The Training Table: “Vide Avant Complet!” [Empty Before Filled]
Welcome to the Training Table where you can depend on some spiritually-nourishing chow, carefully prepared, to help you run the Godly and good race! For what good is a good race, unless it’s a Godly race? (2 Timothy 4:7; 1 Corinthians 9:24; Galatians 5:7)
God Never Strays from Common Sense:
We Must be Emptied… Before We are Filled!
God in Christ was emptied…
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9; Philippians 2:6-7; Hebrews 9:27; 1 John 2:2).
…so we have to be emptied…
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1-3; Genesis 6:5; Psalm 51:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:9).
…so that God, in Christ, by the Spirit, can fill us to the full… and the uttermost!
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. For from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:14-16; Romans 15:29; Ephesians 3:14-19; Colossians 1:19, 2:9; Hebrews 4:12; ).
There is absolutely no way of filling anything unless that anything is emptied first. In the case of the Christian faith, what we need to be emptied of is our idols—that is anything that stands between each one of us and God. (Deuteronomy 5:6-8) Anything that we place on His throne instead of Him. An idol, placed in the role of God, will demand all that God does of us… but with none of the mercies of God when we don’t achieve the idols demands. God knows this; it takes us a very long time [if at all] to get it—even after our dearest idols have demanded and beat the living daylights out of us!
As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, God’s greatest desire is that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God (Psalm 86; Isaiah 60:21; 1 Corinthians 6:20, 10:31) and to enjoy Him forever” (Luke 2:10; Philippians 4:4)—and a heart crowded with idols and hardened to God’s Love and Truth cannot achieve this end unless it is broken and emptied first.
Idolatry is a malady of the fallen heart (Genesis 3) that is universal to all humankind and yet highly personal in the way each of our life stories creates and sustains very certain idols—idols peculiar to each of our unique story and brokenness and the subsequent substitution of GOOD [work, looks, fitness, sex, money, religion, etc] things fashioned in the factory of our idolatrous and self-centered hearts into ONLY things… idols, lesser gods (Exodus 20:3-4), broken cisterns (Jeremiah 2:13), treasures and materialism (Hebrews 13:5), worldliness (Luke 16:13), sex, drugs, rock and roll (Romans 1:18-32), and a whole host of such and similar vanities (Ecclesiastes 1:1-18).
Idolatry brings us to a realization of our need for a Savior from hell and a Lord to disciple and lead us in our Christian life; but through the Christian life journey the slow but sure and continued expulsion of our idols lead us to maturity, holiness, Christ-likeness—the ever-brighter light of Truth and saltier salt of Love for serving in Jesus’ name.
God would be completely justified to destroy us because of our idolatry, but instead His manifold mercies and love for His fallen Image Bearers have made a way for us to see our desperate need for Him by means of the utter destruction of ourselves at the hands of our own idols… so that we might repent and turn back to Him.
The proper and best order of things for us… is to know for the first time or remember if we’ve forgotten is this: a) the Holy Spirit first touches our heart and makes us aware that we are indeed idolatrous and sinful in some way—short of this “first cause” of heart regeneration and being born-again by the Holy Spirit the total depravity of our hearts prevents us from a self-realization of this kind; b) that God is utterly holy and cannot abide imperfection of any kind—including and especially His fallen Image Bearers whose lineage of disobedience beginning in The Garden has marred all humanity ever since; c) that we are in need of “first being emptied” by repenting of our sinfulness; d) that we must, with heart-broken sincerity and abject humility, beseech Jesus Christ for forgiveness and to come into our wretched lives first as Savior from hell and second as the Lord of our life from this point on; e) commanded to be baptized as a public celebration of our new birth and finally, f) that we are then prepared to be “filled and fulfilled” by entering into a Christ-centered and committed life of church membership, the sacraments, discipleship, marriage and procreation, service, light and salt influence… all for the purpose of sanctification, perseverance, conformation into the likeness of Christ, ending in glorification when we die or Christ returns.
This is The Trinity’s Plan of Redemption. The only and unimaginably best plan there is…
“Whatever is most personal is the most universal.” (Soren Kierkegaard)
First Emptied, then Filled, is the Way God Saves and Redeems His Own.
The story of my own personal conversion is already known to many of you, but please allow me to remind you of how God’s perfect, massively merciful, and universal Plan of Redemption [for those in the world who believe] is based upon the fact that EMPTINESS must precede being filled—and the FULLNESS offered by means of an ongoing, ascending, and increasingly holy and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.
I grew up in a home where shame, criticism, and anonymity hardened and filled my heart to the overflow—and to the consequential harm of others. I never experienced the sort of Love and Truth that flowed into my heart from God in Special Grace [E.g., saving grace] or from my parent’s very flawed version of love and truth: Both were absent. [By God’s Common Grace He mercifully blessed me, prophesied my eventual salvation when I was 10 years old, and kept me for such a time as I would be converted by His Special Grace at the age of 31.]
