What comes to mind when you think about that word? Is it a dry glass? An abandoned house? Your growling stomach? Hollow people with no hope in their eyes? Sit with empty for a minute; turn it over in your heart and see how it feels.
For most people, empty is full—full of negative connotations, discomfort, fear, disappointment. It’s a conspicuous lack, a weakening of the whole fierce independence our culture teaches us to crave.
Unsurprisingly, Jesus redeems an object (even a concept) that is unwanted by the world in its glittering dream of power. He transforms empty into a priceless gift, beggar turned royal like Cinderella before the ball, and calls us to hunt it like treasure. Of course He would. We serve a King who emptied Himself of all His rights, then emptied the grave and the power of sin. He’s perfectly familiar with the strength of empty.
Because one of our biggest obstacles to being in the kingdom together is expectations, let’s try an exercise with two parts. (We’ll get back to emptying, I promise.) List a handful of relationships from different areas of your life with varied degrees of intimacy. Going one by one, write out the expectations you have for each of those individuals. They don’t have to be spoken or realistic (most of my expectations have been the deadly combination of unspoken and unrealistic). Just ask the Lord to show you what you require of the people in your life. The more thought you can put in here, the better. It might be helpful to make a “do” list and a “don’t do” list for each (e.g., “do follow through,” “don’t ignore me”).
When you’ve finished, compare. Which items run across the board through all of your relationships? (An example from my own life is “be trustworthy.”) In which relationships do you see more demands than others? Why? What percentage of your expectations have you communicated clearly? How many border on unrealistic?
Now for the second part. Write down two new lists: what you expect of yourself and what you think God expects of you. (This is important, so go ahead and complete it before moving on.)
Expectations are biblical. You can only read the first three verses of Scripture before you run into one—when God spoke, “Let there be light,” He expected the darkness to shatter. On and on through the creation process it goes, then humanity enters the picture. “Don’t eat from this particular tree.” (The great thing about God’s expectations is that He’s always clear about them. No guesswork here.) The rest of the Bible is about the Lord’s expectations for His people, first west of the cross, then east of it.
Do you know what He really expects of me? Jesus—His grace, perfection, righteousness, excellence, fullness, wisdom. The overwhelming good news is that Jesus covers me once and for all. I stand forever in the entirety of what Christ offers, completely acceptable to the Father.
And then I turn around and hold a list of shoulds over myself. And over you. I expect work, effort, an earned perfection where none was asked of me. “The cross is the best and quickest summary of what God says to unworthy people” (Ed Welch). My unworthiness leaks out of memory, and I demand certain standards. How am I to deal in this body of death? Wait for it—emptying.
When we empty our expectations, dump them on the same altar God piled His onto when He laid His baby Boy in that manger and on that cross, the emptiness becomes fullness. I can release my need for you to show respect or to offer safety in a way that pleases me. Part of our inheritance is that as expectations mound up on Calvary, they’re replaced with an absurd amount of grace. If God really does “fill the empty with good things,” why would I rail against letting go? Or why would I demand someone else fill me with good things? Emptying is the only way through self into true community. Take heart: Jesus walked the path before us, and it is well-trod.
We are the full empty people, pouring ourselves out over and over and over, finding filling in the letting go. What reckless redemption might the Church embody if we released our need to look good? Empty is no longer something to escape—it’s blazing beauty. It’s the tomb on Sunday morning, the greatest testament of triumph this world has ever seen. It’s our birthright. And it’s the only gift that will let us love one another as Christ has loved us, with our all and with our nothingness on display.