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Thursday, August 2, 2012

But what about those who do go hungry?

“But what about those who do go hungry?”  This is a question I have been asked more than once regarding the passage we covered on Sunday morning.  In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus exhorts us, “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on…Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  How do we square Jesus’ words with the obvious cases where believers have gone without the things they needed? 
I think of Paul’s testimony in his correspondence with the Corinthians regarding his various experiences as an apostle:
For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. (2Cor 1:8-9)
To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. (1Cor 4:11-13)
But as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…
(2Cor 6:4-5)
Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2Cor 11:25-27)
It would seem from Paul’s example alone that Jesus’ words in Matt 6:25-34 should not be taken as a blanket promise that believers will never go without the things they need or that they will always have plenty.  Clearly Paul was a believer and clearly he suffered hunger and cold and pain, not to mention physical torture and persecution.  God’s provision at times takes the form of something more profound and significant than the meeting of a physical need.  It comes in the form of a more intimate knowledge of Him.
We have to remember that God’s highest purpose for us is to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom 8:28-30).  It is clear that at times He does this by bringing extreme difficulty into our lives.  He does this to teach us things about ourselves and to teach us things about Himself.
A particularly valuable insight can be gained from Jesus’ own temptation in the wilderness in Matthew 4:1-11.  Not only does Jesus know what it is like to be hungry, and not only was His hunger part of the will of God, but Jesus Himself quotes a passage from the Old Testament that tells us why God allows us to be hungry, thirsty, cold, uncomfortable, and even miserable.  When the Tempter sought to prod Jesus into meeting His own need by turning stones into bread, Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 
That quote in itself may not tell us much.  But if we look at it in its original context, we find that Jesus is quoting a passage in which God tells the Israelites why He allowed them to be hungry in the wilderness – Deuteronomy 8:1-6:
1 "The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers.
 2 And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.
 3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
 4 Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years.
 5 Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you.
 6 So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him.
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness was a mirror of this temptation from Israel’s history.  Just as Israel was tested with hunger to see if they would be faithful to the Lord, so also Jesus was tested with hunger.  The Israelites failed by grumbling against God (Ex16:1-8).  Jesus succeeded by trusting in God, not merely in His provision of food, but that the Father Himself would ultimately sustain Him.  Sometimes God lets us be hungry so that we will see that He Himself is our sustenance.  And this kind of thing is always for our good.
This is how Paul understood his trials.  Regarding the difficulty he describes at the beginning of 2 Cor, he writes, But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (2 Cor 1:9).  It was in his own weakness that Paul came to appreciate the strength of God.  He writes in Phil 4:12-13, I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  Rather than doubting God’s provision because of his trials, Paul saw that God Himself was his strength, and for that reason he was confident that he could endure any hardship.
This seems to be the idea expressed in 2 Cor 4:8-10.  It was Christ in Paul that enabled him to endure all manners of adversity: We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.  In our weakness, He shows Himself strong.
Jesus’ message in Matt 6:25-34 is that we should not be anxious – God can be trusted.  But we ought not think that when a believer experiences physical hunger or goes without the necessities of life, that God has failed to come through.  We ought rather to see that God is using that difficulty to bring that believer into a more intimate experience of the sustenance that God Himself is. 
 Posted by Greg Birdwell

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