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Hope for People with Food Allergies

“Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matt. 4:4).

But what happens if you can’t eat bread at all? Or fruit? Or dairy? Or eggs? For a growing number of people, this is their world. This is my world. If you don’t suffer from food allergies, you likely know or love someone who does—a brother, a sister, a wife, a child, a church member.

As Christians—and members of Christ’s body—we have an opportunity to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2) as we live and eat alongside people with food allergies.

Significant Personal Trial

During my sophomore year of college, I began to experience intense stomach pain that rapidly worsened. The next five years were marked by symptoms ranging from irritating to debilitating.

After countless doctor visits, medical tests, physical lethargy, and soul fatigue, I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis and placed on an immune system suppressant. Several flare-ups, lingering illness, more strong medications, and two additional diagnoses later, I was left holding a stack of pamphlets about treatment and diet.

I had no idea where to begin. The recommended diets were conflicting and overwhelming. I experienced side effects from the medication, damage to my body from malabsorption, recurring stomachaches, and frequent small ailments from a dysfunctional body. During different seasons of this journey, I felt discouraged, overwhelmed, isolated, and even depressed.

Eventually, my doctor mentioned that I might try eating gluten-free. Though saddened at the idea of such a dramatic diet change, my new way of eating eventually helped me understand the effect that food and food restrictions have on both body and spirit.

Invisible Struggle

Food allergies and related health problems hurt physically and spiritually, but because my food-allergy trial wasn’t outwardly obvious, inwardly I felt shame. I wasn’t bound to a wheelchair. I didn’t struggle to see or talk. So I downplayed the pain, and chose to suffer silently.

At the time, I felt disabled for reasons that didn’t show and that I didn’t understand.

I’ve come to understand that struggling with food allergies can be a life-dominating trial, affecting the whole person. For people with AIP (Allergies, Intolerances, and Related Problems), the simple act of eating must be relearned.

Eating out, eating in others’ homes, holiday meals, and potlucks are often overwhelming—and sometimes life-threatening. Reading labels, reconfiguring grocery shopping, and researching diets consume massive amounts of time. Food and medical tests consume massive amounts of money. Friends become reluctant to invite allergy sufferers for a meal. Even taking communion at church with conventional bread and juice may be impossible.

Body and Soul

The human soul is affected when the physical body is compromised. Scripture is clear that a human being is a whole person, body and soul, and the two parts are intertwined (2 Cor. 4:16; 1 Kings 19:5–9; James 2:15–16).

The human soul is affected when the physical body is compromised.

Because of this, many sufferers wrestle as I did with despair, anger, loneliness, embarrassment, and shame. Additionally, AIP exposes unique vulnerabilities. Fearing others’ opinions about their food restrictions, sufferers can be tempted either to withdraw from social interactions or to make a strident defense to everyone who will listen.

Hope for the sufferer requires recognizing both the spiritual and physical symptoms of AIP—without neglecting either.

Gospel Hope

Sin maintains its pervasive grip on this world, and food is not exempt. It’s both a necessity and a good gift to be enjoyed—but it’s also distorted by the curse. AIP is a significant expression of this distortion.

Throughout Scripture, food is complex. Food was the tool that brought about the fall when Adam and Eve ate with proud hearts, desirous eyes, and a disregard for boundaries that would have enabled their flourishing. Food was a tool used to nourish and then admonish the grumbling Israelites when God didn’t provide it on their terms.

For the AIP sufferer, food is a tool as well. In loving wisdom, God sets unique constraints for each of his children. And while food restrictions often entail suffering, they’re good soil for spiritual fruit. Saying no to bread or ice cream is an opportunity for us to examine our hearts, learn self-denial, and cultivate contentment.

While food restrictions often entail suffering, they’re good soil for spiritual fruit.

I used to get angry and defensive when people would say, “Wow, good for you, but I could never go without bread or fruit. I like my donuts too much!” Statements like these felt trite and offensive.

But I’ve come to see AIP as a great mercy. Through food losses, I have been deeply sanctified and have experienced the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. And that’s worth far more than any donut.

The AIP sufferer can grieve the loss of fully enjoying food with hope, because there is a greater purpose. In the trenches of food constraints, God’s glory shines brightly, illuminating his power made perfect in weakness.

Door to Future Feasting

Sin began with food, and its abolition will culminate in the marriage supper of the Lamb. Food allergy sufferer, your pain is preparing for you a unique weight of glory.

So when Jehovah Jireh provides food you can eat, rejoice. When you eat without pain or fear, rejoice. But in the hard moments of isolation and self-denial, fight to see this: Sin intended to destroy God’s good gift of food, but he redeemed that distorted gift by his mighty grace.

As you steward the restrictions God has given you, may you hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and may you look forward to the day when he will say, “Let us feast.”