The Hunger Project reports that every 5 seconds a child (a child!) dies of hunger-related disease. How may I reconcile so many deaths related to hunger versus the promise Jesus makes that a person who seeks the righteousness of God will receive food and clothing? There are 6,000,000 million children who die every year of hunger-related disease – am I supposed to think that every one of them dies outside this promise? Can I believe the reason these children die of hunger-related disease is that none of them come from God-fearing, God-seeking families who live in God’s grace?
This is serious. If I cannot understand God’s promises, then how can I even know I’m saved?
This is the third of several posts about God’s promises. Look at the first section here for a discussion of why anybody makes promises. Read the part titled God makes promises for the same reason you make promises.
You may also want to read my post about God’s promise to feed and clothe us.
First, a “fact check” on that promise
It’s clear to an awful lot of people (including St. Peter! II Peter 3:16) that Scripture includes some things that are hard to understand and can get us in trouble if we’re not careful. The thing to do in those cases is to look at other passages in the Bible to help with the one that is difficult.
The promise Jesus makes is that if we give our lives first to God, then he will take care of our need for food and clothing. To make his point, Jesus says we can look at the care God gives to birds and flowers. Here is the whole passage:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil. Matthew 6:25-34
St. Paul speaks of famine as something we may have to endure. In Romans 8:35, Paul lists several things that do not have power to separate us from the love of God. He includes famine in the list. Paul’s point is that these are things that could very well happen to a Christian, things we may be called on to endure, yet with God’s help they will not defeat us.
St. Paul himself suffered hunger. In II Corinthians 11:27, Paul describes his own hunger in the course of his ministry for God. You don’t seriously think Paul was not pursuing first the kingdom of God, do you? No one ever pursued God’s kingdom with more vigor than Paul, yet he was hungry sometimes. So hungry he includes the experience in a list that includes being whipped and shipwrecked and stoned.
Jesus talks about birds dying. I hope you don’t think I’m being a smart aleck, but think about this. Jesus’ promise compares God’s care for us to his care for birds, but that doesn’t mean a bird never died in a famine. He talks about “birds falling to the ground” in Matthew 10:29. How can I conclude that a bird never died (“fell to the ground”) of starvation? There are droughts all the time. Jesus knew that. So it’s just about impossible that his promise to us of food, which he compares to God’s care of the birds, could possibly mean no hunger or starvation.
Jesus often uses this sort of statement to make a point. For example, he tells us to forgive a person who sins against us “seventy times seven” times. You don’t think he wants me to count to 490 and then stop forgiving, do you? In another place, he says if I give up houses or land for his sake, I will receive a “hundredfold” return. Should I get out a calculator and check his promise? These are not statements of what will happen in terms of mathematics. They are statements that use forceful, memorable language to persuade me to be forgiving and obedient.
Jesus himself suffered. If I follow Jesus, I may very well suffer at the hands of evil or natural disaster. In fact, he says I will be persecuted if I am his disciple. Am I somehow to conclude from the promise about birds and food that this persecution will never involve hunger? Of course not. Am I to conclude that in droughts or the aftermath of great destruction, that I will somehow be provided with food that the non-God-seekers do not have? Of course not.
Next, here are two possible ways to interpret the promise
There are at least two ways to understand the promise Jesus makes of food and clothing to God-seekers. These two ways allow for what I have written above without in any way making the promise void of meaning.
One way. We are simultaneously physical and spiritual creatures. So we need two kinds of food , physical and spiritual. In John 4 is the encounter of Jesus with a Samaritan woman at a water well. It’s a long discussion that moves more than once between the idea of physical food and spiritual food. When the disciples return to Jesus from a trip into town to get food, this exchange takes place:
The disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Could someone have brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work. Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’? I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest. John 4:31-35
Jesus speaks of spiritual food when the disciples urge him to eat physical food — to do the will of the Father is his meat. Then he compares the souls of men and women ripe for the kingdom to physical wheat in the field. Jesus is comfortable mixing his language between physical and spiritual, and expecting the disciples to understand.
Now this is by no means the only Bible passage where physical and spiritual food are compared or mixed, but it’s enough to make my point. To understand the promise of Jesus that God will feed us like he does birds, it is entirely reasonable and scriptural to believe that there will be times when the feeding will be spiritual, rather than physical. Times of physical hardship, even famine, when the food we receive from the hand of God will be spiritual food to give us the strength to endure physical hunger. That’s how Paul is able to say in the Romans 8 passage I mention above that famine has no power to separate us from the love of God. God will feed us spiritually, so we can endure the physical.
Another way (sort of a subset of the first one). Perhaps the promise is contextual in the sense that Jesus means for it to apply in what we call “ordinary times”. If this is so, then famine sweeping over a large portion of an entire continent (it’s happening right now in Africa) is not the context within which Jesus means this promise. In ordinary times, the God-seeker receives physical food and clothing just like the promise says. But in times of warfare or persecution or natural disaster, the promise reverts to spiritual support rather than physical.
There are other passages that we view this way. For instance, the statement is made “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” in Proverbs 22. Nobody thinks that this works 100% of the time. We all know siblings who were raised by Godly parents and shown everything they need to become God’s man or woman – yet within the same family, some leave the faith and others retain it. Does that mean the proverb is wrong? No. It means the proverb tells you what happens most of the time, what happens ordinarily.
Another example – no one believes the commands of God apply to mentally ill people, despite the fact that the commands are not specifically worded to exclude the mentally ill. We just understand that when God tells me not to steal or tells me to treat other people with generosity, that the assumption is my mind is normal, not burdened with paranoia or schizophrenia. The commands apply to people with healthy minds in ordinary circumstances.
Yet a third example is this: when the Nazi’s come to the door looking for Jews, I can lie to them in order to save a life and it is not a sin. The times are not ordinary.
But there is a rock-solid truth beneath the promise to feed us
The promise means that God takes care of his people. And the heart of the promise is its condition: seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Sure, it’s nice to have food. Clothes are nice, too. And in most circumstances, Jesus’ promise means exactly what it says. God feeds us like the birds, he cares for us in the course of our seeking his kingdom. But there is something far more wonderful he gives me and he does not give this more wonderful thing to me the way he feeds birds. I am permitted to possess God as the foundation of my life – to know that I will one day be with him in heaven – to rest sure in the assurance my well-being is in the hands of the God who is love. This is my food, this is the clothing that protects me and that shelters.
Here is a wonderful passage from Hebrews 13, the Amplified Version. I have removed some of the technical punctuation used in this somewhat academic translation. I take this passage to express substantially the same thing as Jesus’ promise of God’s care and his warning to avoid the love of money.
Let your character or moral disposition be free from love of money, including greed, avarice, lust, and craving for earthly possessions, and be satisfied with your present circumstances and with what you have; for He [God]Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support. I will not, I will not, I will not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let you down nor relax My hold on you! Assuredly not! So we take comfort and are encouraged and confidently and boldly say, The Lord is my Helper; I will not be seized with alarm. I will not fear or dread or be terrified. What can man do to me? Hebrews 13:5,6 Amplified Version