#realtalk The Gift of Emptiness
This week, we are closing out our #realtalk series. We’ve heard Bill talk about A Crisis of Faith. We learned about setting up a Stone of Help. I wrote a few weeks ago about the Beauty of Grace, Fletcher reminded us that we can sometimes Underestimate God’s Grace, and Oscar talked about being A Child of the King. My prayer is that you’ve been encouraged by each of these messages, and hopefully you’ve learned that, despite what you may be going through, God is still there, and still desires a relationship with you. This series have been very important to us as a ministry, because each one of us has had the realization of how, even in the midst of unspeakable tragedy, God is still present. Whatever you’re going through, or has happened to you in your past, He is still pursuing a relationship with you, and you are never too far gone to receive God’s grace.
Today, we are talking about the gift of emptiness. Now, I know emptiness is not a gift that most of us would desire to get. It’s not the present you hope to wake up to on Christmas morning, or your birthday. Imagine waking up on Christmas morning to find that all the boxes that are wrapped up have nothing in them. That wouldn’t be much fun, but being empty is the best place you can be to be filled by God. The last time I wrote to you, I said that being desperate for God is a hard place to get, but it’s a great place to be. That was exactly where I found myself just a few months ago. Let me explain.
December 23 of last year, I went to Rockwall to attend the candlelight service at my old church. It was the first time I had been in several months, and I was excited to be back in Rockwall, and to get to see some of my close friends. I loved getting to see old friends, and it filled my heart to be back at the church I loved so much. Little did I know that my life would change forever in just a few hours. Around 1 AM Christmas Eve morning, I started to head back towards home. As I pulled into town, I found myself behind a drunk driver, and I immediately called 911 to report him. I stayed behind him to try to see if someone would pull him over, because I didn’t want him to hurt anyone, or himself. As a result, I missed my usual exit, and had to backtrack to make it home. With less than a mile to go to my apartment, I hit a man who had been bent over in the middle of the road. He had been wearing dark clothes, and was in a position where I did not see him. It was the worst moment of my life. I found out later that night that the man had died at a local hospital, and my life was changed forever. I have never felt as alone, or as empty as I did that night, and I pray that I never will again, but I learned something through all of that; when we feel completely empty is when we are most able to be filled by God.
Our main text for this week is found in 2 Corinthians 12. We will start with verse 7, and work our way through verse 10. We will also be in Romans 15, Nahum 1, and Matthew 5. In 2 Corinthians, Paul is talking to the church in Corinth, and he is speaking to them about visions and revelations the Lord has given him, but he is very careful to ensure that they know he is not boasting about himself, but about the Lord. That is where we pick up in verse 7.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NIV) says “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
My first point is this:
Do you remember the song “Jesus Loves Me” that we sang as kids? If not, don’t worry. This won’t be on the final. There was a line in the song that says “I am weak, but He is strong.” Paul is saying that here in these verses. V. 10 says “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul knows very well where his strength comes from. He even points it out in Philippians 4:13, when he says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The first few weeks after the accident, I barely left my room. I was constantly crying. I couldn’t sleep very well, and had vivid nightmares. I didn’t even drive for over a month after that, and it took my girlfriend convincing me to face my fears before I did. Even when I rode with other people, I would have flashbacks. It was a terrifying thing, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I learned that, when God is all you have, He’s all you need. You see, I didn’t have the strength to do much of anything. I didn’t even like being around people, and it made me nervous to be in public, but that didn’t matter. God was using the fact that I didn’t have the strength to show me how much He had. I remember the first time I drove. My girlfriend at the time and I had been out running around earlier that day, and I had seen a pillow that I really loved (and it was definitely time for a new pillow. The old one looked like a civil war bandage). I made the decision not to get it while we were there the first time, but after we got back to my apartment, I found myself regretting that decision, so I told her I wanted to go back and get it. She made a deal with me that I am forever grateful for, and for more than one reason. She told me that she would buy it if I would drive. I hadn’t driven since the accident, and the idea terrified me, especially since it had already gotten dark. I had a choice to make. Which was stronger; my fear or driving or my desire to have a new pillow? The funny thing is, one of the things that I feared would happen the most happened right in front of us almost as soon as we pulled out of the apartment complex. Someone in a Chevy pickup lost a mirror out of the bed of their truck, and pulled over to retrieve it from the middle of the road, which was exactly how my accident had happened. What I realized right then was, as afraid of driving (especially at night) as I was, God gave me the strength to do it, and I’ve been able to drive ever since. It’s not always easy, but I’ve been much more comfortable behind the wheel.
