John 6.35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
When Jesus describes the life that He gives in the Gospel of John, He uses many metaphors that is related to the basic aspects of human life: birth, bread, water, etc. However, these metaphors are not like many metaphors that we use, where the source domain (that is the metaphor) and the target domain (that is what the metaphor is used to describe) have no real inherent connection except a comparative similarity. If I were to call a person a breath of fresh air, there isn’t really much connection between fresh air and a person’s pleasing presence in the midst of heavy times: there is simply a comparison between the experiences of the person and fresh air. However, Jesus’ metaphors are more that just containing surface similarities. The earthly bread that Jesus miraculously fed to the crowd is a sign of the bread of life that Jesus gives. There is somehow a connection between earthly food and this heavenly food that Jesus gives. What is this connection?
When Jesus says the crowds will never hunger or thirst with the bread He gives, Jesus is simultaneously speaking to their experience of hunger and thirst and to something different. It is quite obvious that Jesus doesn’t mean what it might appear to be said on the surface: that they will never experience hunger pains in their stomach or a craving for a drink of water. Most of us today intuitively understand that Jesus is obviously not saying this, although it wasn’t that clear to Jesus’ original audience. However, at the same time, that the bread of life is connected to the earthly bread that Jesus fed them, the bread of life is somehow connected to earthly hunger and thirst. What can this be?
To speak to this, we have to have been given to life by the Spirit in order for it to be truly possible to comprehend what the connection is. To frequently, we can be tempted to try to explain the connection as being between an earthly food and water that has nothing to do with the Spirit and heaven and the heavenly food and water that has nothing to do with earthly matters. We imagine there being a barrier between the two earthly and spiritual reality that has little connection between the two, except perhaps maybe the psychological experience of peace, hope, etc. that Jesus gives. When we implicitly thing of the bread of life in such a manner, we are actually recapitulating a Cartesian-like dualism where there is some minimal connection between the body and the soul/spirit, but they are ultimately separate and distinct from each other. The spiritual food has nothing to do with earthly hunger, but it totally about a spiritual life separate from the body. Perhaps, however, there is a better connection to be made than recapitulating sharp, dualistic divisions between body and the spirit.
When we deal with motivation and desires in human life, there are two relevant neuro-cognitive systems that impact how we experience want, cravings, etc. First there is the very basic, visceral want for something. The desire for food, the craving for a drink of water, a longing for a romantic companion, etc. We want what we want and this system makes those things that might satisfy these desires particularly salient to our attention. We don’t actively control this basic system of desire, although our experiences and thoughts over time may modify the extent of this desire.
On top of this is the system of higher cognition that modifies how we think about, relate to, and seek to fulfill these cravings. My own thoughts and plans for fulfilling the basic desires not only leads to the satisfaction or frustration of our desires, but it also modifies how mild or intense the desires is experience in our life. If, for instance, I really feel a desire to gain approval for something that I do, but yet at the same time I know that approval or the lack thereof doesn’t really dramatically impact the quality of my life, then that will modify how I experience approval or the lack thereof. Perhaps I won’t get too big of a head if I receive praise or I won’t get too low if no one acknowledges the quality of my work.
WE make these higher-cognitive adjustments to way we relate to desires because other desires come in an substitute for dissatisfied ones. Our regular, human life has it all of desires that altogether impact how we relate to each of those desires. If I am dissatisfied with my relationships, I can perhaps find satisfaction in school or career. The higher cognition that regulates how we relate to specific desires is intimately connected to the other desires that we have.
It is thus possible to be what one might call contently dissatisfied about something, where one simultaneously wants something and yet is capable of experiencing this want or the lack thereof without it being a controlling desire. However, in order to get there, we typically have to adjust our beliefs about various desires over time, again and again, by substituting other satisfied and hopefully satisfied desires for the one’s that we are dissatisfied about. We don’t directly get to a global contentment about all of our broader dissatisfactions, but instead we typically come to partial contentment about more narrow dissatisfactions through how we adjust our beliefs. For instance, our beliefs about the desire to marriage does not necessarily modify our beliefs about our want for financial security. One can be content with less than ideal for one while being heartbroken or anxious about the other.
In order to experience a more global contentment about broader dissatisfactions, we need something more than just higher cognitive approaches that rely upon the desires we naturally have. We need a whole new way of life welling up within us that reorders what and how we want and desire. When a new way of life wells up within us, it doesn’t mean that our regular, human desires are suddenly voided and replaced, but rather that these desires become reordered by the desires emerging from this new life that comes from the Spirit. Desires for food, water, safety, sex, comfort, social approval, etc. are not nullified, but instead are brought into alignment with other desires, such as what Paul describes of the fruit of the Spirit. These Spiritual desires reign in the excesses of human desire that Paul describes as the flesh and brings us to a different way of relating to those desires. We become free to pursue the various good forms that these desires do point to, while at the same time not giving into the emotional excesses that come with frustration of our desires.
This points to a dramatically new psychological reality that God’s life shown in Christ and given through the Spirit inaugurates and develops within us. We can be satisfied with our dissatisfactions. We can be content with our discontentments. We can be calm amidst our desperations. As Jesus said, one will never hunger or thirst with the bread of life, even as it is obvious that people would continue to experience the desires and cravings for good and water.
However, as Jesus talks about this water of the Spirit, this life is something that springs up within us. It isn’t like we get a full blast experience of this life by pushing the button of faith, but that in faith we turn the spirtual knob that increases the flow of water. As we faithfully continue in Jesus’ word, we experience this new life given to us in deeper ways, which will continue to modify the way we relate to our natural desires.
If this is the correct understanding of following Jesus, which I come to because of my own experience, there is one implication of this. We don’t become widespread content by pursuing contentment. We don’t produce broad satisfication by simply substituting one of our natural desires from another. We don’t reliably overcome our frustrated desires by trying to overcome those desires directly. Instead, we find this content discontentment, this peaceful frustration, this calm desperation by following Jesus and submit to His word through the Spirit who gives us life and guides us. But we seek after Jesus for the life that Jesus gives and not simply to address our frustrated desires because we believe in the reputation for Jesus to give us contentment. We must seek the Good of God’s gift of life and not simply the other lower-case g goods or our satisfactions about them.