The Bread That Won’t Nourish You

A few weeks ago, I interrupted the whirlwind of holiday preparations to bake zucchini bread. Bread to accompany us to potluck parties and friends’ homes, bread to stock our freezer for lazy days, and truthfully, bread just because I enjoy baking it.

As my hands mixed and stirred, Christmas planning and New Year’s resolutions were temporarily exchanged for grating zucchini and measuring vanilla.

This year, the dizzying pace of the season is compounded with preparations for the arrival of our first child. On top of rearranging furniture and managing the family shopping list, I fret about how to prepare for what, we are assured, will be an abrupt transition. Spending a few hours baking bread feels indulgent in a season where never-ending activity seems necessary to stay afloat.

Bread of Anxious Toil

The habit of striving isn’t unique to this time of the year, nor to our modern age. In the psalms of ascent, Solomon offers counsel to those made anxious by life’s ancient treadmill:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Ps. 127:1–2)

No matter how well I know this passage, anxious toil remains appealing. Rising early and crashing late reassure me that I’m doing enough to build the house, doing enough for my community, doing enough for God himself.

Recently, an evening with a friend fell through. Truthfully, it was nearly the highlight of my week; I needed a break. How often do we schedule time for respite—and what do we lose when we don’t?

Ancient believers would have received the words of Psalm 127 in the context of the Jewish day, which started at sundown. The day began by trading the tools of toil for feasting and sleep, a reminder of God’s intention for human work to flow from rest.

When we labor for laboring’s sake, we wrongly believe that the bread of anxious toil will satisfy. Like a nutritionless snack, it appeals to our immediate hunger, but lacks the nourishment we need to live.

Bread of Life

Despite our human proclivity for the unsatisfying bread of anxious toil, Scripture’s overarching story points to a God who invites his people to feast. As Israel wanders the wilderness in search of the Promised Land, God sustains them with daily manna—bread from heaven—that feeds them for 40 years and leads them to the border of Canaan.

All that’s required of them is to receive and remember that “in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the LORD your God” (Ex. 16:12).

When they reach Mount Sinai, this call to remember is echoed in the “thou shalt” of Sabbath remembrance, a command to order daily life so as to reflect Israel’s identity as God’s people, upheld by his hand. God himself rested on the seventh day of creation, taking time to bless and hallow—set apart as holy—all he had made.

Theologian and pastor A. J. Swoboda writes:

Sabbath is the first image of the gospel in the story of the Bible. God’s grace is given first, and work comes as a result, not the other way around. As it turns out, we don’t work to please God, but we rest because God is already pleased with us.

The Old Testament rhythms of work and rest find their fullest expression in the gospel, where all are invited to receive the Bread of Life: “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:51).

More eternally satisfying than manna, Jesus is the bread that satisfies the deepest longings of our souls. And this bread can’t be earned. In Christ, the price to secure my seat at the banqueting table has been paid for, and all are invited to feast and drink.

Rest to Remember

My recent baking afternoon prompted me to remember the first loaf of zucchini bread I ever received. In the fall of 2010, after three international flights, I arrived in Malawi, a small country in East Africa. I was 22 years old, 13,000 kilometers from home, and all alone.

Settling into the tiny cottage where I would live for eight months as a short-term missionary, I discovered a loaf of zucchini bread in my fridge. “Some staples to help you get settled,” read the note from a woman who’d become a friend and mentor in the months that followed.

Eight years later, as I beat the eggs and fold the batter, I remember her. The stained blue notecard that contains her handwritten recipe captures the grace of her gift, but when it’s tucked away in my recipe folder, I’m prone to forget.

I forget that I had nothing to offer her in return when I arrived, and I had done nothing to deserve her welcome. Yet out of sight and out of mind, it takes the act of baking bread to remember the meaning of that first loaf.

We are a forgetful people, but our habits can orient us toward what’s true in a frenetic world. In this season of preparation—for the holidays, for parenthood, for the new year—when my greatest temptation is self-reliance, maybe what I need most urgently is to pause.

In pausing to rest, I remember that Yahweh builds the house. Yahweh watches over the city. He watches, even, over me.