John A. Shedd said “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.” After the accident, it was very hard for me to have any desire to go anywhere, especially in the Waco area. I felt the guilt of what had happened, and I saw that man’s face almost every time I turned around, especially at night. It was definitely the worst time of my life, but God had a purpose for that pain. John 5 gives us a great example of this. Jesus had met a man who was laying next to the pool of Bethesda, which was said to be a healing pool. The Bible says the man had been sick for 38 years, but in v. 6, Jesus asks him “Would you like to get well?” Seems like a foolish question, right? As we move down to v. 8, Jesus tells the man to get up, pick up his mat, and walk. You see, Jesus is capable of healing our brokenness, but we have to ask for His help. It’s okay to be hurt, broken, and empty, but it’s not okay to stay there.
In Psalm 34:17 (NLT), David writes “The Lord hears his people when they call to him for help. He rescues them from all their troubles.” This brings me to my second point.
Those of you that know me know that I have not always tried to be a follower of Christ. There was a long period of my life when I gave in to worldly desires. I drank heavily, was promiscuous, smoked, and treated people very poorly. Galations 5:19-21 (NCV) says “The wrong things the sinful self does are clear: being sexually unfaithful, not being pure, taking part in sexual sins, worshiping gods, doing witchcraft, hating, making trouble, being jealous, being angry, being selfish, making people angry with each other, causing divisions among people, feeling envy, being drunk, having wild and wasteful parties, and doing other things like these. I warn you now as I warned you before: Those who do these things will not inherit God’s kingdom.” It would have been very easy for me to fall back into that lifestyle after the accident. Honestly, I’m not sure that many people would have blamed me, but I’m thankful for the people who reached out and encouraged me to focus on Christ in the days and months following the accident. You see, I spent a great deal of my adult life trying to numb myself to the things that I had been through. I drank a lot because it kept me from having to feel the pain of an abusive childhood, all the failed relationships I have had over the years, my failures as a father, and even the failures in my professional career. It’s very easy to look to things of this world to satisfy the hole that we have in our hearts. Paul talks about this in Ephesians 5:18 (NLT) when he says “Do not be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit.” What Paul is saying here is that we should focus our eyes on Christ in hard times instead of giving in to fleshly desires, because those desires, if acted on, can destroy us.
There is a song by Lifehouse called Storm. The second verse says
“I know you didn’t bring me out here to drown
So why am I ten feet under and upside down
Barely surviving has become my purpose
Cause I’m so used to living underneath the surface”
Sometimes, that’s how it feels when you’re at the place of feeling empty. It seems like the waves just keep coming, but remember that Jesus calms the storm. Matthew 8:23-27 (NLT) says “Then Jesus got into the boat and started across the lake with his disciples. Suddenly, a fierce storm struck the lake, with waves breaking into the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!’ Jesus responded, ‘Why are you afraid? You have so little faith!’ The he got up and rebuked the wind and waves, and suddenly there was a great calm. The disciples were amazed. ‘Who is this man?’ they asked. ‘Even the winds and waves obey him.’” It might feel like you’re drowning, but Jesus can calm the waves, and even raise you from the depths, if you’ll just call out to him.
