Mankind has been eating bread for thousands of years. It has been one of the cornerstones of nutrition since the dawn of time. Egyptian hieroglyphics show stalks of wheat and a “bread recipe” that has been used by modern researchers to recreate perfectly edible loafs. Grains have been considered one of the “Basic Four Food Groups” in the United States since before most of us were born, and they are a big segment at the base of the “Food Guide Pyramid” that came out in 1992.
Then something began to change. Life-giving bread gradually became the “bad guy” in our national dietary narrative. First it was the way we processed the bread. The big industrial machines were removing the fiber and the vitamins and leaving us with snowy white bread that looked and tasted good, but was missing much of its natural nutritional value. “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’re dead,” became the new mantra.
Then we became obsessed with carbohydrates, the primary nutrient in breads and pastas. It was stimulating insulin production, making us fat, and giving us diabetes. We promptly came up with a myriad of ways to reduce “carbs.” There was the Adkins diet, the South Beach diet, and the Paleo diet. Everyone had a new approach to “busting sugar,” and it was hard to keep pace with the latest trend.
But then there came the trend to rival all dietary trends: the “Gluten Free” diet. In less than a decade, a relatively rare condition called Celiac Disease and its less severe cousins, Gluten Intolerance and Irritable Bowel Syndrome had swept the nation. One third of the United States population was suddenly afflicted and a multi-billion dollar industry had sprung up seemingly overnight. Gluten-Free living was touted as the cure-all to virtually every ailment that faced the modern man.
People quickly became divided into camps of “believers” and “skeptics.” The skeptics felt that the sudden popularity of the gluten-free diet indicated that, “peer pressure does in fact extend beyond high school,” as one blogger, commented. Yet, the believers gave personal stories of having their lives improved in every way imaginable ranging from mental illness to diabetes and everything in between. It was hard to know what to think.
Then two new pieces of data became available that indicated there might be some legitimacy to the concerns about gluten, only it might not be the gluten alone. First was an analysis of some blood samples that had been stored during the 1940s and 1950s looking for the chemical markers of celiac disease. It showed a dramatic increase in those markers in the blood of people today, compared to those from just sixty to seventy years ago. Something had changed. Then researchers at MIT showed there was a link between the increasing use of the chemical Roundup® on wheat and the subsequent increase in reactions to the gluten in that wheat. The new theory postulated that the Roundup® was somehow making people sensitive to the gluten that humans had been safely eating for thousands of years. Eliminate the Roundup® and you would eliminate the problem.
But why were farmers using Roundup® in the first place? There were two basic reasons. The first was to kill weeds. The second was to make harvesting of the wheat more plentiful and convenient. Farmers had noticed that poisoning wheat would actually cause the wheat grains to swell even as the plant died, thus leading to a more profitable harvest. Furthermore, by chemically killing the wheat, it caused the wheat to die in a synchronized fashion, which was far more convenient for harvesting than waiting on nature. It appeared to be a win-win for the farmer, but at what cost to the consumer, if the new theory proved to be true?
- Do you or someone you know have a “gluten” intolerance of some sort?
- Have you had it your whole life or did it just appear in the last five to ten years?
- Did switching your diet help?
- Is keeping track of your diet difficult or easy?
- Do you sometimes miss getting to eat “regular” bread?
In John 6:35-59, Jesus talks about being the Bread of Life. He refers to Himself elsewhere as Living Water. Bread and Water — they are food and drink in their simplest and most basic forms. No fancy multi-layered wedding cakes. No elaborate reductions, extractions, glazes, or sauces.
- Is it at all surprising that Jesus refers to Himself as things that are as simple, yet as life-giving, as bread and water? Can you think of anything that would be more appropriate?
- In Matthew 18:3, Jesus talks about coming to Him with faith like “children.” Was faith meant to be a complex intellectual response? Was it meant to be accessible by all, regardless of age, intellect, or culture?
- Do we sometimes make the gospel more complex than it needs to be, both for ourselves and for those around us? What might be a consequence of over-thinking the gospel?
- What are some ways we can “dial back” the complexities we have layered onto our faith and get back to the “bread and water” of the gospel?
Our bread today might appear strange to someone from Jesus’s time. The rough, stone-ground flour made by hand two thousand years ago would hardly be recognizable next to the uniform white powder we have now. The stuff we have may be prettier to look at, but much of the fiber and vitamins are gone as a direct result of the processing we use.
I recently travelled around the United States visiting various famous churches. One of the things that stood out to me was the uniformity across regions and denominations. Everyone was singing off the same sheet of music — both literally and figuratively. This may be a good thing, but it did have a certain McDonald’s-on-every-corner vibe that smacked of American consumerism as much as it did a “unity of the Spirit.” The music was from the top 40 countdown of popular Christian songs. The sermons were on “safe” topics with an upbeat spin. I got the distinct feeling something was missing.
- Is it possible to “over process” our faith — to turn it into a uniform, white flour sort of thing? Can it become commercialized like Christmas?
- What if the rough, ugly fiber portions of our faith turn out to be important? Should we try to reintroduce them into our diet?
- What are some examples of “fiber” that we have removed from our Christian diet to make our faith more palatable?
- What happens when we are accustomed to refined white flour and suddenly we have to eat rough whole grains? Does it taste weird? Do we care for it? Do we question the competence of the cook?
- What about “carbs” or the sweet portion of our faith? Is it healthy to eliminate those things? Is it healthy to gorge on them? Is there a balance?
Lastly, let’s look at the Roundup® equivalents that we may have introduced into our faith over the years — often with the noble goal of a richer, more uniform harvest. One historical example is the use of celibate priests in the Catholic Church. The theory was that they were following the example of the apostle Paul by being fully dedicated to the gospel. I am empathetic to this calling and admire those who can pursue it. There is even a resurgence of this idea amongst young Evangelicals who want to be fully committed to Christ. However, to make a unique and difficult calling the “standard” to which all must comply, has had dire consequences for our brothers and sisters in the Catholic community over the years.
- What are some things that Evangelicals have tried to add to the gospel over the years that have backfired to some degree? Were the intentions good at the beginning? Were the results good at the beginning? Were the harvests plentiful but ultimately poisoned?
- How do we remove the spiritual Roundup® we are using? What if our harvest shrinks initially? What if things aren’t as synchronized as before and start appearing a bit haphazard? What if we no longer feel we are in control of the harvest?
- Are there unique or difficult things that God has called you to do that maybe aren’t meant for all believers? Should you push those things on others just because they are meaningful to you?
- Has God called others to do unique or difficult things that you can’t or won’t do? Are you “less” for not doing them? Are they “more” because they do? Do we criticize their choices out of true concern or out of jealousy and envy?
During Jesus’s time, many flocked to Him to feast on the Bread of Life. Nonetheless, the Scribes and Pharisees of His day seemed to be spiritually Gluten-Intolerant. There will always be those who are. However, we must make sure that we are not processing the gospel or adding to it in such a way that we are making it less nutritious or even poisonous to those we are trying to reach! Jesus said of someone who causes little ones to stumble that, “It would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6 NASB) That is a warning we should not take lightly.
This post is adapted from Life’s Big Questions: The Gospel of John, which encourages readers to examine all of life’s questions in the light of Scripture. Whether used for personal devotions, as family discussion guides, or in a study group, this series provides an invaluable resource for enhancing your spiritual walk.