As an aside [if you haven’t seen and agreed already] it’s important to note that my personal experience of shame, criticism, and anonymity—and the consequences of looking for love in all the wrong places—is likely the most universal malady of the heart for the past couple of generations of folks. The existence of narcissistic, wounded, and absentee parenting flourishes heart dis-ease of this kind. But it can be radically redeemed by Christ… and Christ only!
As a result, I spent the first 30 years of my life desperately, selfishly, blindly, and ravenously looking for love in all the wrong places—a black hole of neediness, sexual promiscuity, pathological lying, pleasing others, being the center of attention yet hating it, playing the role the tearful clown and joke-teller of the party, striving like mad[ness] to be seen and admired, being as angry and vengeful as could be, and measuring everyone else’s worth through the grid of my own woeful sense of unworthiness.
My heart was so jammed-packed-full of spiritual darkness, insecurity, unworthiness, egotism, self-centeredness, emotional warfare, pretense, and a “psychological MunchMare” [The Scream] that nothing else could remotely squeeze in.
In October of 1983, in the Dordogne region of south-western France, in a town so small the entire population could fit into a café for breakfast… I was touring the area with a young lady who was just the most recent of females I mistreated in my search for love in all the wrong places and blind self-centeredness… desperately substituting lust for love.
God Infinitely yet Intimately Emptied Me.
[How about you?]
“Louise” [alias] had tired of my neediness and was just gone, divinely extricated from my life and heart, when I woke up one God-ordained and fateful morning. In that very moment of realizing I was utterly alone—I couldn’t leave Europe yet due to ticketing; I couldn’t speak the language; I couldn’t move due to being paralyzed by fear—I was perfectly and providentially so alone and so available to God that you could almost hear the sucking sound as God, by the Holy Spirit, lovingly removed the controlling idol from my heart.
My very personal yet universal wounds of shame, criticism, and anonymity were transformed into an idol of looking for love in all the wrong places. This idol had been so thoroughly entrenched, codified, and incorporated into my heart that when, at just the right time, the Holy Spirit strategically yet forthrightly extricated it from my heart…
The void, breadth, and depth of the blackness revealed in my heart was shocking and terrifically fearful to me. It was the first time I could see how the vastness of the vacuum was perfectly commensurate to the particular shape and size of the idol I had held so precious… My Precious… [Tolkien] and dear to life. I was completely emptied of anything remotely recognizable about myself—except the place of supremacy the idol had retained for all of my life… until it was gone.
The abyss of blackness I saw in my own heart scared the hell out of me… So that God could begin to fill my heart with His Love and Truth in place of the now-absent idol(s). [All idolatry will not be expunged from the heart until Christ returns.] It was a while before I could do so, but now I had the deep desire to look for Love and Truth in all the right places!
An Amazing and Most Particular Grace!
I was paralyzed and weeping, sitting on a fountain’s edge in the middle of the tiny town square, when, of all the sorts of people on the planet, a Roman Catholic priest [the church of my childhood and unfortunately the religious comparison to my parent’s version of shame, criticism, and anonymity] gently tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would like to attend morning Mass and have breakfast with and a friend of his afterward.
I did so… Father Anthony’s [schooled in America] friend was a 100+ year-old blind woman who approached me when we first met. She felt my face, remarked to Fr. Anthony about my sadness, felt along the shelf nearby and found a pendant of The Virgin Mary to place in my hand. She then cradled my cheeks in her rough and ancient hands, and said in French, “This will get you home…”
God so intimately knew my story, my idols, my need, and my wounds that He emptied me and yet held my shattered heart so carefully, so ironically*, and so providentially that I was literally carried along to the next place on the three-day solo journey towards going home. [*God said of His orchestrating my meeting Fr. Anthony and the church of my youth, “I know where the hurt came from, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, John. I can use broken things for My glory and your good too… Trust Me.”]
For three days, God perfectly orchestrated my being alone with my emptiness and His seen and unseen mercies to carry me along… by each step, pedal stroke, train ride, flight, word, breath, heartbeat, tear, and longing for home.
“Complet. Complet. Complet.”
On my way home to Aspen, en route to Gatwick airport south of London where I had begun my bike tour around Scotland four weeks earlier, I eventually made my way north to Paris via train with bike in tow. I was utterly broken, empty, alone, and in shock.
Upon my arrival in a very cold, gloomy, and jammed-packed Paris [due to a very big jazz festival], I was immediately faced with a circumstance and irony that could only happen by God’s grace: Walking in the rain with my fully loaded touring bike, every hotel of any kind had the same notice in the doorway, “Complet.”
“Complete… Full. Full. Full.”
As utterly empty as I was, all I was greeted by was “Complet.”… “Complete.”… Full-Up… No room.
It was 2:00am in the morning and I was within moments of unpacking my gear and tent to sleep in the shelter of an alley-way roof, when I noticed a room for rent on the uppermost floor of an old Parisian building. My room on the top floor was so small I had to put my entire bike in first, crawl over it, and lay on the bed next to it.
