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Sermons for the New Life 4 - THE HUNGER OF THE SOUL

By Horace Bushnell


      Luke xv. 17.-"And when he came to himself he said, flow many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger."

      THIS gentleman's son that was, and is now a swine-herd, brings his meditation to a most natural and fit conclusion. His low occupation, and the husks on which he has been feeding to save his life, recall his father's house, and the hired servants there that have bread enough and to spare, and, no longer able to contain himself, he cries, in bitter desolation, "I perish with hunger." And so, in this story of the prodigal, Christ teaches all men their hunger, by means of that on which they feed, and the necessary baseness of their sin, by the lowness of the objects to which they descend for their life.

      The swine, according to Jewish opinion, is an unclean animal, not to be eaten as food, and therefore is not raised, except by those idolaters and men of no religion, who live as outcasts in their country. Hence it is looked upon as the lowest and most abject of all occupations to be a swine herd. He is the disgust of all men, an unclean character, who is, among other men, what the swine is among other animals. He may not enter the temple, or even come near it.

      By the husks on which the prodigal is said, in his hunger, to have fed himself, we are not to understand exactly what is meant by the English word husks, but a certain fruit, the fruit of the carob tree, which grows in pods and has a mealy and sweet taste. It is described by Galen as a "woody kind of food, creating bile, and hard of digestion;" useful, as acorns are with us, in the feeding of swine, and sometimes eaten by the poorer sort of men, to escape starvation. Still it can work no injury, since this kind of fruit is unknown to us, to retain the word husks; a word that comes nearer producing the true impression of the parable, which is the principal thing, than any other which might be substituted.

      The important thing to be noted, as regards my present object, is the prodigal's hunger. About this central point, or fact, all the other incidents of the parable are gathered. And by this wretched figure of destitution, the Saviour of the world represents man under sin; he is one who forsakes the life of duty and religion, to go after earthly things. He is, therefore, reduced to the lowest condition of want, or spiritual hunger. His food is not the proper food of a man, but of a swine rather. A high-born creature, as being in God's image, he descends to occupations that are unclean, and feeds his starving nature on that which belongs only to a reprobate, or unclean class of animals. In this lot of deep debasement and bitter privation, there is no language in which he may so naturally vent his misery as when he cries, "I perish with hunger."

      What I propose, then, for our meditation, is the truth here expressed, that a life separated from God is a life of bitter hunger, or even of spiritual starvation.

      My object will be, not so much to prove this truth as to make it apparent, or visible, as a real fact, by means of appropriate illustrations. But, in order to this, it will be necessary.

      I. To exhibit the true grounds of the fact stated; for, as we discover how and for what reasons the life of sin must be a life of hunger, we shall see the more readily and clearly the force of those illustrations, by which the fact is exhibited.

      The great principle that underlies the whole subject and all the facts pertaining to it is, that the soul is a creature that wants food, in order to its satisfaction, as truly as the body. No principle is more certain, and yet there is none so generally overlooked, or hidden from the sight of men.

      Of course it is not meant, when the soul is said to be a creature wanting food, that it receives by a literal mastication, and has a palate to be gratified in what it receives. I only mean to universalize the great truth that pertains to all vital creatures and organs; viz., that they differ from all dead substances, stones for example, in the fact that they subsist in a healthy state of vital energy and development, by receiving, appropriating, or feeding upon something out of themselves. Every tree and plant is, in this view, a feeding creature, and grows by that which feeds it, that, viz., which it derives from the air and clouds, from the soil and the changing influence of day and night. In this larger sense, every organ of the body is a receptive and feeding organ. Sometimes it is fed by other organs, which prepare and furnish to it the food that is needful for its growth and subsistence. In this manner even the bones are feeding creatures. So the senses are fed by the elements appropriate, the ear by sounds, the eye by the light. And so true is this, that an eye shut up in total darkness, and probably an ear cut off from all sound, will finally die, or become an exterminated sense; even as that whole tribe of fishes, discovered in the cave, are found to have no eyes. Now what I mean to say is, that all these vital creatures, vegetable and animal, are only so many types of the soul, which is the highest, purest form of vital being we know; and that, as they all subsist by feeding on something not in themselves, and die for hunger without that food, just so the soul is a creature wanting food, and fevering itself in bitter hunger when that food is denied.

      Hence it is that, in that most unnatural of all modes of punishment, regarded unaccountably with so great favor by many, the punishment I mean of absolute solitary confinement, a very large proportion of the prisoners become idiotic. Cut off from all the living sights and sounds, the faces of friends, the voices of social interchange, and the works and interests of life; shut away thus from all that enters into feeling, or quickens intelligence, or exercises judgment, or nerves the will to action, the soul has no longer any thing to feed upon, and, for want of food, it dies,-dies into blank idiocy.

      Neither let this want of food in souls be regarded as a merely philosophic truth, or discovery. It is a truth so natural to the feeling of mankind, that it breaks into language every hour, and appears and re-appears in the scripture, in so many forms, that I can not stay to enumerate half of them. Job brings it forward, by a direct and simple comparison, when he says,-For the ear trieth words, as the mouth tasteth meat,-where he means by the ear, you perceive, not the outward but the inward ear of the understanding. So the Psalmist says,-My soul shall be satisfied, as with marrow and fatness. And so also the prophet, beholding his apostate countrymen dying for hunger and thirst in their sins, calls to them saying,-Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come ye buy and eat. Wherefore do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness. In the same way, an apostle speaks of them that have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come; and another, of them that have tasted that the Lord is gracious, and there. fore desire the sincere milk of the word, that they may grow thereby.

      True these are all figures of speech, transferred from the feeding of the body to that of the soul. But they are transferred because they have a fitness to be transferred. The analogy of the soul is so close to that of the body, that it speaks of its hunger, its food, its fullness, and growth, and fatness, under the images it derives from the body.

      Hence you will observe that our blessed Lord appears to have always the feeling, that he has come down into a realm of hungry, famishing souls. You see this in the parable of the prodigal son, and that of the feast or supper. Hence also that very remarkable discourse in the 6th chapter of John, where he declares himself as the living bread that came down from heaven-that a man may eat thereof and not die. Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life. My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me and I in him, As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father, so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.

      Many, I believe, are not able to read this language, without a kind of revolted feeling. What can it mean that they are to live by eating Christ? There is no difficulty, I answer, in the language, save in getting at the rational and true sense of the figure employed, and, when this is done, it becomes language strikingly significant. Suppose it were said that a tree can live, only as it eats the air and the light; the meaning, of course, would not be that it takes these elements by mastication, but that it has such a nature that it takes them into itself and gets a nutriment of growth out of them, and that without them, so appropriated, it would die. So, when Christ says,-I will manifest myself unto him,-we will come and make our abode with him,-he means that he will be so received and appropriated by the soul as to be its light, the breathing of its life, that which feeds it internally. He assumes, in all that he says, that as the tree has a nature requiring to be fed by air and light, so the soul has a nature inherently related to God, the Infinite Spirit. Hence the deep hunger of the world in sin; because the sin is its attempt to live without God and apart from God.

      Accordingly, it is the grand endeavor of the gospel to communicate God to men. They have undertaken to live without him, and do not see that they are starving in the bitterness of their experiment. It is not, as with bodily hunger, where they have a sure instinct compelling them to seek their food, but they go after the husks, and would fain be filled with these, not even so much as conceiving what is their real want, or how it comes. For it is a remarkable fact that so few men, living in the flesh, have any conception that God is the necessary supply and nutriment of their spiritual nature, without which they famish and die. It has an extravagant sound, when they hear it They do not believe it. How can it be that they have any such high relation to the Eternal God, or he to them? It is as if the tree were to say,-what can I, a mere trunk of wood, all dark and solid within, standing fast in my rod of ground,-what can I have to do with the free moving air, and the boundless sea of light that fills the world? And yet it is a nature made to feed on these, taking them into its body to supply, and vitalize, and color every fibre of its substance. Just so it is that every finite spirit is inherently related to the infinite, in him to live, and move, and have its being. It wants the knowledge of God, the society of God, the approbation of God, the internal manifestation of God, a consciousness lighted up by his presence, to receive of his fullness, to be strong in his might, to rest in his love, and be centered everlastingly in his glory. Apart from Him, it is an incomplete creature, a poor blank fragment of existence, hungry, dry and cold. And still, alas! it can not think so. Therefore Christ comes into the world to incarnate the divine nature, otherwise unrecognized, before it; so to reveal God to its knowledge, enter him into its faith and feeling, make him its living bread, the food of its eternity. Therefore of his fullness we arc called to feed, receiving of him freely grace for grace When he is received, he restores the consciousness of God, fills the soul with the divine light, and sets it in that connection with God which is life,-eternal life.

