What could be more concrete, more basic, more material than our need for food? It is what fuels our energy, builds our bones, nourishes our muscles. It has texture in the mouth – crunchy, grainy, chewy, velvety. It astonishes our senses with its wide variety of tastes and smells (some more pleasant than others). It is listed at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs along with those other necessaries for physical existence: water, air, sleep. And when we do not get it on our normal schedule, our bodies remind us with loud and embarrassing noises, a dull ache in our middles, and perhaps a slight pain in the head.
What could be more material than that?
But as we began to explore in a previous post (Fasting and the Spiritual Dimension of Food), this basic need is suffused with a deep spiritual significance. For proof of this, we can just look back at the beginning of Scripture. Because the very first test of man’s trust in God as One who was foundationally good, and desired the good of his creatures, was a test involving food.
Adam and Eve had been given every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it (Gen, 1:29) and were told by God that they were “free to eat from any tree in the garden” (Gen. 2:16). Rather an abundance of resources – every and any tree! And yet God had placed a restriction on one fruit tree in the middle of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
There is a tendency to consider that this tree was somehow magic, like the Witch’s poison apple in Snow White. But I wonder if the “magic” was not in the fruit, but in its forbidding. Their eyes were opened, not because of a toxin, but because of a turning, from the abundance God had provided for their needs to the only illegal avenue for meeting them.
Now it is no bad thing that Adam and Eve had needs. God had intentionally made them that way. It was in fact, one of the principal characteristics in which they were differentiated from the image of their Creator, who needed nothing. And it was through this difference that he would first demonstrate his care for them. In addition to providing them with an abundance of food, He noted Adam’s need for a companion of his own kind, and provided him with a woman who was (quite literally) made for him (2:18; 2:22). He also provided for them interesting work and daily discovery of the marvels of creation (2:15, 19-20).
Sin, then, is not the same as need. We are not created to be complete in ourselves. Rather, sin is the meeting of our legitimate needs in ways God has not authorized, ways that will eventually lead to death. It is forgetting the Source of all provision, and relying instead on our own pitiful resources. The prophet Jeremiah comments on this tendency of all of us (Jer. 2:13):
My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
This, perhaps, is why fasting is meant to be a more regular discipline than it usually is in our contemporary church culture. It is, as we noted before, an admission that as basic a need as food is to us, our need for our Creator goes deeper. That our reliance on him is ultimate, even in the midst of uncertainty and turmoil. That our hope in him for restoration and refreshment is greater than temporary satisfaction, and looks forward to nothing less than complete renewal of all things.
The Lent season (which is an institution of the church through the ages, and not a Biblical mandate) commemorates the success of Jesus in overcoming a very similar kind of temptation involving food. Jesus, like his prophetic predecessors Moses and Elijah, had been observing a 40-day fast in the desert. As the text wryly observes, “He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry” (Luke 4:2). This was a real need! He had possibly been miraculously sustained during that time, as were his prophetic forbears, but now he was feeling the impact of his lack.
Into this situation comes the Tempter. Once more, he tries to convince this second Adam to meet his (very legitimate) needs in a way not authorized by God. The second Adam, instead of being surrounded by abundance, is surrounded by nothing but rocks and dirt. Instead of having eaten that morning, his breath is foul with the ketones of starvation. But even in this extremity, he recognizes the deeper truth that our dependence must be on God, and quotes from Deuteronomy, “Man shall not live on bread alone.” He passes the test the first Adam failed.
Food is a strange substance. If we tried to fast from air, we would die in minutes; from water or sleep, in days. But with food, we can go without for a time; we can say, like Jesus, “This is not all I need.” And whether fasting or feasting, our daily bread can be a symbol of the hope we have in the Source of All.
Categories: Practical Theology