God’s Word says lots of positive things about hunger. He tells us we’re to hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6), and Moses reminded Israel that God even caused them to hunger to show that only He truly satisfies. (Deuteronomy 8:3) But God’s Word also says that some worship their hungers by bowing down to their physical desires. (Philippians 3:19) What do you think about that? Are our ‘hungers’ good or bad?
Most of us tend to do whatever it takes to make any sense of emptiness go away: we eat something salty or sweet, go running, listen to music, etc. If the craving remains, we may begin to feel weaker, nervous, or angry, and who knows what will happen then! The picture of the Soldier praying during a time of fasting is intended to show the overwhelming impact of going without on our body and soul. We don’t know the nature of this Soldier’s emptiness or how he tried to fill it later. But two things are sure: we’ll never know the nature of our emptiness until we go without, and only Jesus can fill us.
We tend to think that hunger is a bad thing, but God created our bodies with neurotransmitters to feel “hungry”. These microscopic chemicals help our nervous system and the rest of our body communicate what is wanted or needed. Serotonin makes us feel sleepy and reduces sexual interest; noradrenalin and epinephrine give us more energy; dopamine creates sensations of pleasure. Opioids and endorphins even act as painkillers. God designed our bodies to experience and express these “feel”ings. But how are we to respond?
God created our feelings to act as built-in alarms, reading physical sensations and signaling our souls to “run away!” or “come closer!” But our perceptions are also warped by our sinful nature, and our desires may be wounded by experiences of others’ sins. Sometimes my racing heartbeat or the knot in my belly tells me to run away from my wife when she’s crying, but that may be the time we need to be closer. And the heat in my face and tension in my muscles may tell me to yell at my children who just criticized me, but those are very times that I need to hear the deeper concern of their hearts.
First we need to distinguish the type of hunger. Some are about actual survival: food, exercise, sleep, etc. until we go to extremes. Some may be appropriate for a specific situation, like sex in marriage (see 1 Corinthians 7:2-5) or a little wine for a bad stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). But other “needs” should raise immediate red flags: addictive drugs, constant audio/visual stimulation, compulsive piercings, cutting, etc. The fact that we seem to “need” more and more of something but are satisfied less and less with it reveals the core truth: physical things cannot satisfy spiritual hungers.
Yes, food, actions, even meditation can release those neurotransmitters for the feelings that we want, and we must beware of simply hungering for the feelings themselves. But the chemicals (neurotransmitters) are not the devils that make us do it. The problem is that we choose to feed our flesh instead of satisfying our spirits in Christ. It may seem odd, but God’s people are supposed to feel hungry in the war of the flesh and spirit (Galatians 5:16-17). If our flesh always feels satisfied, it’s because we are satisfying our flesh!
Hunger is a form of suffering, and our flesh tempts us to escape by “salvation‟ from physical pain through physical sensations of comfort, strength, reward, etc. But Isaiah reminds us that we can only find satisfaction in God (Isaiah 55:1ff), and Jesus tells us that those who hunger for righteousness will be filled (Matthew 5:6). Only the re-Creator of our spirits can fill our spirits. Our flesh needs to remain hungry. If we feed the monster, it will certainly grow!
These hungers are so powerful that we can confuse them with our emotions. Emotions (as I define them) are bodily experiences of our beliefs about relationships. Hunger is just the experience of being unsatisfied. But satisfying our flesh cannot lead to true fulfillment – in this sinful world, we will always feel some physical dissatisfaction! When we feel angry, we may attack a perceived enemy to satisfy our hunger for justice. Muscles tighten, hearts pound, and we physically lean toward the person, but are they the right “enemy”? Fear feels similarly but leans away to satisfy a hunger for safety. Sadness drains us and embarrassment tingles in our face, but we can’t satisfy our hunger until we know what truly satisfies.
It’s hard for me to accept that hunger can be good, but Isaiah 58 says God calls us to fast to experientially remind us of our frailty and the goodness of turning to God. Hunger is designed to be a physical and spiritual alarm. It’s important that we don’t confuse that system. When I’ve had too little sleep and too much coffee, it’s difficult to tell if the tension I feel at work is a hunger for peace that only Jesus can fill or simply the result of poor diet. Probably both. Again, holistic fitness is physical and spiritual. And we can’t be mindful of God’s voice if we pollute His alarm system and temple.
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