As we prepare for General Conference, let’s consider one way in which the Lord requires us to learn, through hunger. There is physical hunger, and that can teach us its own set of lessons, and then there is spiritual hunger, which presents an entirely new set of lessons to be learned.
Lessons of physical hunger
When we fast we can get very hungry. Going without food causes us to experience a certain sense of desperation that can teach us good things. In the Old Testament the Lord used physical hunger to punish all of Israel for their sins against him. In 1 Kings 17 Elijah, who held the keys of the sealing power, was commanded to seal up the heavens so that neither rain nor dew fell upon the ground. The heavens were sealed shut by the priesthood.
The Lord fed Elijah for a time by sending him to a brook for water and fed him through ravens who brought him food twice a day. But after a while even the brook dried up, so the Lord sent him to a widow in the town of Zarephath. We are not told how many of the people of Israel died during this drought. The lack of rain brought a sore famine that affected everyone, both the wicked and the righteous, but there were few righteous left in Israel. The widow of Zarephath was one of those still faithful to the prophet.
The purpose of the famine was to awaken Israel to a remembrance of their God. When they turned to their false gods and pled for rain the answer would be a continuation of the drought. The idea was to get them to remember that the only one who could save them was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The question of the day was how many would have to die before they remembered the God of their ancestors and returned to honor him? In this case hunger was both a punishment for those hardened in their wickedness, and a wake up call for those who were willing to put aside their false gods and return to the God of Israel and worship him.
Hunger became the test of the widow of Zarephath’s faith. Here is the account in 1 Kings 17.
10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks: and he called to her, and said, Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.
11 And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said, Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand.
12 And she said, As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die.
13 And Elijah said unto her, Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son.
14 For thus saith the Lord God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth.
15 And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days.
The widow behaved in a completely Christlike way when she was willing to put her and her son’s impending starvation in a lesser role and served the prophet, not knowing ahead of time that by so doing she and her son wouldn’t die that much sooner. She trusted the prophet and fed him first with what appeared to be the last of her meager store of food. Physical hunger is a powerful motivator. To subject herself to the will of the prophet when they were so close to death themselves was a great display of faith.
A couple hundred years after Elijah’s day lived Amos. Amos was within a generation of Lehi of Book of Mormon fame. Israel was still unrepentant and wayward. The Lord told Amos that he would not always continue to speak to his people if they continued to refuse to listen. Here are the words of the Lord to Amos about the upcoming famine from Amos 8:11–13.
11 ¶ Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord:
12 And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it.
13 In that day shall the fair virgins and young men faint for thirst.
Notice that in these words the Lord does not threaten the people with death if they don’t return to him. Instead he says he is going to leave them in a state where they will not be able to have his word at all. They will all be in a state of starvation, with no way to be fed. There is an implied understanding that people have an innate need to have a purpose in life. We feel lost if we don’t know why we are here and where we are going after mortality. We lack purpose and direction, and that is endlessly frustrating to us.
It is important to remember that it is the Lord who gives us revelation. He points out in these verses that no matter how much the people want to know who they are, and how they should behave, no matter how much they crave meaning and direction in their lives, he is going to let them live without his clarifying word. Why? Because for all these generations they have rejected him as their God and flaunted their disobedience to his commandments. So he is going to give them exactly what they have been demanding all this time, to be left alone. They had rejected his prophets and cast them out, often killing them. They wanted nothing to do with the God of their fathers, so he “went away.”
The end of the famine of the Word
The famine of God’s word lasted until Christ came and gave them his gospel. But within a hundred years or so of Christ’s death the Apostles were all dead, and the priesthood power no longer on the earth. That means no gift of the Holy Ghost, no revelation, and no faith in the true and living God. For the truth had become corrupted rapidly after the Apostles died. The spiritual famine that followed lasted for more than 1,700 years.
With the restoration of the gospel of Christ through Joseph Smith the famine for the word of God ended. Once more there was spiritual food for the people to eat. The living bread and water spoken of by Christ was once again available to the people of the earth.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland testified of the end of the spiritual famine in these words:
It is to those who so hunger that I wish to speak this morning. Wherever you live, and at whatever point in age or experience you find yourself, I declare that God has through His Only Begotten Son lifted the famine of which Amos spoke. I testify that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life and a Well of Living Water springing up unto eternal life. I declare to those who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and especially to those who are not, that our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Firstborn Son did appear to the boy prophet Joseph Smith and restored light and life, hope and direction to a wandering world, a world filled with those who wonder, “Where is hope? Where is peace? What path should I follow? Which way should I go?”
