Eating is a complicated process involving all five of our senses, cognition, and even memory. It’s also an eloquent expression of faith, and sometimes the lack thereof. To see what I mean, just watch the average toddler as he is presented a spoonful of something he decides at first is really not food. It’s a long and winding process to discern the difference between the plastic banana in a toy kitchen set and the real thing, or why chocolate is not a legitimate breakfast food (unless it’s Christmas Day at our house, in which case it definitely is).
The food likes and dislike we have at birth are actually part of God’s design for our development, and even protection. We are born loving sweetness so that we will love our mother’s milk, which is uniquely designed to nourish our developing brains and build up our immune system. Conversely, our innate sensitivity to bitterness discourages us from putting things into our mouths that can kill us; many naturally occurring toxins contain compounds that taste bitter. What’s fascinating is how the process for deciding what to think about sweetness or bitterness when we taste it differs so dramatically. Most of our perceptions of taste are a result of simple chemical translation of what we’ve just put into our mouth into whether it’s tasty or not. But our translation of bitterness is significantly different and far more complex. Babies and toddlers have a fairly unsophisticated capacity for discerning “good” vs. “bad” in bitter tastes, when compared with adults. This explains a toddler’s behavior the first time you offer him a green bean. His neural pathways for processing bitter foods are still set to “death” mode. He thinks if he eats it, he’ll die.
Technically, this state can last indefinitely (as manifested by many husbands and some well known pastors) In reality, our brains are wired to learn over time that while some bitter tastes are cause for rejection, others are causes for reception, or even rejoicing. This is why the same boy who wouldn’t go near a green bean as a baby grows up to love coffee and/or beer. (No research has been published yet on how denominational affiliation might contribute here, but, hey, there’s an idea for my graduate thesis!) It’s why, when assaulted by a pernicious intestinal parasite while on a missions trip to the Philippines (as my husband once was), he’ll willingly swallow the most bitter of medicines with thanksgiving. We were created to learn as we mature that not everything that seemingly tastes bitter is about death. Sometimes, it’s about not dying. It’s about life.
If you’re a Christian, this is not new news. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. Reorienting our tastes from what seemingly tastes good to what actually is good is really a description for the whole of the Christian life. Prior to salvation, our entire self, including our desires and appetites, are enslaved to sin. We gorge ourselves on the poison of the world and the world’s system, and taste nothing but sweetness, when in fact we are dead men and women feasting on death. When the Holy Spirit opens our eyes, we see our appetites for what they are, and we begin to turn away from them and toward what’s better. And sometimes, what’s better involves some bitter things.
Few Old Testament saints embodied this reality better than David. His 34th Psalm is one we know well and often memorize because of its eloquent, heartfelt invitation to taste and see the Lord’s goodness in delivering his children from danger or evil. But we often forget that David wrote this Psalm from a dark and dusty cave, a prisoner of his divinely-directed victories, but also divinely-directed hatred by Saul. The God who had just delivered him from yet another potentially fatal meeting with another insecure king was the same God who had enabled him to win the battles that won the hearts of the people in the first place. David is far from living the sweet life, but because he knows God, what the world would call bitter, he can call good.
It’s part of the tragic irony of David’s life that it’s when his dwelling changes from a dirty cave to a king’s palace that he forgets the goodness of God and falls into grievous sin by committing adultery with another man’s wife, and then murdering the woman’s husband in a futile attempt to hide his sin. When God sends Nathan to expose confront him, David could have abused his earthly authority over the prophet like he did over Uriah’s wife and Uriah himself, and had Nathan killed too. Instead, David repents, receives the consequences of his sin with humble grief, and pours out his heart to His God in Psalm 52. The bitterness of his sorrow is palpable. But the bitterness he tastes is not the world’s bitterness at exposure and consequential loss, the kind that flees God’s discipline. This is the medicinal bitterness of spiritual healing, the kind that submits to God’s discipline and, as a direct result, experiences healing and restoration
David’s testimony to the goodness of God in the midst of the bitterness of life foreshadows the supreme bitterness of Jesus’ suffering on the cross, not for His sin, but for our own. His was the ultimate guiltless suffering, meted out by His Heavenly Father as payment for our sin. Only through his sinless life and cursed death could our healing and restoration be accomplished. This is the irony of the soldiers’ mockery as they offered Jesus wine mixed with bitter herbs before his crucifixion began. The previous day, Jesus had told his disciples he would not drink wine again until he drank it with them in his Father’s kingdom. Wine was the sweet drink of rejoicing, and the time of rejoicing had not yet come. Jesus rejected the wine in part, not because it was too bitter, but because it wasn’t bitter enough. His willingness to taste the undiluted bitterness of judgment and death on my behalf purchased my restoration and healing, and, one day, my seat with him at our wedding banquet when we will drink that sweet new wine together. And while I wait, it empowers me to receive my own times of circumstantial bitterness as a way to taste the goodness of God.
While the past month has been filled with the usual circumstantial ups and downs, and even some really tremendous blessings, the past week came near to flattening me, physically and spiritually. This post is already too long to list everything that happened (and is still happening), but suffice it to say that on Tuesday the idea that what I was experiencing and spiritually tasting had anything to do with the goodness of God would, to an outsider, seem preposterous. Yet it was David’s words from a cave that anchored me, and now, just a few days later, I can say with David that God saves those who are crushed in spirit. I’m on the cusp of an equally brutal week, and there will likely be more moments of crushing. Which means there will be more opportunities to taste God’s goodness. And that is a sweet, sweet way to begin a week.