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Why do we “say a blessing” before eating?

In most of the Christian circles I know, people are accustomed to saying a prayer of thanks before their meals- “returning thanks,” “saying a blessing,” “saying grace.” I have also found that many like me who grew up with this practice also somewhere along the way began to wonder where this practice came from. I can remember (I think I was in college) reading 1 Timothy 4 and realizing this must be the origin of this practice. In that passage Paul mentions those who forbid certain foods and counters:

foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (4:3b-5, ESV)

With that background I found this section of Calvin’s sermon on this text interesting and helpful. In fact, I remember well parents and preachers making similar points (“Pigs are the only ones around here that eat without returning thanks”), though without reference to this text.

let us mark that which Saint Paul says, ‘that God ordains the foods for those who are believers. This shows us that if we desire to use God’s creatures rightly, we must cast our eyes on him who is their creator, as he also adds that we must receive God’s gifts with thanksgiving. Let us not be as these dogs and swine that devour and consume God’s blessings, and yet neither know him, nor his goodness. And not only that, but they take occasion to forget him through their inordinate and intemperate manner of devouring his creatures, and make that unclean which he had appointed to good use. Do we desire, then, to use God’s creatures soberly, in such a manner as we may receive them lawfully? Let us take them with thanksgiving, that is to say, let us dedicate ourselves wholly to God, and know that it is he that is our nourishing Father, and give him thanks for all his benefits that he bestows upon us. Let us never come to the table without calling upon God’s name. Let us never rise from the table without giving thanks. For it is certain that all those who eat this way, and do not pray to God, are for the most part worse than beasts. Let a man go through the Taverns, and into men’s houses, and see what manner of life they use there. There is not a word of calling upon God, nor giving him thanks, insomuch that the Turks condemn us in this. For yet they have some fashion of honoring God. And yet it is true, that we would not be able to eat one morsel, but it would be accursed before God, were it not that we acknowledged him who gives us the foods, to the end that we should serve and honor him, and confess that he calls us to himself, showing us that he is a compassionate Father towards us, so that we are truly his children, submitting ourselves quietly to him and to his word, as he made us for that end, and placed us in the world.

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