Emptying Ourselves to Become as Human as Christ

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Much of our development is about adding to ourselves. Our preachers send us out with new skills to develop, new ideas to comprehend. And our teachers send us home with new experiences to have, new knowledge to gain.

These are all good but is there something else?

In our development, as humans and as Christians, what part is there for becoming less? For emptying?

Philippians 2 puts it:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.”

We often work to become like Christ by filling ourselves up. How can we become like Christ by emptying ourselves out? Is it possible that, as Jesus emptied himself of equality with God, setting aside his power, he actually became more human than we are?

Because, if we’re honest, we’d much rather be powerful. We’d much rather be gods.

Because, if we’re honest, we’d much rather be powerful. We’d much rather be gods. Click To Tweet

The Way to Christlikeness

When it is revealed how unlike him we are, we exert every effort to be him, to fill ourselves up to his likeness. But what if there’s another way to learn Christlikeness?

Seventeeth-century Quaker writer, Isaac Penington wrote:

Be no more than God has made you.
Give over your own willing;
Give over your own running;
Give over your own desiring to know or to be anything.
Sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart.
Let that grow in you;
be in you;
breathe in you;
act in you;
And you will find, by sweet experience, that the Lord knows, loves, and owns that and will lead you to the inheritance of life, which is God’s portion.

What might it look like if, instead of working to build ourselves up, we devoted our energy to actively, consciously emptying ourselves, giving over our own willing, running, desiring? Might we find that all along our efforts to be more have smothered the seed that God has sown in our hearts? If we emptied, might it clear the way for that seed to grow, for God’s work to take root in us?

Confession as Emptying

My prayer life rarely feels cosy and I’ve realized why: it’s because most of my prayer is devoted to emptying. It’s hard work every morning to confess my own willing, running, desiring, working, striving, fighting. This kind of prayer reveals my habits to fix, to win, to be right, to look strong, to control, to understand.

As I let each problem, each heart-ache rise to my consciousness, I confess the ways I have been working in my own strength. And then the hardest, but best, prayer comes. To give it over. To say, “It’s all yours. I am small and I cannot manage any of these problems in myself, in my family, in my church, in the world. Take it all.”

This is not an effort to avoid action. We don’t say “I’m only human” as an excuse. These prayers put things back in order: I am human, God is God. These prayers helps us, as the day unfolds, to watch where God is at work and how he calls us, small and human as we are, to respond.

It’s excruciating to hand over everything we’ve been trying to accomplish, every way we’ve been protecting ourselves. It goes against our education, our culture, everything the media has taught us and it brings us to a bare, open place. When I first visited that place, there was shame in the bareness. At first it feels exposed, raw. But over time, the shame gives way to freedom. We become accustomed to the discomfort of our own humanity. Or perhaps we are distracted from the discomfort by the beauty of what is growing there.

Because as we empty, we are clearing away all that has piled up on the seed God sows in the heart. When we empty, we remove everything that blocks the light, thwarts the growth. Once we’ve set aside our own efforts, we come to that open, quiet place that God knows well, a place where we are only human and our need for him is plain.

He himself is the seed he has planted in us. When we empty ourselves of all our efforts at false deity, God himself can grow in that soil.

An Emptying Prayer

Father, I lay before you my family.
Here are the people I want to understand,
The relationships I want to fix.
I feel confused and hurt and inadequate.
I confess the ways I try to be all-powerful.
I confess the ways I try to be you.
I confess I am human.

Father, I lay before you my work.
Here are the places in me that are frustrated.
Here are the things that are beyond me to do, to be.
It makes me anxious, grasping, desperate.
I confess the ways I try to be all-powerful.
I confess the ways I try to be you.
I confess I am human.

Father, I lay before you this world.
Here are the places that break my heart.
Here are the situations that seem broken beyond repair.
I feel angry, despairing, powerless.
My brokenness drives me to act in ways that add to the brokenness.
I confess the ways I try to be all-powerful.
I confess the ways I try to be you.
I confess I am human.

Father, I lay before you my own heart.
There are so many things I want to be,
So many ways I want to grow.
So many sins I want to leave behind.
I feel hopeless and small, stuck in a cycle.
I will never be good enough or understand enough.
I confess the ways I try to be all-powerful.
I confess the ways I try to be you.
I confess I am human.

You are God.
I am small.
I need you.
Give me what I need to follow you.

*(adapted to update the language)

Image credit David Guest

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