There’s Something To Nothing

Why God still calls us to give up everything,

And what that might look like in practice.

A month ago, I had nothing. Technically I had a house, two cars, a television, more toys for my son than I care to admit, and a wife who I love dearly. And a ton of other stuff. But I felt like I had nothing. And I was mad at God about it.

It all started just over a year ago when my wife and I felt God calling us to move to a small town two hours away from where I am finishing up my studies. He had been simultaneously developing a desire to grow our family in our hearts, and in context of the new vision we decided that was a call to adoption. This was all exciting to hear, but it was also scary. Everything we felt called to came with a hefty price tag. I was working a small town labor job, and my wife was doing freelance writing. We were barely squeaking by, every month a delicate balancing act of making our expenses and having enough left for rent.

Over the next year, God placed in our path everything we needed, like magic. We found the perfect house – a charming fixer-upper with a great Christian neighbor family our age. We found out about money from an unexpected source we could not have planned for or seen coming. We stumbled upon numerous ministry opportunities in the new town doing good kingdom work and looking for new blood. One day, just as we were finishing our home study, my pastor called to tell me that a family in our community was in crisis, and was looking for parents to adopt a newborn and a one-year-old, the perfect addition to our young family.

And then, nothing. None of it happened. The grandparents of the children stepped in to take custody after initially feeling unable to. Our funding stream changed unexpectedly, in terms of the timeline we expected. The house we wanted sold, and more importantly the neighbors we had connected with moved back to their hometown to accommodate their growing family. One ministry that I felt particularly qualified for turned me down, the other faced its own delays. I had spent the whole year focusing my energy and imagination on what I thought was God’s revelation and will. I felt embarrassed – maybe I was crazy, and had made this whole mess up in my head. I felt betrayed – I felt we’d done our part, had consistently been in prayer and discernment. We’d taken the risks and done the actions our faith compelled us to. What could we say about God’s faithfulness in all of this? I couldn’t help but think, What if God set me up to fail?

Here’s the thing – I think He did.

A Detour

American Christianity has a stuff problem. It’s a problem that gets brought up a lot, one that we seem to all agree is an issue, but it’s one that is easier to diagnose than it is to cure. The fact is, it’s easier to criticize our culture’s use of wealth until we have some ourselves. Then it just starts to make sense, to buy that big building, to match that big salary. Actually having resources in our hands reveals our dormant but very much real belief that more is more, that while amassing money and power are not the ends of what God wants to do in the world, they are more often than not the means. And so comes the building, the sound system, the stage set-up, the gym, and so on as our places of worship become a sprawl of stuff.

None of which is bad, necessarily. After all, everything we possess could be an opportunity to show God’s love in a tangible way, or to engage culture in a way that might form relationships – potentially transformational ones. God is more than happy to work among us through the stuff of life, as we work and play together, not just when we sit in a circle with our Bibles open and our serious faces on.

And yet,

Life is suffering

Suffering is caused by desire

So goes the famous thesis that forms the bedrock of a whole slew of religious and spiritual traditions. As Christians, we don’t ascribe any special authority to these words, but they are perhaps not as unfamiliar to our own faith heritage as we think. There is a long tradition that reaches all the way back to the early centuries of following Christ that would call rejection of earthly things an important part of his teachings. The desert fathers, the ascetics, the monastics, and so on. Leo Tolstoy famously gave up all of his inherited wealth in order to live faithfully according to what he read in the Bible.

Of course, much in this “genre” of spirituality raises as many questions as it does answers. What, for instance, of the contemplative traditions present inside other faiths – is ours so unique a testament? What of the culty “communities” today that encourage members to give their all, but who use the money to further only the organization’s own ends? Finally, isn’t the ascetic tradition a holdover from some of the flesh-hating paganry that the early apostles worked so hard to dispute – a belief system that denies the goodness of God’s creation? These are real and serious questions, that need to be engaged and wrestled with. Bear with me, I’ll get back to my story.

The Evidence of Emptiness

I’m sure there are much better treatments out there on the unity and diversity of worldwide contemplative movements, but the only idea I want to put out there is that the presence of God in emptiness is a universal human experience, not something God reserves for his elite chosen. It’s not even bound to religion, either. As a hospital chaplain I find over and over that when people have everything in their life, even involuntarily, ripped away, they do not find true emptiness – absolute nothing. People who haven’t been to a church in decades (or ever) find God ministering to them in their pain and loneliness, their attention turned to the presence that was always there but which did not demand their attention. Missionaries often report a similar experience – that God is present with the poor around the world in a profound way, even before they adopt the proclaimed message or adopt a new form of worship.

