Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Problem of HUNGER - (part 2)

The Blessings of the Wasteland

Hunger of the heart has many symptoms similar to hunger of the stomach. When speaking of the heart, I am of course using it in a figurative sense as it is used in the Bible and as I did in part one of this series. The word is used to speak of our spiritual lives.

Jesus speaks of the heart as being an indicator of the spiritual condition of a man: 

The good man brings good things out of the good treasure of his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil treasure of his heart. For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45 BSB) 

And, as the proverb puts it: “As water reflects the face, so the heart reflects the true man” (Proverbs 27:19 BSB).

What is it that your heart is reflecting for all to see? 

How Do You Heal an Empty Heart?

As I noted previously, in our bodies, it is the lack of food in our stomachs that gives us the sensation of hunger. In a similar manner, it is an emptiness in our hearts that tells us that we are spiritually hungry.

We know what to do when our stomachs are empty. We need to eat! But many people are confused about what to do when they are spiritually hungry. There is an emptiness inside, but they do not know what to do about it. The solution to hunger of the heart is often not so easy to determine.

We have all experienced emptiness of heart or an emptiness in our soul. There are many causes for it. If you have ever loved someone, at some point in your relationship, you have probably known what it is like to be separated from that person. Your heart literally aches for her or for him!

Nostalgia also plays a large part in emptiness of heart. It may come when we remember when our parents were alive or when our children were small. It gives us a longing for that time. We may remember when we were small and how nice it was to be a kid!

As we can see, experiencing an emptiness in our hearts is often difficult. Hearts are troublesome things. Nevertheless, few of us would want to give up the ability to experience the feelings that our hearts give us. Giving up the feelings of the heart is giving up our very personhood.

Almost instinctively, we know that if we were not capable of feeling emptiness, neither would we be able to feel the exuberance of joy that our hearts also give us. Without the ability to experience the anguish of hunger, we cannot know the contentment of being satisfied.

We usually would consider hunger of the heart as being distinct from hunger of the stomach, and in most ways, I suppose that we can say that they are two separate things. Nevertheless, they are more related to one another than we at first may realize.

God may even use physical hunger as a mean to increase the faith of our hearts.

The Way to an Empty Heart is through an Empty Stomach

The Scripture passage with which I opened these posts about hunger was Deuteronomy chapter eight. If you recall, Moses was preparing the early Israelites to enter into the land of Canaan, the place that God had long promised to them.

Moses said to them, “Remember that these forty years the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness, so that He might humble you and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 8:2 BSB).

For forty years, God was testing their heart. He was testing the people to see how faithful they were to him.

How did God test them? Interestingly, it was through hunger—not hunger of the heart, but through hunger of the stomach.

Moses continues: “He humbled you, and in your hunger He gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had known, so that you might understand that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3 BSB).

If we go back to take a look at the history of the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness, we see that God often allowed them to experience hunger and thirst. Why would he do this to the people whom he had chosen as his own? How would experiencing hunger increase their faith? We might tend to think that, since he loved them, he would spare them from such hardship. Then, when they experienced the consistent and abundant supply of the Lord, their faith would be increased.

Interestingly and even counterintuitively, a consistent and abundant supply of food and other necessities from God does not provide the means to increase our faith. We can see this also in the same history of the early Israelites in the process of their exodus from Egypt. 

Failure of the Test

Do you remember how God miraculously intervened on behalf of the Israelites so that they could make their escape from the brutal slavery of Pharaoh and the Egyptians? God inflicted upon the Egyptian people ten plagues such as the world had never before seen, nor have we seen since that time. At the same time, God spared the Israelites from the consequences of the same plagues.

Then, as the Israelite people were fleeing the Egyptian army, God opened up for them the very waters of the sea so that they could pass through on dry land. He then used those same waters to return to their place in order to drown the pursuing army.

After that escape, God then led the Israelites through the wilderness by giving them a great column of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day so that they would not lose their way. In every sense, God was caring for his children.

One would think that after experiencing these astounding miracles of God, the faith of the people in their God could never falter—never fail them. After all, they had seen the great power of God and how he provided for them!

It was not so. These great signs by God did nothing to strengthen their faith.

As they came to the entrance of the Promised Land, the doorstep of their goal, Moses said to them, “See, the LORD your God has placed the land before you. Go up and take possession of it as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has told you.” (Deuteronomy 1:21 BSB).

Remember that the land was not simply empty, waiting for someone to inhabit it. The Amorites were there—a people whom the Israelites would have to defeat. Nevertheless, Moses told his people not to be afraid or be discouraged. Surely after seeing what God did for them before this, their faith in the Lord would be unshakable. After experiencing what God had done to the Egyptians, we would think that the faith of the Israelites in their mighty God would be so strong that defeating the Amorites would seem like a small thing.

But the people hesitated.

“Why don’t we send in some spies first?” they proposed. “In that way we can see what we are up against.”[1]

When the spies returned with the news of the Amorites, that they were a mighty people, whatever faith the Israelites may have possessed, disappeared.

“God hates us,” they cried. “He has only allowed us to escape the Egyptians so that he could bring us here to be annihilated by the Amorites!” 

