Letting Go Of The Self – The Path of Self-Emptying
When Miak sent out the titles of the sermon series we were going to undertake for the first half of this year, inviting us to select topics we felt called to speak about, this one jumped out at me. Giving up. I have always believed that the stumbling block to our personal growth lies in the beliefs and expectations we hold on to, so much of my own journey has been about discovering and unburdening myself of these expectations. So everything was fine and good until I read the sermons that Miak and Pauline delivered, not to mention the amazing message on love that we received from Professor Graham Ward 2 weeks ago. Miak first spoke about giving up being right and turning to compassion, and Pauline talked about giving up pride and bitterness for humility and gratitude. Then I started panicking a bit, because they had more or less completely covered what I had in mind for my message. So today I’m hoping to do things a little differently, and share with you something that has been the focus of attention in my spiritual life lately. On and off we get comments that the sermons and services in FCC are not spirit-filled enough, compared to the traditions of some other churches. You may or may not agree with this, but I do wonder if it’s because of the diversity of our ideas about spirituality, that we relegate our spiritual journeys to the realm of individual, solitary practice, and we don’t share about our spirituality as much as we really should.
Actually I don’t really like the title of our sermon series ‘Giving Up’. In some contexts giving up has a negative connotation, something akin to abandonment in a moment of exasperation. I prefer the gentler and less violent idea of ‘letting go’. So my message today is titled “Letting Go of The Self – The Path of Self-Emptying”. I have spoken about this idea of selfhood before, in my sermon on loving the self, so in some ways I’m starting on familiar territory. I think it’s important for us to start from the self in the context of discussing spirituality, because it is really the substrate or medium upon which and around which we build our spirituality.
My selection of this topic today was very much inspired by Prof Ward’s sermon on love. I found his message quite exceptional, because it was the first time that anyone has been able to talk about love, and God’s love in particular, in a way that really made it feel so tangible and solid. But one other thing that I found striking in that sermon was the idea of self-emptying. The Christian love story is one of pouring out and filling up. One which was exemplified by Christ, whom we are called to emulate. I’m sure a lot of us are familiar with this idea that we are called to empty ourselves and be filled with Christ – it is a concept that Paul repeats throughout many of his epistles. But I always felt it was quite an abstract concept, and it never struck me how central self-emptying is to our spiritual walk until that sermon two weeks ago.
The concept of self-emptying originates from Paul’s words in Philippians 2: 5-8,
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.
According to Paul in this passage there are two instances in which Christ displays this self-emptying quality. The first occurs in the incarnation, when He left his position as God to take one human form. The second occurs in the crucifixion, when he gave up everything, including his life, to be obedient to His Father’s will. The early church argued intensely about what this passage suggests about the nature of God and Christ, whether Christ was still fully God and fully Man, whether he was equals parts of both, whether his divinity and his humanity were distinct and separate or mixed and intertwined. Later scholars believed that the concept of kenosis is not so much a theory about God, as an ideal of Christian ethics. In other words, how does the ethic of self-emptying inform and shape our spiritual lives.
I’ve talked about our selfhood before, in a sermon on self-love I delivered last year. Today I want to expand on that concept, especially in the context of our spirituality. As I see it, all of us have two aspects to ourselves. The first aspect is our conscious self, our thinking self. This is the self I referred to in my previous sermon – it is the cumulative result of our experiences, our knowledge, our upbringing, our culture and society and our needs and wants. This is the self that we spend the most time with, and it is in constant interaction with our environment and surroundings. This conscious self is constructed from the moment we are born, and in some way it will cease when we die. In contrast, the other self is the spiritual self. This is the self that was called into being by God, that was named by God, and will return to God. This self existed in God before we were born, and will be resurrected and eternal after we die.
In a lot of Christian writing this is referred to as the false self versus true self. I prefer to avoid those terms because I find them very value laden, as if the false self was bad. I have always believed that in our spiritual journey it is important to hold to the ideals of gentleness, compassion, acceptance and non-violence, especially in relation to yourself. So the conscious self is not ‘bad’ in itself, but we should be able to recognise it for what it is. I know I am making an arbitrary distinction here, but my point is that these two aspects of your self have different qualities, which is the basis for the application of the ethic of self-emptying.
