If you’ve taken a psychology course in high school or college, or maybe if you’ve watched a few episodes of The Simpsons, you may have heard of a man by the name of B.F. Skinner. He was a psychologist in the 1930s, and he is famous for inventing something that has been called “the Skinner box.” There are various designs for this, but basically, it’s a rat in a box and usually there are two levers inside the box. If the rat presses one lever, they receive a reward response, such as food or water. If they press the other lever, they receive a punishing response, usually in the form of an electric shock applied to their feet. The rats quickly learn to press the lever that gives them food and water and to avoid the lever that gives them a shock.
Now, in the 1950s, two psychologists from McGill University in Montreal, Peter Milner and James Olds, took the Skinner box to the next level. What they did was they implanted electrodes deep in the brains of rats. When the rats pressed the reward lever, they received electrical stimulation deep in their brain, which triggered a sense of pleasure. This resulted in one of the most dramatic psychological experiments in the science of behavioral psychology. These rats would press that lever up to 2000 times an hour, 24 hours a day. They were so hooked on having the pleasure center of their brains stimulated that they would ignore food and water. Mothers would abandon their young, and males would ignore female rats in heat. Eventually, the scientists had to disconnect the rats from the device so they wouldn’t starve to death.[i]
All of Us are Living Inside a Giant Skinner Box
Now, why am I telling you this? Because, in a way, all of us are living in a giant Skinner box. We have various opportunities around us that we can choose to engage with or not. Some of these opportunities bring us pleasure, while others may bring us pain. And many of the opportunities in the world around us are actually designed to hook the pleasure centers in our brains and draw us in. This is exactly how advertising, gambling, pornography, and even social media work. If these hooks get into us too deep, we become addicted. Unless we can break free from the addiction, it will inevitably lead to our distraction.
So the question before us is this: How do we decide what we should be feeding on? To help us as we reflect on that, we will be looking at a passage from John 6:22-40. If you have a Bible or a Bible app nearby, I invite you to turn there now.
Jesus Satisfies a Physical Hunger in a Miraculous Way
As you do that, it is important for us to note that some prior events have a bearing on what we see in this passage. First, just before the events we are about to read, Jesus performed a remarkable miracle. This miracle is the only one recorded in all four Gospels. Jesus had been teaching a large crowd of people for several hours, and it had now come to mealtime. The people were getting hungry, and there were no nearby food sources. Jesus pointed out this dilemma to the disciples, and although they had no solution, they found a small boy who had his lunch—a meager offering of two fish and five loaves of bread. Jesus took this boy’s lunch, blessed it, and miraculously fed the entire crowd. The Bible tells us that there were 5000 men, plus women and children, so it could be estimated that there were 15,000 or more people in total. The people recognized that Jesus had done a great miracle and they wanted to make Him their king by force so that He would feed them all the time.
Jesus realized he had to get out of there so he went off by himself. Later in the evening, the disciples set sail and left that region, heading toward Capernaum. They were sailing across the Sea of Galilee at night when a storm arose. They were rowing as hard as they could toward Capernaum, but making no headway. Then they saw Jesus walking on the water toward them. Naturally, the disciples were very, very afraid. Yet Jesus said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” (John 6:20) Jesus got in the boat with the disciples, and immediately they arrived at Capernaum.
The next day, the crowd in the location where Jesus had fed them and they realized that Jesus and the disciples were gone. They also noticed that only one boat was missing, so they couldn’t figure out how it had all happened. Some boats had come ashore nearby, so they boarded them and headed to Capernaum. When they found Jesus, they asked, “Oh, when did you get here?” Jesus, as He often does in the Bible, responded by addressing the heart issue rather than answering the surface question. He said to them, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs I perform but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on Him, God the Father has placed His seal of approval.” (John 6:26-27)
Jesus knew that the heart issue was that people had missed the point of the miracle. They recognized it as a miracle, but their focus was on the bread rather than what the miracle signified. Every time Jesus performed a miracle, whether feeding people, healing the sick, or raising the dead, there were two things happening. First, Jesus was showing people what the fulfillment of life would be like in the kingdom of God—no more hunger, sickness, or death. Second, each of the miracles was a sign that pointed back to Jesus as the one who brought us into the kingdom of God. The heart issue of the people applies to us as well. We often focus on the gifts instead of the giver.
