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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

God Does His Best Work With Empty

Published Friday, October 9, 2020 By Nancy Guthrie

“That’s me! That’s my life. I feel so empty,” my friend Julie said when I told her the title of the book I was working on. But her response to the title wasn’t unique. Whenever I told people what I was working on, the most common response was a knowing, low-pitched “Mmmm.”

The reality of emptiness seems to resonate.

I know it resonates with me. And I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it because my life has been and is now filled with so much goodness. I have a multitude of reasons to be perfectly happy and completely satisfied. And yet . . .

Sometimes I feel as if there is a bottomless pit inside of me that no amount of entertainment, affirmation, or accumulation can fill.

Of course, nothing has led to a profound sense of emptiness like the losses of two of my children—my daughter, Hope, and later my son, Gabriel, who both died due to a rare metabolic disorder.1 In those days I was constantly confronted by an empty bedroom at our house, an empty place at the table, an empty place in the family photo, and a huge empty place in my plans for my family and for my life. Over the years, the shape and size of that emptiness has changed. But it is still there.

Maybe you can relate.

Perhaps it is emptiness brought about by loss—the loss of a job, the loss of someone you loved, the loss of a sense of purpose or significance. Or perhaps you can’t pinpoint exactly why it is you have this sense of emptiness. Sometimes it haunts you as an undefined yet relentless ache. At other times it overwhelms you as an undeniable agony.2 You may have come to see your emptiness as your greatest problem, but when God sees the emptiness in your life, he sees it as his greatest opportunity. In fact, God does his best work with empty.

For some of you, this may sound like a spiritual sales pitch for something that doesn’t have the power to make any difference in your day-to-day reality.

I have no five simple steps to getting rid of that nagging emptiness, no self-help formulas for feeling better. I want to let God speak for himself. That’s what he does in the Bible—all of it. God speaks. He reveals himself. He calls us to himself. He offers to fill us with himself.

God can and will fill up your emptiness in a way that nothing and no one else can.

Look what he did in the beginning.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters (Genesis 1:1-2).

As soon as we learn that God created the earth, we also learn that there were three problems with it: It was formless. It was empty. And it was dark.

But it was not without hope. Why? Because “the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2).

The Spirit of God was hovering or fluttering like a dove over the dark and formless emptiness. It was as if something was about to happen. And sure enough, it did.

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light (Genesis 1:3).

The problem of darkness was eradicated as creation was flooded with light.

Then he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.” . . . Then God said, “Let there be a space between the waters, to separate the waters of the heavens from the waters of the earth.” And that is what happened. . . . God called the space “sky” (Genesis 1:4-8).

Once again, just by God’s speaking light and sky into being, the problem of formlessness was dealt with. God brought order and shape to the environment and the firmament of his creation.

Next he began to deal with the emptiness. We read:

Then God said, “Let the land sprout with vegetation—every sort of seed-bearing plant, and trees that grow seed-bearing fruit” (Genesis 1:11).

He went on to fill the seas with fish, the skies with birds, and the land with animals. Then he populated the world with human beings made in his own image. God was at work, filling up the emptiness with light and life, beauty and goodness, meaning and relationship.

And this, my friend, is exactly what he wants to do in your life.

As the story of the Bible continues in Genesis, we’re introduced to the couple—Abram and Sarai, later called Abraham and Sarah—through whom God intended to fill up the emptiness of the world with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the shore. Except there was a problem.

Sarai was unable to become pregnant and had no children (Genesis 11:30).

But once again, there was hope because God was at work. In fact, he went to work in a way that made it impossible for anyone to miss that he was the one filling the emptiness.

When Sarah overheard God telling Abraham that she was going to give birth to a son, she laughed. It was truly laughable. She was in her nineties and Abraham was one hundred years old. “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” God said (Genesis 18:14). And sure enough, we read, “The Lord kept his word and did for Sarah exactly what he had promised. She became pregnant, and she gave birth to a son for Abraham in his old age. This happened at just the time God had said it would” (Genesis 21:1-2).

What was too hard—in fact, impossible—for Abraham and Sarah to make happen was, in fact, not too hard for God. They named the baby Isaac, which means “laughter.” God filled Sarah’s empty womb with joy.

Of course, in many ways, it was Sarah’s unlikely pregnancy by the power of God that prepared God’s people for another unlikely pregnancy years later. What was startling about this pregnancy was not that the woman was old but that she had never been with a man.

“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”

The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:30-35).

Once again the Spirit was hovering, doing his creative work, so that Mary’s empty womb was filled with the very life of God. In the darkness of her womb the one who called himself the Light of the World took shape. Cells generated cells. The Word became flesh and he was full—full of grace and truth.

God can and will fill your life with the grace that only he can provide. And he loves to give grace. John 1:16 tells us, “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (esv).

Nancy Guthrie is a teacher and author. Her books include, Saints and Scoundrels in the Story of Jesus and her most recent, God Does His Best Work with Empty. She is the host of the Help Me Teach the Bible podcast at The Gospel Coalition. She and her husband host Respite Retreats for couples who have faced the death of child and are co-hosts of the GriefShare video series.

This article has been taken from God Does His Best Work with Empty by Nancy Guthrie. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.  All rights reserved.

  • Nancy Guthrie

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