Last Sunday night was a dark night. I woke in the dark, thinking dark thoughts, unable to stop my mind from wandering the shadowy paths of self-condemnation. I lay awake,
- Remembering my unfulfilled promises to my kids when they were young,
- Regretting my mistakes made as a boss to good employees,
- Wondering if my life had made any difference for good in the world.
My wife has been reading (and rereading) Ann Voscamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts. It’s a book about gratitude. I hoped it would do the trick. The first nine words were a quote,
Every sin is an attempt to fly from emptiness. (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace)
I read those words and stopped. I almost felt the wind knocked out of me. I lay the book aside and prayed. I meditated the next thirty minutes on this simple statement: Every sin is an attempt to fly from emptiness.
It was just what I needed but not what I wanted. It stripped my soul and breathed in life.
That morning I woke, hoping to escape from sadness, but the sadness was really an emptiness that I feared to face. I prayed, and confronted, and heard this.
Why do I sin?
I normally think of “sin” as an action or inaction which disobeys scripture. The action list includes speaking sins, sexual sins, possession sins; and the inaction list includes cowardice, self-indulgence, and negligence.
But these “sins” are merely the flowers of sin; they hide the root. If we neglect that deeper root, we’ll treat the symptoms and not the cancer. Whenever we commit a specific sin there is a reason for it. There is always a sin “beneath” the sin, a deep root.
Simone Weil says that deep root is an attempt to fly from emptiness
Exploring the emptiness
I decided to explore the emptiness beneath my sin. I grabbed a pad of paper and a pen and listed my common sins. By each sin I asked, “Why?” This is what I found:
- Sometimes I boldly speak “the truth” … too much. Why? It masks an attempt to hide a sense of insignificance; my “truth speaking” means I’m important.
- More often, I cowardly speak too little. Why? I may not have answers, people will be angry or hurt; my emptiness will be exposed. My silence hides the holes.
- Sometimes I work too hard. Why? It makes me feel needed, filling the emptiness.
- I sometimes self-indulge too much. Why? It numbs the pain of barrenness.
Have you ever tried this? Make a list of your most common sins and then ask, “Why?” It’s fascinating. And exposing.
Hiding from the emptiness
As I remembered past failures, I began—ever so slightly—to berate myself. “Why hadn’t I done a better job? I should have known better.” My self-rebukes almost made me feel better. It was filling my emptiness with righteous self-criticism.
Oddly, even in the midst of trying to explore my emptiness, I found myself trying to fill (or numb) the very emptiness I explored. I was attempting to fly from emptiness.
I shared my “sin list” with a friend. He reminded me that God had given me a new, good heart. His help was well-intentioned, but it was also a little heart-numbing. God has given me a new heart; but I still cowardly shut up when I should speak.
Saying “I have a good heart” avoids the pain of admitting I’m living by running from emptiness. Knowing our good heart is good medicine. But not for this disease.
Pausing in the emptiness
I decided to take time to pause in my emptiness. And I mean pause. Not going an inch further; neither self-filling nor self medicating—pausing in my emptiness.
I thought of past broken promises to my kids. And I paused. I thought of times I cowardly fail to speak. And I paused. I didn’t self-fill by remembering times I did speak up; nor did I self-medicate by saying I had a good heart. I just paused in that emptiness.
I sat in my chair by the window in my family room with my feet on the footstool, and I paused.
And it drove me to God
This morning, reading the same book with the quote from above, I read this,
Emptiness itself can birth the fullness of grace because in the emptiness we have the opportunity to turn to God, the only begetter of grace, and there find all the fullness of joy. (One Thousand Gifts)
As I sat in my chair by the window, I felt stripped, naked in my emptiness, a soul without a cover, a heart without a ribcage. I felt there was nothing I could really do. All my self-filling and all my self-medicating had been the sin of attempting to fly from emptiness.
I remembered the hymn they sang at Billy Graham crusades,
Just as I am, without one plea … Oh Lamb of God I come, I come.
I paused in my emptiness—not running, not self-filling, not self-medicating—and I sensed God in a new way, in a way without a plea.
I sensed my own emptiness and I felt filled with the joy of his love. Really filled; not self-filled nor self-numbed. I felt filled with a joy of his love. Overflowing.
Martin Luther once wrote, “God created the world out of emptiness, and as long as we are empty, He can make something out of us.” I think that’s right.