So the people asked Jesus this question, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” (John 6:28) And Jesus answered, “The work of God is to believe in the one He has sent, and He is the one who will provide the food that will last forever.” (John 6:29)
Jesus Satisfies Both Our Spiritual & Physical Hungers
So what is Jesus saying here? Well, he’s saying that we are both physical and spiritual beings. And we know that from experience because when a person dies, that physical body is there but there’s something missing. The spirit isn’t there. There’s no life there.
We also know this from Scripture, for God tells us in Genesis, “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) And so God has put within human beings a spirit or soul. So we are both body and soul together. That’s what makes a human being. We are physical and spiritual beings.
Therefore, we have both physical and spiritual hungers. If we feed our body and ignore our soul, what will happen is we will initially malnourish our soul. And eventually, if we keep going down that path, we will ruin our soul. And a ruined soul always makes itself known. It results in ruin in all aspects of our life, not just on the inside, but on the outside as well.
If we put our heads together, we wouldn’t have to think too hard to a list of names of people who have all the things that the world thinks you need to have, whether it’s great looks, great power, or much wealth. But on the inside, their life is a shambles. Their soul is ruined, their relationships are shot, and they have no purpose other than to get more and more and more and more.
We need to feed our body and our soul. If we feed our body and ignore our soul, we can ruin our soul. But if we feed our soul and ignore our body, we will live a diminished life. In order for us to thrive, we need to feed both our body and our soul.
Now God is the one who provides food for us, both physical and spiritual food. He does this sometimes in miraculous ways. The Bible tells us about times when God fed the Israelites manna in the desert and when Jesus fed the 5000 by multiplying the loaves and fishes. But God also feeds us in ordinary ways. He does that through the farmers who grow the food, the processors who gather and package it, and the grocers who put it on their shelves for us to buy. And we might think that the food is coming from the grocery store, but it’s actually coming from God. Because God is working through all of those people—the farmer, the processor, and the grocer—who, as they live out the vocations that God has given them, provide food for the world. And that’s just one example. The same thing happens in every realm, whether it’s medical, finance, education, etc. God provides for us through the people He has called to serve us. It’s always God who’s the source.
After Jesus has lifted people’s attention from the gifts to the Giver, he says these words: “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:32-33)
Now Jesus is taking things up a level. He is not only telling the people that it wasn’t Moses who fed the Israelites in the wilderness, it was God. He is also saying that there’s something even greater, and it’s right in front of you. And he goes on to say, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never grow hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my will, but to do the will of Him who sent me. And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those He has given me but raise them up on the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:35, 38-40)
Jesus is the one who satisfies every hunger of our soul. And so, our priority needs to shift from feeding our stomachs to feeding our soul and looking to Jesus as the one who does that, so that we can live the life that God wants to give us.
And Jesus feeds our souls by taking away everything that could ever separate us from God. He did that when he came into this world to become one of us, living a perfect human life for us. He then went to the cross, carrying all of our sin, guilt, and shame, where he destroyed it all. And on the third day that followed, he rose from the dead. That’s how we can know that we can trust in Him for the forgiveness of our sins and the eternal life that we need. Jesus has given us a new life with God. That is what our soul is really hungry for, as Augustine said, “You have created us for yourself [God], and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you.” We can try to fill that hole in our soul with all kinds of physical things, but we’ll never be satisfied until we rest in and are nourished by God.
God also gives us a new future, which is the restoration and renewal of all things. God’s plan is for everything to work towards a day when Jesus will come back to this world and raise us from the dead with bodies that will never grow old, never get sick, and never die. So, we will be fully human, and we will live in the new heaven and earth with Jesus forever. Along with that new future, Jesus also gives us a new purpose because we are now ambassadors of Jesus’ new creation in this broken and dying world. Through Jesus, we have forgiveness of all our sins, we have new life, we have a new future, we have a new purpose.
