In my vocation as a hospice nurse, I have observed repeatedly a phenomenon that occurs when patients draw closer to the end of life: they stop feeling hungry and thirsty; they simply have no desire to eat. Amazingly, accompanied by this lack of desire is also a lack of ability to process fluids and food: swallowing and digestion become impaired or altogether cease. This is often a bewildering and highly frustrating experience for the loved ones who, faced with this very dramatic change, are incapable of making the mental shift from life to death and so attempt to force-feed their beloved in the hopes that some form of reversal takes place. Of course, this never works, and only tends to place the patient at risk for choking, aspiration, or a stomach blockage. Knowing this, my goal is to pro-actively teach patients and loved ones ahead of time that when hunger ceases, so should the compulsion to feed.
Easier said than done- because in our minds and spirits is an innate understanding that hunger and thirst are related to LIFE…and that lack of hunger and thirst most certainly always lead to DEATH.
And so it is with our spiritual “hungers” and “thirsts”…
In my vocation as a pastor in 21st century America, I see an equally bewildering phenomenon. In my dealings with middle-class Americans who have very few physical “wants,” I hear them tell stories of their emptiness, their spiritual hunger, their feeling lacking and in want of God’s presence, and of their relentless desire to be “filled” with “something more.” If you doubt the veracity of this, I challenge you to go to any contemporary worship service and listen to the music- it is rife with images of hunger, thirst, and need. What’s so amazing is that all this hunger is being experienced in the midst of unprecedented physical abundance, as well as in the midst of a culture that, for the first time in history, is able to provide us with seemingly unlimited information and unrestricted opportunities for connection. Yet the end result is loneliness, emptiness, and spiritual hunger and thirst.
The commentary on this phenomenon is extensive, much of it critical of our consumerist culture and its alleged spiritual dearth. The brevity of this article limits my ability to discuss this false conclusion in depth, so I will address only one concept: Contrary to others whom I have heard comment on this trend, I do not feel that it is a negative thing to be spiritually hungry, nor do I believe that spiritual hunger is equivalent to spiritual dearth. In fact, I will be as bold as to say that spiritual hunger and thirst are healthy in that they are signs of a viable spirituality.
But what does this mean practically? How should we then proceed? Should we ignore the hunger we feel, and recognize that feeling “spiritually full” is this life is a futile goal? Should we stop trying so hard and cease searching?
Well, yes and no.
God has instilled eternity in our hearts, yet we are embodied currently in mortality and are limited by time and space. What this means is that we have been created in such a way that there is a natural tension between our mortality and our eternity. We live in the “now and not yet Kingdom of God” and we innately know it. If we were to have a feeling of spiritual satiety, what would happen to us, I wonder?
Complacency would rule, I think, and Kingdom work would never be accomplished. We would be comfortable with life as it is and desire no more. We need to stay hungry in one sense; because-let’s face it- staying hungry keeps us attached to the vine.
Interestingly, Jesus cautions us to be careful not to get ahead of ourselves and plan out and worry about tomorrow, yet his final command to his disciples ("Go and make disciples of all men...") connotes a task with a future-reaching trajectory. Likewise, Paul teaches us to imitate him in how he has found a way in which to find contentment in whatever situation he is in, and in how he "presses on toward the mark."
So therein lies our answer, somewhere between discontent and complacency is a third way, the way Jesus taught, the way which Paul imitated- a place characterized by contentment, but hallmarked by a holy discontent, a longing for the "not yet" that our Life in Christ promises to us. It is a strange tension that we are called to live within: to be content with our daily bread, but to be thirsty for tomorrow’s wine. It is in this indeterminate state that we live and move and breathe, until that final day when we finally share a table with the King of Kings and dine with Him for all eternity.
This article is part of a Lenten synchroblog series at Christine Sine's blog: Godspace; go there to enjoy more wonderful Lenten Reflections. Be Blessed!