From Emptiness to IMITATION
“All sins are attempts to fill voids.”
If we are paying attention, all of us taste emptiness in our lives. The emptiness itself is a gift because it invites us to the table of grace. Emptiness reminds us that we are dependent beings. However, we are always confronted with a choice. Will we attempt to fill the emptiness ourselves? Or, will we depend upon God to fill us with His mercy and grace?
In Ephesians 5:18-21, we find a stark example of the choice that lies before us:
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
As we experience that emptiness, we can foolishly try to fill it with wine or some other substitute that deadens the pain. It might be alcohol, over working, over eating, obsessive use of technology, or some other lustful activity. Or, in wisdom, we submit ourselves to God and receive the filling of the Spirit. Simone Weil beautifully expresses the choice:
“Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”
The experience of emptiness in our lives is not to be avoided but embraced because it is the very place we allow God to love us. In the beginning, Adam and Eve were made aware of their God given void and fell into the temptation of trying to fill the void themselves. They demanded to know (eating from the tree of knowledge, Genesis 2:9) when God had told them that He would provide all that they needed (eating from trees of life, Revelation 22:2).
Our temptation when feeling the emptiness is to amass knowledge or experiences or things. It is over-eating, over-drinking, over-indulging, or over-working that snares our hearts. The temptation is to hoard. And, the irony is that rather than filling us, we feel emptier on the other side.
To feel the emptiness is to wait on His grace to fill us.
From the beginning, the invitation has been to join in the divine nature. In the new creation of Christ, the invitation is renewed: “by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4) The nature of God, at its core, is love … that loving dance of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Rather than a dance which turns back on itself in self-absorption, love always moves us toward others. Notice that implication in Ephesians 5 as the filling of the Spirit leads to encouraging others and submitting to others.
Dallas Willard describes the impact of being immersed in the love of God:
“It is being included in the eternal life of God that heals all wounds and allows us to stop demanding satisfaction. What really matters, of a personal nature, once it is clear that you are included? You have been chosen. God chose you. This is the message of the Kingdom.”
We were created with the need for unconditionally loving relationship but it is a need that can only be satisfied in joining the community of the Trinity. So often, we don’t experience the joy of that community because we are demanding that others in our lives or our jobs or our finances fill that need. When we stop demanding that anything else come through for us to fill the emptiness, we are able to move toward others in love just as the Trinity does.
The sixth movement of the dance is moving from emptiness to imitation. When we embrace the emptiness as an invitation to experience His love, we are moved toward imitating the Trinity’s constant movement toward others. We observe this movement in the final verses of Ephesians 4. In these verses are a vibrant description of how we move toward others in love.
All of the relational exhortations are surrounded by a call to truth and grace. In verse 25, “let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” In verse 32, “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Truth was defined in the previous verses as “Jesus” in whom we have new life. And, of course, the love that we extend is based on the loved we’ve experienced by partaking in the divine dance. So, as we move toward others, we speak truth out of love and relate out of love.
When Jesus made this movement toward others, He was described this way:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Full of Grace and Truth
Jesus was full of grace and truth. In its most basic sense, truth is relational. The core truth of reality is that God exists in loving relationship and all creation is related to Him. The admonition in Ephesians 4 is to speak truth because we are all members of one another. Because of our creatureliness, we are related to one another. So, speaking truth is to point back to our design as dependent beings. Love is preferring others above oneself. Love is acting toward others in self-sacrifice.
Jesus poured Himself out for the sake of others. He gave to the point of His own death. As we ponder this truth, the fear of being empty can arise. We can worry that giving and sacrificing and preferring others above self will leave us with nothing.
The beautiful irony of love is that it is not diminished in the giving. It is multiplied. Other resources might dwindle as they are poured out but love only increases and intensifies when it is given. For Jesus, Philippians 2:8-9 makes it clear that His identity and place at the table of grace was affirmed rather than diminished:
“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.”
The multiplying power of love is the reason why Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) We experience deeper and deeper places of God’s love when we give love. Love is not meant to be hoarded but shared. In fact, it cannot be hoarded. The memory of love and relationship can be sweet but it is daily experience that satisfies. It is moment my moment companionship with God that sustains us.
Just as the people of Israel were commanded to only gather enough manna for the day, we trust Him for our daily bread – both the physical manifestation of His providing love and the spiritual consolation of His affection for us. And as we receive, we are able to give. Jesus did not say that receiving was not blessed but that giving is more blessed. Why? Because it is intensifies rather than diminished was what received. That is the power of love.
So, we don’t have to be afraid. We can move toward others in love and trust that the love required can never outmatch the love we receive as we partake in the divine dance. This moves us out of a scarcity mentality into a trust that God’s love is sufficient. It is enough. He is our daily bread.
Brother Mark Brown, an Episcopal monk, shares: “The more we love, the less we fear; the less we fear, the more we love. Sometimes we can address our fears head on and simply dismiss them—or at least manage them. Sometimes love can overwhelm our fear. Sometimes doing some completely gratuitous act of loving-kindness will break through the sclerotic accretions of fear and the fountain begins to flow again.”
The result of receiving God’s love is that we can boldly say: I am enough. I have enough. We can boldly dance with God into the lives of others without fear.
Co-Loving with God
In the late 13th century, a philosopher-theologian named John Duns Scotus wrote about this movement from emptiness to imitation. He wrote that entering into the life of God means that we become co-lovers with God. We join Him in what He is doing. Love is never a solitary activity but a communal experience that begins with the love of the Trinity. Duns Scotus described this co-loving in three ways:
- We become co-lovers of God with God.