The Importance of the Body-Soul Connection
This body-soul connection, though, is very, very important because our physical hungers actually point to the more important hungers of our soul. The hunger in our stomach reminds us that our soul also needs to be fed. Our desire for physical companionship points to our soul’s hunger to be loved. And our desire for meaningful work points to our soul’s hunger for wanting to make a positive difference that lasts in this world.
And when we feed our soul with Jesus’ loving presence and His promises, then we have new life. Think about this for a moment: In this new life from Jesus, we have a life that is no longer dependent on the circumstances of this world because we have everything we need in Him. That means there is no reason anymore for us to be anxious or afraid about anything. And that enables us to make much better decisions in the here and now because we have that eternal view that Jesus has given us.
Jesus is Inviting Us into a Different Way of Living
So what does all this mean for us? The other day I was walking our family dog, Bear, and I encountered one of our neighbors. We were talking alongside the road, and as people often do, my neighbor was trying to make friends with Bear. Bear came close, sniffed his hand, and then quickly backed up. I was standing on the street behind the car, and as Bear backed up, a fellow in a Ford Bronco drove by and hollered out his window, “Get off the road!” My neighbor Matt said, “You know, I think people are so stressed by the high cost of living that we can’t even be nice to each other anymore.” I think he might be onto something because the high cost of living is a reality in our part of the world, and it does cause a lot of stress. And when we’re stressed and anxious, we are then unable to make the wisest and most loving decisions about how we’re going to act in this world, not only for the sake of others but also for the sake of ourselves.
Jesus is inviting us into a different way of living, a way of living where He feeds us as the Bread of Life. What that involves for us is lifting our focus from the gifts to the giver and bringing our hungry soul to Jesus, letting Him and His love satisfy us, and then pursuing the fruit of eternal life, which is intentionally living a life of faith in Jesus in response to all that He has done for us. When we do that, we are better able to love and support others, and that makes it more likely that they will be drawn into life in God’s kingdom through Jesus.
A Life Lived in the Resurrection of Jesus
I first encountered Timothy Keller in 2009 when he was on a livestream for the Global Leadership Summit event held that year and he spoke about The Prodigal God. I think it’s safe to say that in the years since, no modern theologian or author has had a greater positive impact on me or my ministry than Timothy Keller. In fact, there was a season when someone once said to me, “I’ve really been enjoying Timothy Keller’s books.”
“Which ones have you read?” I asked.
“Oh, I haven’t read any,” she replied. “I just listen to your sermons” [and you’re quoting them all the time.] Over the past 26 years that I’ve been in the ministry, many of the prominent pastors that I looked up to have fallen for one reason or another, but Timothy Keller has been among the exceptions. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June of 2000, and he passed away in the morning hours of last Friday, May 19. Among his final words are these: “There is no downside for me leaving. Not in the slightest.”
During the Easter season, our focus has been on centering our lives on the resurrected Jesus. And that’s so important because there is no other way for us to die to the cravings of this world and live the new life that Jesus has given us, apart from living a life centered in the resurrection of Jesus. And I believe that Timothy Keller has given us an example of what a life lived in the resurrection of Jesus looks like.
Let’s go back to that question that we considered at the beginning of this post: How do we decide what we should be feeding on? The answer is the challenge that I am putting before you today: Feed your souls on the bread of life from heaven, Jesus, live the life that he has given you, and let Him guide you in everything else. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on May 21, 2023. For more info about WGLC, please go to wglc.org.)
[i] David J. Linden, “The Neuroscience of Pleasure,” HuffPost.com (Internet; available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/compass-pleasure_b_890342#:~:text=What%20resulted%20was%20perhaps%20the,powerful%20than%20any%20natural%20stimulus.; accessed May 16, 2023) and Morten L. Kringelback and Kent C. Berridge, “The Functional Neuroanatomy of Pleasure and Happiness,” National Library of Medicine (Internet; available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3008353/#:~:text=Just%20over%20fifty%20years%20ago,their%20brains%20(Olds%20and%20Milner; accessed on May 20, 2023).
Inspired message. Timothy Keller was indeed an excellent example and he will be greatly missed.
I agree with you.
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