Be Strengthened by the Lord

Joshua, one of the spies who had seen the Amorites and had seen the land, tried to encourage them, saying to them: 

The land we passed through and explored is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, He will bring us into this land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and He will give it to us.
Only do not rebel against the LORD, and do not be afraid of the people of the land, for they will be like bread for us. Their protection has been removed, and the LORD is with us.
Do not be terrified or afraid of them! The LORD your God, who goes before you, will fight for you, just as you saw Him do for you in Egypt and in the wilderness, where the LORD your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way by which you traveled until you reached this place. (Numbers 14:7-9; Deuteronomy 1:29-31) 

But the people would have none of it. After hearing these words, they wanted to stone Joshua to death, along with Caleb, another of the spies who tried to encourage the people in their faith in God. 

The Forty-year Lesson

If we think that we would have strong faith if only God would supply all of our needs and demonstrate his mighty power to us, this lesson of the Israelites should show us that this is not the path to great faith.

Conversely, the path to great faith winds its way through the wilderness of humility. It was to that wasteland that God now sent the Israelites and in which they wandered for the next forty years.

Forty years after Joshua and Caleb tried to encourage the people, forty years in which the Israelites wandered seemingly without direction in the wasteland of the Sinai, they once again came to the place where they were standing on the doorstep of the Promised Land.

This time it was their leader Moses who spoke to them: 

Remember that these forty years the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness, so that He might humble you and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commandments. 
He humbled you, and in your hunger He gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had known, so that you might understand that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Your clothing did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. 

So know in your heart that just as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you. Therefore you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, walking in His ways and fearing Him. (Deuteronomy 8:2-6 BSB) 

Moses was encouraging them in their faith. 

How to Increase Our Faith

Centuries later, the disciples made a seemingly simple request of Jesus. They said to him, “Increase our faith!”

Jesus answered them, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

We might think, “Yes! That is the kind of faith that I am talking about! Great demonstrations of faith and mighty power!”

And how is that faith realized? Jesus then speaks of the humble path through the wilderness: 

Which of you whose servant comes in from plowing or shepherding in the field will say to him, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? Instead, won’t he tell him, ‘Prepare my meal and dress yourself to serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what he was told? So you also, when you have done everything commanded of you, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:6-10 BSB). 

The path to great faith winds its way through the wilderness of humility. 

The Humble of the Earth

In my life I have lived in several different countries and worked among people of many different ethnic and economic situations. In all of these experiences, I can tell you that the greatest faith is not to be found among the wealthy who have never known hunger. It is not to be found among those who never have had to suffer shortages and deprivation.

Rather, it is found among those who have had to travel the paths of humility through the wastelands, seeing that God must deliver. It is found among those who have experienced days of hunger and famine, only to say to me, “We know that God will provide.”

Great faith is not easily found in America, where we have insurance, food pantries, relief agencies, and a social system that holds our hands.

Rather, great faith is to be found where God must provide, or there is nothing. Great faith in God is learned when we have no other alternatives. There is no social structure to come to their aid. There is no “Plan B.” There is only God. 

The Blessings of Affliction

I wrote in the previous post about fastings of famine. We may look upon famine as an affliction, and I would agree that it mostly is. None of us would choose to live in the type of situation where we are forced into fastings of famine.
However, fastings of this sort is a reality for some. It is a reoccurring reality for the children of the orphanage in Kisii almost every week, and sometimes even for three or four days of the week.

But even if this type of fasting is involuntary, there is still something good that can come out of it. Like voluntary fasting, the fasting of famine is to teach us our greater need for spiritual food. God will often use affliction in our lives to teach us his ways.

At least, this is how the Psalmist speaks of it: 

Before I was afflicted, I went astray; but now I keep Your word.
You are good, and You do what is good; teach me Your statutes.
Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, I will keep Your precepts with all my heart.
Their hearts are hard and callous, but I delight in Your law.
It was good for me to be afflicted, that I might learn Your statutes.
The law from Your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of gold and silver. (Psalm 119:67-72 BSB) 

This is also what Moses told the early Israelites. He told them that God was allowing this so that they would understand that they do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

He also told them that God was teaching them humility. In teaching this humility, it was not the intention of God that the people would have a sense of self-effacement or worthlessness. Rather, it was that they would learn their place before God. They were to learn total dependence upon the Lord. Hunger came to them because God was teaching them humility.

“He humbled you, and in your hunger He gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had known, so that you might understand that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD,” Moses told the Israelites.

Jesus told his disciples, “So you also, when you have done everything commanded of you, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” 

Words of a Hungry Heart

Although we may not think it so, famine that is sent by God produces more spiritual hunger in us than constant abundance. It is the stomach that is empty that learns that even more than the daily bread of wheat is the living bread for the soul. It is the empty stomach that produces a hunger in the spirit.

King David wrote these words when he was fleeing for his life and passing through his own wilderness experience: 

O God, You are my God; earnestly I seek You; my soul thirsts for You. My body yearns for You in a dry and weary land without water. So I have seen You in the sanctuary, to behold Your power and glory.

Because Your loving devotion is better than life, my lips will glorify You. So I will bless You as long as I live; in Your name I will lift my hands.

My soul is satisfied as with the richest of foods; with joyful lips my mouth will praise You.

When I remember You on my bed, I think of You through the watches of the night. For You are my help; I will sing for joy in the shadow of Your wings. My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me. (Psalm 63:1-8 BSB)

[1] This is how Moses recalled the event in Deuteronomy 1:22. God apparently confirmed to Moses that he should indeed do this (Numbers 13:1)
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