Introductory Note:

In the Bible, especially the psalmists, and in the great cloud of witnesses throughout history, Marlena Graves found permission to speak freely to God. She opens her book,The Way Up is Down, by pouring out her complaints to God (“reading God the riot act”) after a particularly painful event. This honesty in prayer opened the way to illuminating insight.

Renovaré Team

After I read God the riot act in my kitchen, I had no more to say. I quit talking. Eventually, in the silence between us, I heard him respond to me in a faint whisper. This is one time when he didn’t plead the Fifth. This is what he said: Only when you are empty, can you be made full.” And My strength is made perfect in your weakness.”

That is not what I wanted to hear.

Only recently have I begun to awaken to the depths of this word to me, its particularities, and to the knowledge that being emptied in order for God to fill me (and any one of us) is the pathway to deeper communion with him. It leads us to the depths and glories of the kingdom.

Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
(Ephesians 5:14)

God’s riptide is intent on moving me further and further away from the shores of self-centeredness. In the ocean of grace I cannot cling to my will or the illusions I possess; I have to swim by living into the fullness of reality. God is intent on making me more real, a less-distorted image of him. As I become more like him, I become more human. In turn, I will love him and others with a deeper love. I will become dependent on God to energize me with his life.

If I want to be full, open to receiving abundant grace — more human, selfless — first I must be emptied. He must increase, and I must decrease (John 3:30). The word I discovered is kenosis. Oh, it’s not that I never heard the word. On the contrary, I’m quite familiar with the idea. But it’s one thing to define it and discuss it in a detached sort of way — to keep it at a safe distance. It’s another thing altogether when God calls us to put it into practice. And he always calls us to put it into practice.

Kenosis is a voluntary self-emptying, a renunciation of my will in favor of God’s. It’s a life characterized by self-giving. It is the kind of yielding Mary, Mother of God, displayed in her tender and trust-filled acceptance of God’s birth announcement delivered by the angel Gabriel. “‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. May your word to me be fulfilled’” (Luke 1:38). Mary embraced poverty of self-will with a spirit of humility even when she had no idea what was happening and no guarantee that all would turn out well. Nevertheless, she risked everything on God. She gave herself over to God’s plans for her life instead of plotting her own. I wonder, Could I be like Mary?

And could it be that Jesus learned the habit of voluntary self-emptying and renunciation of self-will by observing his mother? In relinquishing his own will for the sake of the Father’s will throughout his earthly life, Jesus exhibited the same posture of his mother: I am the Lord’s servant.… May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Jesus’ trust in our Father’s good will was tested over and over again. Our trust will be too. And yet God calls us to the same kind of life posture Jesus had:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5 – 8 ESV).

Jesus didn’t cling to his rights. He repeatedly gave them up. His posture was Not my will, but your will be done” (Luke 22:42). Similarly, each day of our lives God asks us to relinquish our rights in favor of his will — that our will and his will may become one. To choose emptiness entails a deep trust in God as we take the downward descent into servanthood and humility. We give up the endeavor of propping up ourselves. This ladder of success is inverted. This is the path of Jesus and of his disciples. It is the way of his mama. But it makes absolutely no sense from the human perspective.

Servanthood marked by this self-emptying, selflessness, or kenosis begins with the surrender of our wills to God. Little by little in the strength of the Holy Spirit, we submissively renounce our self-will and cooperate with God to empty ourselves of our Godless selves that we might be filled with God’s life. It is the Galatians 2:20 – 21 life. I learned this one in the KJV: I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Notice Paul points out that Jesus gave, or offered himself up, for Paul (and you and me) out of love. That’s what we’re talking about here. It is a life characterized by offering ourselves out of love for God, others, and creation. We surrender to God so he might live in and through us. Our lives become a love offering. Plain and simple.

But not so simple.

Sometimes we don’t want to do what God calls us to do. We fear the heavy toll it will take on us. Life already has us ragged. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we are habituated toward being self-serving instead of self-giving. We are inclined to choose ourselves first over God. We’d prefer to give God and others orders instead of taking them. Moreover, we worry that self-offering won’t get us anywhere in the world or in the church. It probably won’t. There won’t be any standing ovations or saintly Nobel Peace Prizes awarded or even measly high-fives. Offering ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1 – 2), our heroic deaths, the kinds that legends are made of, will pass by mostly unnoticed by others. Yet our love and obedience are never wasted. One day they will be richly rewarded (I Corinthians 15:58).

Caryll Houselander writes,

Many people feel that they could achieve heroic sanctity if they could do it in the way that appeals to them, for example, by being martyred. They can picture themselves cheerfully going to the stake … but if God makes no revelation but just lets them go on carrying out an insignificant job in the office day after day, or asks them to go on being gentle to a crotchety husband, or to continue to be a conscientious housemaid, they are not willing. They do not trust God to know his own will for them.

Hearing the call to renounce our wills in each new circumstance so God’s will can be done in and through every part of us is the call to selflessness. It’s not a one-time deal. It requires daily repentance and conversion to the ways of God. We’ll constantly have to examine ourselves and decide whether we really want to go Jesus’ way and surrender all control of the outcomes to God. Maybe like Peter we make grand promises at the beginning, tell Jesus that we’ll go to any lengths for him, follow him anywhere, that we’d die for him. And then when push comes to shove and life doesn’t turn out the way we want it to — when we finally realize what is at stake — we backpedal. We swear up and down that we don’t know Jesus or what he is about or that it would require so much of us. Maybe we read God the riot act. We continue in this vein until some rooster in the distance shocks us awake to the reality of things, and then we are beside ourselves with sorrow and self-recrimination.

Or maybe our initial reaction is to run away (or want to run away) from it. We’re Jonahs hopping aboard the first ship to Tarshish. We’re like my three-year-old daughter, Isabella, who has gotten into the habit of fleeing from me, of running away and hiding if she doesn’t want to do what I have asked. She is bound and determined that her will be done, not mine.

There’s always surrender to humiliation and crucifixion, an emptying, before the glory. There’s no way around it. For my own part, I wish there were. Emptiness comes before fullness. We have to empty ourselves of anything that crowds out the life or grace of God in our lives. When we cooperate with the Spirit in this way, we become receptacles of grace. Like Jesus’ mother Mary, we become God-bearers, pregnant with the divine. We are rich toward God and others. Filled full.

All this makes sense of why God told Paul, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And it explains why Paul could truthfully write, 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” (2 Corinthians 12:9 – 11). Paul knew that God’s strength could be unleashed in his weakness, that when he was empty, he was in the perfect position to be filled with God’s power. In acknowledging and admitting our emptiness, being poor in spirit and contrite in heart, in taking the posture of a servant, we too can become open to realizing God’s strength and power in us and in the kingdom. When we are full of ourselves or other things, we obstruct God’s grace.

Father Stephen Freeman, an Eastern Orthodox priest, writes, If we are to be transformed from one degree of glory to another’ then it is towards the glory’ of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed.… [F]or there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.” Crucifixion and self-emptying — there is no other kind of Christian life. This is the life God calls us to. And it takes practice. It takes God’s strength.

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Taken from The Way Up is Down by Marlena Graves. Copyright © 2020 by Marlena Graves. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

Photo by Kwame Anim on Unsplash

Text First Published July 2020