Thirst and hunger are two appetites and drives that are natural to the human condition. Man was created by God with the need to drink and eat in order to sustain his earthly, biological life and existence. Without either food or water over a prescribed period of time, death is certain.
In satisfying our appetite for food and water under normal circumstances, rarely do we consciously process what we are doing when we take a bite of food or lift a cup to our lips. The acts of eating and drinking are so ingrained in our daily rituals, that they are practically involuntary. For example, just before I sat down to the computer to begin this article, I helped myself to a few nuts and drank a glass of water—I barely gave it a conscious thought. Eating and drinking—we do it regularly.
Can you imagine what it would be like not to have a healthy appetite for food and water? How would we know when to eat or drink? Since we know our biological clocks as well as we do, most of us in the Western world eat three main meals each day. As they say, we eat—whether we’re hungry or not!
Just as the Creator made man with an appetite for food and water in order to sustain his biological needs, so this same Creator-God made man with spiritual appetites and drives in order to sustain his inner spirit. When God created Adam, he endowed him with a capacity and need for fellowship with his Creator. In order for Adam to satisfy this innate need, God gave him an appetite—a strong desire—to know God intimately, to worship God habitually, to glorify God in all that he did, and to commune with his God and Father in every breathe he breathed. To Adam and all his offspring—from Eden’s Garden to the present day—spiritual sensations of hunger and thirst were given to each person by their Creator.
But while we have all been given an inborn appetite for God, not everyone slakes his appetite by drinking from the water of life and the wells of salvation. Not everyone goes to Christ to drink, to experience his spiritual refreshment.
The sacred Scriptures record a wide range of God-thirsty men and women—in divergent circumstances and cultures—giving expression to an intense desire for the living God. In a passage that has become the classic cry of every God-thirsty soul down through the centuries, the psalmist yearningly cries in Psalm 42:1-2,
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.1
A Common Denominator
I often asked the Lord in years gone by, in one form of question or another, “Was there a common denominator—a marked characteristic—that characterized those believers who had developed a close walk with you? If there was, what was it?” I believe every disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ would agree that this is a legitimate question, and if there is indeed an answer to this fundamental inquiry, such an answer should be invaluable to Christ’s Church and every earnest believer.
Although I asked that question many times, I don’t need to ask it any longer. Why? Because the Lord has given me— and the Church—the answer in his inspired Word. The answer does not lie on the surface, but is carefully and clearly woven by the Spirit throughout its sacred pages. Whether one is reading Genesis or Joshua, Habbakuk or Hebrews, John or James, he will in time perceive that those men and women who became most intimately acquainted and walked in close communion with God, did so because they enjoyed a hearty and healthy appetite for their Father-God. They rose head and shoulders above all others. Why? Because they had an insatiable thirst for God. They panted for God. They were God-thirsty men and women.
These giants in the faith never contemplated merely surviving on a spiritual diet of just having “a little talk with Jesus.” Their appetite for God would not allow them to settle for a measly appetizer or pacifier. They were men and women who ate heartily and drank deeply from the wells of salvation. Their soul capacities were forever expanding. They were God-thirsty saints. They burst forth again and again with God-thirsty longings and cravings. As did Israel’s sweetest singer and song writer when he wrote,
O God, you are my God;
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”2
We read these repeated exclamations of soul-thirst bursting from thirsty saints throughout the centuries. Listen, for example, to Frederick Faber (1814-1863) as he explodes in love for the Lord Jesus:
O Jesus, Jesus, dearest Lord!
Forgive me if I say,
For very love, Thy sacred name
A thousand times a day.
I love Thee so I know not how
My transports to control;
Thy love is like a burning fire
Within my very soul.
Then listen again as he expresses his desire for a deep inner cleansing:
Burn, burn, O love, within my heart,
Burn fiercely night and day,
Till all the dross of earthly loves
Is burned, and burned away.3
Both the psalmist and Faber were experienced God-walkers, but nonetheless, they regularly gave vent to outbursts of soul-thirst. There is an apparent contradiction in the spiritual realm regarding this matter of thirsting for God. For example, Jesus said to the sin-weary seeker at Jacob’s well,
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).
On the other hand, Jesus announced later to his disciples one day,
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’ ” (John 7:37-38).
It is worthwhile to note that the grammatical tense (imperfect) used for “let him come to me and drink” suggests a continuous coming and drinking: “let him keep coming and let him keep drinking.” To one person Jesus said that if she drank, she would never thirst again; to others, he said that they should drink and keep on drinking.