Regardless of past paths taken or not taken, we wish to offer you this morning “the way, the truth, and the life.” We invite you to join in the adventure of the earliest disciples of Christ who also yearned for the bread of life—those who did not go back but who came to Him, stayed with Him, and who recognized that for safety and salvation there was no other to whom they could ever go.
The problem with spiritual famine
When we are physically hungry there is obvious pain in our stomachs. Our stomach growls. It hurts, and we know how to fix the problem. But with spiritual hunger it is more difficult to pin down. There is a sense of dissatisfaction, a longing for a sense of purpose, a difficult-to-explain emptiness inside. These feelings come from our immortal spirit which understands that it is our connection and relationship with God that gives us our sense of meaning and purpose. It is our spirit that understands that to satisfy our soul one must be connected to the giver of all life, God.
Some of us have decided that we can provide our own meaning in life by following self-defined reasons for existence. But no amount of physical bread or indulgence in physical appetites can quench the eternal need to be connected to our Creator. The need Christ’s purpose in our lives fulfills is the most important need we have in mortality. Elder Holland puts it this way.
It seems that the essence of our mortal journey and the answers to the most significant questions in life are distilled down to these two very brief elements in the opening scenes of the Savior’s earthly ministry. One element is the question put to every one of us on this earth: “What seek ye? What do you want?” The second is His response to our answer, whatever that answer is. Whoever we are and whatever we reply, His response is always the same: “Come,” He says lovingly. “Come, follow me.” Wherever you are going, first come and see what I do, see where and how I spend my time. Learn of me, walk with me, talk with me, believe. Listen to me pray. In turn you will find answers to your own prayers. God will bring rest to your souls. Come, follow me.
With one voice and one accord, we bear witness that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only way to satisfy ultimate spiritual hunger and slake definitive spiritual thirst. Only He who was so mortally wounded knows how to heal our modern wounds. Only One who was with God, and was God, can answer the deepest and most urgent questions of our soul.
Christ’s teachings are a spiritual feast for the soul. His words provide us with the food and water that will satisfy our eternal needs. Only by taking in his teachings and learning to live by them can his teachings bring us satisfaction and relief from the gnawing cravings of our soul. Elder Holland quotes Elder George Q. Cannon who said once:
No matter how serious the trial, how deep the distress, how great the affliction, [God] will never desert us. He never has, and He never will. He cannot do it. It is [against] His character [to do so]. He is an unchangeable being. … He will stand by us. We may pass through the fiery furnace; we may pass through deep waters; but we shall not be consumed nor overwhelmed. We shall emerge from all these trials and difficulties the better and the purer for them, if we only trust in our God and keep His commandments.
How do we prepare for Conference?
We can listen to Conference talks and be pleased by their nice words, but that is where it will end with us if we don’t do some preparation before hand to receive those nice words with the right spirit. We need to recognize our spiritual hunger. We must recognize that the only source for satisfying our spiritual needs will be through seeking to follow and live the words of the living prophets. The Lord never circumvents his prophets. In our day we must live by their words or suffer as ancient Israel was made to suffer because they rejected the prophets.
It will help if we come fasting and praying to Conference. Combine the physical sense of need that comes from a hunger in the stomach with the spiritual need of our spirit. This is a powerful cry for help that the Lord is sure to hear and answer. Be prepared for revelation to be given by those speaking in Conference. They don’t have to say, “Thus sayeth the Lord” in order to be giving us the Lord’s word. And finally, expect personal revelation because you are seeking it.
Personal revelation is part of the gift of the Holy Ghost. We receive revelation every time the Spirit whispers knowledge to our souls or gives us promptings and directions for action. Accept this for what it is, personal revelation. Yes, we can, should, and do receive personal revelation. It is required of us as those who have been reserved to live in the last days. It is part of our inheritance and blessings earned in our first estate.
The Lord does not delight in the starvation of his people. He delights in spiritual fatness. He wants us to feast on his word and be filled. He desires us to drink our fill of his goodness and knowledge. He seeks a people who want what he has to give us, which is the wonders of eternity. But we have to want it for him to be able to give it to us. We have to seek it out and do what is needed for him to be able to bless us with what we seek in righteousness.
So use your hunger, both spiritual and physical to prepare yourself for Conference. Teach this to your children and help your neighbors to understand how important it is to go to Conference feeling hungry for what is to be served there. The Lord will bless those who come to his table ready to eat what he wants to serve us.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland