Soul-full: Those who hunger and thirst
When passion burns within you, remember that it was given to you for good purposes.
Passion is a word of extremes. Who has ever heard of anyone that was passionately moderate or common? Passion is a powerful force within people which may be kindled for good or evil, progress or destruction, things essential or most trivial. If extinguished in a person, nothing is left but a hollow shell and lifeless eyes. Passion is appetite, focused emotion, and enthusiasm that can bring about outstanding and high-minded accomplishments or horrifyingly unthinkable acts of depravity and terror.
Our passions can get us into a lot of trouble. Addictions seem to be powered by passion, whether obsessions for gambling, sex, pornography, alcohol, drugs, love, food, shopping, collecting, sports, video games, or a thousand other things that people compulsively pursue.
Passion, when directed toward spirituality as God defines it, can produce growth and transformation. This was the reason God gave us this energy and life within our hearts. Without it, we end up like those described in T.S. Elliot’s poem:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Living as a scarecrow is no way to exist. Neither is it any way to die. Elliot describes the outcome of such an empty and passionless life:
For Thine is
For Thine is the
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Everything is left hanging and unfulfilled without passion for the right things. There is nothing when life is over. “For Thine is” what? Without a passion for the Kingdom of Heaven, “For Thine is” and “Life is” are left as incomplete sentences for both here and eternity.
Hungry and thirsty
There was a time when each of us knew no hunger or thirst. As we were formed and matured within the womb, our mothers’ bodies constantly met our needs. We gradually outgrew that environment and were forced from the womb to enter a new world in which we experienced wants and needs for the first time. As soon as birth had occurred, we began suffering hunger pangs, and we complained until those cravings were satisfied. Since entrance into this world, life has consisted mainly of pursuing the satisfaction of that persisting emptiness. We need, we want, we crave, and we desire.
When I was about six years old, my parents, sister, and I were visiting family in Texas. We were traveling from the little town of Dawson (where my grandmother lived) to the larger city of Hillsboro. We had no air conditioning in the car, and I was not used to the Southern heat, having lived in Michigan for two-thirds of my brief life. I remember these few details because I was thirsty. From my perspective, I badly needed something to drink. In my little six-year-old mind, I thought I was going to die of thirst. I cried. I whined. I told them that I was not going to make it. I’m sure that was the longest 30 miles they had ever driven. I did manage to survive the half-hour journey, and my dad bought me a Grape Nehi in a cold glass bottle at a gas station. I don’t believe I have ever tasted anything quite as wonderful and satisfying. That is how it is with thirsts – when they are satisfied, there is no better feeling.
What was the hungriest or thirstiest that you have ever been? What was it like to get food or drink finally? Hunger and thirst are powerful desires in us. In Genesis 2:7, it says, “…the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” The word for “being” (translated “soul” in older translations) is the Hebrew word nephesh, which has a broad range of usages. It can mean life or breath. It can be used for animals and fish as well as people. A curious usage is when nephesh is translated as “gluttony,” “appetite,” “desire,” “lust,” or “want.” Humans and animals are motivated by their appetites, but while animals’ cravings are few and simple, humankind’s desires are innumerable and often quite sophisticated. These longings lead us into many difficulties. So, why did God give us appetites as a part of our created nature?
A bundle of appetites
Even in God’s good creation, the man was incomplete in many ways. He needed sleep, food, and water. He soon came to realize that he needed others like himself. God created him with a mission to rule over the creatures of the earth, sky, and sea (Genesis 1:26), and he gave him every seed-bearing plant and every fruit tree on the face of the earth for food (Genesis 1:29). There was one exception (Genesis 3:3); an off-limits tree that brought knowledge of good and evil. God told man and woman to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28). Adam, apart from Eve, and Eve, apart from Adam, were inadequate for the task. To encourage the fulfillment of each of these missions, God gave them appetites for power so they would rule over the creatures of the earth, sexual desires, and mothering and fathering instincts so they would be fruitful and multiply and fill the world with at least passably functional offspring. To encourage the exploration and filling of the earth, the Creator gave people curiosity and a craving for independence.
All of these appetites were necessary to propel humanity toward good. But Satan and men found that they could also twist these desires for harmful purposes. So God gave us this hunger at great risk to himself. He did this knowing that we would misuse these appetites. He was fully aware that we would trade our souls (nephesh) to satisfy our temporary desires, and he would have to buy them back.
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you by your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
1 Peter 1:18-20
Before the creation, Christ was as good as slain (see Revelation 13:8) because of the bad choices we would make relating to our appetites.
Passion is a powerful force. It moves us toward or repels us from certain people, issues, and things. In the Bible, the word translated “zeal” (zealotes) describes this motivator and driver of men and women. In the first century AD, there was a group of rebels who called themselves the “Zealots” or “Maccabeans” (Named after Judas Maccabeus, the second century BC leader who raised up a rebel army against the Greek oppressors). These 1st-century terrorists were eager to kill those they saw as disloyal Jews, along with foreigners who were a part of the Roman occupying forces. They were more than willing to give up their lives for their beliefs, just as a terrorist today freely sacrifice their lives.
