Diet, Drugs and Divinity

There wasn’t much in the headline that was surprising to anyone who has taken a chemistry class. But the Inter American Division recently published an article quoting research about caffeine – declaring it a drug, not a nutrient. I don’t know many people who were confused by this – that’s not new information. But as I read the article, it was clear that the intention wasn’t merely a refresher on chemistry. The article was designed to dissuade individuals from the use of the substance. Apparently, there’s an intended spiritual takeaway: using caffeine is antithetical to cultivating a Christ-like mind.

I’m appalled and saddened but not altogether shocked that such a conclusion would be touted in an Adventist publication. After all, in a recent worldwide survey of our church, roughly half of all respondents believe that diet has an impact on salvation. In a sample of over 55,000 Adventists, 47% either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Following the Health Message ensures my salvation”. An additional 15% stated that they weren’t sure! It’s heartbreaking that this error is being taught and believed this widely! And for one of our publications to blatantly advance this idea is terrifying. Not only does it have spiritual implications but physical ones as well.

First and foremost, we are not saved by our diet. Despite classic warnings that the quality of our Christian relationship is bound up in vegetarianism or even veganism, the things we eat aren’t salvific. Jesus Christ tells us as much in Matthew 15:11 – the things that go into our mouths aren’t what defile us, it’s the things that proceed from our mouths that do. It can seem almost counterintuitive to agree to this plain teaching of Jesus if we have spent our time growing up hearing about the necessity to keep away from certain foods. But as much as it may go against our Adventist fiber, it’s true. No one is going to Heaven or being kept out of Heaven based on what they eat. Not cheese, not coffee, not even pork!

Secondly, as we look specifically to the case against caffeine, it’s not only a matter of helping people understand that their salvation is not bound up in abstaining or partaking in what we ingest, but also that our approach to drugs in general is potentially damaging people’s physical lives. All chemical compounds have physiological effects – some positive, some negative – and even “good” things have a potential to become harmful when taken to excess. However (and this may be the part some struggle with) even many substances considered by the general public to be “bad” have a potential for benefit if used in the right circumstances, under the administration of a healthcare professional, when prescribed for a specific medical purpose. Amphetamines can be harmful substances with the potential for abuse. The same goes for opioids. But someone with a neurological disorder can be helped by amphetamines. And there are very few people I know who would opt to undergo painful invasive procedures without the assistance of an opioid. These drugs aren’t inherently bad, sinful, or evil. It is abuse and misuse that makes them destructive.

Ascribing “Christ-likeness” to abstinence from various drugs is not a wise thing to do. It often discourages people who have legitimate medical needs from obtaining help when necessary. It hinders people from seeking medical intervention and can do more harm than good. Because of the stigma attached, some feel guilty/less spiritual/disappointed in themselves when they have to turn to using medication interventions. But sometimes drugs are a vital part of healing and well-being. We do people a disservice when we teach them that every ailment can be solved by drinking more water and praying harder.

While God can do anything, we have biblical examples where sometimes deeply spiritual people weren’t cured from their “thorn in the flesh”. It doesn’t mean those people weren’t Christ-like. We don’t know the will of God and can only wait until Heaven to find out why some were allowed to bear certain physical burdens.

In the meantime, when we shame folks to think that their experience with Jesus is predicated on whether they’ve chosen a natural remedy over a prescribed one, it can have dangerous consequences. I’ve had members who tried to “pray their way off” heart medication, bipolar medication, antiretroviral drugs, etc. This mindset endangers people’s lives. For some individuals (especially those with psychological problems) getting them to conform to prescription adherence can already be an uphill battle. Folks often convince themselves that there’s no need for continued compliance to a medication once they start to feel better. But one’s feeling is often not a good indicator that medication can be ceased. It’s more likely an indication that it’s working – so stopping its administration is not advised unless under the counsel of a healthcare professional.

Our penchant for holistic remedies, while admirable, can sometimes inadvertently lead to devastating consequences. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of having a front row seat in witnessing individuals’ deterioration because they felt guilty about taking drugs. In their minds they didn’t want to rely on medicines instead of faith. Like the oft-quoted joke about the man in a flood who rejected a boat and helicopter because he was waiting on God, sometimes the things we reject were the very answers to our prayer.

I’m not against natural remedies. There are times when they are appropriate. But it’s irresponsible to make blanket statements suggesting that one way is the preferred spiritual path. Making these judgments about any drug, including caffeine, is ill advised. Caffeine is commonly prescribed for migraines and other medical ailments. It’s wise to seek remedy for the underlying cause when you can. However, until the cause of that issue is identified and treated (if possible), there is no reason – physical or spiritual – to suffer from debilitating pain. “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.” (3 John 1:2 ESV)

Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:

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this article makes a number of very good points, especially about the value of drugs in the medical arena…but the unfortunate reality is that down-playing the importance of diet in our sanctification process encourages some to settle down and eat what they want, even when they know it’s bad for them…the reality is that personal effort is part and parcel of our sanctification, and our health often determines whether that personal effort is easy, or hard…while it’s the case that our diet doesn’t save us, i do believe that some people are going to lose it all because of their diet - their inability and unwillingness to confront and overcome their appetites…

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Why eat to be saved? I’m a vegetarian, but I drink coffee (reasons below). I’m grateful that I learned about healthy living by growing up Adventist. However, I believe you have the stretch the Bible considerably to make it say that diet and salvation are linked. The idea of coffee abstinence came from Ellen White who was reflecting the thinking of her time. Sorry - I don’t believe God showed her anything about coffee.