- We become co-lovers of one another with God.
- We become co-lovers of the world with God.
The movement of imitating God’s love is not accomplished in our own power and strength or mature sense of perspective, but in fellowship with Him. 1 John 1:3-4 assures us that this fellowship leads to a fullness of joy:
“that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
The concept of being a co-lover protects us from self-absorption and catapults us into self-forgetfulness. Rather than love being about our ability which can lead to pride or having strings attached, co-loving leads us into a joy that comes from living life with God. Co-loving means that we are truly on a journey with God, allowing His life to define and shape us.
In looking at the movement to intimacy, we briefly explored Bernard’s four degrees of love. The fourth, or most mature, form of love is to love oneself for the sake of God. As we allow God to love us, we are drawn fully into the Trinity’s love. When we are loved, we’ve moved out of emptiness and the perceived need to fill ourselves through self-focus. We can truly become self-forgetful, knowing that we have and are enough. And, then, quite naturally we imitate the Trinity in giving that love to others.
Simone Weil commented, “All sins are attempts to fill voids.” When our emptiness is filled by Him, we are free to love. When our emptiness is met by His grace and love, we are freed from using others to be what they were never designed to be.
Dancing into the Lives of Others
So, dancing into the lives is defined by truth and grace. As we gently move in truth, we experience the reality that we are connected to others. In 1 John 1:5-7, the Apostle John shares that when we walk in the light, we have fellowship with others. Why? Because we are no longer trying to use others for our own selfish ends. We know that our fellowship, our sustenance, is with the Father, Son, and Spirit. Then, we move in love as He has loved us:
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:16-18)
Noted author and pastor, David Seamands suggests:
“Many years ago I was driven to the conclusion that the two major causes of most emotional problems among evangelical Christians are these: the failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and the failure to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace to other people … we read, we hear, we believe in a good theology of grace. But that’s not the way we live. The good news of the gospel of grace has not penetrated the level of our emotions.”
At the end of Ephesians 4, the commands that are sandwiched between the call to truth and grace are five ways that we can imitate the love of God as we move toward others. These challenges begin with allowing His love to meet us in our emotions.
- Feel the emotion of anger with Him (“be angry and do not sin”). Rather than suppressing or indulging the emotional response of anger, God invites us to process what we are feeling with Him. To “not sin” means that we stay connected to God as we feel anger. As we do this, we are able to move toward others in grace and truth rather than the selfish, shallow response of wrath toward another. Anger can move us toward bringing justice and/or mercy to another.
- Give to others as a way of life (“he may have something to share with anyone in need”). When we are immersed in God’s love and care, we do not need to steal but can trust that God gives what we need. In addition, we are able to give out of the abundance of what God provides and this makes our joy full. As this is increasingly our way of life, our dependence upon and thankfulness for God deepens.
- Use words to give life to others (“let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths”). Words have the power of death and life (Proverbs 18:21). When we feel unkind words arising in our hearts, we can respond by taking our heart to God and seeking His love and provision so that we can respond with grace. Whenever we are triggered by another person and want to lash out, we have to realize that it is not their problem. It never is. We have to own our own emptiness and meet God in it.
- Listen to the Spirit’s heart for others (“do not grieve the Holy Spirit”). We grieve the Holy Spirit when we ignore Him. We have been sealed in the Spirit until the day of redemption. The “seal” is like an engagement ring that reminds us of our upcoming wedding. The Holy Spirit reminds us who we are and whose we are. We are able to move toward others in love when we listen to the Spirit’s promptings. The quiet, gentle voice of the Spirit is always toward love, both receiving and giving. To move toward imitating God’s love, we cultivate a lifestyle of listening to the Spirit.
- Let go of your demands (“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you”). When bitterness and slander and wrath arise in our hearts, it is a sure sign that we are not entrusting ourselves to God’s care. Henri Nouwen comments, “Forgiveness means that I continually am willing to forgive the other person for not being God, for not fulfilling all my needs.” As demands arise, it is an invitation to seek the filling of the Spirit rather than asking people to do what they can never do.
We dance with the Trinity into the lives of others as we seek to extend truth and grace. Truth means that we are living honestly and speaking honestly. Grace means that we are giving to others what God has given to us, the opportunity to fail and be loved unconditionally. These five commands help us to safeguard love.
Set aside a significant period of time this week for prayerful introspective. Begin this time of prayer with a simple prayer of trust: “Father, I entrust my heart to you. Show me where I have demanded others to be what only you can be.”
Walk through the following questions slowly and prayerfully:
- When do you notice the emptiness of life without God?
- What things do you tend to do to fill the emptiness on your own?
- What would it look like to be filled with the Spirit in those situations?
- How does a scarcity mentality show up in your life?
- Do you believe that you are enough and have enough? What leads you to struggle in this area?
- Who are some people in your life that you can co-love with God?
- What would self-forgetfulness look like in your life?
- What emotions do you need to begin to process with God?
- Prayerfully walk through the five commands from Ephesians 4:26-31. What action might the Spirit be moving you toward?
- What are the ways that we can deal with the experience of emptiness?
- Why is emptiness a gracious gift?
- How can we deal with the temptation of scarcity thinking?
- What does it look like to co-love with God?
- Which of the five elements of extending grace and truth connect most deeply?
- Share your experience of the Spiritual Exercise.