Why emptiness is God's greatest opportunity

Popular speaker and author Nancy Guthrie is flying nearly 15,000 kilometres from her home in Nashville, Tennessee, to Sydney next month, to speak at a women’s conference about emptiness.

It’s a subject Nancy knows deeply, having suffered the tragic loss of two children in infancy from a very rare condition called Zellweger syndrome. The need to dig deep into God’s word to find hope again gave birth to the radical idea that our sense of emptiness and disappointment is not a problem to God but rather his greatest opportunity.

“My husband and I host weekend retreats for couples who have lost children and this statement that I made that ‘God does his best work with empty’ really came out at the very first retreat that we did 13 years ago,” she tells Eternity via Zoom from her beautiful home in Nashville.

“When I sit in that circle with 22 grieving parents, I know that there’s a profound emptiness in their hearts and in their homes. There’s an empty bedroom in their house and there’s an empty place at the table. And there’s a huge emptiness in the future plans they had for themselves and for their families. And, just everywhere they look, they find emptiness. So, it’s been my joy to declare to them over these years that though they may see it as their biggest problem, God sees it as his greatest opportunity because he fills the emptiness with himself.”

“Though they may see it as their biggest problem, God sees it as his greatest opportunity.”

Nancy says she is making the long trip to speak at the OneLove women’s conference in Sydney on August 20 with the expectation “that God might be good enough to take my water and turn it into wine in the lives of the women who come, that he would press his word into the hearts and lives of women who come and that they would go away changed, that there would be a new sense of a supernatural contentment with the empty places in their lives and a desperation for Christ to be the one that fills the empty places rather than any lesser thing,” she says.

She believes it’s not the emptiness that’s our greatest problem but our tendency to counter the uncomfortable weight of it by filling our lives with busyness, with alcohol, with food, with exercise, she says. “I mean, even with some good things. And maybe in some ways, that’s a waste of the emptiness in that in the emptiness we can see, ‘Okay, God is at work in my life. And he is drawing me to himself to show me how he wants to fill it uniquely with himself.’”

Nancy’s theme seems very timely given the emptiness and weariness many people feel after so many COVID lockdowns.

“I know so many people coming out of COVID – and especially you guys in Australia where your lockdowns have been so severe – feel an emptiness that’s defined by loneliness or loss. I mean, people have lost their jobs, they’ve lost family members. They have lost direction. So I think COVID has brought on a whole lot of emptiness and maybe the pre-COVID, busyness allowed us to stuff a lot of things in our lives so that we didn’t have to face it and deal with it, but then things come to a halt and you’re looking at your four walls and you have to come to terms with it,” says Nancy.

Having spent the past few years giving workshops for women on biblical theology, she sees how the theme of emptiness is traced through the Bible from the very beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth from something that was formless and void. “In the original creation God spoke into being, there was a barrenness to it in a sense it was a barren wilderness. And yet when you work your way through Genesis Chapter 1, you discover, well, emptiness is not a problem to God because he just speaks and the emptiness is filled with life and light and beauty and purpose and meaning and relationship … Throughout the Bible, we see God filling up the emptiness with himself and with his good gifts and his blessings. And so, emptiness is uncomfortable to us, but it’s not a problem to God. And I think that’s good news for sure.”

“Emptiness is not a problem to God because he just speaks and the emptiness is filled with life and light and beauty and purpose and meaning.”

Nancy’s three Bible talks at OneLove will show God at work in the emptiness of his people from the Israelites’ hunger in the wilderness to the thirst of the woman at the well to the sadness of the rich young ruler.

“The children of Israel are hungry in the wilderness and at the end of their story in Deuteronomy, right before they’re getting ready to head into the promised land, God actually says exactly why he allowed them to be hungry. He says, ‘This was so that they would know that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ That’s kind of a stunning statement because he’s saying this emptiness, they felt was not an accident, it was purposeful – it had a purpose in it,” she explains.

“We’re going to look at the woman at the well who shows up so very thirsty. She is so thirsty for a love that will last. And here is this man and he points to the water and he says, ‘If you drink this water, you’re going to be thirsty again. But if you drink the water that I give …’ In other words, he’s saying ‘if you come into relationship with me, I am the true and faithful bridegroom. All of your previous bridegrooms have failed to fill up the emptiness in your life in a way that only this eternal marriage to me can’.”

“There was actually a joy in the emptying so that they could be filled with all of the fullness of Christ.”

The final talk will look at three people who make different choices when confronted with Jesus’s demand that they empty themselves for him.

“There’s this rich young ruler who comes and there’s something he wants – he wants eternal life. ‘How do I get that?’ And Jesus tells him, ‘Well, go sell everything you own.’ That’s because he recognised this is the idol in this man’s life that has squeezed out any possible space for love for Christ. And he points to it and nails it. It’s so interesting. It says that he went away very sad and I think many of us do that in the sense of there’s something that we’re feeling the emptiness with, that we say ‘I cannot, I refuse to let go of that’, which creates sadness.

“But then Jesus tells this story about two other people. He tells a story about this field worker who finds a treasure in the field. And then this pearl merchant who’s searching for a priceless pearl. And the contrast is both of them are willing to empty themselves. It says they went and sold all they had and it says there was actually a joy in the emptying so that they could be filled with all of the fullness of Christ, because that treasure in the field and that precious pearl, those are Christ. And they looked at him, they made a proper assessment of his value and they determined he’s worth being emptied of everything I own so that I might have him.”

“It is a fallacy to think that emptiness is ever going to be completely fixed in this life.”

Nancy says she making the trek to Sydney to help women “see the beauty and the worth of Christ and implant in them a desperation to refuse to fill up their lives with other things and not squeeze out the space for the love that should be reserved for Christ alone.”

As for how to do that, she emphasises first of all refusing to fill up our lives with lesser substitutes such as scrolling through the internet or seeking out self-help formulas.

“The truth is I don’t have five simple steps to get rid of the emptiness and I don’t have self-help formulas to help people feel better. But what I can do is take us to the Scriptures and hopefully draw back the curtain and turn up the volume on his promises in regard to the emptiness that I think is actually inherent to life in this world,” she says.

“It is a fallacy to think that emptiness is ever going to be completely fixed in this life. We tend to think if I do this thing of life, even if I do the Christian life right, then I will never feel a nagging sense of emptiness. And actually, I don’t think that’s true at all in this era in which we live, which I would say is between the cross and the return of Christ. Because even though, on the cross, Jesus has done everything necessary to deal with this curse on all of creation, what generates our dissatisfaction and our sense of emptiness so much is … we’re waiting for the day he returns again when everything he did on the cross will become the reality that we now live in forever. And the truth is, we are just not there yet.”

Nevertheless, as we wait, we can emulate the Apostle Paul who heard Jesus say “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness” – and became content with weaknesses, hardships and catastrophes.

“There is a sense of contentment we can experience that’s actually supernatural. He says that the power of Christ will come and rest on me, so now I can feel content. Well, that’s a supernatural experience. This is not just something we can work up in ourselves.

“That’s part of the way I think God meets us in our emptiness, that as we seek fellowship with him and to abide in him, abiding in his word, talking to him through prayer, receiving the means of grace, the sacraments, the fellowship of the body, what we experience is something that is ordinary and at the same time, it’s supernatural that we feel that power of Christ coming to rest on us. That helps to make us content.”

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