Discipleship always progresses in a distinct direction. It’s intentional and motivated, with the end always in sight. However, although the purpose is clear, the process is not. A disciple’s life is wrought with ups and downs and peaks and valleys.
It is important to recognize the necessity of these various seasons of spiritual growth. However, regardless of the challenges and obstacles we encounter, the goal should always be one of growth and forward progress. Through these seasons we either gain or lose definition as disciples. Hunger for growth fuels growth. Whether or not we feel hunger during each season, one question must be asked— “Why do we worship?”
1 Peter 2:2-3 reads:
2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, 3 now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Regardless of how long we have been following Christ, growth in the Spirit must always continue. Craving that growth in the Spirit fuels the new life of the believer. The passage leads us to reflect upon three things regarding spiritual hunger. We must continue to ask ourselves, “Why am I eating?” We must ask ourselves if we are worshipping, or “eating,” out of boredom, pressure, or need.
1 Peter 2:2-3.
I love to eat. I love the taste of food and I love the satisfaction of being full. However, there comes a time when I find myself continuing to eat and I have to ask myself if I am actually hungry. There is a point at which the stomach no longer cries out for sustenance, where the mind overpowers the natural urge of hunger and encourages the hand and mouth to work as one in order to fill a psychological emptiness rather than physical hunger. Eating to sustain a level of activity more than to fulfill a bodily need.
For me, this happens when I am watching a TV show or movie. At some point, the popcorn is finished and there is still more than an hour left to sit and watch. At this moment, there is clearly no dire physical hunger to be satisfied. Yet, for me, there seems to be imbalance. My ears, eyes and mind are still busy digesting the movie, but my mouth and hands feel left out. At this moment, I choose to satisfy this boredom with something else to snack on.
For others, the need to snack has an emotional trigger. Eating provides a sense of pleasure that dulls the lack of pleasure elsewhere. Perhaps a tough day at work where nothing went well leads to the sensation that throughout the entire day nothing was deeply satisfying. For some, that guarantee of satisfaction comes from food. It doesn’t matter how bad the day, ice cream will always taste like ice cream. Ice cream will always taste sweet. Ice cream will always taste creamy. Ice cream will always be cold and soothing to the soul. Ice cream, in moments of despair, is a friend that will never let you down.
Many believers have at one time felt that being a Christian is the most exciting and fulfilling thing imaginable. They wish for the steady stream of Bible studies and Christian fellowship to never cease. This is an exciting time, and I pray that each Christian experience these moments more often than not. However, the contrast to this sense of being alive in Christ can quickly shift to one of stale, unsatisfying boredom.
The reasons for the shift differ with each person. But the fact remains that, at some point, there will inevitably be obstacles to maintaining the excitement once felt in being Christian. More often than not, the reason behind the plateau is the unfortunate truth that we seek activities and people to define life in Christ in the first place, rather than Christ himself. In other words, we’ve sought to satisfy our hunger elsewhere.
While we may seek to be satisfied by the people or things that surround us, the irony is that these “hunger agents” have never demonstrated the hunger-satisfying power we attribute to them. Church groups and activities can be an amazing source of growth for a Christian. In fellowship one can more completely experience the nature of being born of the Spirit. The mistake is looking to these people and activities to define Christian life, a naïve notion that they will always be there and that they will always satisfy us.
The truth is, they won’t. Churches will change. People will move. Activities and groups will evolve.
A common experience for many Christians is to be so over-the-moon-in-love with Jesus at a particular church, but the moment the church changes, or something in the routine is adjusted, the love loses zest, even value. An individual who experiences this “loss of life” might choose to take a more internal and isolated approach to Christianity, moving away from church entirely.
Following this “divorce” from the church, the re-entry into the world can be shocking, one that takes quite a bit of down and up shifting, now apart from the Christian life. Living outside of the presence of God reveals harsh realities that are, at times, too heavy to bear. Suddenly the answers that explained everything within the church, in the presence of God’s Word, no longer make any sense. There is a sense of being lost and unsure of things. At this point, a person can make one of two choices: return out of the need for God alone, or out of the need for things, people, activities: in other words, distraction.
