I am privileged to serve on the Inner Healing Prayer Team at my home church, providing a welcoming space for people to receive an intimate form of soul care. In a private setting the person requesting care/prayer describes their situation and shares their story in an unhurried way. Our team goal is practically impossible, principally audacious and potentially transformative. For we seek to facilitate an encounter with the living Christ – an encounter which may bring clarity, growth, freedom, possibly even partial healing to the needy person. We’ve served many people over two decades and here’s what always seems to happen: the team members are humbled, challenged and disrupted in very positive ways. The person requesting prayer is usually blessed as well!
Self-Emptying. We team members have learned to ‘empty’ ourselves immediately before a prayer session. The Holy Spirit seems to minister through us more vigorously and with greater purpose and influence when we confess our human incapacity to truly help one another. When we acknowledge to God our personal spiritual inadequacy, our insufficiency of wisdom, our meager and distorted knowledge, our deficient experience, our own barren, sinful defectiveness as ministers – when we empty ourselves of our ‘selves’ – God works more freely and typically surprises all of us gathered together in His name. Our self-emptying is surely an outgrowth of Jesus’ kenosis.
Kenosis. As a young Christian I often ‘sped-read’ through Paul’s poetic description of Jesus’ self-emptying (kenosis) in Philippians:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but 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” (Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV).
As a young lion I was busy crafting the foundation of my faith, intently focused on a spirituality of “ascent” – that is, Richard Rohr’s insightful understanding of the soul’s initial grasping for “ascending, achieving and attaining, …of winning, succeeding, triumphing over ego and obstacles” (The Wild Man’s Journey, St. Anthony Messenger Press, revised ed., 1996). I was firmly entrenched in the first half of Christian life and unable to apprehend Christ’s mindset of descent: He had “emptied himself” but I could not see the forest for the trees.
Meditative Research. Eventually with the passing of enough time punctuated with personal struggles and ministry failures I began to seriously wonder about Jesus’ self-emptying. J. Rodman Williams helped me see Jesus kenosis was a surrender of His original heavenly glory (John 17:5) and riches (2 Cor. 8-9) and not some form of abdication of His divine nature. Williams notes…
“The self-emptying of Christ, His kenosis, should not be understood to mean that Jesus emptied Himself of …such attributes as omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence. …it would be better to say that there was a limitation in their use by Christ in His humanity” (Renewal Theology, Vol. 1, Zondervan, 1996).
Williams thus supports the truth of Jesus’ simultaneous divine and human natures and His choice to specifically limit His divine attributes. R. C. Sproul further clarifies Jesus’ kenosis:
“What the whole text of Philippians 2 makes clear is that the emptying was an emptying of divine prerogatives. Jesus laid aside His privileges. He voluntarily humbled Himself. His taking on a human nature did not subtract anything from His divine nature, but cloaked and concealed His glorious and exalted divine nature” (One Holy Passion, Thomas Nelson Publ., 1987).
Our Strength or His? Was the kenosis (self-emptying) of Philippians chapter 2 only about Jesus or is there something here for us, for our spiritual formation? I learned early on about the message of servanthood in verses 2-8: “Let the same mind be in you …take the form of a slave …humble yourself,” i.e. serve one another. But for years my serving flowed principally out of my own strength and generally out of my own resources. Such a self-centered approach can readily continue unless I accept the deeper message of Jesus’ kenosis: when I stand empty before Him, genuinely admitting that without Christ I can do nothing, God will fill me with what is needed for my role in each situation. Ah, inadequacy and neediness rightly embraced and admitted opens windows for the inflow of grace! As a spiritual director, author Larry Crabb discovered this gift of emptiness/inadequacy:
“Recently I’ve made a truly liberating discovery. I am inadequate. I have learned that an awareness of inadequacy is neither a curse to lift nor a disorder to cure. It is a gift to be received, a gift that if properly used can make me powerful and strong and clear and wise” (Shattered Dreams, WaterBrook Press, 2001).
And the “proper use” of this paradoxical gift is explained by author Jeff Cook:
“Over and again, God moves toward us. The movement of the faithful is to make their space ready. The movement of God is to fill. In my life and in yours, God’s presence enters only when we are empty enough to receive it” (Seven, Zondervan, 2008).
Cook’s recipe seems to be ‘open up your inadequacy for the Holy Spirit’s infilling.’
Childlike Qualities. Returning to my illustration of the prayer team, we have learned to surrender ourselves in childlike humility (Matthew 18:4) so Abba Father can prepare our hearts to properly serve. We achieve some measure of this humility when we present ourselves to Him in the reality of who and what we are not, along with who and what we really are: His needy ones desiring to help other needy ones. Expressing our dependency on Him and exercising our trust in Him (Proverbs 3:5) typically enhances our sense of ministering with Him. Often, awesomely subtle and quietly stunning things begin to happen in the empty spaces we’ve opened for God. We receive His good gifts, freely given (Matthew 7:11).
Practice Self-Emptying. We follow Jesus’ own kenotic pattern when we self-empty the self-confidence we would otherwise rely on. No, I am not referring to a dumping of our self-worth; we remain Abba’s valued children and His partners in kingdom ministry. But we rest our expectancy on God and cling to Christ’s sufficiency rather than our own – this is the echo of Jesus’ kenosis resounding in our hearts. This is vital for our spiritual formation and soul restoration.