The Greatest Thing About Being Empty
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Nancy Guthrie teaches the Bible at her home church, Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee, as well as at conferences around the country and internationally, including through her Biblical Theology Workshops for Women. She is the author of numerous books and the host of the ...more
Have you lost a loved one, a job, a relationship? Dave and Ann Wilson discuss with author, Nancy Guthrie, how being empty can be the starting place for God to do His greatest work in us.
The Greatest Thing About Being Empty
Bob: When you feel lonely/empty, where do you go?—who do you turn to? Here’s Nancy Guthrie.
Nancy: Maybe this sounds like an ethereal answer; but I think it’s God saying to you, “You know what? I want our relationship to be so intimate that you won’t always be expecting other people to meet all of your relational needs.” In fact, you’ll stop demanding so much from other people; and when you feel those tinges of loneliness, instead of it causing you to pick up the phone to call someone, maybe you’ll realize, “Oh, am I out of touch with You, God?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, December 8th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
God tells us in the Bible that in our weakness He is made strong; but for that to be the case, we have to turn to Him. We’re going to talk more about that today with Nancy Guthrie. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. How many times have you been speaking at a Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway, and had a husband or a wife come up to you and just say, “I feel like there’s nothing left,”—like the marriage is dead/that it’s empty—“and I don’t know what to do”? They’ve lost hope for their relationship.
Ann: Too many to count; so many.
Dave: Every single conference I’ve spoken at.
Ann: I would say, “I felt that.” I think—when you’re married, and you’re sleeping in bed, and you’re beside the person that you made your vow to—I can remember thinking, “I feel so empty and alone.” I think a lot of women can do that.
In fact, you know what I’ll do?—I think we can do this as women especially—I can think, “Why?” and I think, “The problem is Dave. [Laughter] The problem is that he’s not doing…”; and then I come up with my list.
Dave: I’m sound asleep, thinking life is wonderful. [Laughter]
Bob: You know, it’s interesting, because the loneliness that single people feel is real and profound. There is a loneliness that exists in marriage that—I don’t want to say it’s more profound—it’s a different kind of profound.
Bob: There is something—when you’re married, with the expectation of oneness and intimacy, and it’s not there, that’s a different kind of loneliness/a profound sense of loneliness.
Bob: Ann, we hear from listeners all the time, who tell us, “This is what I’m dealing with…” and “You guys are a lifeline to help me think, biblically/to help me realign my thinking and know that God is still with me, and that there is still hope in my life.”
Ann: Oh, you’re so right, Bob. We love hearing from listeners, and we recently had a listener say this: “FamilyLife® has changed my life forever. I’m always talking about the podcast I heard that day with everyone I come in contact with. I know my family gets tired of hearing me say what I hear on FamilyLife Today.” I mean, those are the things that just make us smile, because we know that we’re making a difference in people’s lives.
Dave: Yes; and it’s truly amazing, as we sit here in the studio, to think what we do here is a lifeline for people. I mean, sometimes you don’t connect the dots that, when we give help/practical help and hope, it points people back to God. I’ll tell you—the thing that everyone needs right now is hope. We’ve lived in a year that’s felt pretty hopeless, and there’s isolation and pain. We get to step into family rooms, and kitchens, and radio, and bring the life of Christ to people. I’m telling you—I don’t know if you understand this—that does not happen without you—
Dave: —you, the listener, saying, “I’m not just going to be a spectator and watch and listen; I’m going to be a partner,” which means what?—“I’m going to step in, yearend, and I’m going to give.” There are a lot of people asking for you to give to their ministries. I don’t think you understand how critical it is that you partner with us, because this does not continue without you. I’m asking you to say, “God, what do You want me to do?” When He says, “Give,” give. I’m telling you—you’re going to change marriages and legacies by being a financial partner with us.
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We’d like to say, “Thank you,” by sending you two gifts. The first is a copy of my book, Love Like You Mean It, which is all about what real love looks like in a marriage relationship; and we’d like to send you a flash drive that includes the top 100-plus FamilyLife Today programs from the last 28 years—programs with Dennis and Barbara Rainey, with Dave and Ann Wilson, with guests who have joined us—programs about marriage and about parenting/about family relationships—the programs you’ve told us have been the most helpful on a single flash drive. That’s our gift to you when you make a donation today.
