Are you dealing with emptiness?

My leadership at my church feels fruitless and my last few sermons stank; in the first 34 weeks of this year, I published only 25 “weekly” articles; and all my service to a partner charity feels last minute, like I’m doing everything in the nick of time.

Recently, I spend less time with my wife than I want; my brother (who lives in Australia) is visiting for two months and I’ve only met with him once; I’m having far fewer one-on-one meetings to care for acquaintances; and I’m falling behind in paperwork, housework, and email.

Bilbo Baggins once reflected, “I feel like butter scraped over too much bread.”

My heart says, “Me too.” I have too much to do and too little time to do it. My activities suffer from inadequate attention because I’m off to the next thing, which I’ll also do badly because something else (or someone else) cries out for attention. This morning I read this old quote:

God created the world out of emptiness, and as long as we are empty, he can make something out of us.

God is calling me to embrace my emptiness.

He Guides Us All There

Time management wisdom tells us to focus on the important and shed the unimportant. That’s easy when you have one “kid” but when about when you have nine? I don’t sense God releasing me from any of my “dependents” (though I keep asking!).

God stretches us, leading us to a life beyond natural resources. There is something he likes about the poor and he seems attracted to the needy. Because we cry out to him. He not only calls us to being poor in spirit, he guides us to that very place:

  • He leads Moses and Israelites into the Red Sea” trap”, where only God can save.
  • He calls Gideon to reduce his army from tens of thousands to three hundred.
  • He sends schoolboy David—not strapping Saul—to fight hulking Goliath.

Why does God continually maneuver us into places of weakness? Because he needs our poverty more than our riches; he wants our neediness more than our usefulness.

Which is exactly where God is bringing me. It’s the total opposite of self-esteem and natural giftedness; he is transforming my spirit of pride (I can do it!) into a spirit of emptiness (HELP!)

God’s friendship is with those who know their poverty.

We Need That Friendship

Too many books on spiritual wisdom teach us exactly how to prosper: The Seven Essential Steps to Raising Godly Children, or The Manual for Successful Preaching. But Christianity teaches us that our greatest need is friendship with God. Oswald Chambers said it this way,

He can accomplish nothing with the person who thinks that he is of use to God. The most important aspect of Christianity is not the work we do, but the relationship [with Him] that we maintain and the surrounding … qualities produced by that relationship.

That is all God asks, and it is the one thing that is continually under attack.

Amid my “too much to do and too little time to do it,” God is calling me back to friendship with him. It’s not the giftedness I offer, but the poverty I bring.

All we really need is need.

Sam

Are you guilty of self-deceit?

I once visited an executive at a Christian publishing house. He wondered aloud how he should counsel an employee of his who was pregnant out of wedlock.

While he was “wondering,” the woman herself burst into his office in tears. She had shared her situation in confidence with the executive, and then she discovered he had asked several people for their “wisdom” in counseling her (just as he was asking me).

And now her secret was public knowledge.

He apologized to the woman and they agreed to talk later. After she left, he said to me, “I just hate secrets. I’ve always identified with Nathaniel in Scripture, ‘A man in whom there is no deceit’” (John 1:47).

This morning I read this quote in Flannery O’Conner’s Mystery and Manners:

To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility.

My executive friend may have hated deceit, but it felt like he was full of self-deceit.

We May Be Too

When the Word War II allies liberated the first concentration camp, Ohrdruf, they forced the local city inhabitants to dig graves for the unburied dead. The next day the mayor and his wife hanged themselves, leaving a note with these words:

We didn’t know! But we knew.

When John the Baptist called the children of Israel to repentance, he especially rebuked their leaders for their proud, self-affirming religion. He said, “Do not fool yourselves by thinking, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these very stones” (Matt. 3:9).

It is a terrible truth that various evils still lurk inside our flesh, but it is more terrible—and perhaps more evil—when we are unwilling to admit our imperfections, when we compound our faults with delusions of decency.

Self-deceit is not the biggest sin we commit, but it is the reason we commit our biggest sins.

Sam

God needs our poverty more than our riches, he wants our weakness more than our strength. God speaks to us not because of our goodness but because of his goodness. Hearing God can become our new normal.

My wife and I spent the last two and a half years selling our house. Now we have a buyer who will let us stay in our house a few extra months, so we have time to continue our search for a new home. Which is not going well.

Before even looking for our next house, my wife and I prayed, brainstormed our ideas onto a whiteboard, and we easily, and mutually, agreed on three priorities: layout, land, and location. We want a layout to handle in-house retreats and frequent long-term guests; we want land for retreat activities and gardening; and we want a location that’s close to church and friends.

We have scoured every house-hunting site ever invented, and found nothing. Houses are huge or tiny, layouts don’t work, or the land is ill-suited. Then my son found a house that completely met two of our three priorities (better than we hoped), but fell far short on a third.

And we are stuck. One of us is fine with the compromise and the other very uncomfortable. We’ve asked friends for advice, and eagerly (and desperately) sought God.

And we hear nothing that brings clarity.

History

To complicate matters, marriages have histories. When we bought our existing house, it came with compromises for one of us that caused an inner-struggle for the twenty-seven years we lived here. And we don’t want to repeat that approach.

When we eventually do buy our next house, it will involve compromises (the land may be so-so but the layout perfect), unless we wish to pay so much for it that we mortgage our futures, sell our grandchildren into slavery, empty our savings, and live on oatmeal and water. That’s a compromise neither of us will make. (We like Grape Nuts too much.)

So, if one of us faces a house-compromise in the future, that person either needs to veto the compromise by playing a no-compromise trump card, or that person needs to accept the compromise, and rip up that trump card forever.

(Sorry about the “trump” reference. I was on vacation, played euchre, and trumping is on my mind. This message is not endorsed by any political candidate.)

How Does God Answer Me?

This morning I read the first half of Isaiah 57:1-13. For twelve and a half verses, God describes the unfaithful idolatry of his people. The last half of verse 13 says this:

But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land and shall inherit my holy mountain.

For a fleeting moment, sheer joy coursed through my veins. And then my heart stopped. If I take “refuge in God” so that I can “possess the land,” my refuge is in the land. God is merely a middle-man. The first twelve and a half verses of the chapter describe God’s children who choose the gifts of God over the Giver. Here I was doing the same thing.

Besides, when have any of us ever fully taken refuge in God? We’re like swimmers trying to cross the Pacific. Some make it a hundred yards and some make it a hundred miles. We’re still in over our head.

The only person who ever rested in God was Jesus, and God promised his reward to me. I’m praying about what house to buy, and God’s answer is to reveal to me my inability to fully rest in him. But I can see Jesus taking refuge in the Father for my sake, and in that picture, I find hope. His reward is assured because he really did it; and then he promises me his prize.

Instead of building, God wants me to behold; instead of searching, God wants me to see. Him. The “rest” will come in God’s good grace and timing.

Sam

P. S. You are my marketing department. We don’t have many funds for advertising; besides, I strongly believe in word of mouth over words of self-praise!