The Great Irish Famine invaded Ireland between 1845 and 1849, bringing indescribable suffering to the country. It's estimated that more than a million lives were lost as a result of starvation and disease, but the human suffering was greater than the numbers convey. Families were torn apart, children languished in their mothers' arms, and the cries of helpless masses went unanswered by a world ill-equipped to respond.
The pages of modern history are filled with stories of similar disasters in China, Cambodia, Ethiopia and North Korea—each one having its own cause. What was the cause of such devastation in the case of the Great Irish Famine? The suffering began with a tiny spore that silently multiplied and almost instantly destroyed Ireland's potato crops. Without warning, a nation's food supply simply rotted, toppling its economy. The lives of the Irish were traumatized for decades to come.
Hidden things sometimes unleash famine in our lives, as well. King David discovered this truth near the end of his long reign over Israel (see 2 Sam. 21:,14). A mysterious and relentless famine struck his people.
Year after year passed, and still the painful plague wouldn't lift. Rain didn't fall, seeds couldn't take root, and harvests never sprang up. God's people were drowning in a flood of lack.
David inquired of the Lord, who revealed the root of the problem. He reminded David of Saul's injustice toward the Gibeonites.
Centuries before, Joshua and the elders of Israel had sworn a covenant to protect this minority people in exchange for their surrender and service (see Josh. 9). But Saul was blind to the value of relationships—even those sheltered by sacred promise.
To him, the needs of outsiders were irrelevant. Saul gave the order to wipe out the Gibeonites, and in so doing, he infected his land and his people with an invisible spore of sin that resulted in a tragic famine.
Naturally speaking, famines are extended times of lack. They begin with a disruption of the food supply, often brought on by a period of drought or war. The process of sowing seed and reaping a harvest is interrupted, and malnutrition, disease and death follow.
Famine of the Heart
During my years as a pastor, I've seen that extended times of emotional and spiritual affliction can lead to what I call a "famine of the heart." The famine of the heart is a season of distress, often the result of spiritual attacks or periods of dryness. The prophet Amos spoke of times when there would be a "famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord" (Amos 8:11, NKJV).
We've all have bad days or weeks, but famines of the heart are longer and far more serious. We run short of joy. Our peace dries up, and we search in vain for a sense of God's presence. Nothing we plant seems to prosper.
The suffering during these seasons can be devastating. It goes deeper than the inconvenience of lack.
When our heart is famished, we grow more confused, hopeless and weary with each day. The seeds of faith shrivel, and our hearts lack the Spirit's fruit of love, joy and peace. When long seasons pass without the Spirit's refreshing rain, we are in a famine of the heart.
Yet famines lift when we listen to God. When David inquired of the Lord, it was the beginning of a breakthrough.
There is a brilliant openness about David. He was willing to follow the truth, no matter where it took him.
He didn't detach from God or blame Him for the pain. He didn't pass his suffering off as mere chance. He was willing to ask the Lord about the cause.
He obviously wondered: Is it possible that Israel has become infected deep within? What will break this famine and restore the harvest of blessing?
Like it was for Israel, it is useless for us to try to fix a famine by fussing around with surface things while ignoring the true causes deep inside. Root issues are critical and must be addressed.
A woman who has endured a lifetime of rejection may find antidepressants useful in numbing her pain, but until she deals with her root issues, she won't be free.
A man who struggles to commit to his wife's needs alone may find an escape from his guilt and confusion in endless hours of television, but until he allows God to work on his root issues, his marriage will never flourish.
Israel's famine was rooted in the issue of the broken covenant with the Gibeonites. It was a sin problem that required a spiritual solution. Understanding this, David asked them what could be done to heal the pain.
The Gibeonites sought neither the payback of revenge nor a payoff of money—they wanted Saul's sin acknowledged and made right. They wanted justice.
The solution, which might seem harsh at first, was that Saul's descendants paid the price with their lives. This was no mob lynching—it was a remission of sin that was sanctioned by heaven (see 2 Sam. 21:9).
The messy business of broken covenants had opened the door to famine. Only a sacrifice could close that door and settle the sin-debt Saul had created.
Right now, the Holy Spirit is digging deep in our lives, helping us to understand root issues. Because He loves us, He's revealing the hidden causes of our lack and pain.
John the Baptist described times like this when he said, "'And even now the ax is being laid to the root of the trees'" (Matt. 3:10). It's time to stop putting Band-Aids on tumors. The Great Physician longs to do a surgical work that brings healing to the root of our problems.
Breaking the Famine
The Bible makes it clear that sin can be remitted only by a sacrifice (see Heb. 9:22). Thankfully, the blood of our Deliverer-King was shed at the cross to satisfy divine justice and restore our famished hearts.
Isaiah foresaw the sin-remitting power of Christ's sacrifice: "It pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin ... He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. ... My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities" (Is. 53:10-11).
Christ also understood His sacrifice as full payment for sin. As He poured the wine at the Last Supper, He told His disciples: "'This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins'" (Matt. 26:28).
The sons of Saul no longer have to die to end our famines. Christ has settled our sin-debt forever, bringing us the promise that we can be free from the spiritual famines of this sin-infected world.
One day a broken woman stumbled into our church office. She had just been released from jail. She was penniless, hopeless and ignorant of Christ's desire to repair her tormented life. She came to us because her car had broken down in front of our building, and she didn't know what else to do.
She asked: "Can anyone help me? I have nothing left but pain."
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