You can do that at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate. As you said, Dave, we need to hear from listeners today, so call us or go online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Thanks, in advance, for whatever you’re able to give.
Now, as I said, we’ve been talking about the theme of emptiness this week. This is something that we’ve been prompted to talk about because of a new book written by our friend, Nancy Guthrie, who is joining us again on FamilyLife Today. Nancy, welcome back.
Nancy: Thank you, I’m so glad to be with you.
Bob: Nancy is an author/a speaker—she is a friend of this ministry; she’s somebody that we look to for wisdom, and guidance, and counsel on so many things—and has written a book called God Does His Best Work with Empty. We’ve been exploring this theme of the emptiness that all of us feel at different points in our lives.
You’ve run into married couples—especially as you’ve worked with couples, who are going through grief—that often leads couples to isolation from one another as they don’t know how to grieve well together. There’s the emptiness over the loss of a child, and then now you feel like you’re losing your spouse at the same time.
Nancy: I often tell couples, who come to our respite retreat for grieving couples, that: “If you were to put grief into a pot on the stove, and boil it down to its essence, what I think you’d have left in the pot is a little pile of loneliness,” and “That loneliness is inherent to grief.” But I’ll also say: “I can’t imagine that there’s anyone listening today who doesn’t experience loneliness. I mean, sometimes I feel lonely. I feel a little bit ridiculous for saying so; because I look at my life and I think, ‘Oh, I have these great friends, I have a fabulous husband, and we enjoy a fabulous relationship.’ And yet, there’s something inherent to life in this world that loneliness is just a part of it.”
You know, what I suggest is that/I ask the question: “Maybe loneliness isn’t a problem to be solved.” I think we think of it that way; don’t we?
Bob: Yes; right.
Nancy: “But maybe loneliness is something God intends to use to woo us to Himself.”
Dave: Oh boy, you better lay that out. What’s that look like?
Nancy: Yes; my first instinct is to think, “If I feel lonely, that it’s a problem with my [horizontal] relationships.”
Nancy: I expect for this loneliness problem to get solved; you know: “I have to create better community,” “I have to get things going with my husband a little bit better or differently,” or “I have to have a friend to get together with.” First of all, I see it as a problem; and I see it as a purely human relationship issue.
But maybe loneliness is something that God allows us to feel to, in a sense, nudge us in His direction/to woo us in His direction; because this is one of the ways that God works in our loneliness. He draws us into a more intimate relationship with Himself.
What I think is beautiful in the Bible is that, from beginning to end, it is a story of God intending to enjoy intimacy amongst His people. I mean, that’s what He had in Eden; He was there in the presence of His people. From the time they get sent out of the garden, God goes to work to restore this relationship with them. He states His intention in Exodus; He keeps repeating it throughout the whole of the Old Testament. He keeps saying: “I’m going to be your God,” and “You’re going to be My people,” and “I’m going to dwell with you.”
You can think of that kind of story as just being something theological; I don’t think it is. I think it reveals something to us about the heart of God. This aspect of who God is gets to the heart of the way God intends to work in our loneliness; and that is His intention to be so vital/so intimate that you won’t always be expecting other people to meet all of your relational needs. In fact, you’ll stop demanding so much from other people; and instead, when you feel those tinges of loneliness, instead of it causing you to pick up the phone to call someone, maybe you’ll realize, “Oh, I am out of touch with You, God? Because maybe You are wooing me to Yourself through these feelings I have of loneliness.”
Bob: When Mary Ann and I were dating—we had dated for about three-and-a-half years—she had gone to be the nurse at a summer camp that summer. I was living in Tulsa, working at a radio station. I got a letter from her; it was a “Dear Bob” letter——it was: “Bob, I’ve met somebody here at camp. Things are over between us.” I mean, it just knocked the slats out from underneath me. I never expected this—didn’t see it coming/was really surprised—it was her dumping me via letter.
She came back from camp; we got together, I thought maybe I would charm, or woo, or cajole, or do something to get her change her mind; but she was resolute that, “No; the relationship was done, and she had met somebody new.” That’s probably—if I were to trace: “When was I the emptiest in my life?”—that was probably it. For a lot of weeks, I was knocking on my friends’ doors and saying, “What are we doing tonight?” so that I don’t have to deal with this.
