Why Do We Flee from A Sense Of Emptiness?

[To listen to a reading of this article, click here.]

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.

Sunrise came. I stretched and tried to shake off the phantom spirits of despondency. I looked for something to cheer me, something to help me forget the darkness.

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.

Sam

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23 Responses to Why Do We Flee from A Sense Of Emptiness?

  1. Thanks, I read that quote in that book and was awakened by how much that thought resonated in me. I also realize that this emptiness is why I find it very hard to wait on the lord, I must fill my life with doing, lest I be found naked in my waiting.

  2. Rachelle says:

    Sam, you spoke of the sin beneath the sin. But in reading over your list, I don’t see the underlying reasons as sins. I see legitimate desires that most of us probably share with you. We can either let those desires drive us to God or drive us to sin. For example, the desire for significance can drive us to pridefully seek out our own mission. Or it can inspire us to seek our part in God’s plans. I think “flying from the emptiness” often results in our sin, but it can also drive us into the arms of God. What do you think about that?

    • Hi Rachelle,

      Thanks for the challenge! I agree that a desire for significance is natural. I’d go as far as saying that it is God given. We are made in God’s image, and therefore we are made for glory (or significance).

      Maybe the ‘sin beneath the sin’ is the self-filling (or numbing). It is grasping for that glory or significance by myself. It is trying to get it rather than receive it from God.

      I have a few male friends who will never admit to being sick. They ignore the symptoms, they cover the symptoms us. It doesn’t come from positive thinking; they are simply afraid of the doctor, really afraid.

      They are like a lot of us believers; we don’t let the symptoms drive us to the great physician. Instead we ignore them.

      I think the key ‘sin beneath the sin’ is always our independence. For some reason, we begin in the spirit and end in the flesh. we begin by depending on God, and end by depending on ourselves.

      I think “flying from emptiness” by ourselves is sin. Resting in that emptiness, and crying to God … is wonderful.

      Thanks, great comment, question, and insight (all wrapped up on one),

      Sam

  3. Alex Thompson says:

    I love how you entered into your emptiness and weren’t afraid to explore it. I think we need to do a lot more of that, enter in to our pain, explore it, not be afraid to ask “Why?” and be quiet and listen, to our own heart, to hearts around us and especially to Trinity’s heart.

    • Hi Alex,

      Good point about entering into our pain. I think many of us–maybe men in particular, but I’m not sure–but many of us like to ignore the pain and hope it will go away.

      there is real value in exploring the hidden motivations of the heart: What do we run from? How do we run? Why do we run? In the end, it drives us to God.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  4. Bill English says:

    Sam,

    You have trully answer that feeling in our hearts even as believers why at times we still experience emptiness. It is because we need to turn back and come a fresh to the Lamb of God. It is so easy to get caught up into works only to forget our need of Him to fill our emptiness.

    I liked your openess andyour willingness to express the feelings of having regrets in life, but that you did not allow yourself to stay there. You acknowledge those feelings and turned to the true source.

    Shalom,

    Bill in Lancaster, PA

    • Hi Bill,

      What is it that we keep forgetting the basics of Christianity? Or, maybe, we simply need to apply the basics of the gospel to more areas of our lives.

      Thanks for your comment,

      Sam

      • Bill says:

        Sam,

        Simply applying the basics of the gospel to more areas of our lives is the answer. We first come to Christ because we have this emptiness inside. Jesus fills that void. We find years later walking with Jesus, that for some reason we feel empty again and yet we say that Jesus fills that void in our life. So what is going on if I fill empty inside.

        Bill

  5. Mary says:

    What an honest post. I will have to re-read this one and soak it in. Thanks for the honesty and post.

  6. John says:

    Interesting line “Every sin is an attempt to fly from emptiness”. I remember a classic line from a book by David Needham “It is impossible to separate the issue of sin from the issue of meaning in life”. And I think it takes us to the same question of “Why?” Thanks for sharing the way you worked thru this, by “pausing” and letting Grace find you where you are.

    • Hi John,

      I love that quote. I’d never heard it before. And yes, “meaning” is the issue. When we find “meaning” in our own self-striving, it always leads to sin. It is a self-glorification.

      Thanks for the comment, and thanks for the quote.

      Sam

  7. Randy Luce says:

    Sam, your pausing in your emptiness reminded me of Oswald Chambers devotion for October 11 (My Utmost for His Highest). It is interesting to me to compare your emptiness with my unwanted slience from God, especially when I feel desparate to hear from Him. Chambers considers the silence as an actual gift that reassures that He has heard us. Let me know what you think of that devotion (if you don’t have it let me know and I will post it).

    Your Friend,
    Randy

  8. jimparlan@comcast.net says:

    Sam,

    Very thought provoking. I like the questioning aspect of the sin to find the source. It reminds of the Romans 7 & 8 as well as Rom 12: 1,2. We tend to fly to our old way of dealing with unfulfilled desires. Instead we can move into unchartered territory where as new creatures we learn to get out of the well worn wheel ruts and seek God so He can loose the chains and allow us to fly to desires he inspires.

    • Hi Jim,

      I like your images of getting “out of the well worn ruts” and God loosening chains.

      It’s amazing. In the end, we are going to actually live out our deepest desires; not run from them and not pervert them. Really live in them.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  9. lymanbrown says:

    Sam,
    Thanks for the insights and your willingness to dig deeper into the emptiness. The thing that spoke to me was “pause.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard from God in the midst of fixing my life on my own power, and we don’t hear from Him, who are depending on for the fix? Anyway, this morning’s post really spoke to me – a sin list? That’s scary! But could answer some nagging questions. Thanks-

    Lyman

    • Hi Lyman,

      Yeah, the “sin list” was a little spooky thing to do. The “why” part was frankly more fun.

      Here is what was strange. When I made the list, it was hard. When I brought it to God in my emptiness, I felt filled with his love. As I felt filled with his love, I thought of a few more things for my “sin list” which in turn made me feel more of his love.

      His love freed me to delve deeper, and get more freedom.

      God is something!

      Sam

  10. Sam,
    Does our God ever supply His fulness if we do not sense our vacuum?

    • Hi Doc,

      Good question. i think the reality is that God is always at work, always filling, always sustaining. But our experience of life often misses this.

      The more we are aware of an emptiness, the more we can be aware of His filling.

      I think….

      Sam

  11. Coach D says:

    Thanks, Sam, for this. I too know that I need to feel the deep emptiness of my heart and stay there. Here is where I often meet God, both his presence and his special words of encouragement to me. Isaiah 50:10-11 has also been of real help in this.

  12. Martha says:

    Found the Oswald Chambers quote:

    http://utmost.org/god’s-silence—-then-what/

    Is the internet great, or what?

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