Last week, our son Leon was sick. He tested positive for malaria, and had such bad diarrhea and vomiting, that we were very worried. He couldn’t keep anything down, and so he had to be hospitalized. He was so dehydrated that he had to be on IV fluids, and in the end, we stayed with him in the hospital for almost a week.
It was a very difficult time for both Julie and I. Physically, it was exhausting, since we had to take turns holding him to make sure the IV fluids continued to flow. He also reacted to one of the medicines he was given, which was supposed to be a sedative, but actually had the opposite effect. Imagine the worst temper tantrum you have ever seen, and then multiply it by 5, and stretch it out for about 6 or 7 hours. It took both of us to hold him down and keep him from ripping out the IV catheter (which he still managed to do about 4 times).
But even more difficult than the physical aspect was the emotional trauma. I know trauma is a strong word, but I think it fits. Seeing Leon in so much pain for such an extended period of time was like a nightmare. Of course he didn’t like being stuck in the room, and he didn’t like the IV and the constant diaper changes, but the main problem was his hunger. He was so hungry, and we weren’t allowed to give him anything to eat. He kept crying out for food, and it took everything in us to keep from feeding him. It went against every single natural instinct I have. I have always felt so good when Leon eats – feeding him is one of my favorite things to do because he is so happy about each bite, and on some kind of primal level it is so satisfying. Each spoonful feels like an accomplishment. Like taking a step in the right direction. Like I am doing my job as a parent. And here he was, literally begging for food, and we couldn’t give it to him.
The worst was when they brought us lunch in our room. Leon saw the plates and got so excited. They were covered up, but he knew they had food, and he said, “Yeah!” We quickly whisked them out of the door, but it was too late. Once he understood that the food wasn’t for him, he was inconsolable. Obviously we didn’t eat in the room, but as we took turns quickly eating in Julie’s office, neither of us were able to eat very much, knowing that he couldn’t have any.
We forget how dependent we are on food. This brush with real hunger was a good reminder. Leon didn’t eat for 5 days, and he was losing his mind. He would have done anything to get food. Here in Niger, that kind of hunger is never very far away. It is actually in your face all the time as you encounter beggars and people with real needs every time you leave your house. They crowd around your car at most big intersections. But the hunger can seem remote when it is seen through a car window, and unfortunately your heart grows callous when you see it every day. It still bothers you, but not as much as it once did, and bothers you less and less as time passes. That is an awful thing to say, but it is true. You might call it a defense mechanism, but that would be a little too convenient. The truth is, your heart becomes numb with time as you watch the hopelessness and despair around you knowing that no matter how much you do and how much you give it is only a drop in an ocean of suffering. But it is different when you see the hunger in your own son. Then the pain cuts right through the numbness and into your heart.
Interestingly, while all of this was going on, we were studying the Book of Philippians at the hospital. It struck me when Paul wrote, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:12-13 NIV). He was able to say this because he knew even though he was dependent on food, he was even more dependent on God. He knew that man does not live by bread alone, and that just as God gave his people manna to eat in the wilderness, we all depend on him for our daily bread.
The key to what Paul is saying is in verse 13, where he says that God is his strength. That is why he was able to be content, even with an empty stomach. Not because of his own strength, but because of God who strengthened him. It is impossible to imagine a statement like this based on our own strength. In our own strength we are not content in wealth or in rags, and we complain when we are hungry and when we are full. That is because when we depend on our own strength, we never have enough. We are missing something fundamental inside of us. We are missing the connection to our God, our father who takes pleasure in feeding us.
I spend every day at the hospital visiting with the patients and their families. I go on rounds each day, visiting them, praying with them and just hanging out. And when my work is done, I go home. But this past week was different. I was staying at the hospital. It was my home, even if only for a few nights.
It was such a good experience (even though it was a terrible experience). It gave me just a little bit of insight into what our patients and their families go through. Many of them stay for weeks or even months, so I really can’t compare what we went through at all. But it was a taste. And it was amazing – throughout the week, the patients kept asking me about Leon every time I saw them, and some of them came to visit us in our room. They even prayed for Leon, saying, “You pray for us every day, so we need to pray for you.” We also had so many visits from the hospital staff, and other friends, it was so encouraging.
It was also a good reminder for us – we do not live by bread alone. We depend on God, on his love and his provision. We depend on God and on his every word. Sometimes God speaks directly to us, and sometimes he speaks through others who come by to visit. We do not live by bread alone. We depend on the support of others.