      Holding this view of the inherent relation between created souls and God as their nourishing principle, we pass-

      II. To a consideration of the necessary hunger of a state of sin, and the tokens by which it is indicated. A hungry herd of animals, waiting for the time of their feeding, do not show their hunger more convincingly, by their impatient cries and eager looks and motions, than the human race do theirs, in the works, and ways, and tempers of their selfish life.

      I can only point you to a few of these demonstrations. And a very impressive and remarkable one you have in this; viz., the common endeavor to make the body receive double, so as to satisfy both itself and the soul too with its pleasures. The effort is, how continually, to stimulate the body by delicacies, and condiments, and sparkling bowls, and licentious pleasures of all kinds, and so to make the body do double service. Hence too, the drunkenness, and high feasting, and other vices of excess. The animals have no such vices; because they have no hunger save simply that of the body; but man has a hunger also of the mind or soul, when separated from God by his sin, and therefore he must somehow try to pacify that. And he does it by a work of double feeding put upon the body. We call it sensuality. But the body asks not for it. The body is satisfied by simply that which allows it to grow and maintain its vigor. It is the unsatisfied, hungry mind that flies to the body for some stimulus of sensation, compelling it to devour so many more of the husks, or carobs, as will feed the hungry prodigal within. Thus it is that so many dissipated youth are seen plunging into pleasures of excess,-midnight feastings and surfeitings, debaucheries of lust and impiety; it is because they are hungry, because their soul, separated from God and the true bread of life in Him, aches for the hunger it suffers. And so it is the world over; men are hungry everywhere, and they compel the body to make a swine's heaven for the comfort of the godlike soul.

      Again we see the hunger of sin, by the immense number of drudges there are in the world. It makes little difference, generally, whether men are poor or rich. Some terrible hunger is upon them, and it drives them madly forward, through burdens, and sacrifices, and toils, that would be rank oppression put upon a slave. It is not simply that they are industrious-industry is a virtue-but they are drudges, instigated by such a passion of want that they are wholly unable to moderate their plans by any terms of reason.

      You see too what indicates the uneasiness of this hunger, in the constant shifting of their plans and arrangements. Even the more constant, stable characters, such as hold most firmly to their pursuits, are yet seen to be uneasy in them; comforting their uneasiness by one change or an: other; a new kind of crop, a new partner, a new stand, a wheeling about of counters, or a change of shelves, or a different way of transportation, or another place of banking,-nothing is ever quite right, because they are too uneasy in their hunger to be quiet long in any thing.

      Others show their hunger by their closeness; the very look of their face is hungry, the gripe of their hand is hungry, the answer of their charity is the answer of hunger, the prices they pay for service are the grudged allowance of a heart that is pinched by its own stringent destitution.

      Observe again the quarrels of debt and credit, the false weights, the fraudulent charges, the habitual lies of false recommendation, the arts, stratagems, oppressions, of trade,-how hungry do they look.

      Notice again how men contrive, in one way or another, to get, if possible, some food of content for the soul that has a finer and more fit quality than the swine's food with which they so often overtask the body;-honor, power, admiration, flattery, society, literary accomplishments. Works of genius are stimulated, how often, by a kind of superlative hunger. And the same is true even of the virtues that connect a repute of moderation; such as temperance, frugality, plainness, stoical superiority to suffering; a kind of subtle hunger for some consciousness of good is the secret root on which they grow.

      There is no end to the diverse arts men practice, to get tome food for their soul, and to whatever course they turn themselves, you will see, as clearly as possible, that they are hungry. Nay, they say it themselves. What sad bewailings do you hear from them, calling the world ashes, wondering at the poverty of existence, fretting at the courses of Providence and blaming their harshness, raging profanely against God's appointments, and venting their impatience with life, in curses on its emptiness. All this, you understand, is the hunger they are in. Feeding on carobs only, as they do, what shall we expect but to see them feed impatiently?

      This also, you will notice as a striking evidence that, however well they succeed in the providing of earthly things, they are never satisfied. They say they are not, have it for a proverb that no man is, or can be. How can they be satisfied with lands, or money, or honor, or any finite good, when their hunger is infinite, reaching after God and the fullness of his infinite life,-God, who is the object of their intelligence, their love, their hope, their worship; the complement of their weakness, the crown of their glory, the sublimity of their rest forever. Such kind of hunger manifestly could not be satisfied with any finite good, and therefore it never is. Look also at some of the more internal and experimental evidences supplied by consciousness.

