Chicken Soup for the Soul has sold more than 100 million books in the United States and Canada and has been translated into more than 40 languages. After the first book was published 23 years ago, it was so successful that more were written. And now, there are over 250 titles in what has become a Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
The book was developed by motivational speakers Jack Canfield and Mark Victor, who used inspirational stories in their talks. When people repeatedly asked if the stories were written down somewhere, Canfield and Victor decided to compile their best 101 stories in a book. And they called it Chicken Soup for the Soul. Their hope was that they could help others by sharing stories and providing comfort and encouragement, much like a bowl of hot soup on a rainy day.
While the stories of others can be inspirational and motivational, and we connect to others through stories and can be soothed by reading or hearing what others have gone through, our souls need to be fed by the Word of God and time spent with God. Just as our bodies need food and water, our souls need spiritual nourishment that can only be found in walking with God.
The Bible speaks of receiving our “daily bread” each day (Matthew 6:11). When tempted by Satan in the desert to turn stones into bread, Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matthew 4:4). In other words, Jesus pointed to the reality that man needs spiritual nourishment and that our souls are designed to feed on the sustenance God provides.
We Find Nourishment in the Way God Leads
Isaiah 49:9 says this: “[I will say] to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’ They will feed beside the roads and find pasture on every barren hill” (emphasis mine).
Earlier in Isaiah 49, the Messiah (Jesus) is the speaker and is addressing the nations. He tells of His purpose in restoring Israel to Himself and being a light to the Gentiles. Here in this section of the passage, the verses speak further of His purpose in bringing captives out of their slavery to sin and into freedom in walking with Him. Certainly, these verses can speak of unbelievers becoming saved but also can be representative of our Christian journey when we have put our faith and trust in Jesus and follow where He leads.
However, this verse also speaks of the Israelites in captivity to Babylon and talks about how they will be led by a Savior back to their home in Israel. (Side note: Obviously, at this point in history, Jesus had not physically come to earth yet as the Messiah, but was still very much present in the story of the Old Testament.)
If we look at the history of Israel, the Israelites were taken from their homes and put into captivity in Babylon when they fell into idolatry and disobedience and broke the terms of their covenant with God. God allowed them to suffer the ruin of Jerusalem and their temple and be taken from their homes, but then, in his loving-kindness, after a time period of 70 years, He allowed them to return back to their homes.
We can further observe two things:
1. God strengthens us along the way.
The passage tells us that “they will feed beside the roads.” Here, the passage gives us a picture of the captives being led home. Like sheep following a loving shepherd, they were given nourishment and taken care of when they went the way that God led. In a similar way, we will receive nourishment when we walk the path God has for us. In some translations, it reads, “They shall feed in the ways” (emphasis mine).
We can’t miss that the food showed up alongside the roads. It wasn’t given beforehand. They were actually underway on the journey when they encountered the needed sustenance. As Alexander MacLaren points out, they were fed as they went. While we may hesitate to follow Jesus when His way looks hard and we don’t like what He tells us to do, we can be assured that we will be refreshed and strengthened when we make time to listen to His voice and follow Him. Though another way may look easier and more comfortable initially, if it’s not God’s way, it will lead to spiritual stagnancy and spiritual starvation.
Also, along those lines, as MacLaren also explains, the ways will feed us. Those things we do in obedience to Him will be those that give us strength:
If you wish to weaken the influence of any principle upon you, do not work it out, and it will wither and die. If a man would grasp the fulness of spiritual sustenance which lies in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, let him go to work on the basis of the Gospel, and he ‘shall feed in the ways,’ and common duties will minister strength to him instead of taking strength from him. We can make the smallest daily incidents subserve our growth and our spiritual strength, because, if we thus do them, they will bring to us attestations of the reality of the faith by which we act on them.
2. We will find nourishment even in difficult places.
Secondly, not only will we feed beside the roads, we will “find pasture on every barren hill” (emphasis mine). We can easily miss this if we don’t look at the words closely, but there is a contrast between the pasture and the barrenness of the hills in which they walk. In this particular terrain, the pastures in which the flocks fed were down in the valleys, or low parts, and not in the high parts. No grass or landscape grew on top of the hills or mountains.
What we can take away is not only will we be fed in the ways God leads, even when God leads us to a place that appears bare, like the hills in this verse, He will also provide for us in those places and keep us sustained. Though we all want our walks with Jesus to lead us to places that are trouble-free, that isn’t the reality of what will happen as Christians. In many ways, our lives may get more difficult when we become Christians because we will encounter more stress and trouble when we attempt to live out the counter-cultural mandates of the Bible. In addition, we live in a fallen world where we have sadness, sickness, and many trials.
Yet, even in those places of trouble and hardship, though God won’t necessarily take those trials away, God provides us strength and encouragement. He may lead us to barren places where we are in great pain, but in those places of pain, we will have the help of God. Though we may struggle every day to get out of bed, when we turn to God, we have a place where we can take our anxiety, depression, guilt, sadness, anger, frustration, or whatever bothers us. Scripture tells us that God is close to the broken-hearted and crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18; Psalm 147:3).
It is better to walk with Him in those hard places than look for the comfortable path where we may have all we think we want but lack what we need in our souls.
Drawing the Sustenance God Offers
Through our everyday trials, God is with us. He nourishes our souls in a way that only He can. And yet, we have to reach out and grab hold of the nourishment He offers. As MacLaren points out, “It is only an active Christian life that is a nourished and growing Christian life.”
We have to intentionally draw close to God each day and read from His Word and also obey His precepts. When we walk after Him and complete the tasks that He asks of us, He offers refreshment, strength, and instruction to us in the process. We grow spiritually dry and stagnant when we neglect to carve out time for Him and His Word and ignore His voice or don’t attempt to hear His direction for us at all.
And what if we are far away at the moment? We can turn to Him and ask Him to help us get back on the right path. We can’t miss that the Israelites led were former captives — captives because of their sin and rebellion. And yet, God freed them from captivity.
Just as the Jews are depicted in this passage as sheep led by a shepherd, we, as Christians, are also depicted as sheep elsewhere in the Bible (Psalm 100:3, Luke 15:4-7, John 10:11). When we allow God to lead us, He takes us to places where there is an abundance of “food” for our souls. This truth can give us hope no matter what place we walk through — whether fertile valleys or barren heights.
Related Bible Verses:
Psalm 42:1: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.”
Philippians 4:19: “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.”
This article is the second in the series “Finding Hope in the Midst of Disappointing Circumstances.” Check out the other articles in the series: “Work That Truly Matters”, “How God Helps Us Overcome Obstacles,” and “A God Who Loves Us.” These are all focused on helping us find meaning and purpose when we are disappointed in the place God has led us.
Podcast Notes and Corrections:
For more study on Isaiah 49, Biblegateway.com and Biblehub.com provide some great free commentaries. I referenced Alexander MacLaren’s, in particular.
In reference to Canfield and Victor, founders of Chicken Soup for the Soul, they used the inspirational stories of others in their talks — not their stories.
*Updated and adapted from post published February 9, 2019.