The humbling and the emptying


Communication stinks, doesn’t it?

How many problems are simply caused by either the inability of one person to accurately explain something to another or the other person’s inability to fully understand what the first person was trying to say?  Or both?

One of the frustrating things about words is that they are limited.  We only have so many of the suckers we can use to express a wide range of human experience, thought and feeling; the same word typically has a broad variety of possible meanings; and we are stuck more or less attempting to guess what someone is trying to convey in speech or writing from within the confines of our past experience.

For example, the only way someone can understand sarcasm is if one has previously experienced sarcasm and learned how to recognize it.

I mention this as an attempt to explain how so often you and I hear the same things over and over again for years and years, then suddenly they take on a new meaning – be it because we’ve gone through new life experiences that broaden our ability to attach new levels of meaning to the ideas represented by words, or for any other reason.

Being raised as a Christian since childhood and having chosen to be a Christian as an adult, it isn’t uncommon for this to happen to me with several Christian teachings I have been familiar with for as long as I can remember.

I’m thinking specifically of Jesus’ teachings on humility and how that affects our relationship with God.  I’m going to assume a small bit of familiarity on the reader’s part regarding this, but as a vague swath, the New Testament teaches that to be a Christian means accepting no small level of humility: the first shall be last and the last first; the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom; and the theology of the cross itself centers on the transcendent Creator of all things humbling Himself to become part of that which He created, a human.

It’s all so overly familiar to me that my mind unintentionally glosses over when I hear these things.  “Insert religious comments HERE,” basically.  I think it’s the same kind of over-familiarity we acquire with anyone with which we have a long and meaningful relationship: we think we learn to know them so well that we begin to anticipate what they will say and how they will act within any situation.

And that is a subtle kind of pride.  I think we all do it.  And, worse yet, we’re so often seemingly correct when we do it that we justify never truly listening to what is being spoken or written by those with whom we are very familiar.  It’s pride because we subconsciously assume that we know all there is to know about someone or something, when in reality none of us ever is fully known to another human: we can never totally capture precisely what we’re feeling or thinking in a way that will be completely understood by someone else, because we are the only human with access to how we perceive and process life.

I share this with you in an attempt to encourage you to not “write off” that with which you think you are an expert.  Because we are often wrong.  I think after 32 years I may finally be starting to understand what the kind of life talked about in the New Testament actually is, after around 20 years of assuming I already knew.

Humility is a really big deal, yet true humility is rarely ever seen.  Most of us know that.  We see plenty of false humility, in which people pretend they are less smart/attractive/nice/considerate/humble/etc. than they really are, and pretty much all of us know that isn’t really humility.

Which of course begs the question: what is humility?

I think humility is fully understanding – which means both with your head and with your heart – that nothing we have ultimately is “because of” us.  My intelligence, my looks, my talents – all things I was born with or without through no choice of my own.  My wealth, my job, my achievements – mostly having to do with the family you were born into, who you’re friends with, the just-mentioned list of genetic inheritances, the time and place where you live, and pure dumb luck / chance.

“So un-American” of me to say, right?  Hard work, boot straps being pulled up, that’s how it works, yadda yadda: I will debate the philosophical premises with you if you want, but simply put – the assigning of “virtue” or not notwithstanding – none of that has any bearing on how your life qualitatively will turn out.

Me at 18-years-old would indeed argue with me at 32-years-old about this conclusion.  I would argue because I had been filling the God-shaped hole in my life with achievement.

First, the hole.  We’ve all been hurt in life.  We all have a hole in our hearts that’s aching to be filled.  Whether you’re a theist or atheist, this is pretty well accepted, though of course its presence is explained in vastly different ways.

Christian theology explains the vast emptiness inside us as dissonance from the shattering of the human relationship with God, exacerbated both by the scars we accumulate as life goes on and from the botched attempts we make to heal ourselves apart from God.

Of course, what it actually means in practice to allow God to be the center of our void is difficult to define.  It’s more a process of apprenticing in how to cultivate an intimate relationship with Him than it is a step-by-step check list, and it sure seems like the majority of American Christians have lost touch with spiritual intimacy with God being an actual thing.

Thus, one is hard-pressed to find many good contemporary mentors along the way (thankfully, if all else fails, there is still Scripture and the collected testimony of hundreds of saints over the Church’s 2,000 year life).

My own experience with unintentionally trying to heal my wounded heart with whatever quick-fix bandage I could find goes back to early childhood.  Affirmation and achievement have long been drugs that make me feel a little bit better.  From always being the “good boy” in church and school, then to being able to master several games (mostly of the video variety), and finally to finding a niche in school as the “smart kid,” I thrived on receiving the approval of others, winning, and coming out on top.

As I grew older into my teenage years, I also began to seriously try to find my “soul mate.”  I was infatuated with getting married, maybe in part because my parents were married at 21 and 16 and my brother and sister-in-law at 18 and 17, but looking back I’m not entirely sure why.

If I had to guess, it was due to a completely unrealistic expectation for what life with another human being would look like.  For all the stereotypes of how women idealize a knight in shining armor, I think I’m as guilty of having imagined some outlandish ideals.  I suppose this particular “fix it” has faded in temptation as, sadly, I’ve managed to make a pretty fine mess out of the handful of close romantic relationships I’ve had.

But winning…I like to win.  Not necessarily at games anymore that I can treat only as games, but at life: having the best ideas; being the most thorough thinker; making an actual difference in the world.  I ate up the possibilities in my late teens while I finished at the top of my class and won several academic awards and basked in the general approval of family, friends, teachers, and local community.  As they say, the world was my oyster – minus the athletic prowess, I was an All-American Kid.

