Editor's 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.

Related Podcast

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

Pho­to by Kwame Anim on Unsplash

Originally published July 2020

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