One night, I got off work. I had a moped back then; remember mopeds?
Bob: It was a Friday night; I’m thinking, “I’m going to go see the So-and-sos,”—my friends over here—“just drop in on them.”
It was like there was this voice in my ear that said, “No; go home.” Now, home—there was nothing charming about home—home was a furnished apartment; $95 a month, bills paid. My mom cried when she saw it—it was a dump—okay? [Laughter] I get home on a Friday night at eight o’ clock and fix a can of soup. I sit down and I go, “Okay, I’m home; now what?!”
I would say, if there’s been a night in my life, where there was a wrestle-with-God moment, this was that night of wrestling with God. The things that came out of the prayer that I was having that night was: “I will remove anything that becomes an idol,”—so—“If you’re filling up your life, if you’re finding your joy, if you think ultimate joy and satisfaction is found somewhere else, I’ll take that out; because I am a jealous God and will have no other gods before Me.”
It was just this: “Is it going to be us; or are you going to keep looking for friends, or other people, or a girlfriend, or whatever else to be where you find life and where you find hope?” I realized that my relationship with Mary Ann—I had put her ahead of God; I had cared more about what was pleasing to her than what was pleasing to Him—and God said, “We’re not going to have that.”
Now, the rest of the story—I mean, you kind of have to get to the story where, two months later, she calls me and says, “Could we get together and talk?” We got together and talked, and she realized the other relationship was not what she thought it was. She’d missed me, and we got together. It’s a happy story; we get married.
It doesn’t always work that way, but it was a learning lesson for me. In that emptiness, God said, “If you’re going to go somewhere else to get it filled, I am a jealous God; I can remove those things. Take them out of your life. You will have no other gods before me.” I think sometimes God introduces emptiness into our lives to say, “Do you know where to go to get it filled back up?”
Nancy: You know, in the Gospel of John, there’s a story of just such a woman. It says that Jesus had to go through Samaria. Of course, when we read it, we know, “No; He didn’t really have to go through Samaria.” But He goes to this well, and this woman comes out to the well. She’s coming that time of day because she can’t face all of the other women in town, because she’s probably slept with some of their husbands.
Nancy: She meets this man at the well and asks her to give Him some water. As they talk about the water, Jesus seemingly points to the water in the well. He says, basically, “You drink this water; you’re just going to be thirsty again. But if anybody, who drinks of the water that I give,—
Bob: —the living water.
Nancy: —“they’ll never be thirsty again.”
Throughout the Old Testament—this idea of water out of a well—we get a sense that it’s about desire and relationship. Now, I’ve always thought, when He says to this woman that “I know you’ve had five husbands before,”—because He says, “Go get your husband,” and then He says, “You’ve had five husbands; the man you’re living with now is not your husband”—I’ve always thought to myself, “Oh, these were bad men; and they were all using her”; right? That could be; it’s not necessarily the point of the story.
But it could also be that—all of these men—she had been expecting them to be her living water. You know, it’s a lot of pressure on a person to try to be someone else’s living water.
Nancy: There’s only one Person who can be our living water, and the good news of the gospel is that He offers Himself to us! He says, “You drink of this water and you’ll never be thirsty again.” He offers Himself to quench those deep desires that we have for satisfying, meaningful relationship. We begin experiencing that now; and then the day is going to come when we will experience it perfectly, eternally.
Bob: You walk us through, in your book, the ways in which God meets our emptiness/fills our emptiness with His presence, with His grace/His kindness, with His life, with meaning, with faith, ultimately with joy. As I was reading that, I thought, “This almost feels sequential, like first He meets us with presence, and then He meets us…” Were you thinking sequentially as you wrote this?
Nancy: Not so much. The sequence is working my way through the Scriptures; so looking at the children of Israel in the wilderness, and then the story of Ruth and Naomi, and then stopping in the wisdom books, and then going to the prophets. In fact, I’d love to tell you about the prophets.
Bob: Yes, tell us!
Ann: Habakkuk; yes.
