When we talk about hunger and fasting, it’s often about desire: for food, for satisfaction, for pleasure, for our appetites to be tamped down so we can focus on another task at hand. We fast from things like food, alcohol, or social media to overcome distractions and desires in order to draw closer to Christ.
But hunger, unique among these, is also a medical problem. When a person’s blood glucose drops below the normal range, symptoms appear fairly quickly. Most of us are familiar with feeling faint, jittery, or irritable when we haven’t eaten in a while. At concerningly low glucose levels, especially in those with metabolic disorders, symptoms worsen: people exhibit slurred speech, problems with motor control, inappropriately strong emotional expression, confusion, and disorientation. Prolonged periods of hunger, particularly in growing children, can cause stunted growth and cognitive deficits. (It is presumably for some of these reasons that God commands us to feed the hungry.)
On this level, a food fast and a social media fast are very different. That’s not to say we shouldn't practice fasting from things like the latter – many of us, including me, have experienced a closeness with God in Lents past in by realizing how little we actually need the things we use to get through the day. But I will ultimately survive my days without diet soda, social media, or alcohol. Without food, at some point I will no longer continue living. When we fast from food, it is because hunger is such a deep physical need that it brings us close to God.
It's this view of hunger, I think, that can help us hear and understand Jesus in John 6:27-40, where he tells his followers that he is the Bread of Life.
We are needy creatures. We wake up in the morning needing food (and probably coffee), and we go to bed because we can’t survive without sleep. Our bodies can’t go four minutes without oxygen – as sure a sign as any that our independence is an illusion. In a sense we’re slaves to our needs: all we do is go on satisfying them, until our flesh fails altogether in death.
Jesus knows this well. In taking the form of a human, he experienced all of these needs. Earlier in John 6, he provides food for thousands of people out of five loaves and two fish – he doesn’t deny that they have physical needs, and delivers that which will feed their hunger. But then he explains that in him there is incomprehensible providence of a different sort, so great that if we believe in it, we will no longer be enslaved to the cycle of repetitive need and satisfaction.
The belief John is talking about – he uses the Greek word pisteuo – also involves trust in Christ. It means letting go of our obsession with meeting our own needs and having faith that he, as the Bread of Life, will ultimately satisfy. We are given the opportunity to trust in a God so needless and so perfect that He doesn’t even require food, water, or air to survive. A God like that goes beyond my comprehension.
The perverse gift of hunger is the dose of reality it brings. It allows us to feel our neediness so desperately that we can cling to he who promises to satisfy our deepest needs. As we practice Lent, may we be intimately familiar with our hungers, so that we may believe, trust, and partake in Christ, the Bread of Life.
Andrea White lives in Silver Spring, where she spends her days doing medical research and many Friday nights as a volunteer EMT. She is looking forward to April, which involves both Easter and baseball season.