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What Hunger Taught Me

What Hunger Taught Me

Summit Adventure participants (pictured above) eat very well on course, but Summit Executive Director Tom Smith wasn’t as lucky on an outdoor course during his youth. Read his story below. 

This year marks the 30th anniversary of a powerful lesson that hunger revealed about my sinful nature.

I like food. A lot. Especially when I know I’ve earned it. For example, after a difficult workout or traveling in wilderness areas, I exhibit a strong desire to replenish the calories lost through exertion or exposure to the elements. Friends call it a compulsion. I call it a need.

This story begins simply enough: the summer of 1985 found me at Honey Rock Camp, an extension campus of Wheaton College, where I would be supervising camp counselors. Our staff training began with a five-day canoe trip in northern Wisconsin. I had plenty of experience in these little boats, but no knowledge of a wilderness education tactic, common back then, called “food stress.“

Implementing this strategy meant that the well-intended folks who packed out our food back at camp purposely reduced the amounts we brought into the wilderness. This scheme, needless to say, spelled trouble for someone like me, since there was not enough food to feel satiated. Feeling half-starved after the first meal, I suspected hunger would become my companion for five straight days.

How did a supposedly committed man of God such as myself respond? I panicked. I became obsessed with food, or–more specifically–getting enough of it. That made for tricky living because I shared each meal with eight other equally hungry guys. When the ex-coffee-can-turned-food-pot came my way, I snuck extra. I rationalized this behavior by reasoning that I was a leader who needed spare calories to function well. My constant offers to clean the meal pots may have implied a servant’s heart, but I simply wanted to scrounge any lingering morsels. I made sure to be near the front of the food line every meal–terrified that I might be left with scraping the pot if I stood last in line.

Meanwhile, I completely ignored other important issues going on around me due to my focus on food. Dangerous weather was one of them. Daily cold and rain made an ideal setting for hypothermia and miserable attitudes, and my cure for these conditions had always been—well, food! With its lack came an atypical irritability that increased daily. By Day two, my hunger and anger at the weather made me “hangry,” as some folks call it. These hangries worsened each day–not a pretty picture.

Fear and greed were at the root of my behaviors, not hunger. The biblical story of the Human Fall in Genesis 3 reverberated, up close and personal. Instead of admitting my own self-serving demeanor, however, I harangued against such blatantly irresponsible treatment, heaping rampant blame on the devils that planned this canoeing fiasco.

Months and years passed before I could admit to my failures on that trip. Memories of my one and only canoe trip on Wisconsin soil still pack a potent punch for me. When I struggle to fast as a spiritual discipline (apparently still afraid I will mysteriously starve to death in just 24 hours), I am reminded of that excursion. When I work in Ecuadorian classrooms surrounded by children whose diet borders on malnutrition, I think back to my reluctance to learn while I was hungry. And when griping about any sort of deprivation in my normally comfortable life, the paltry meals we cooked 30 years ago in those renovated coffee cans over pathetic little fires come back to haunt me.

The wilderness is a classroom of epic proportions. God used it on the Israelites’ 40-year “camping trip” to teach them to depend more on him (Exodus 15-40). And God used it to teach me about serving others on a five-day canoe trip, precisely because I found that I felt so empty when I did not put others before me. I sometimes wish for a re-do of that trip, for a chance to actually serve despite my discomfort–keeping in mind Jesus’ example of service on the overwhelmingly stressful eve of his crucifixion.

Using “food stress” as a means to self-exploration has fallen into disrepute these days, and thankfully so. Many argue that knowingly withholding food from participants is manipulative and unethical. Having said that, however, I cannot deny the lessons food stress revealed about my sinful nature on a Wisconsin river thirty years ago. The cold rain that dogged my days on that trip mirrored the self-serving chilliness in my heart.

That selfish nature still surfaces if I get pushed too far out of my comfort zone, though many years of family and ministry have thankfully increased what I consider comfortable. I pray that God will continue to stretch these self-imposed boundaries so that I can more closely follow that example Jesus gave when he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:3-17).

Tom Smith

Tom Smith

Tom Smith

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