I've run on empty for long periods of time in my life. Some might say, it's because I haven't been to a church service for a long while or heard enough good Bible teaching. And it's true, we haven't been in a traditional church service for quite some time, and to be honest it has done us more help than harm to have a different means of meeting this need! We are of course still IN church, because together with the body of believers that we meet with, we are living church, even though we are no longer attending one where we would hear regular preaching.
But truth be told, I've struggled with chronic emptiness throughout my church going days. I've heard preachers all my life who say, "You need to be in the church doors every time they are open. Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening prayer meeting. Be there and be fed or you will get spiritually weak." And for the most part, I was there. Faithfully. Religiously even. I heard many more teachings than I was ever capable of digesting, so to speak. Certainly I heard more than I was ever able to put into practice, which means that most of them by necessity just stagnated in me.
I tanked up on teaching through those sermons, through bible school, through books, through the internet. I've heard the good and the bad, and I've learned to discern what is truly great and God-breathed and what is merely human tradition and from the flesh. But very little of even the best teaching touched that core of emptiness.
There's a funny thing about spiritual emptiness. Most of the time we are so used to it that we don't even know that we are empty. Sometimes it gets so acute that we can't ignore it. That's when we typically run to a teaching station to tank up. We sit and absorb the teaching. We consider it, get excited about the new insight, add it to our collection, try to live it out, ignore the parts that disturb us, criticize the preacher for his mistakes, adjust our prayer life, and thank God for speaking to us. And yet, most of the time, according to the gauges on our inner tank, nothing changed. Oh, we feel different, and things go on better for a time, but mostly because we were distracted away from our true inner condition.
Other times we recognize the emptiness when we realize that we have nothing to give to that person in need, when we suddenly realize that we have become so distant from God that we can't pray in real faith and out of the power of God. There is a great danger in such situations. If we aren't honest with ourselves and recognize our true condition, then we will fake it in the flesh and start serving God and man out of our own strength and wisdom. We start becoming religious!
There's another funny thing about our spiritual condition. When we are full, we know it. It happens to many of us so seldom that we don't even know how to define it. I've noticed that it happens to me quite often in a way that seems spontaneous. Sometimes, but not often, I feel that way after a wonderful worship time, when I've been able to worship from my heart and I'm not just singing along. Other times it comes after recognizing my true inner condition and I've cried out in desperation to the Lord, not willing to take no for an answer. I've seen the fullness descend on me after a heartfelt repentance time, when my spirit and soul feels washed and clean. And sometimes after an intense quiet time, when my focus was more on touching God than on learning from the scriptures or praying my list.
When we are spiritually full we feel it. We feel at peace. We feel rested, even in the midst of stressful situations. We feel what we define as the "presence of God." We feel hopeful, patient, kind, friendly and loving, and all of that in a way which is different than normal, because it isn't a strain or stress to be that way, it feels instead like the new normal! We feel able to deal with the normal temptations which otherwise have a tendency to sneak up and bite us from behind when we aren't looking. We sense that we are connected with God himself.
The amazing thing is that, in my experience and contrary to the expectation of the preachers, and things I've taught myself before, it almost never comes through teaching, preaching, bible reading or outward prayer. Don't get me wrong - I value teaching. I love it, in fact. But I'm learning that consuming teaching is not the same as getting spiritually fed.
When Jesus and the scriptures talk about being fed, it is only ever in relation to Jesus himself. The bible never says to feed on the bible. Jesus never said, just read the Word and you'll be fed. He said, "I am the Word of God." He said, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never hunger and he who believes on me will never thirst. ... Most assuredly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. ... For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on me will live because of me." John 6:35; 53-58
Wow. This is something very different than feeding on teaching. It is feeding on the person of Jesus the Messiah! It is eating Jesus and drinking his blood. Jesus states here, that if we do this, we will have life in us when and only when we do it. Could it be that the "feeling" we have when we are full is the feeling of God's life flowing through us?
Admittedly it sounds rather disgusting to say that we are going to eat Jesus' flesh and drink his blood. So much so that even right after He said it many of his disciples were offended and left him. Religion has sanitized this and replaced the meaning of his words with the communion elements. Some have even taught that when we partake of the bread and the wine we are fulfilling these words and receiving his life.
Yet the communion bread and wine are symbols of a much greater reality. Without the reality there is no value in the symbols. What does it mean to eat Jesus, the true bread and true drink?
Feeding on Christ describes the transfer of life which occurs when my spirit touches His. Whenever I look to the Lord and reach out to him with my heart, I am being fed spiritually for as long as I remain connected. When I sit before him, content to gaze on his face and enjoy his presence, then I am feeding on him. Whenever I look to him and wait for him until he starts to communicate with me, I am feeding.
I am feeding because my spirit is now connected to his Spirit and there is a flow and transfer of his Life to me. There is an other word-picture that Jesus used to describe this. It is the Vine and the branches. As long as I the branch am connected to Jesus the Vine, Life flows into me and I am infused with God's life. And everything is different. I am quickly full.
This isn't automatic. I am not abiding in the vine just because I am a believer and saved by grace. It requires an action on my part. This is something very simple yet profound. The Lord has been repeating these words to me over and over in the course of the last year: "Jim you must come to me! Just come!" We must very consciously come to the Lord, and keep coming, and learn to stay there connected heart to heart, spirit to Spirit, if we want to be full.
This may sound a bit esoteric and subjective. Not "meaty" like a good juicy sermon. But true spiritual food will not tickle the mind. Your mind may not even be aware of what is happening while you sit in the presence of your Lord. But your spirit will start to fill up. And if you continue giving the Lord the gift of your time and presence, then it won't be long before the spiritual reality of your growing fullness spills over into your conscious awareness.
Like I said, when you are full, you know it. And when you realize you are full, for perhaps the first time you recognize how empty you were before.
"Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me and eat what is good. and let your soul delight itself in abundance. Incline your ear, and come to Me." Isaiah 55:1-3