As I stared out the tiny window into the dark, wet and cold Paris night, I was emptied and empty but dry and warm. That was a start… I was going to make it to the next milestone towards eventually being filled!
Upon arriving in Aspen I was greeted by three dear friends [John, Carl, and Fr. Tom] whom God had ready, willing, and more than able to catch the empty shell of me, hold me, and show me for the first time how God, in Christ, by the Spirit could fill me… to the fullest. These friends were the first measure of God’s spiritual incarnational-relational filling until I could recover enough to be filled by a long and fulfilling journey of repentance, discipleship, repentance, growth, repentance, wisdom, repentance, and service to others in Jesus’ name.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. For from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:14-16).
We Must be Emptied… Before We are Filled.
See the empty idols, repent, and be saved to then be filled to the uttermost!
Beloved in Christ—and those who have not yet been emptied and then filled-up by Him through the Spirit—God is infinitely in command of each and every heart, soul, strength and life who has ever been and will be “ill-conceived in Sin and sinning” (Genesis 3). And yet, even in our inherited Sin and habitual sinning, God so loves us and is intimately involved in the details of our stories, He will use the very things we love more than Him to bring us to being aware and emptied of those things vying, competing for His love… so that we will turn to Him… and only Him to be filled and fulfilled.
“Forgetting what is behind…” (Philippians 3:13).
It’s important to know that within a few years of my conversion I committed to spending as long as it would take [nearly 3 years…] to fulfill Paul’s nearly-untranslatable plea to the Church of Philippi about what our story consists of. Paul, by means of the Spirit, essentially said… is saying to us right now:
“Go back into your past story; recall the details of any hurts and happinesses that mattered in your life; experience and express the context, people, emotions associated with the hurts and happinesses in the safety of your security in Jesus Christ [in a biblical, trusted, competent community of faith]; place each and every story, hurt, happinesses at the foot of the cross to be washed in the blood of Christ’s atoning, propitiating grace; and then move back into the present not only freed of any harm your past can do to you, but assured that God will use these parts of your story as an integral part of how He has called you redeemed… To redeem!”
Some iteration of this vitally important, remembering, cleansing, freeing, and redemptive process of seeing God at His finest, “knowing your story and co-authoring your destiny” [Dan Allender], is extremely important to undertake, Beloved. Satan knows it well—and between the evil one, your own flesh / “old-man/woman”, and this broken world, your story will come back to HAUNT you or HELP you glorify God, love yourself, and love and serve others as well.
How aware are you of the context, people, details, hurts, happinesses, trials, treasures… all of it… of your story? How aware are you that God does not waste ANY detail of your story—a glorious thread of detail within His Story of Creation, The Fall, Redemption, and Glorification?
What idols were you emptied of when you first came to see the bankrupt condition of your heart and your need for first a Savior from hell (Matthew 25:46; Revelation 21:8), and then a Lord to be discipled by (Matthew 28:18-20), serving under (Matthew 5:14-16), and battling for (Ephesians 6:10-18) as your Captain, Priest, and King?
What idols still stand in the way of your journey of discipleship and service to others today? Are there others who know them and are helping you drain them of their place and power in your life?
What has been or is presently your Precious? Power? Unhealthy relationships? Work? Pleasure? Money? Intellect? Religion? Immortality? Stoicism? Victimhood? Hiding? Hardening? Revenge? Legalism? Other?
How does the most personal nature of your story, idols, and redemption help you empathize with and relate to others in compassion, urgency, boldness, and humility?
Does the vastness, breadth, and depth of God’s comfort to you get passed along to others as a comfort for their idolatrous, shameful, wounded, and [far too many times] anonymous life?
Your Old Life and Your New Life… is Not Your Own.
Far, far from it…
“But I talk about my life anyway… because if, on the one hand, hardly anything could be less important, on the other hand, hardly anything could be more important. My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is yours also. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories, of who we are and where we come from, and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories—in all of their particularity—that God makes Himself known to each of us most powerfully and most personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly, but also spiritually.” (“Telling Secrets”, Fredrick Buechner)
Remember your idol-filled and hardened heart; remember your emptiness when God helped you see it and repent of it; remember your joy in being loved in spite of the vacuum left in your heart; remember the promises of God the Father in Election, God the Son in Propitiation, and God the Spirit in Regeneration, Assurance, and Sanctification… as, slow but sure, The Trinity began to fill you with more and more of Jesus each and every day! It is solely and only by grace that we are saved… But cheap, uncostly, grace is not grace but diversion, delusion instead.
Once emptied and filled upon our conversion, the cycle repeats itself as we die to and are emptied of self and live filled, fulfilled in the fullness of and for Christ each and everyday, Beloved. That’s the Way, Truth, and Life… of how it works.
Please remember each and every “Today…” (Psalm 95:7-8),
Breaking the Idols of the Heart, Dan Allender
Removing the Idols of the Heart, Sermon, Tim Keller
Converted by the Spirit, Sermon, Tim Keller
Resources for Idolatry, Desiring God, John Piper, others