Ah, but life.  My demons were always there: depression, panic, hopelessness hiding in the background when they weren’t violently manifest.  But as long as I kept “winning,” they basically stayed in the dark.  And I was determined to win – I would change the world, I would make a difference, I would be acknowledged as someone people needed.

The only trouble with all that was, well, eventually, we all lose.  Some to greater or lesser extents than others; some seemingly never losing on the surface and living the charmed life.  But nevertheless, we do all lose.

And the thing is, I recognized it: I “lost” because of me, because of who I was as a human at those stages of my life and the choices I made, and that was not acceptable to the image of who I and others had made myself out to be.

Emotionally, my incredibly immature and stunted heart was damaged by the loss of innocence and young love right out of the gate, the Summer after high school.

Intellectually, one does find those people who are far smarter than you in the academic world (and it’s still a surprise, even when you “know” in your head that there are indeed people smarter than you).  It’s also just a very unfortunate place to be in in college when you have no idea what you want to do with yourself: what’s the major one chooses to be Savior of the World (the carpentry-thing wasn’t for me)?

Suddenly all the ideals of a steady plan and goal at the end of high school come crashing into the malaise of a life with few certainties.  My true love of history and archaeology had been unknowingly discarded because the path to Importance doesn’t go that way.  So I coasted by.

But then seemingly God stepped in and gave me the beginnings of my calling: a completely random, unexpected, and very gradual rise to a place of helping to lead worship in my church and to be the director of youth ministries…at the age of 21 (oy).  Surely this would be how I began to leave Billy Graham in the dust.

Well, it did indeed go well for a couple years, but, man – it was freaking hard.  Especially for someone without any idea of how to rely on the Holy Spirit (I knew I needed to but…, exactly?).  Trying to finish my degree, leading several classes and ministries, and in general being an early-20s goofball took its toll.  I begged God for help, and He didn’t seem to answer.  I imploded.

What followed was a period of life I’ve been ashamed of.  Self-forgiveness has been difficult for how I hurt several people.  Church was dead to me.  I graduated college with what seemed like a meaningless degree and no clue what I was going to do next.

Through fits and starts my late 20s and early 30s have been about trying to find out who I actually am in God.  About repairing as best I can the damage done in my mid-20s.  About actually finding out whether there is any meat to this Christian-thing or if it’s just an overgrown social club (sadly, in many instances, it is).  About actually finding God as a Person and not just an idea, and finally about giving Him my life to do with what He wants – for His sake and not my own.

It’s that last sentence that’s truly frustrating, because I’ve believed my life to be about that for a long time.  But it wasn’t.  It was about what I wanted in God’s name.  The franchises I wanted to start and have God bless.

And therein lies the irony of Christian humility for this Christian.  I had wanted to be “something” for the Kingdom of God, but if God is ever going to use me effectively, it means I actually do have to have that whole “dying to self” thing, and it actually does hurt when that happens.  It’s really strange that the real-life reality of a faith whose champions are the persecuted and marginalized would nonetheless be a shock to someone who desperately wanted to think highly of himself in particular ways.

But the depths of the death have been truly shocking to me.  I mean, this isn’t just a word we toss around here, “death;” it means the old standards, the old ways of doing life (yes, even the ways I picked up AS a Christian, FROM other Christians) have to go.

Words.  All those words I’ve heard so often for so many years.  But they actually have bite to them now.  We have to be humbled, to be brought low and to realize that, goodness, NONE OF THIS in life really has to do with anything intrinsic to myself.  Other than the fact God loves me just as I am.

And humbling hurts!  Being emptied of all the pretenses, ambitions, and dreams that we’re raised from birth in this culture to follow as if they’re some freaking Manifest Destiny to the Glory of the Self…it hurts!  There’re feelings of shame, of guilt, of sadness to be worked through.

And as we begin to allow ourselves to be emptied, and we are discipled into ways of developing a corporate and individual relationship with the Person of God – not just some idea of God but an interactive Person – this is when we begin to see where those Christians in the New Testament were coming from.  “Oh.  So when Paul describes worship where people feel the presence of the Spirit and intimate communion with Him – this is actually a thing that can be done.”

Yeah!  Pretty crazy that the Scripture as the collective memory of God’s people would actually be useful in helping us remember who God is and how He interacts with us (for the uninitiated, that was sarcastic).  If you don’t buy it, that’s fine, but why would you want to identify as a Christian if you didn’t?

And that’s just the thing – the power of Christianity in the beginning was the power of its experience: this stuff really did work for people.  If it didn’t actually work, there’s no way the religion would have survived.  Paul exhorts his contemporaries who doubt to witness for themselves: “We saw Jesus raised from the dead.  But it wasn’t just me – there were about 500 of us he appeared to and they’re still around, go freaking ask them!  Witness the power of God’s Spirit as people are healed.  Come on!” (my paraphrase).

Christianity at its best is still the same (yes, that kind of Christianity is still around) – God shows up, He really does: come and see.  No, really.  No, we aren’t snake charmers.  No, you aren’t going to be put on a mailing list till the day you die, or accosted for donations, or continually invited to church until you want to punch us in the face.  For reals.

But to grow as a Christian means that after all that, one must be brought low, emptied of self, and filled with the Holy Spirit.  It’s not about complete destruction of who you are as a human, but it is about death to the self (two distinct things).

It isn’t an easy decision to make.  I am still being dragged by God part of the way, as I’ve asked Him to in my more lucid moments.  And ultimately, it’s about taking His hand and walking with Him wherever He goes, filled with His peace and love in ways more real than that trite saying can possibly express.

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