Nancy: Do you remember the story of the prophet Habakkuk, just those three chapters? What we know about him—he’s living in a time when he is so frustrated about how the people of God are living, and then he hears God speak to him. God tells him what He’s going to do. Well, he doesn’t like what he hears at all! Because what God said was: “You know those really bad people over there, the Babylonians? I’m going to bring them over to judge my people to purge them of all this sin.” It’s almost as if Habakkuk goes, “Wait a minute! That’s not what I had in mind. In fact, God, that doesn’t even sound like You. How could You use a more evil people to somehow work in the lives of your less-evil people/us Israelites?”
Then God begins to reveal to him what He’s done in the past and what He’s going to do in the future. It has one of my very favorite verses in the Bible, where He gives Habakkuk this vision of the future, where He says that the earth is going to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea; it begins to fill Habakkuk with hope.
We get to the last chapter of Habakkuk. It doesn’t say it’s a song, but it kind of says it’s a song; because at the beginning of the chapter, it says, “According to Shiggionath”—it’s saying, “Here’s the tune you should sing this with.” Now, do you know the tune of Shiggionath? I know you know a lot about music, Bob! [Laughter] Don’t happen to know that tune?
Bob: Don’t know Shiggionath; no. [Laughter]
Nancy: Yes; then, at the very end of the chapter, it talks about four-stringed instruments; so we know all of Habakkuk 3 is a song. What does he sing about?—he says, “Lord, we’ve heard these reports of what You’ve done before; we know that You judge,”—and he says—“In wrath, remember mercy.”
But then, near the end of that chapter are probably the most familiar verses from the Book of Habakkuk. He knows the most evil people in the world, the Babylonians, are about to sweep into his land/his people. He’s looking out at this potentially devastating future, and what does he say?—he says, “Even though the fig trees have no blossoms and there are no grapes on the vine, even though the olive crop fails and the fields lay empty and barren, even though the flocks die in the fields and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in the God of my salvation.”
This is an agrarian society, so he is facing losing everything; and yet, as he reviews what God has done in the past and what God has promised to do in the future—and that’s the essence of faith—faith isn’t based on what we can see right now in our circumstances; it’s based on what God has done in the past/what He’s promised to do in the future—and he says, “I’m going to live by faith.” That faith fills him with a joyful confidence as he faces the future.
I actually think that Habakkuk’s prayer is what we need in these days of COVID-19, because many of us are facing a really uncertain future. Because of that, I think that we can take Habakkuk’s prayer and give it our own spin. Maybe we would say: “Okay, God, even if my income dries up and my savings are gone, even if I face a devastating diagnosis and I lose my dignity in the process, even if my integrity is questioned and my reputation is ruined; yet I will choose daily to be happy in Christ. I will smile at the future, because I am protected and provided for in Christ.”
None of these things is the source of my strength or security; God alone is my strength. Christ enables me to navigate dangerous and difficult circumstances. That’s the prayer of Habakkuk turned into a prayer that we can pray, as the Lord gives us grace to do so, that as we face an uncertain future, He will fill us with faith to face it with joy in the midst of it.
Dave: It sounds crazy.
Bob: It does!
Dave: I’m thinking of the person that doesn’t know that; they really have no hope. It’s like there’s no football season: “Oh no; what am I going to do? Well, there’s going to be basketball; it’s like the money will come back.” What if none of that works?—and you keep going horizontal, horizontal, horizontal; and nothing ever changes enough to bring you joy?
There has to be a well of joy that’s available, and it is; Jesus really is enough. But boy, if you don’t know Him well enough for Him to be the well, it’s an empty answer. I think we’re saying/your book’s saying—the gospel is saying—“Turn your eyes to the only source of hope/the only source of joy. It’s real!”
I mean, we’re all sitting here—we’ve all experienced pain and empty—and I think we can all say: “Empty is one of the best things I’ve ever gone through in my life, even though it was horrific. It allowed me to sense the depth of Jesus’ real joy. It’s real, and you have to turn to Him today.”
Bob: That’s what you point us to in the book and in the online study you’ve done for this. I’m grateful that we have a chance to talk about emptiness.
Ann: I am, too; I can’t wait to give this book out to my friends.
Bob: Nancy, thanks.
Nancy: Thank you so much.
Bob: Thanks for being here.
We have copies of Nancy’s book, God Does His Best Work with Empty, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to get a copy, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to talk about how important it is for our interactions with our children to be full of grace; our speech needs to be seasoned with grace. William Smith is going to join us to help us figure out how we do a better job of that. I hope you can tune in for that conversation.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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