Encountering the world and returning to God because of who and what He is? A miracle, a true “Prodigal Son” homecoming. Being sold into slavery and redeemed is the Joseph story that some of us need to experience in order to truly realize what being a Christian is all about. This is grace at work in our lives. To experience grace is to experience God. This is a victorious moment for the Christian as well as for the Father in heaven. There is nothing more exciting and satisfying to himthan seeing one lost sheep finally return home.
Returning to God because of the comforts of “Christian Living” is a different issue entirely. The reason to make the return to God in this manner has nothing to do with God at all. Much like snacking with no physical hunger to satisfy, this is trying to satisfy a false craving. In this case a person is returning in the search for some emotional or physical gratification, without necessarily desiring God. When we do this, we are aware that, in returning, certain things will be as reliable or predictable as the sensation of sweetness found in ice cream.
Many of us have a tendency to use church: worse, we have a tendency to use God. We wander about trying to control our world and solve our own problems and then, like a swimmer coming up to get air, we find that we cannot handle it, and we go back to God. The time spent in “Christian life” this second, third, fourth, one-hundredth time around will seem like holding your breath underwater. At some point, you will need to emerge abruptly and gasp for air. We find ourselves going back and forth, never being satisfied, and never knowing exactly who we really are.
Christians like saying that there are “seasons of spiritual growth.” While this is true, the danger is that some tend to use this as an excuse to explain this seesaw manner of communion with God. Using this logic, a swimmer could say that swimming has its “seasons” as well: “Some seasons I hold my breath, some seasons I come up for air.” These clearly are not “seasons of change” or “growth.” These changes are intermittent, predictable, and necessary in the act of swimming.
Being a disciple of Jesus is staying underwater and miraculously learning how to breathe while submerged. Being a disciple means transformation, repentance, change.
Craving God in the way that we crave snacks when we are bored or depressed is misunderstanding the Gospel entirely. The Gospel preached by Jesus Christ is neither a break from the action, nor action to relieve us from a break. The Gospel is a way of life that, if allowed into the heart, will satisfy the need for satisfaction and activity before we can even realize that we desire either.
1 Peter 2: 2-3.
Imagine this scenario: we are invited to go out to eat with family or friends. Unbeknownst to them, we have already eaten. It would appear rude if we were to reject such a kind invitation, so, we carry on through the meal as if we hadn’t eaten in days. Throughout the meal, we are neither interested in eating or even enjoying the food but, to be respectful and polite, we carry on without letting our true feelings be known.
Unfortunately, this scene clearly resembles the way some of us Christians practice Christianity. To some of us, doing “Christian things” comes from an obligation to the other Christians around us. Or perhaps the motivation to carry on is even an attempt to “be polite” to God, as if we are doing him a favor.
Growing up in a household with strong Christian parents left me with a clear realization that certain things were right, and expected of me as a Christian, while other things were clearly wrong. These rights and wrongs were not general social standard dos and don’ts. These were things like praying, reading the Bible, going to church, and trying to live my life under the banner of “what would Jesus do?”
However, there came a point where the effort made versus the yield of “blessings” seemed uneven. The more I tried to do all of these things and keep in line with my fellow Christians, the less I noticed any return on my “investments” or “commitments.” This left me asking myself, “What is it all for?” My answer for many years was just to put my head down and keep doing what I was doing. Just because.
For many there comes a point where the elements of Christian life become routine, where being a Christian is painfully predictable. Christian songs sound the same, discussions with Christian friends sound the same, the sermons or homilies sound the same, and the outlook on personal life as a Christian is left unchanged and uneventful.
Although in our most personal thoughts we might ask ourselves what the whole point is, many of us continue to follow the path of Christian living…just because. There comes a point where the only reason we continue to “act” Christian is because we know we should, and we are too far along to do something radical and start over. Not because we actually want to participate.
This sad state of Christian living is all too prevalent. This idea of the “Sunday Christian” is well known inside and outside of Christian circles. But to live this way is to totally misunderstand what being a Christian means and what God desires from each of us. God never ordered us to march purely out of the desire to watch us snap into formation. God never told us to not put any thought into what He wants us to do, but to simply do it “just because.” When Jesus went about preaching for three years, never was he found dragging the disciples around against their will. On the contrary, Jesus always gave them plenty of opportunity to turn back and leave him should their hearts have desired it.