Have you ever been to Waffle House? I was there with someone the other night, and she had a coffee. Every so often, the waiter would come by and ask if she needed a refill. At most restaurants, your waiter or waitress will come by every so often and make sure that your cups are always full. In the same way, God longs to fill the cups of those who are down. When I was younger, I didn’t have the relationship with God that I have now. When I had days where I was depressed or lonely (which was often), I tried to fill that cup with alcohol, sex, pornography, or even with my friendships. I was leaning on all the wrong things to be filled. After the accident, I had nothing left. My cup was completely empty, but I still had God. I started spending more time in the Word, and more time in prayer, and before long, I was beginning to see that my life was more full of joy and peace than I could have ever imagined it would be. Psalm 34:18 (NLT) is a verse that I’m sure some of you are familiar with. It says “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.” My spirit was completely crushed. I didn’t even really know if I wanted to keep living after what had happened, but God wasn’t done with me. He had a purpose for me, and He used my emptiness as an opportunity to fill me up with the things He wanted for my life. You see, I could very easily have turned back to drinking, or pornography, or any other addiction, and I know many people do after they suffer a tragedy. I’m so thankful that I had people around me who made sure that I didn’t go down that road again, and that I turned to the things that would benefit my life, as opposed to cause more damage. Romans 15:13 (NLT) says “I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.” When we realize that all the things we have tried to fill our lives with won’t satisfy us, and we empty ourselves before God, He is always willing to come and fill us with His love, grace, goodness, and mercy. D.L. Moody said “God sends no one away empty except those who are full of themselves.”
I have a friend who is a student pastor at a church in Dallas, and he sent me a text a few weeks ago with nothing but this verse on it. The verse was Nahum 1:7 (NIV), which says “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.” That verse has given me great peace, despite all that’s happened. I won’t say that it’s been completely easy, but I have had a peace that passes all understanding, and I know it can only be because I went to God in my emptiness. Matthew 5:3 (NIV) says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This brings me to my final point.
There’s a beautiful thing that happens when we are humbled. It changes your perspective on things. When something happens that leaves you feeling completely empty, you begin to let go of things that used to make you angry. The guy that cuts you off on the highway doesn’t bother you as much. The coworker who can’t stop talking about her 7 cats (if this is you, please stop), the fact that your food takes longer to be delivered. You see, what I learned after the accident is that I didn’t get worked up over things that had bothered me before. The emptiness humbled me, and changed who I was. I love the way The Message paraphrases Matthew 5:3. It says “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” As counter intuitive as it seems, being humbled by God is a great place to be. We will be digging into this verse, and all of the BeAttitudes next week, as we kick off our series on the Sermon On The Mount.
For a long time, I worked as a valet/concierge/bellman at a hotel in downtown Dallas. We had to deal with homeless people coming through our entrance every day. Our rule was that they were not allowed to come inside, but it always made me feel bad to have to turn them away. Despite our policy, they were still very considerate, and would usually do exactly as they were asked. I can’t say that I never had any troubles with any of them, but I can say that I never met a single one of them who was arrogant. Having nothing will do that to a person. It’s hard to be conceited when you’ve lost everything. In the same way, finding yourself in a place where your spirit is broken does almost exactly the same thing.
Have you ever seen a wild horse that’s been captured? Whenever someone tries to get on to ride it, the horse begins to buck. If the rider is strong enough, he will stay on the back of the horse until it stops bucking. This is what is known as “breaking” the horse, and it’s referred to as such because the rider is breaking the wild spirit in the horse so that it can be ridden. Sometimes, God does the same thing to us. He will allow a situation to break us, whether it be the loss of a relationship, a job, financial hardship, or even legal trouble, so that He can mold us into what He wants us to be. If you have ever known anyone who was in the military, they use exactly the same strategy. The first few weeks of military boot camp have been known to be some of the toughest weeks a person can endure. Drill sergeants yell and scream at new recruits in order to break them down so that they can build them back up into the idea of whatever branch they are in requires of them. James 1:2-4 (NIV) gives us a great example of this. It says “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” When we are emptied and humbled before God, it is a perfect opportunity to be built back up into what He desires us to be, and often times, we find that God has amazing things in store for us, even through our pain. Let’s thank Him for that.
We thank You that You give us strength when we are weak, and that You fill our cups when they are empty. Lord, I know that some of us are in that place right now where we don’t have anything left. I pray that those of us who are would not turn to worldly cures, but that we would seek You in this time. We know that Your power is made perfect through our weakness, so I pray that we would not hide our weaknesses, but that we would give You the praise for providing our strength. Please be with those all around the world who are sharing Your name with those who do not know You. Keep their eyes and hearts focused solely on You, and open the hearts of all who do not have a relationship with You, that they would come to know the joy and the peace that You provide.
It’s in Your Holy Name we pray