Self-Emptying, The Mystery of Our Salvation

Personal Development

If I want to be full, open to receiving abundant grace—more human, selfless—first I must be emptied. He must increase, and I must decrease (John 3:30 ESV). The word I discovered is kenōsis. Oh, it’s not that I never heard the word. On the contrary, I’m quite familiar with the idea. But it’s one thing to define it and discuss it in a detached sort of way—to keep it at a safe distance. It’s another thing altogether when God calls us to put it into practice. And he always calls us to put it into practice.

Kenōsis is a voluntary self-emptying, a renunciation of my will in favor of God’s. It’s a life characterized by self-giving. It is the kind of yielding Mary, Mother of God, displayed in her tender and trust-filled acceptance of God’s birth announcement delivered by the angel Gabriel. “‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled’” (Luke 1:38). Mary embraced poverty of self-will with a spirit of humility even when she had no idea what was happening and no guarantee that all would turn out well. Nevertheless, she risked everything on God. She gave herself over to God’s plans for her life instead of plotting her own. I wonder, Could I be like Mary?

God is intent of him.

And could it be that Jesus learned the habit of voluntary self-emptying and renunciation of self-will by observing his mother? In relinquishing his own will for the sake of the Father’s will throughout his earthly life, Jesus exhibited the same posture of his mother: “I am the Lord’s servant. . . . May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Jesus’ trust in our Father’s good will was tested over and over again. Our trust will be too. And yet God calls us to the same kind of life posture Jesus had.

Jesus didn’t cling to his rights. He repeatedly gave them up. His posture was “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Similarly, each day of our lives God asks us to relinquish our rights in favor of his will—that our will and his will may become one. To choose emptiness entails a deep trust in God as we take the downward descent into servanthood and humility. We give up the endeavor of propping up ourselves. This ladder of success is inverted. This is the path of Jesus and of his disciples. It is the way of his mama. But it makes absolutely no sense from the human perspective.

Servanthood marked by this self-emptying, selflessness, or kenōsis begins with the surrender of our wills to God. Little by little in the strength of the Holy Spirit, we submissively renounce our self-will and cooperate with God to empty ourselves of our Godless selves that we might be filled with God’s life. It is the Galatians 2:20-21 life.

It is a life characterized by offering ourselves out of love for God, others, and creation. We surrender to God so he might live in and through us. Our lives become a love offering. Plain and simple.

But not so simple.

Sometimes we don’t want to do what God calls us to do. We fear the heavy toll it will take on us. Life already has us ragged. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we are habituated toward being self-serving instead of self-giving. We are inclined to choose ourselves first over God. We’d prefer to give God and others orders instead of taking them. Moreover, we worry that self-offering won’t get us anywhere in the world or in the church. It probably won’t. There won’t be any standing ovations or saintly Nobel Peace Prizes awarded or even measly high-fives. Offering ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2), our heroic deaths, the kinds that legends are made of, will pass by mostly unnoticed by others. Yet our love and obedience are never wasted. One day they will be richly rewarded (I Corinthians 15:58).

To choose emptiness.

Hearing the call to renounce our wills in each new circumstance so God’s will can be done in and through every part of us is the call to selflessness. It’s not a one-time deal. It requires daily repentance and conversion to the ways of God. We’ll constantly have to examine ourselves and decide whether we really want to go Jesus’ way and surrender all control of the outcomes to God. Maybe like Peter we make grand promises at the beginning, tell Jesus that we’ll go to any lengths for him, follow him anywhere, that we’d die for him. And then when push comes to shove and life doesn’t turn out the way we want it to—when we finally realize what is at stake we backpedal. We swear up and down that we don’t know Jesus or what he is about or that it would require so much of us. Maybe we read God the riot act. We continue in this vein until some rooster in the distance shocks us awake to the reality of things, and then we are beside ourselves with sorrow and self-recrimination. Or maybe our initial reaction is to run away (or want to run away) from it. We’re Jonahs hopping aboard the first ship to Tarshish.

There’s always surrender to humiliation and crucifixion, an emptying, before the glory. There’s no way around it. For my own part, I wish there were. Emptiness comes before fullness. We have to empty ourselves of anything that crowds out the life or grace of God in our lives. When we cooperate with the Spirit in this way, we become receptacles of grace. Like Jesus’ mother Mary, we become God-bearers, pregnant with the divine. We are rich toward God and others. Filled full.

Adapted from The Way Up is Down by Marlena Graves. Copyright (c) 2020 by Marlena Graves. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

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