      Consider, for example, the vice of envy, and the general propenseness of men to be in it. There are very few per. sons, however generous in their dispositions, who are not sometimes bitten by this very subtle and bitter sin. And the root of this misery is hunger of soul. Envy is only a malignant, selfish hunger, casting its evil eye on the elevation or supposed happiness of others. The bitterness of ii is not simply that it really wants what others have, but that the soul, gnawed by a deep spiritual hunger which it thinks not of, is so profoundly embittered that every kind of good it looks upon rasps it with a feeling of torment, and rouses a degree of impatience and ill nature, out of all terms of reason. It is the feeling of a prodigal, or spendthrift who, after he has spent all, vents his ill nature on every body but himself, and hates the good possessed by others, because it is not his own. O, how many human souls are gnawed through and through, all their lives long, by this devilish hunger, envy.

      Remorse differs from envy only in the fact that the soul here turns upon itself, just as they say it is the principal distress of extreme bodily hunger, that the organs of digestion begin themselves to be gnawed and digested, ir place of the food on which the digestive power is accustomed to spend its energy. Remorse, in the same way, is a moral hunger of the soul. It is the bitter wail of a famished immortality. It is your conscience lashing your perverse will; your defrauded, hungry love weeping its dry, pitchy tears on the desert your evil life has made for it. It is your whole spiritual nature famished by sin muttering wrathfully, and growling like a caged lion at the bars which shut him up to himself. And as bodily hunger sometimes causes the starving man to see devils in his ravings, so this hunger of remorse fills the soul with angry demons and ministers of vengeance, waiting to execute judgment. Sleep vanishes not seldom, or comes only in dreams that scare the sleeper. The day lags heavily. The look is on the ground. The walk is apart and silent, and the man carries a load under which he stoops, a load of selfish regret and worldly sorrow, that worketh death.

      Or, if we speak of care, the corroding, weary, ever multiplying care, of which you are every day complaining, what again is this but your hunger. We like to speak, however, not of care, but, in the plural, of cares; for these, we imagine, are outside of us, in things, not in ourselves. But these cares are all in ourselves, and of ourselves, and not in things at all,-things are not cares; cares are only cravings of that immortal hunger which the swine's food of earthly things can not satisfy. You say in them all. what shall I do, for I perish with hunger? You look up from the bitter husks or carobs, and say, I must have more and better; and these more and better things are your cares. The very word care meant, originally, want; and these cares are nothing but the wants of a hungry soul misnamed.

      Sometimes, again, your feeling takes the turn of disgust. You are disgusted with yourself and life, and all the employments and objects of your pursuit, disgusted even with your pleasures. How insipid, and dry, and foolish they appear. An air of distaste settles on all objects. They are all husks, acorns, food for swine and not for men. Just so it is in the starvation of the body. It creates a fever and, in that fever, appetite dies. And this, accordingly, is the rankest proof of hunger in the soul, that it has run itself down to the starvation point of universal disgust. Life is cheap. It seems a very dull and mean thing to live,-as to live a prodigal and swine-herd's life it certainly is. Sometimes, too, your disgust turns upon your own character and feeling; your ambition, your pride, your very thoughts, and you ache for the mortification that comes upon you. My ambition-how low it creeps. My pride-what have I, or am I to be proud of. My very thoughts are all trailing in the dust, and the dust is dry-O God, is it this to be a man!

      I might speak also of your perpetual irritations, your fits of anger, your animosities, your jealousies, your gloomy hypochondriac fears. These all, at bottom, are the disturbances of hunger in the soul. How certainly is the child irritable when it is hungry. Even the placidity of infancy vanishes, when the body is ravening for food. So it is with man. He is irritable, flies to fits of passion, loses self-government, simply because the placid state of satisfaction is wanting in his higher nature. He is out of rest, because of his immortal hunger. Three-quarters of the ill nature of the world is caused by the fact, that the soul, without God, is empty, and so out of rest. We charge it, more often than justice requires, to some fault of temperament; but there is no temperament that would not be quieted and evened by the fullness of God.

      Now the Spirit of God will sometimes show you, in an unwonted manner, the secret of these troubles; for he is the interpreter of the soul's hunger. He comes to it whispering inwardly the awful secret of its pains,-"without God and without hope in the world." He reminds the prodigal of his bad history. He bids the swine-herd look up from his sensual objects, and works, and remember his home and his Father; tells him of a great supper prepared, and that all things are now ready, and bids him come. Conscious of the deep poverty he is in, conscious of that immortal being whose deep wants have been so long denied, wants that can be satisfied only by the essential, eternal participation of the fullness of God, he hears a gentle voice of love saying,-I am the bread of life, I am1 the living bread that came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread he shall live. Are there none of you to whom this voice is calling now?