Christian teachers and mystics through the ages, beginning with Paul, have suggested that the conscious self is what obstructs us from establishing a direct communion, or relationship, with God. Hence it is in reference to this self that the ethic of self-emptying needs to be applied. This is what the spirit of the Lenten practice of giving up something is actually about. Giving up something serves as a reminder of the other things we need to give up in order to reach a deeper relationship with God. So the path of self-emptying is essentially the road that all Christians are called to walk. To practice love, compassion, meekness, selflessness, generosity – all qualities that require us to put the other before the self. If you look back at all the sermons, workshops, cell lessons that we sit through in the course of our Christian life, they invariably deal with the principle of self-emptying in one way or another. Just like Miak and Pauline’s recent messages on giving up being right and giving up pride and bitterness. I really like how Pauline described humility in her sermon two weeks ago – “Truly humble people express their humility by not needing to say anything about it. Truly humble people are other-focused instead of self-focused.”
I’m not going to go into the practical details of how we should be self-emptying, because I think it’s a process we practice and hone over the entire course of our lives, and there isn’t one single clear cut way of achieving it. But I think there are some broad principles that I want to briefly touch on.
I’ve already spoken before at length about self-awareness, and how it is vitally important in the course of our spiritual practice. But equally important in the process of developing self-awareness is the need to be gentle, compassionate, non-judgemental and non-violent to yourself, especially your faults and shortcomings. We often very unconsciously jump from awareness to judgement of our flaws, which then leads to guilt, disappointment and avoidance, which get in the way of our dealing with the issues.
What I want to focus more on today is what comes after self-awareness. Awareness itself is still very much part of our conscious, constructed selves. What comes after awareness is very much where the journey towards our spiritual selves begins. Once you are aware of what is obstructing your path, the next natural step is to let go of these things.
There are many things in life that we hold on to, even cling on to for dear life. Not just material wealth or belongings, but more importantly, our beliefs, our expectations, our wants. I have always maintained that it is often these beliefs and expectations which, when unmet, cause us to suffer. I’m not sure how many of you are hoarders like me, but I find it quite difficult to get rid of things, even things I know I am unlikely to need or use in the near future. There’s always that niggling thought that I might one day come to regret that I threw this thing out. But eventually your space gets cluttered and in the extreme maybe even hazardous. Our spiritual lives are very much the same.
The problem is letting go of beliefs and expectations is a very difficult thing to do, because most of these life rules that we live by exist in our subconscious, and are not immediately accessible to our awareness or manipulation. As with all aspects of spiritual practice, letting go is also a process that we are continuously honing. Some things we will find easier to let go of than others, perhaps the more superficial or material things. As we declutter our spiritual space, things that we were previously unaware of then come to the fore, and we need to repeat the whole process anew.
Very closely linked to the idea of letting go, is the Christian practice of surrender. It’s summed up nicely in the phrase “letting go, and letting God”. As Christians we recognise that transformation does not take place by our own strength and efforts alone, as tempting as it may be to do it our way. If you liken self-emptying to giving your home a complete make-over, then surrender means recognising that there are things in our house that we can’t move out by ourselves. Maybe there’s even a whole roomful of stuff that we keep locked up out of avoidance, because we just don’t know how to deal with it. Surrender means opening the door to allow God, the mover, to come in and move those things for you. It means submitting your life to the will of God.
One of the most powerful things I feel that was recorded of Christ’s life was his prayer at Gethsemane. Matthew 26:36-42
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
This is one of the few times that Jesus showed distress and agitation. Most times we see Him supremely calm and composed, as if He always knew what was going to happen. In this prayer we see his two natures come into conflict, and his response is extremely enlightening.
For the longest time since my Secondary school days I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I had done well enough at the A Levels to be shortlisted for the interview, which was the final and biggest hurdle to entry into medical school, because at this stage it all lay in the hands of the interviewers. The night before the interview I prayed with all my heart, mind, soul and strength, and in typical transactional fashion, I tried to make a deal with God. God, let me get into medical school and I promise to be your instrument for the rest of my life, amen. I’m very sure all of you have tried to bargain with God at some point or another in our lives. That prayer seemed to work, so I would later continue to use it in various situations I encountered. But over time as I reflected on the Christ’s example in the Garden of Gethsemane, the focus of my prayer turned from one of requesting to one of submission. Let your will live through me. I found great comfort in placing my needs and requests in the hands of God, and committing by faith to honour the outcome whatever it may be. When I was later diagnosed with late stage cancer and the future seemed completely uncertain, I prayed the same prayer, except in reverse: If you still have use for me as your instrument, if you still have work for me to do on this earth, then let me live – my life is yours. It’s not always easy, but I have found surrendering to be an exceptionally fulfilling aspect of my spiritual journey.