Yet never in the Gospels do we read of any of the twelve disciples refusing to go where Jesus led them. The reason Jesus compared himself to a “good shepherd” is because when a shepherd leads the sheep, he does so from the front of the flock and not from the rear. He does not prod the sheep forward with rebukes and abuse. Rather, the sheep follow the voice of the shepherd because the direction of the voice is the direction of safety. Being a Christian means choosing to be a Christian. To claim the title Christian under any other pretense is to not be a Christian at all.
When I read through the Bible for the first time in its entirety, several things shocked me. First, I was shocked by how different Jesus was from the perspective of some present day Christian modes and actions. Second, I was shocked by how clear God was throughout the entire Bible in his desire for honest, joyful, willing worship. Repeatedly, especially in the prophets, God says that he would rather not have any offerings at all if the heart does not willingly bring them.
To hear God tell me that he didn’t want my present-day offerings of church attendance and Christian activity if I didn’t want to give them was surprising and belief-shattering. I had always understood that going to church and doing all of these Christian things were just things we do, maybe thinking that doing them bought my ticket to heaven, and my job as a Christian was just to keep doing them—just because.
However, what God was telling me was entirely different. What God, not a pastor, was telling me was that if I didn’t want to do all of these “Christian” things, then he didn’t want to have any part in me doing them.
He made it quite clear that if I continued going to church and doing all I felt the “Christian way of life” required without any real desire to do so, then it would not be to please him, but to please myself and satisfy my own self-diagnosed needs.
In the end, “going through the motions” is utterly sinful. Sin is simply placing self at the center of the heart instead of God. “Going through the motions,” is at its essence the definition of self-centeredness and, thus, sin.
It might be polite to eat when invited to dinner regardless of our hunger. However, to eat at the Lord’s Table and to mimic an appetite when there is none, is to sin in God’s presence, to betray him with a smile and a kiss.
1 Peter 2: 2-3.
Living in modern western society I am blessed with an abundance of provision. Compared to the rest of the world I live extremely comfortably. My needs and wants are met on a daily basis. Awareness of this fact does little to help me relate with the many living around the world in extreme poverty. The number of individuals with little to no food to eat compared to those of us who always have enough food is horrifying. Due to this unfair reality, I cannot fully understand what it means to be literally starving.
The word “starving,” used in the way that it is supposed to be used, describes, to me, one of the worst physical challenges. I cannot imagine going without food for days, weeks or months. I have heard of various accounts of people who have endured such hardships and the testimonials are painful in description alone. I pray that with each passing day we can see more people fed and fewer people dying of hunger, although the obstacles to this miraculous feeding of the millions remains stubborn and strong.
Although I cannot fully empathize with someone who has experienced hunger to this degree, and not to trivialize hunger in any way, I do know what it feels like to be hungry. I do know what it feels like when your stomach begins to alert you that food is needed. In this moment, it is difficult to think of much else. At first, hunger is the deep pains of the abdomen. Next, hunger inflicts headaches, weakness and perhaps dizziness. The search for sustenance becomes a top priority, distracting you from any other task. This is a state of physical emergency that is impossible not to acknowledge.
This prompts the question: do I really hunger for God? Do I need God like I would need food in this situation? Do I feel weak and without strength in his absence? These questions can be humbling and convicting but are, nonetheless, vital to a Christian life of honesty and integrity. Living a Christian life is not intermittent snacking out of boredom. Neither is it one where we force feed out of respect for a host. In the life of a disciple of Jesus, existence without him means death and existence with him means life. It is that extreme.
There is a reason that Jesus compared himself to bread. To the ancient world, bread meant more than fulfilling carbohydrates and plentiful calories as it does to the bread-loving world of today. Bread, to the world that Jesus preached, symbolized “life.” At the feeding of the 5000, Jesus says these words:
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Jesus is telling us that to take part in a relationship with him is to be ultimately and completely satisfied. To eat of this bread Jesus describes means to never feel in need and to never want to go without. This understanding of the Gospel of Jesus leaves no room for Christianity lived on the foundation of boredom or politeness. God does not want us to come to his altar just because.
“Just because” is void of thought, intention, and meaning. God put all of those into his creation, and He knows what He desires. God desires us. Quite simply, he desires that we desire him. True worship comes when that desire is met and reciprocated, when we feel our hunger for him and Him alone.