In Jesus’ day, zealotes was also used to describe the commitment felt by many among the Jews for the law, the land of Israel, and the purity of the religion. This fervor among the Jews was directed negatively at Jesus, leading to his death. Later, as Christianity developed, this passionate rage turned against the apostles and disciples of Jesus. Saul of Tarsus had this sort of zeal against Christ’s kingdom before his conversion.
As emphasized earlier, passion can be either good or bad. After Jesus cleared the temple of the moneychangers and sellers of animals, his disciples remembered the passage in Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Paul told the Christians in Rome, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11). In Romans 10:2, Paul spoke of the negative side of passion, “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” Paul contrasted both sides of zeal in Galatians 4:17-18:
Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us so that you may be zealous for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you.
God gave us appetites and passions to pursue good. But, instead, men and women use this energy and desire for:
- Power and dominance over other people.
- Pursuit of money and possessions.
- Spirit-sapping addictions – alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, collecting, relationships, etc.
- Passionate hatred – jihads, revenge, retaliation, racial prejudice, and feuds.
- Attention-seeking – flamboyance, and exhibitionism.
Hunger and thirst for righteousness
A passion for living a worthy life of real value and purpose is God’s will for us. That empty place within each of us is filled perfectly by love and desire for God’s goodness. Most recognize that they have a large hollow space within them, but most try to fill it with temporal things. Physical pursuits and relationships only satisfy briefly. The perpetual process is like the comments people make about Chinese meals: “A couple of hours later, you’re hungry again.”
From where does this hungering and thirsting after righteousness come? It comes from that imprint created in each of us – a God-shaped impression that we have tried to fill with everything except the person who perfectly fits it. God is good; therefore, the impression that he leaves within us is good. We continue in our incompleteness until goodness fills that space inside [Note: Often, we must first clear out much useless earthly junk that has obscured that God-shaped impression – the place where we can connect to God. We do this in repentance, where we turn from those old passions which never really satisfied and pour our energies into the only one who fits.] This deep desire for God to fill us does not occur until:
- We realize what a pitiable state we are in (become poor in spirit).
- We grieve how we have wronged God and return to him (like the prodigal).
- We become willing to learn from and submit to the Creator.
When all of these are true, we realize how famished our spirits are. We develop a passion for righteousness, zeal, and a deep hungering and thirsting to possess the standards, the will, and the mind of God. We hunger for God and thirst to be like him.
Jesus upset a lot of his audience when he gave his discourse on the bread of life.
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood; you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.
It is not difficult to understand why a significant number of the crowd took offense at this teaching. Still, it was not because Jesus was promoting cannibalism or laying down the doctrine of transubstantiation. Instead, he was saying that we are to take him into us for “he who feeds on this bread will live forever” (John 6:58), and Christ in us is “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). This was the same passion that Jesus described in himself when he said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Thus, spiritual nourishment becomes our highest priority, far exceeding our desire for the physical.
For they will be filled
To accomplish this change of our fundamental values, passion must be wrested from the control of the flesh and returned to the influence of its rightful owner – the spirit breathed into each of us by God. Zeal, desire, hunger, and thirst were always intended for that eternal and invisible part of us, not the earthbound and dead-end physical self.
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.
These verses use that same Hebrew word, nephesh, that was used in Genesis 2:7. God made us living souls, and he knows what will satisfy those appetites and keep us spiritually alive. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The flesh can never really be filled or satisfied, but the spirit can – when righteousness fills it. It is about participation in God’s graciousness. The food comes from God, but we must willingly take it in. If we accept the healthy, it also implies that we must stop taking harmful and empty things into us.
Ask, seek and knock
In the latter part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus returns to this same theme when he says in Matthew 7:7-8:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
In the context of Jesus’ teachings that stressed the spiritual, it is unreasonable to think that Jesus is speaking of worldly pursuits and possessions. In light of the prophets who preceded Christ, it is evident that the only things worth pursuing are those that cannot rust or decay. Ultimately, all that the spiritual person desires is God himself and his righteousness. And those who ask, seek and knock can be assured that they will find total satisfaction.
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers, the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed.”
As you and I grow spiritually, increasingly focusing our lives on the invisible, we will find ourselves growing indifferent toward the world’s concerns. What was once important to us becomes trivial. Indifference is the opposite of passion – we put little or no energy into what was once central to our lives. We are to be indifferent towards the physical and passionate for the spiritual. We realize the limitations of our energies, so we direct them toward that which is crucial: God’s way. We ask so we receive. We seek him, so we find him. We knock, and he answers the door and invites us in. Just being with him, we grow to realize how empty and unsatisfying are the things that we used to hunger and thirst after and how starved our soul is for the beautiful, good, delicious, fulfilling spiritual life he offers to those of his household.
Let me end with the lyrics of a beautiful song that expresses the essence of hungering and thirsting for righteousness in the person of Jesus:
The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green;
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ, the apple tree
His beauty doth all things excel;
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ, the apple tree
For happiness, I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought;
I missed of all, but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.
I’m weary with my former toil
Here I will sit and rest awhile;
Under the shadow, I will be
Of Jesus Christ, the apple tree
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ, the apple tree.
Anonymous carol from the collection of Joshua Smith, New Hampshire, 1784