This is part of a syndicated series for Lent 2019 with Harvard’s Christian Journal Ichthus. Visit Ichthus at http://www.harvardichthus.org
Ana Yee ’21 is a History & Science concentrator living in Kirkland House.
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you;
as in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.” -Psalm 63:1
When David wrote Psalm 63, he was in the wilderness of Judah fleeing for his life. He understood the feeling of physical thirst and hunger; he knew what it meant to have nothing, even bare necessities. Yet in his dry and weary surroundings, David didn’t long for food or drink. He longed for God. It can be easy to read David’s words and draw out a dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical. After all, David’s longing for God dominates his physical longings, and he later says that God’s “steadfast love is better than life” (v. 3). The Psalm seems to say that our bodily experiences have little value. However, upon further reflection I’ve realized that it offers a more nuanced depiction of physicality– one in which physical experiences and emotions are an important means to the end of deeper spiritual expression.
The Psalm’s opening verses liken David’s spiritual longings to physical longings. His thirst and hunger in the desert were no doubt intense, and through them David gained an emotional vocabulary with which he could express his spiritual need. Because David had experienced physical thirst, he could better portray his desire for God. Because David knew what it felt like to be full after a feast, he could better understand how God’s presence would satisfy his soul “as with fat and rich food.” David’s physical experiences of thirst, hunger, exhaustion, and past satisfaction allowed him to understand and express his desperate longing for God’s satisfying presence.
Throughout much of my childhood, I thought of spiritual growth as a process in which my faith would increasingly trump my sinful, limited flesh. I thought that the two were diametrically opposed, and my mission was to fight and diminish my physical desires to make room for deeper spiritual life. Of course, this mindset only led me into rigid legalism and little appreciation for my emotions. In high school, I prided myself in being super tough– I wasn’t phased by very much and could withstand a lot of pressure. But what I thought was toughness was really emotional immaturity, and it’s no wonder that I didn’t have an intimate sense of God’s presence during those years. For it wasn’t until I was forced to face deep anxieties and fears and saw God provide miraculously that His nearness became a deeper reality. Like Psalm 63 shows, God can use emotions and circumstances to increase the vibrancy of our spiritual lives.
When we recognize that our physical needs are a means to understanding our spiritual need, we give our experiences value while keeping them properly submitted to the grander process of spiritual growth. Lent is a time to intentionally put ourselves in a place of physical need through fasting or forgoing pleasure so that we can better understand and express our spiritual longing for God. And in twenty-nine days, we will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, who paid the price of our sin so that we could be reconciled to the One true source of fulfillment. Because of Christ, we are promised satisfaction as a free gift bought by His blood:
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.” -Isaiah 55:1