Not bread alone

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” (Luke 4:3-4 NIV)

The very first recorded temptation of Jesus is to meet his own physical need. He had chosen to fast for a long time and he was very hungry. Why did he fast? Why does anyone fast? Fasting is practiced in many religions and there are no doubt different reasons for the discipline. Perhaps is heightens spiritual awareness. Perhaps it is an act of devotion, of self denial, saying no to self and yes to God. Perhaps it is a practical reminder that life depends on more than food. It is this last aspect of fasting that seems to be highlighted in this first temptation of Jesus. “Man shall not live on bread alone.”

Of course, man can live on bread alone. (Or rather “food” alone – I don’t think this statement of Jesus is about having a balanced diet containing more food groups than just carbohydrates.) When Jesus says “not bread alone” he is saying that there is more to life than just satisfying physical need. But in a post Christian, secularised world, we have given into the temptation that the devil placed before Jesus, and made physical need the only legitimate need. Other needs – psychological, emotional, and above all spiritual – have a lower priority, or are in some cases seen as optional extras. This is particularly true of the “spiritual” needs of life, which have in many cases been relegated to the place of personal interest, almost like a hobby. The things that are really important, we have been led to believe, are the physical needs of people.

Doctors easily fall into this trap. Perhaps it is because our specialty is physical need. It is true that the focus of psychiatry is not physical, but psychological, the diseases of the mind. But when it comes to the spiritual, doctors are often out of their depth. There is a tendency for doctors in a secularised world to ignore the spiritual, because it does not fit easily into their evidence-based, empiricist worldview. Lip service is often paid to patients’ spiritual needs, but it is left to the individual to find their own way. If medicine can’t fix it then it can’t be that important. The spiritual is not seen as life important in the same way as physical need. And yet Jesus says clearly that “man shall not live on bread alone” – in other words, if real life is our goal, the physical is not enough. It is possible to live on bread alone, but it is not life to the full, it is not the way life should be lived.

Even Christians can fall into this trap. In a world where evangelism and missions are unfashionable and preaching the gospel to the unreached is no longer politically correct, Christians have sometimes downgraded the spiritual aspect of their mission statement to a secondary clause, making their response to the physical needs of the poor and needy their primary focus, rather than the spiritual needs of the lost. Even referring to non-Christians as “lost” is seen as ignorant and arrogant. Responding to physical poverty (or illness) has become more legitimate, more important, and more exciting, than responding to spiritual poverty. We are encouraged to believe that people’s spiritual needs (if they even exist) can be met by their own resources, within their own culture and history, and do not need outside input. But we do not see their physical needs in the same way – they require the intervention of their “rich” neighbours – that is, us.

What has happened to the Western world in particular is that we have given in to the ranking of need that the devil tempted Jesus to adopt – we have made the physical more life important than the spiritual. We have taken the view that bread alone is enough. Anything else is an optional extra. We as Western doctors (and nurses) can meet these needs with our medicines and surgeries and technological triumphs. We as wealthy Westerners can meet the physical needs of our poor neighbours with our abundance. So we ourselves, our own efforts and achievements, have become the solution to the real problems of the world. Medicine and other human development strategies, have become the key to life. We have been tempted by the devil and we have chosen his worldview. We have given into the belief that the here and now is all there is, and that full bellies, comfort, pleasure, entertainment and plenty of sex are all that is required for a happy and fulfilled life.

But Jesus says otherwise. He says clearly that life is about more than bread. Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament, the Jewish holy writings, when he says this to the devil. In his fifth book (Deuteronomy) Moses says that God had gone to lengths to teach the Israelites that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Matthew’s gospel records the whole of this when telling the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Jesus says that a happy and fulfilled life requires something that we cannot find in ourselves, that has a source outside our own efforts and achievements – the words of God.

We doctors spend a huge proportion of our lives reading and studying the accumulated wisdom of our discipline – medicine. But as Christian doctors we need to remember that in meeting the needs of people it is equally important to know, understand and apply “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” to the people we meet. We can provide bread alone, and perhaps that is our special area of expertise. How much time do we devote to the reading and studying of the words of God?

There is a song that has been popular in some Christian circles in recent years. The lyrics include the following:

This is the air I breathe:
Your holy presence, living in me.
This is my daily bread:
Your very word, spoken to me.
And I’m desperate for you.

If only we were as desperate for the presence and words of God as we are for so much else in the journey of our lives.

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