One of the many drawbacks of living alone (and I write as one who knows) is the ease with which one succumbs to the temptation of "comfort eating". This malady is defined online as "eating to make oneself feel happier, rather than to satisfy hunger". Many of my readers, I suspect, will at one time or another have experienced its appeal. It is all too simple to dive into the refrigerator for that quick snack which, without any effort, pampers the senses and soothes the anxieties. The fashion of the age is for instant gratification. Years ago someone sent me a greetings card bearing a drawing of a distraught-looking hippopotamus with the plaintive message, "Things are getting worse; please send chocolate". Needless to say, I didn't. I like chocolate myself.
More seriously, comfort eating can infiltrate into our Bible reading. Please don't misunderstand me: there's nothing wrong with sucking a sweet while studying Scripture. But the Scriptures themselves are our indispensable spiritual meal. David described God's law as "sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb" (Ps 19.10), while Job esteemed the words of God's mouth "more than my necessary food" (Job 23.12), and Jeremiah's testimony was that "Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart" (Jer 15.16). The Lord Jesus, the greatest witness of all, summed up the principle by quoting Deuteronomy: "It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Mt 4.4). Such imagery certainly signals that God's Word is meant to be enjoyable as well as educational. But my point is this: we cannot adequately subsist by hastily ingesting a few Scriptural highlights, sidestepping the more demanding passages in order constantly to revisit old favourites. I suggest that the perils of Scriptural snacking are at least three: we tend to read thoughtlessly, with minds disengaged; we fail to develop a healthy hunger for the solid, expository teaching of the Word; and we become accustomed to an unbalanced diet.
Thoughtless reading is a common experience, for familiarity is always likely to breed contempt. One does not bother to pause to savour fast food. Take that crucial moment in history when the Lord Jesus Christ was born. Wise men have come from the east to worship Israel's king and naturally enter the capital city for directions. "When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel" (Mt 2.3-6). The Jewish Bible teachers at Herod's court knew their messianic prophecies backwards and so, when asked the birthplace of the promised Davidic king, they immediately and unanimously quoted Micah 5.2. But not one of them seems to have grasped the significance of the enquiry: the long-expected Christ had actually arrived in Judæa! Sometimes we fancy we know our favourite portions so well that they slip down without any mental or spiritual exercise. And that is sad. God created us with minds to be engaged with and satisfied by the teachings of His Word. I may have read a beloved chapter like John 10 for years without noticing, say, the startling statement of the Lord Jesus to unbelieving Jews in v.26: "ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep". The Lord did not say that they were not of His sheep as a consequence of their unbelief; rather, they did not believe because they were not of His sheep. It is the opposite of what we might have expected. John Gill comments: "they were not among the sheep given Him by His Father; were they, they would have come to Him, that is, have believed in Him, according to John 6.37; they were not the chosen of God…for as many as are ordained of God to eternal happiness, do believe in God's own time, Acts 13.48; but these, not being the elect of God, had not the faith of God's elect". In the final analysis we have to learn that salvation is entirely of the Lord. We miss so much if we fail to read with minds fully alert. Some of the best ways to keep your mind awake and sharply focussed while you read are (i) to take notes, (ii) mark your Bible, or (iii) even do what I try to do – write little pieces of verse about what I have been reading. They are not going to win any poetry prizes, but at least they help me concentrate.
The second danger is what might be called an immature palate. The childhood admonition was, "Eating between meals spoils your appetite". If I am nibbling potato crisps all day long I shall have little desire for a substantial, healthy meal of meat and two veg. This may explain the general apathy that exists towards expository ministry. Some saints seem incapable of taking in any more than a child's portion of truth, their spiritual stomach is so under-developed. This was the problem with the people addressed in the Hebrew letter: "For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age" (Heb 5.12-14). Those who make do with nothing but a few verses ripped from their setting (Daily Light), or the verse and comment on a calendar (Choice Gleanings), are unlikely to cultivate a taste for real, contextualised teaching of the Bible. That, you see, is demanding on both teacher and listener. But it is the true way to grow in grace and be able to identify with the psalmist's joy: "How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" (Ps 119.103). Let us pray for an increasing appetite for the Word.
Finally, an unbalanced spiritual diet produces unbalanced Christians. Just as our bodies require a full diet containing (according to The Oxford Food and Fitness Dictionary) "sufficient amounts of fibre and the various nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals) to ensure good health", so too for spiritual well-being we need the Bible in its wonderfully inspired entirety. And that requires reading habitually and methodically. There is no substitute for a personal reading plan that takes you regularly through the whole Bible. Without method we shall simply omit those less immediately appealing parts of the Word. But they are all necessary. When did you last spend quality time with Job, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel? Remember, the Scriptures as a whole are God's provision for our needs. Of course, although all equally inspired and authoritative, not every part is equally nourishing. We learn a great deal more from the first chapter of John's Gospel than from the first of Esther. That said, Esther chapter one is not to be missed. It sets the scene for an outstanding display of God's providential intervention in the political affairs of men for the benefit of His chosen people. And, on the side, it provides a practical example of the way married couples should not behave towards one another. To assimilate God's truth in all its inspired variety, we must feast regularly on the unabridged Word, every part of which is vital for our well-being. Existing on scraps will not fortify us for the fight, so why not book yourself a Biblical banquet?
To be continued.