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religion

Beyond ’empty vessel’ … to a whole person

What if, rather than sitting on a throne demanding all of our attention, God were actually watching us, delighting in our little, every day actions…

LYRICS: “I’m giving you my heart and all that is within; I lay it all down for the sake of you my king. I’m giving you my dreams, I’m laying down my rights, I’m giving up my pride for the promise of new life.

And I surrender all to you, all to you; And I surrender all to you, all to you.”

 I’m singing you this song, I’m waiting at the cross; All the world holds dear, I count it all as loss; For the sake of knowing you, for the glory of your name; To know the lasting joy, even sharing in your pain.”

The lyrics come to me as easily as nostalgia for childhood TV comes to others.

This is a song that I, along with many evangelical Christians, have sung literally countless times:

in meadows, parks, converted warehouses and university accommodation; with full congregations, by myself and everything in between.

The lyrics come to me as easily as nostalgia for childhood TV comes to others.

And yet, I remain increasingly unconvinced by the message; a message which goes unchallenged in most evangelical churches.

The singer is called to give up:

  • their heart
  • everything they love and care about
  • their hopes
  • dreams
  • rights
  • pride
  • everything the world values

The ideal of the individual as an ‘empty vessel’ is a common trope in evangelical culture.

The ideal of the individual as an ‘empty vessel’, carrying only the spirit of God, is a common trope in evangelical culture.

Prayers such as “I can do nothing without you”, “God fill me” hide the sub-text of “because I am nothing; I have nothing to offer the world”, expressing this ideal state of total self-denial and emptiness, that is, being ready to be filled.

As an empty vessel, each person is supposed to let go of control over their life, allowing space for God to control the development of their personality by watering and ‘pruning’ as needed. 

Such beliefs are unhelpful and even potentially dangerous.  Giving up all belief in one’s own rights and importance means that many evangelical Christians feel unable to uphold personal boundaries or stand up for themselves when it is needed – at least not without experiencing shame.

Pure

Pain, which is supposed to function first as an alarm bell, becomes instead an expression of sharing in Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  In her book ‘Pure’, Linda Kay Klein vividly describes nearly dying of undiagnosed Crohn’s disease, after living with worsening pain for months.  She explains her belief that caused the situation: “The more God allows us to suffer, the more opportunity he gives us to be like him and prove our unshakeable devotion to him…” (2018: 52).  Since she saw pain as primarily ‘Christlike’, seeking to improve her circumstances when they got difficult was seen as a form of ‘taking control’ back from God, which was inherently wrong.

Each person is God’s plant to tend or God’s puppet to move.

In this paradigm, each person is God’s plant to tend or God’s puppet to move.  No credit is to be taken for a success since it is God who has caused it.  Any pride in one’s own achievements is misguided and sinful; as is ambition, which necessarily includes trying to exercise control over the direction of one’s life.  Making active life choices becomes difficult, as the primary importance is focussed on working out what God wants, with no thought as to what the individual themselves may want: their own desires are at best irrelevant.

Of course, there are times in life when one has little control and ‘surrender’ – that is actively accepting a difficult situation – is the best or only way forwards.  To re-imagine these situations of powerlessness as sharing in Christ’s suffering is deeply empowering to the believer who becomes able to find God even in the midst of hardship.

But this active ‘surrender’ must be situation specific, and not simply applied to all areas of life.

A similarly popular song in evangelical churches states:

Lord I give you my heart, I give you my soul, I live for you alone.  Every breath that I take, every moment I’m awake, Lord have your way in me.”

Life is supposed to be a stream of constantly thinking about, praying to and worshipping God.

Believers are frequently reminded in sermons to take their inspiration from Brother Lawrence, a monk who came to remember God’s presence at all times, even while peeling potatoes.  His book, ‘Practising the presence of God’ inspires Christians to think about God continuously, all day, every day.  Forgetting to think about God for a few hours i.e. “ignoring God” is a sin – a shameful inability to honour God rightly.

God made a world where there are things that just need to get done, and made humans with an ability for concentration on a limited number of things at once.

What if ‘worshipping God’ were less about remembering to think about God at every moment

What if ‘worshipping God’ were less about remembering to think about God at every moment, and more about being engrossed in the world that God – along with chance and nature and nurture – has created?  What if, rather than sitting on a throne demanding all of our attention, God were actually watching us, delighting in our little, every day actions, gratified by our engagement in every aspect of this intricate, terrifying, wonderful, horrendous, beautiful world?

Because in every person, God, chance, nature and nurture have come together to make us each who we are, and ‘who we are’ is Valuable and Precious – and that applies to everyone at all times, without exception.

On leaving the evangelical culture, I choose finally to assert that I have a lot to offer to the world.  I am not nothing.

I am not an empty vessel.

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