This joins the experience of beauty and the underlying order found in scientific discovery, among others, as one of the ways God makes himself known to everyone – a gentle, general reminder of God’s existence that can act as a springboard to faith. Is it everything we need for salvation? I don’t think so – personally I think that would shortchange everything that knowing and accepting God can entail. But it doesn’t mean we should reject it as meaningless or insignificant.

The Rich Young Ruler

The story most often associated with the impulse to forsake everything is the short exchange between Jesus and the “rich young ruler”, as he is referred to in the three gospel accounts that record the encounter (Mark 10, Matthew 19, Luke 18 for all you reading along). One detail of the story that I find important – not its main point, certainly – is that Jesus does not tell the young man to donate his all to the Kingdom cause – the Jesus movement ministry fund. Jesus is God incarnate – why would he not call the man to fund his ministry? Wouldn’t that be, in a way, giving one’s whole life to God? But he tells him to give it to the poor.

Maybe Jesus is acknowledging the conflict of interest, that the authority of his teaching or reputation would be compromised if it could be said that he stood to profit from them. Or, maybe he realizes that if the young ruler gave his everything to funding the mission, he could still keep his identity rooted in his wealth – becoming a benevolent patron of the movement, a position of honor – and his soul condition could remain far from God. And finally, maybe Jesus didn’t want wealth, because it wasn’t useful to his purposes. This was a fundraising opportunity par excellence, and Jesus didn’t take it. We who eagerly equate giving to church to giving to God might do well to pay attention here.

Christian tradition preaches two ways that God requires of us to give of our main two resources, our money and our time – tithing and observing the Sabbath rest. These have the potential to be powerful declarations, lived out: that God owns everything, that both our time on earth and the resources we have access to are His. And yet, we too often make both of these things about church. Tithing is what funds our churches. Sabbath is what puts butts in their seats. We lose the part of them that are for the health of our own souls – the way they serve also as declarations that we are not God, that we are not our own provider or our own source of worth and identity. Allegiance to God is not fully summed up by allegiance to church, and any church that equates themselves with God is in dangerous water.

“My Kingdom is Not of This World”

The idea I want to offer today is that our problem is not about what we have, but what we’re missing. The problem isn’t stuff; it’s our attachment to it, and that attachment starts in our hearts. Evil is what happens when our hearts try to use stuff to help us be our own God, to get as much pleasure and power out of life as we can without depending on or being accountable to anyone else. A mansion can help with that. So can a big church building.

The fact is, Satan is less scared of a church that has been blessed with every material blessing than he is of a group of people who have given their whole heart to God, and therefore would let go of physical security to follow Him. I wish I could say I was one of those people, but hopefully this is at least the direction I’m heading.

Because this is where all this philosophizing re-finds my story. I really believe God set us up to fail, because He wanted to confront us with some hard questions. In this next stage of life, were we going to measure our success and worth on what we were able to accumulate, or on what could stand as a tangible reminder of God’s blessing? More pointedly, i felt God asking me this question in my heart: “If all you have is me and my word, do you have enough?”

The fact is, we didn’t really lose anything. We never had it. It was all in our heads. As my wife brilliantly phrased it, “we lived through a theoretical Job story”. But that’s the nature of all possessions. They’re not part of us, and they could be gone in an instant. We can only really lose stuff in our heads, because we really only own stuff in our heads. There is only one thing we can’t ever lose, and that’s God’s love to us in Jesus. And there is only one thing that Jesus cares about at the end of the day – the hearts and souls of God’s children. As he famously declared when refusing to take up arms against his oppressors, to take physical and material control of his situation: “My Kingdom is not of this world”. Jesus doesn’t need his people to be materially successful in order to spread His kingdom. He just needs their hearts.

At the end of the day, I count it all mercy. If we went into the next season of ministry relying on God’s blessings instead of God’s presence, we wouldn’t be set up for success. If we played into the delusion that more infrastructure means we’re on the right track, we’ve missed our whole measure of meaning. If we think that God’s kingdom can exist anywhere outside of men and women’s hearts, we risk missing out entirely.

As everything I had built up in my head about the next season fell around me, I got inspired to write a little poem. It’s been an encouragement to me, a little reminder as everything falls apart as to what remains. I’ll leave it here. Thanks for listening.

 

When You are done I

Will find myself sitting on

A pole with nothing on my

Lips but praise.

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