rigour. Sugar worms its way back into my life too. Like a junkie, it starts with one indulgence—a slice of homemade birthday cake at my kids’ birthday parties. It continues with several more days of eating the leftover cake. Before I know it, I am jonesing for sweets throughout my day, I am cranky and out of sorts, more tired than usual, and the stresses of my life—which usually give me energy and a sense of joyful challenge—begin to wear me out.
While on my high horse, I have made spiritual claims about the benefits of a sweet-free life. After all, I am better able to juggle my responsibilities; my life comes into sharp, clear focus. Sugar-free living allows me to better serve God. And the shadow to this focus and energy is that I miss out on the softer, sweeter side of life, the ability to respond to celebrations and opportunities with a gentle bending of the rules, sharing together in an indulgence, appreciating the offering of someone else’s time and energy in putting together a dessert to mark an occasion. My friend George commented once about the Communion wine we used at my previous parish in Orillia. It was a fortified wine, higher on the sugar scale. “I know it’s more sophisticated to drink dry red wine,” he said, “But it seems right that in the kingdom of God, we should be left with a sweet taste in our mouth.”
In the Kingdom of God, we should be left with a sweet taste in our mouth. And there is an obvious shadow to that sweetness too. There is an all too easy reversal of roles that can happen as celebration morphs into addiction: sugar takes over the driver’s seat and I become a passenger in my own life.
Somehow, there must be a possibility to have my cake and eat it too. My sharp and clear abstinence needs to be redeemed by the occasional taste of honey. My mindless consumption needs to be redeemed by recognizing that there is a choice to be reclaimed. In the struggle to serve and the easy pitfalls of indulgence all around us in our privileged existence, there is the offer of God’s abundant life. God invites us to step out of the shadows.
That abundant life has something to do with the non-stop work of growing up, which at its core involves figuring out how to receive God’s good gifts. We have long recognized that sex and alcohol are potent, powerful gifts from God. And they are gifts that can be extremely dangerous and destructive if misused. There are those who are called to celibacy because of circumstance or vocation. And in that celibacy, they need to figure out how to celebrate, rather than judge, how others are able to use the gift of sex to bring life and joy. There are those who need to be sober because of the disease of addiction, because for some there is no way to allow any amount of alcohol into their lives without alcohol taking over their lives. And in that sobriety, the alcoholic may eventually learn how to accept the moderate drinking of others.
I wonder how we might come to see sugar in a similar way? The alarm bells are ringing all across the globe calling for a better understanding of the serious harm that our current levels of sugar consumption cause for human health. We need tighter regulations and greater transparency across the food industry in order to help our human family to make healthier choices. This is right and good. But to label sugar merely as evil is to read our human misuse of sugar onto sugar itself. In other words, sugar isn’t evil. It is a powerful gift. And our use of that powerful gift mindlessly, or for the food industry to use that powerful gift very deliberately in crafting low-quality ingredients into temptations too powerful to resist, has damaging consequences.
Moses, Aaron and Miriam were charged with leading the people of Israel out of slavery and into the freedom of the Promised Land. It took them forty years of wandering through the wilderness to get there, to shed the physical and mental bonds of their former captivity and to begin to conceive of how they might enter into and receive a “land flowing with milk and honey.” The history of Israel is the story of God’s hand in breaking the bonds of oppression. It can also serve as an archetype for God’s invitation to be set free from our privileged forgetfulness, to receive our food, our drink, our freedom and our life itself as offered by the very hand of God’s generous provision. It is the journey into remembering how these gifts are to be used not merely for ourselves, but as expressions of service and gratitude, relationship with God and responsibility to others. When we are in right relationship with one another and with the world that God made, a world of sweet abundance opens up to us.
The witness of our ancestors in faith would suggest that these are lessons with which we are never through. God’s more powerful gifts require a sort of vigilant thoughtfulness. They can all too easily be used to control and exploit, or more typically, with the mindlessness of the well-trained consumer simply filling my day chasing down one need or desire after another. Every day we need to navigate for ourselves, with our children and loved ones, the minefield of Pinnochio’s Pleasure Island on which we currently live, where God’s invitation to learn to be a grown up has never mattered so much, where we are literally plied with enough sugar and fun to indulge ourselves to death. Instead, we can learn and re-learn on each fresh new day how to choose God’s abundant life, that finicky recipe of restraint and indulgence, recognizing our agency in choosing to not have something that we can have, and giving thanks for the sweet gifts received along the way.