      I will not pursue these illustrations further. Would that all my hearers could but open their minds to the lesson they teach. I know almost no subject, or truth, that will explain so many things in the uneasy demonstrations of mankind; or that, to any thoughtful person, living without God, will resolve so many mysteries concerning himself. Granting simply the fact that God is the want of the soul, or created intelligence, what can it be, separated from God, but an element of uneasiness and bitter disturbance? If the soul, as a vital and organic nature, requires this divine food, or nutriment, to sustain it, and in this highest, vastest want gets no supply; what else can you need to account for the unrest and the otherwise inexplicable frustration of your experience? And yet how many of you, goaded by this torment all your lives, do not understand it? You go after this or that objective, circumstantial good, thrust on, as in some kind of madness, by the terrible impulsion of your hungry immortality; confessing, all the time, that you fail, even when, in form, you succeed, and showing by your demonstrations that your objects, whether gained or lost, have no relation to your want; but your understandings are holden from any true discovery of your sin. It is as if you were under some dispossession, even as the Saviour intimates in his parable. He looks upon the prodigal described, as one that has lost his reckoning, or his reason; and when he discovers the secret of his misery, speaks of him as just then having come to himself. Could you come thus to yourselves, how quickly would you cease from your husks and return to your Father! How absurd the folly, then, of any attempt to satisfy, or quiet your hunger, by any inferior, merely external good!

      O, ye prodigals, young and old, prodigals of all names and degrees; ye that have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, and have fallen away; ye that have always lived in the minding of earthly things, how clear is it here that no swine's food, no husks of money, pleasure, show, ambition, can feed you; that you have a divine part which none, or all of these dry carobs of sin can feed, which nothing can supply and satisfy but God himself?

      And what should be a discovery more welcome than this. In what are you more ennobled, than in the fact that you are related thus, inherently, to God; having a nature so high, wants so deep and vast, that only he can feed them, and not even he by any bestowment which does not include the bestowment of himself. Would you willingly exterminate this want of your being, and so be rid eternally of this hunger? That would be to cease from being a man and to become a worm; and even that worm remembering what it was, would be a worm gnawing itself with eternal regrets. No, this torment that you feel is the torment of your greatness. It compliments you more, even by its cravings and its shameful humiliations, than all most subtle flatteries and highest applauses. Nay, there is nothing in which God himself exalts you more than by his own expostulation when he says-"wherefore do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which satisfieth not; hearken diligently unto me and eat ye that which is good. Incline your ear and come unto me, hear and your soul shall live." Why should we humble ourselves to so many things that are ashes and call them bread; doubling our bodily pleasures in vices that take hold on hell; chasing after gains with cancerous appetite; torturing our invention to find some opiate of society, applause, or show, that will quiet and content our unrest. All in vain. O, ye starving minds, hearken, for one hour, to this, and turn yourselves to it as your misery points you,-God, God, God alone, is the true food. Ask it thus of God to give you the food that is convenient for you and he gives you Himself. And that is bread, bread of life, bread of eternity. Take it for your true supply, and you hunger no more.

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See Also:
   1 - EVERY MAN'S LIFE A PLAN OF GOD
   2 - THE SPIRIT IN MAN
   3 - DIGNITY OF HUMAN NATURE SHOWN FROM ITS RUINS
   4 - THE HUNGER OF THE SOUL
   5 - THE REASON OF FAITH
   6 - REGENERATION
   7 - THE PERSONAL LOVE AND LEAD OF CHRIST
   8 - LIGHT ON THE CLOUD
   9 - THE CAPACITY OF RELIGION EXTIRPATED BY DISUSE
   10 - UNCONSCIOUS INFLUENCE
   11 - OBLIGATION A PRIVILEGE
   12 - HAPPINESS AND JOY
   13 - THE TRUE PROBLEM OF CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE
   14 - THE LOST PURITY RESTORED
   15 - LIVING TO GOD IN SMALL THINGS
   16 - THE POWER OF AN ENDLESS LIFE
   17 - RESPECTABLE SIN
   18 - THE POWER OF GOD IN SELF-SACRIFICE
   19 - DUTY NOT MEASURED BY OUR OWN ABILITY
   20 - HE THAT KNOWS GOD WILL CONFESS HIM
   21 - THE EFFICIENCY OF THE PASSIVE VIRTUES
   22 - SPIRITUAL DISLODGEMENTS
   23 - CHRIST AS SEPARATE FROM THE WORLD

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