How many medical students do you think get through Loma Linda without coffee?

Harvard Medical School now says this: Moderate coffee consumption (three to four cups per day) has been linked with longer lifespan. In fact, a November 2015 study in Circulation found that coffee consumption was associated with an 8% to 15% reduction in the risk of death. To read more check this:


Give me a break. You say the author makes good points, then make exactly the kind of legalistic slippery slope fallacy that is responsible for half of SDAs believing that God might keep them out of heaven if they drink a coffee. Humans do things that are bad for them from one perspective or another all the time, and it’s all on a spectrum. On balance, I’d claim that promoting the idea that what you put in your body has the power to make you more or less like a God (isn’t that exactly what sanctification means?) is more detrimental to human well being than simply eating a poor diet. I’m sure it’s difficult to measure the sum total of guilt, self-loathing, eating disorders and psychosis that have been encouraged by this kind of doctrine. I’ve seen these things in my own family members, and have witnessed the damage firsthand. There is no freedom, joy or character growth there, only guilt, pain and judgment.


These issues will plague the SdA church until the end of time. On one hand you have a group of people who believe everything published under EGW’s name is word for word Truth from the Lord. She wrote about diet, therefore this is a commandment. Then you have the “Last Generation” wingnuts who believe in perfection of character - including perfection of diet.
Legalism is deeply embedded into the SdA culture. Intellectually, they try to square the circle with the old saw of “we don’t keep the law to be saved, we keep the law because we are saved”. It’s a nice sound-bite, but in practice here on earth, it means if you’re not keeping the law, you are not saved - and “law” includes everything, sabbath, diet, card-playing, etc.


What you really mean is the SDA culture attracts those already with existing excessive sphincter control. SDA culture does not endow sphincter properties, one has to have the propensity for excessiveness to be attracted to the SDA culture. However, not all SDA’s are prone to excessive sphincter control either.


Jeremy, you have to have a better understanding of the body and it’s mechanisms. In summary the body has a buffer to compensate for extraordinary situations for corrective purposes such as the CYP450 system. Once the buffer is overwhelmed, then signs and symptom begin to appear which would need medical consultations then. Until then, we can enjoy life to the fullest.


Did anyone ever stand on deck in heavy seas in the North Pacific for two hours and pass by the coffee machine because of Sanctification?


“Our sanctification process”? That’s the old Adventist argument - we’re NEVER GOOD ENOUGH! I find that very abusive and harmful to faith.


I disagree with this because most/99.9% of people who aren’t born into it, who join from the outside world, have no idea how rigid and legalistic it all is. How could they? No, this leglistic, sphincter control culture was born from the beginning with EGW and Co.


No it was active even in Martin Luther’s day.
Only Romans 3-5 saved him.


Of course, legalism has always been with us, well before Luther. But to say that the SDA “attracts” legalistic people is not plausible, IMO. Adventism has been very legalistic from the get-go with rules about almost every imaginable lifestyle issue…dress, entertainment, food and drink, what books to read/not read, tithe, and don’t even get started on Sabbath rules/practices.


I used Martin Luther because he is credited with the breakout from Rome. of course earlier examples could be sighted. but He and Calvin made the major beginning of the reformation. Adventism is largely based upon the Holy Club Of which John Wesley is the major figure. Even after Aldersgate he held firm to a final knowingly perfect generation. The Investigative Judgment was a perfect way for Ellen White to blend her early years and account for the disappointment and establish her role as “The Spirit Of Prophecy”.


I think perhaps it is both Carol. Certain personalities are drawn that want to control all things spiritual. They see what they perceive is a leg up on knowledge. Then there are those, some, within feel too controlled and some from without want more control and new and novel ideas. A true novel experience of “oversight” by a lot of people on how we should act on non essentials.
When I was at SMC a few years in 60’s humorously no Coke, Pepsi for caffeine. Allowed Dr. Pepper and Mt. Dew with higher Caffiene. :slight_smile:


That doesn’t necessarily mean “controlling”. It just means they “think” (like I did) that they found something really interesting and compelling. I believe the reason so many people leave after joining is because they soon find out just how controlling, and legalistic it is. Now with the internet they can do further research and get the “rest of the story”. I think if anyone stays because of wanting to be controlling, those people would be a very, very, very minuscule number.


I may be wrong Carol. I see both types. Controlling as well as having something for meaning others dont have…and yes just honest curiosity. After awhile being evaluated by others gets a but old. Sonetimes because of the books, sometimes by a controlling desire that cant be found elsewhere. All our experiences are different. Also a lot of good people that just develop good friends and are comfortable based on that.


I’m referring only to people who come in from the outside. Are we talking about the same thing? Did you know that many totally brand new members? Oddly, I rarely saw many people baptized into the SDA church from the outside…most of the baptisms were children already going to the SDA church, or former members who wanted to come back to Adventism. I doubt that I saw even 10 (most certainly not more) who came into Adventism from the outside. I was there 27 years, and lived in different parts of the county. Totally brand new people was very rare.


The new 10 or so ones I witnessed are no longer members

No surprise there! :wink:


Have you heard Flip Wilson say “The Devil made me do it?”

We are responsible for all of our behaviors, bar none. We have the God-given choice and as Cain proved, it is easier to do it when we already harbor it in our hearts.