We live by taking other living beings from the earth, doing some kitchen magic to them, then — with some dental violence — we swallow the bits, and magically they become part of us. This is God’s odd design for powering our bodies. Without participating in this phagic behavior, we die. Can you think of a more strange but assumed part of life? I have been prompted to think, maybe too much, about this process the past year because of a chronic gut illness. I have always loved food —cooking, eating, trying new foods, and especially feasting with friends and guests. I have been told that when I was 3 years old, I tried to cook french fries by putting a potato in the oven with a butter knife. Needless to say, comfort and affection in my family came through food. My parents, as young people coming out of families of economic and class poverty, wanted to share the joy of abundance and flavor with their kids. One of the great joys of my life in ministry is the uncountable feasts with great conversation over pho, bulgogi, doro wett, fajitas, and backyard barbeque. This lifelong joy in nice food has come to a grinding halt. Since this illness began in 2017, I have been on three different healing diets. The three things they have in common is they are all bland, they isolate me from sharing food with others, and they have not relieved the pain that is between strong hunger and an electric shock. Sigh. In the stark words of the prophet Joni Mitchell, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
Although we take the necessity and pleasure of God’s design for our sustenance for granted, the Bible has a lot to say about it. One of the primary things Genesis emphasizes about Adam and Eve is that they were hungry, and God wanted to feed them just like a mom feeds her newborn. It was their hunger (not their sexual desire) that was their ruination. Hunger and its satisfaction are a huge theme throughout the Torah, from famines that tested Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants, to the hunger of Esau that tempted him to sell his birthright for a bowl of red lentil stew, to the grumbling stomachs and voices of the Exodus generation and the manna and quail that God sent to satisfy them. A year-plus into having a constantly grumbling and painful gut, I realize for the first time, I would have been in the front of the line to stone Moses and Aaron for a good hot pot dinner back in Egypt, even if it came with the price tag of returning to slavery.
I have broken multiple bones. I have had all manner of athletic injuries to skin, muscles, and ligaments. I have had a broken neck and chronic headaches. But there is nothing quite like a constant burning, gnawing gut to shout in my soul, Something is terribly wrong! In the “athlete for Christ” days of my early 30’s, I fasted for a week, several times. That was nothing in comparison to this gut pain. When I sought medical relief, my gastroenterologist told me, “Yeah, we don’t really understand visceral gut pain and we can’t relieve it, even with opioids.” There is only slight comfort in eating. There is no comfort in fasting. The pain saps my energy and my concentration. It is with me when I lie down and when I rise up. My great longing this past year is to be at peace, to be satisfied.
As we enter this season of Lent, I am chewing on Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation when “After he fasted 40 days and 40 nights he was famished.” (Matthew 4:2 NET). As Jesus recapitulates the story of Adam and Eve and the Exodus generation in the wilderness, he fixes on his Abba’s word through Moses, “…Ha’adam (earth creatures) do not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3b NRSV, paraphrased).
Copyright: Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Kramskoy
Putting aside my own sense of shame in comparison with Jesus’ self-mastery and trusting dependence on his Father, I take great comfort this Lent that my grinding lack of satisfaction is swallowed up in Jesus’ victories, in the desert and on the Cross. Like swallowing Adam and Eve’s gluttony and pride, he chews up my own disorder and points to the renewal of all things, when I will share in his Great Banquet—where the satisfaction doesn’t last a mere six to twelve hours, but is perfect. I have no idea what might happen with my gut for the 20 or 30 years I (hopefully) have left in this broken world. But my illness has pointed me away from all the ways I have sought satisfaction through eating and towards the God of all satisfaction. May your soul be satisfied with him, as we fast through the Lent of our time in this world.
- Where do you seek satisfaction away from the provision of God?
- What pain or lack of satisfaction do you feel, and where can you place yourself in the story of God?
- Which of Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness find most resonance with your own struggle this Lent? What is he saying to you through your struggle and his own victory?
Mark Phifer-Houseman has been married to his best friend and hero, Gayll, for thirty-two years. He has been enthralled by Jesus since sophomore year in college. That pursuit led to twenty-four years of ministry to college students and eight years as The River’s staff director. He currently serves as a leadership trainer and coach, primarily among under-resourced leaders in the Global South.
Notable accomplishments include: clinging to Jesus while disabled for fourteen years with chronic neuropathy and following Gayll’s leadership in adopting their four children from Ethiopia in 2003. He loves to see young people come alive to God and boldly follow their calling, communities living out the radical love of God, and families and churches thriving (including his own). He's a podcast addict: This American Life, Snap Judgement, Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, and Radiolab are a few faves. He's certain that food in the age to come will be mainly Ethiopian, Indian, Korean, Chinese, and Mexican (not necessarily in that order). He has been led astray by dark chocolate.