This morning Allison and I spent some time in the scriptures, reading a passage from the OT about Elisha and Naaman, King of Syria (2 Kings 5). Naaman had leprosy and heard of a prophet in Israel who could heal him. When Naaman goes to Elisha for healing, he does not like what Elisha tells him to do. "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean" (v.10). Naaman desires to meet the prophet and become healed on his own terms, not on God's. Nonetheless, Naaman reluctantly obeys Elisha's instructions and is mercifully healed by YHWH, the God of Israel.
After reading the story and swapping observations with Allison, I still felt very inadequate. "Man," I thought, "I wish I could see the scriptures the way Allie does." I also identified with Naaman in his frustration. I often want God on my terms, not on his (which I think is indicative of Modern man's problem). Furthermore, I was doubting the accuracy of these miraculous OT stories and couldn't concentrate on what God may have been trying to communicate. Feeling even more discouraged than before, I asked Allison if I could be alone with God for some time.
I walked out to a swing and sat down with my bible for a while. I looked around for almost 30 minutes, just taking in my surroundings and searching within myself to see what was going on. After finding nothing but more frustration I decided to read from the NT to see if Jesus could shed any light on my situation. Just to give all of you a tip for your own spiritual life: reading Jesus doesn't always produce peace in a difficult situation.
I turned to John 6 and following a quick reading of the chapter I felt as if I had been punched in the face. If you pick up Jn. 6 at v. 22, you find Jesus addressing the crowds and many of his disciples (there were more than just 12 at this point). The crowds who had just been miraculously fed by Jesus (Jn. 6:1-15) seek out Jesus once more. "Rabbi, when did you come here," they ask him in a manner that seems to imply, "We weren't through with you, why did you leave us?" Jesus then tells them that they are seeking him because they are still hungry for bread, not because they are hungry for the Son of God. Jesus then moves into a powerful--yet difficult to understand--discourse about eternal life, the bread of life, and what it means to believe in Jesus.
Jesus compares himself to the bread that Moses gave to the Israelites in the dessert when they were starving for sustenance. Jesus explains that such bread fades in the stomach, but his bread--his own body--offers eternal life. The crowd and some of the disciples are confused and frustrated. Just when you think Jesus would clear things up and aid the crowds in their understanding, he says this: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (v. 53). The response to this by many of the disciples is that "this is a hard saying; who can listen to it" (v. 60)? Only the twelve disciples stick around and Jesus continues to call out his followers by informing them that "one of [them] is a devil" (v. 70).
Now, come back to how I was feeling before I read this passage. I expected Jesus to squelch my doubts, fears, anxieties, and feelings of inadequacy. Instead, I see him confusing crowds and calling out his disciples. At this point, I was incredibly aggravated because I knew that I identified more with the frustrated crowds than with the twelve disciples who stuck it out with the Messiah. The next 30 minutes I cried out to God in sheer anger, pulling on my hair while I was praying and grinding my teeth. I just couldn't figure out why I wasn't experiencing the eternal life I had just read about.
I decided to read through the passage again because something was just drawing me to do so. All of a sudden, like a giant Acme anvil hitting a cartoon character with unapologetic force, God hit me with some truth. The first time I read Jn. 6, it felt like I had been hit in the face and it hurt. This time it felt like I had been hit in the face and it quieted my soul. I realized that I identify with the crowds in Jn. 6 and Naaman in 2 Ki. 5 because that's exactly how I see my interactions with God. I want a therapeutic, consumer-friendly God who will make me feel better all of the time. No suffering or hardship for me, just give me the pill that will make it all better!
Look at Jn. 6 again. Jesus calls out the crowds because they simply want more bread to fill their stomachs. Jesus is trying to show them that he is the Son of God-the revealed Messiah-and all they are concerned about is another meal. When Jesus explains to them about eternal life through himself, the bread of life, they quickly say, "give us this bread always" (v. 34). They aren't even concerned with what Jesus is saying about himself or the fact that God is in the midst of them; they just want the benefits of eternal life. No wonder Jesus comes down so hard on them. The language of eating Jesus' flesh and blood refers to the sacrifice one faces when following Jesus and the hunger one must have to pursue Jesus. The crowds wanted neither, they just wanted full stomachs. In other words, they wanted the end without the means to get there. It is also no wonder that they say, "this is a hard saying." The people up to this point have had it easy with how Jesus has provided for them and shared great love. When sacrifice enters the picture, however, hard sayings are just too much. This, my patient readers, is me.
I am an American who consumes. I consume to fill my stomach. I sometimes forget to chew because I just want to become full. I am a product of my American environment. Just listen to what most commercials about food will tell you (especially fast food). "No other product will fill you up like ours!" In fact, the other day I heard a Domino's pizza ad. that told me I could order 3lbs. of food to eat in one sitting. All of this to say, I am a consumer of goods to the point of excess. The reason I have been so frustrated with Jesus lately is because he does not allow me to simply consume him for the feeling of being full. Jesus does not want you or me to simply eat of his bread to become full, instead he desires we eat of his bread because it is from him.
From my reading of Jn. 6, all Jesus wants from his followers is devotion to him--the incarnate God of Israel. Such devotion requires sacrifice. For so long I have associated Jesus with good, fuzzy feelings and comfort. I have food on my table and so I thank God, but do I even care about God? Is God a Father or a vending machine (see Derek Webb's "The Spirit v. the kick drum")? When doubts plague me and I become frustrated, I just lash out and expect to have the faith of the disciples. What I often fail to realize is that the disciples struggled and suffered to become who they were in the end. Ultimately, I realized that Jesus wants me to want him and not just his benefits.
Is the pursuit of Jesus and the sacrifice that comes with it (taking on the cross that tore his flesh and spilled his blood) worth it? The answer to this question comes from the mouth of Peter at the end of Jn. 6. After the crowds and some of the disciples leave Jesus, he turns to the twelve and asks if they are going to follow the dissenters? Peter answers, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (v. 68). Walking and abiding with Jesus will eventually lead all of us to a point where we ask if it is worth the cost? At such a point, we must turn again to Jesus himself and observe God in the flesh. Yes, it is experiencing doubt, frustration, anxiety, fear, and even death to follow Jesus because he has the words of eternal life. He is the great "I am" and is constantly saving us from being comfortable creatures who would sell our souls for a meal. He moves us beyond the faint desires of our flesh and into true life, eternal life (or "the life of the ages"). I am reminded of the Robbie Seay song, "Rescued Ones," where he sings, "Oh our mouths are full, but our souls are starved for you!"
Jesus is worth following because of Jesus himself and no other reason at all. The love, hope, joy, suffering, hard sayings, and discomforts that come with Jesus give us true life. In summary, I am trying to follow Jesus anew, as a follower of him and not just his benefits.