The explanation for this paradox is clear. For the woman who was thirsting for salvation, Jesus said that once she tasted the eternal life that he gives to all repentant, believing sinners, she would never experience the desire for salvation again because her need would have been satisfied through experiencing God’s merciful, saving grace.
This truth is beautifully illustrated in the words of I9th century poet Clara Tear Williams (1858-1937):
All my life-long I had panted
For a draught from some cool spring
That I hoped would quench the burning
Of the thirst I felt within.
Hallelujah! I have found Him—
Whom my soul so long has craved!
Jesus satisfies my longings;
Thro’ His blood I now am saved.4
The audience Jesus was addressing in John 7, to whom the invitation was given: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” — to this audience Jesus was speaking of the promised Spirit:
Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified (v. 39).
On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples, and they were all “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Yet, we discover throughout the Book of Acts that these same disciples were repeatedly filled with the Spirit. Moreover, Paul exhorts the Ephesian believers to be “continually filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). Now what do John 7, Acts 2 (as well as additional Acts texts), and Ephesians 5 suggest about this matter of soul-thirst? Simply this: If the earnest disciple of Jesus Christ accepts his Lord’s invitation to pursue a vital connection with him by being continuously filled with the Holy Spirit, he must have a quality of appetite that draws him habitually to Christ, that he might be replenished in his own inner spirit: “If any man thirsts . . .”
Only the thirsty can be filled continuously with the Spirit. Only the thirsty will abide in the Vine. Only the thirsty will have a desire to intimately know, worship, glorify, and commune with their Father-God. Only the thirsty will discover Jesus as a Friend.
A.W. Tozer underscored the reality of this truth when he wrote, “To have found God and still pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too-easily-satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart.”5
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) expressed many years ago the same idea in poetic verse:
We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.6
To feel an intense thirst for God, often means we have experienced a depletion, a draining in our spirit that needs replenished, refreshed. Paul said our inner man should be renewed day by day. And that it should. But one often is drawn out by the Spirit with an intense, prolonged desire for a fresh infilling of the Spirit. It may be that you will be preaching/teaching the Word of God. It may be that God is preparing you for a new mission, a new step of faith. You may not even know at the time why you are experiencing such soul-thirst. But you feel inexorably drawn to God, to the place of prayer.
I went through—again—one of these experiences just yesterday. It was Sunday evening. I had been relaxing in the afternoon, but when evening came, I felt the need to be alone, to be with God. I went to the back of our property where we have a swing and sat down. I bent over, with my face toward the ground, and was struck by the cracks in the soil (we had an unusually dry summer). I then cried out from the depths of my heart, “O God, that’s a picture of my heart; I feel so dry. I need you to replenish my spirit with water from heaven.” I had no sooner expressed my need to my merciful, heavenly Father, when his words came strong and clear—words penned by the prophet centuries ago: “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground” (Isa. 44:3). I knew the “land” of my spirit was dry; however, before I left the swing that Sunday evening, my spirit was refreshed with fresh water—the very freshness of the Spirit of God the living God was renewing my inner spirit.
Models and Mentors
Living in an age when Christianity is reputed more for its glitter than for its gold, we 21st century followers of the Lord Jesus Christ would do well to seek out those saints in biblical and Church history literature—as well as looking for those among our contemporaries—who evidenced an insatiable appetite for God: Men and women who instinctively rejected shallow discipleship and cheap grace in all its hues. We should select as our spiritual models and mentors those godly, God-glorifiers who have developed through grace a worshiping heart and a holy lifestyle.
These men and women won’t be found on every page of the Bible or in every book of Church history. They may not be found in every pew or in every local church, but you will find them in God’s Word, and you will find them both in classic literature as well as in today’s Church. They may not be in every local church, but God still has his “seven thousand who have not bowed their knees to Baal.”
You can find God’s holy, thirsty-hearted remnant among the Catholics (no, that’s not a typographical error) and Protestants, among the Pentecostals and Reformed, among the Calvinists and Arminians. The only biblical qualification for getting to know God, and getting to know him better, is to continually come with a thirsty appetite to the Lord Jesus Christ: “ If any man thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”
There are no easy steps or formulae for developing a greater thirst for God, but there are some practices and habits of the soul that are common to all the God-thirsty of all the ages. There is a personal price one must pay; there are spirit-exercises which must be pursued. Here are a few of those exercises and practices.
The Practice of Solitude. Aloneness and solitude are not the same. A Christian may be the only person in a building and yet may never truly be alone, as it were, with God. Nevertheless, it is important for one who is vitally interested in developing a healthy appetite for God to regularly separate him and herself from the company of all others. Jesus observed such a practice, for example, by spending time alone with his Father on the mountain.
