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The Power of Emptiness

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The home that I liked to visit most as a child was my big aunt’s home in Rangoon. I didn’t know what attracted me then, but I felt very comfortable in their living room. It had a set of very simple sofas and tables. In my impression, it was pretty much like all living rooms in general, but somehow I felt I enjoyed being in that space.

As I grew up my uncle explained to me his decoration philosophy. He left the walls empty. There were no family pictures or any paintings, except a picture of Jesus. Photos were in the albums kept in the drawers. However, I didn’t quite understand why he chose to decorate it that way because visually it looked very plain.


Now, only as I get older and wiser, I began to understand why I was so comfortable in that room. It was the power of emptiness that gave me the comfort and restfulness. Eastern philosophy tends to take emptiness or nothingness very seriously. My wife loves the Japanese flower arrangement (Ikebana), which makes use the empty space as the essential artistic element.

Steve Job was well-known for his application of this art when he designed his technology. It’s not the sophistication of their technology, but the simplicity of the iphones, ipads, and ipods, that stirs the appetite of everyone that sees it, touches it, or uses it. The Apple products are in fact an example of “sophistication of simplicity” and “usefulness of emptiness.”

The chapter eleven of Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) states:

“See thirty spokes converge on a hub? In fact, it is the empty space that makes a wagon useful.
See clay molded into a pot? In fact, it is the empty space that makes a pot useful.
See doors and windows penetrating into a room? In fact, it is the empty space that makes the room useful.
Therefore, what is visible makes them attractive, yet what is invisible makes them useful.” (Lao Tzu)

We tend to be drawn to the visible part of things. When we see a wagon, our eyes are drawn to the moving wheels, but we forget that it is the empty space of the wagon that makes it useful. Many people pick up a pottery and appreciate the artistic shape of it, but they hardly give attention to the empty space that makes it useful.

Emptiness is not seen by our eyes, but it is appreciated by our consciousness.

Have you noticed that it’s much harder to be conscious of the emptiness of a person’s life? As a result, a lot of us are fully occupied, and totally unaware of the clutter in our hearts. Just like a piece of writing paper that needs to have a margin for it to provide an empty space for the comfort of the reader, do you have a margin in your life that gives yourself or others some breathing room? In fact I am talking about more than a little margin of empty space, but the total space of emptiness that makes our lives useful.

The Bible says that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Php 2:7-11)

Can you appreciate the emptiness of Jesus Christ—empty to the point of death? It’s his emptiness that makes God exalted him. It’s his emptiness that makes every knee bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. It is much more profound to see his emptiness rather than his physical being, deeds, and miracles. Jesus performed the miracles not for us to appreciate the miracles themselves, but to draw us into consciousness of the vast emptiness behind those miracles—“the Word became flesh,” and the emptiness that that eventually contained our loads of sin.

Because of its hidden nature, sometimes it’s hard to be conscious of the emptiness in another person, especially when our own life is heavily burdened. Even John the Baptist, when he was in prison and soon to be beheaded, sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one that the world was expecting. Jesus asked him to look at the visible in order to see the invisible, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Mat. 11:4-6)

God wants to use you, but you have to become empty first, just like a vessel ready to hold what God wants you to carry. One of the areas God can use us through our emptiness is our generosity. Paul says “…so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking … For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Co 8:7b, 9, NRSV)

God wants us to look at the generous act of Christ, which was due to his emptiness, or poverty. It’s through Christ’s poverty, we become rich. In the same way through our own “poverty in spirit” we receive the blessing of the kingdom of heaven (Mat. 5:3) because we resample Jesus in this state. Generosity is the result of this emptiness of life, or poverty in spirit.

When someone lacks this kind of emptiness, we say, “He is full of himself!” because emptiness is shown in human life as humility, generosity, obedience, and sacrifice. We are unconsciously drawn to people that has an empty space because they allow us to breathe freely. When we are around those who are full of themselves, we feel stuffy.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mat. 11:28–30) The phrase “I am gentle and humble in heart” indicates his emptiness, and that is what provides “rest” for those who come to him.

So let us learn to empty ourselves for people around us to find rest for their souls. Amen!

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