Eating as an essential element of living is something you think about a lot if you’re studying microbiology (as I was last year). Part of that might be because microorganisms eat a whole lot differently, and a lot of different things, to us, so there’s a lot to learn. But unless you’re a nutritional science student (like I was until I had to take a break recently), it’s possible that you don’t spend much time thinking about how or even why you eat – how your brain integrates a complex array of physical and chemical impulses to make you pick up an apple and bite into it (because you know that it’s an apple and not a Christmas ornament), taste the clear, cold juice, feeling the crunch of the flesh under our teeth and the tiny piece of skin that wedges it way into a crevice between your front teeth, moving the disintegrating flesh down into your stomach, where another array of processes over which you have little direct control turn what you’ve eaten into energy.
Unless there comes a day when you need to eat, but you can’t.
Several years ago my beloved “extra Dad” Bill was surprised by a diagnosis of throat cancer at age 74. By far, the hardest side effect of his treatment was the way the radiation and chemo gradually and painfully rendered him unable to first taste, then even eat at all. For two months, Bill “ate” by mixing up a specially formulated cocktail of powdered nutrients and water, and injecting it via a syringe and a tube surgically inserted through his belly button directly into his stomach, bypassing his numbed tastebuds and burned esophagus. Because Bill has wonderful working man’s hands that struggled with the mechanics of attaching the syringe to his feeding tube, occasionally I would step in to help. There was nothing noble or romantic about this. The liquid smelled far from appetizing, and the process was awkward and uncomfortable. But Bill was alive, and for him to keep on living, this was what he needed. So we did what needed to be done to help him. And eventually, by the grace of God, Bill beat the cancer and went back to eating the ordinary way.
Two years ago, the memory of watching and helping Bill find a way to keep eating, to keep living, came back to me as I sat in those first few microbiology classes.
What none of my professors or fellow students knew, nor few of my friends, was that for some time I had been living under the weight of a very dark season of spiritual struggle and trial that exposed some idols in my heart I never even knew were there, let alone recognized for what they were for a while. And for about eighteen months of those two years, I stopped eating. Not literally, although the stress did cause me to first lose a lot of weight, and then gain it back, plus more, as I fought to medicate the pain.
I stopped taking in God’s Word. I stopped reading and meditating on it, stopped praying over it, or listening to it. I had lost my spiritual appetite.
I was too proud for myself and too concerned for my kids to give up all pretenses of a spiritual life. I still went to Sunday school and church. Still listened to the preaching. Still sang with the worship team, feeling like the songs I was singing of hope and joy were only true for other people, and not for me.
I was being nourished, but only indirectly. I wasn’t eating.
As the months in my microbiology class went by, and the connections between eating and living were continually reinforced, my mind would return to an earlier season in my Christian life. Born out of an earlier time of trial, God used two books to radically reorient my understanding of what life as a Christian actually was. Life as a Christian was something far simpler, and yet deeper than a mere boxed set of external disciplines. Christianity was a way of being, of living, not just moment by moment, but permanently, even eternally.
Recalling that truth about spiritual life in the light of all I was learning about physical life, was the beginning of my restoration.
My lack of appetite for God’s Word, my inability to taste or savor it, wasn’t a justification for not taking it in. If I was alive, I needed to eat, no matter how absent my hunger.
So I kept going to church – kept listening to the preaching, kept singing the songs, kept reciting the creeds.
And most importantly, I started to take in God’s Word again. Bit by bit, day after day, I open my Bible, and read. And pray. Few were the days, at least at first, when I felt any joy or hope, any sudden epiphany, anything. But that was no longer my ultimate goal. I was alive. I needed to eat. God’s Word was my food. So I ate it.
And it was in the obedience of eating that God revived my appetite.
The process was not instant. The initial weeks were the hardest. Much like a malnourished child struggles to take in good food, the initial months were ones of purging of sinful behaviors and attitudes that I had permitted my circumstances to justify, and a wrestling to hold onto the truth about who I was to Jesus in spite of them all. It wasn’t enough to simply take God’s word in to my mind. I had to digest it spiritually – to make it (through the Holy Spirit’s help) part of me, so that it changed me. It freed me of my demand for my circumstances to change before I would. It helped me see my sin in its ugliness, throw it all at the foot of the cross and leave it behind. It helped me see myself as God has always seen me, but as I had forgotten – eternally loved, with a future far greater than my immediate circumstances promised.
I’d like to say that that hardest of my circumstances changed and we all lived happily ever after, but it wouldn’t be totally true. Some things got better, but other trials were waiting in the wings. Today I’m back to being in a season of difficulty, circumstantially and spiritually. But never again will I allow my circumstances or my attitude about them keep me from my greatest need, my need to constantly take in the life of Jesus through His word to me.
Not simply to stay alive, but because I already am alive.