The Practice of Meditating on Scripture. Note, I did not say reading the Scripture. A person may be a regular, systematic Bible reader and be woefully ignorant of spiritual truth. In order for the truth of God to take root in our lives, we must slowly and prayerfully contemplate what we are reading, asking the Spirit for understanding. This takes time. It is far better to read one verse of Scripture with understanding, than to read three chapters and remain unchanged.
The Practice of a Worshiping Heart. Whether on our knees, driving down a highway, studying for exams, preparing a meal, mowing the lawn, or cleaning the house; whether we are in the home, at the office, in the classroom, or on a vacation, the God-thirsty carry with them everywhere they go—a worshiping heart, a praying heart, a grateful heart. Brother Lawrence (1614-1691) called it “practicing the presence of God.” Such individuals have learned that any attitude or action that disrupts communion with their Companion and Friend, must be corrected immediately. They jealously protect their intimacy with Christ. They jealously guard against grieving the Holy Spirit. That leads us to our next point.
The Practice of Confession. While we should not buy into the “miserable sinner” theology on the one hand or “sinless perfectionism” on the other hand, every authentic, God-thirsty soul—who knows himself better than any other person, and knows that God knows him even better than he knows himself—knows when he kneels before his holy and righteous Father, that he has nothing to boast of, but can only acknowledge his short-comings, omissions, trespasses, debts, sins, and failures to love perfectly at all times all people, under every circumstance.
The biggest souls and the humblest saints through the ages, have practiced confession before God—men such as Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, John and Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, George Whitefield, Andrew Murray, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, F.B. Meyer, A.W. Tozer—and so will we if we are cultivating a healthy appetite for God.
The Practice of Authentic Fellowship. One of the most powerful means of grace God has give to his Church for developing a healthy appetite for himself is fellowship—authentic Christian fellowship. When the New Testament speaks of fellowship, it makes reference to believers coming together in Christ’s name for mutual edification. And this is most effectively achieved in small groups. While not every believer, for one reason or another, has the opportunity to involve himself in a small group, where it is properly practiced, great blessings follow and one’s thirst for God is thereby enhanced. Believers must zealously avoid isolating themselves from the Body of Christ. Fellowship is to be sought and cherished.
An Example of a God-Thirsty Person
On this theme of thirsting for God, I recall the adventure of an African young man by the name of Samuel Morris (1873-1893). Following his remarkable conversion to Christ, this new convert wanted to know more about God, and particularly more about the Holy Spirit than the missionaries could tell him. But they told him if he could get to New York City, there was a man who lived there by the name of Stephen Merritt, who could tell Sammy more about the Holy Spirit.
When Sammy arrived in New York City, he was graciously welcomed by Rev. & Mrs. Merritt. He was taken on a tour of the city and shown many of the attractions. Merritt was a busy man. He invited Sammy to go with him to a funeral where he was to speak. On their way, Sammy asked his new friend, “Did you ever pray while riding in a coach?” Merritt said he had not “formally” prayed in a coach. Sammy told him that they should pray, then Sammy prayed: “Father, I have been months coming to see Stephen Merritt so that I could talk to him about the Holy Ghost. Now that I am here, he shows me the harbor, the churches, the banks and other buildings, but does not say a word about this Spirit I am so anxious to know more about. Fill him with Thyself so that he will not think, or talk, or write, or preach about anything but Thee and the Holy Ghost.”
Merritt later said that he had been in many religious meetings during the course of his ministry in the church, but that he had “never experienced the burning presence of the Holy Spirit as he did while he was kneeling in that coach, beside Sammy Morris who was penniless and clad in tattered garments.”7
One’s thirst for God may be felt in multiple ways, depending on the particular need at the time. But however it may be experienced at a particular moment—and acted upon—it always leads to a greater knowledge and intimacy with God; it always leads us to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ; it always expresses itself by honoring the blessed Holy Spirit; and it always ends by reaching out to others—to saints and to sinners.
Now, what about you, dear reader? Has this vain world spoiled your appetite for God? Is what you’re feeding on robbing you of your thirst after righteousness and holiness—after the Lord Jesus Christ? Or will you identify with the psalmist, who cried,
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. Psalm 63:1.
3. Taken from the hymn “O Jesus, Jesus, Dearest Lord” by Frederick Faber.
4. Taken from the hymn “Satisfied” by Clara Tear Williams
5. A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1963), 15.
6. Taken from the Hymn “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts” by Bernard of Clairvaux.
7. Lindley Baldwin, Samuel Morris: The March of Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1942), 48-49.
Ralph I. Tilley
copyright © 2017 Ralph I. Tilley
(May be copied for noncommercial purposes;
not to exceed 500 copies.)