As we undertake this process of awareness, to letting go, to surrender, something profound begins to happen. Once the clutter of our lives is cleared away, we enter a space where it is just us as our pure, naked, spiritual self, and God. When you clear a space of its contents what you are left with is emptiness, which in our inner spaces translates into silence. Not just silence in the sense of an absence of sound, but a deeper, more profound sense of stillness in the depths of our being. Miak has talked about this silence before, but I want to expand on it a little. I think from a very young age we are conditioned to reject emptiness and silence. We are taught that it is better to fill your life with things, to always keep busy, and this has consequences in our very technologically driven world. Have any of you realised that our attention today is constantly drawn to something or another? With the internet and smart phones, we now have an enormous cumulative body of human information literally at our fingertips. We are constantly plugged in, and always on the search for something to read, something to watch, some new stimulus for our idle minds. Those of you who knew a world without such reliance on technology, have you paused for a moment to wonder at how much the world has changed? It surprises me now and then, how instinctual it is, how strong the impulse has become, to reach for my phone in moments when I find my mind idle. It’s a constant struggle to keep people off their phones during meals, while on holiday, during Sunday service, during cell, and I am myself guilty of this.
So in a very pervasive sense, we have really lost touch with the ability to be still and silent, to the extent that some of us may even fear it as something very foreign and uncomfortable. Martin Laird, an Augustine priest and professor of theology writes about this silence beautifully in his book “Into The Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation”, and I quote:
“In his Maxims on Love, St. John of the Cross says, ‘The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must be heard by the soul.’ In his Letter Seven, the same Spanish friar says, “Our greatest need is to be silent before this great God,… for the only language he hears is the silent language of love.” Silence is an urgent necessity for us; silence is necessary if we are to hear God speaking in eternal silence; our own silence is necessary if God is to hear us. Silence is necessary because, as Maggie Ross boldly puts it, “Salvation is about silence.”
We enter the land of silence by the silence of surrender, and there is no map of the silence that is surrender. There are skills, however, by which we learn to dispose ourselves to surrender, and thus to discover this uncharted land. Moreover, there is the communal support of fellow pilgrims living and dead, whose wisdom comes to us in countless writings and through innumerable acts of compassion and who teach us which it means to ‘walk by faith, not by sight’.”
Martin Laird goes on to suggest that this deeply spiritual silence is not something that we make happen by our will or effort, but rather is something already present and inherent to our beings; we just have to allow it to happen. The difference is subtle but important, because then our approach to silence changes. It is not something we acquire, but rather a space we discover, that was always there. St John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic and influential writer about the spiritual life once said, “The soul’s centre is God”. In other words, and it’s not hard to see this, God lies at the innermost core of our spiritual selves. In this space, communion with the divine happens naturally. Hence, union with God is not something that needs to be acquired, but realised. To quote another Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, “God is always at home, it is we who have gone for a walk.”
I cannot discuss the spiritual practices of surrender and silence without talking about prayer. I don’t know about you, but looking back in my own life, no one actually really taught me how to pray. Admittedly this is something we as a spiritual community is not very strong in either. I have always understood prayer as our means of communicating with God. And in very human terms, communication almost always requires the use of words. But another, very old definition of prayer described it as “the raising of the heart and mind to God”. In this vein I recently learnt something new that I had never realised before, even though it shouldn’t be that surprising. My cell group is currently going through this book “Jesus: A New Vision” by Marcus Borg, studying Jesus as a historical figure and looking at the events of his life from this perspective. When I read the Gospels I often wondered how Jesus prayed for extended periods of time, like for hours or all night… In his book, Borg reveals that Jesus likely practiced a form of contemplative prayer that was familiar to the Jewish-Christian tradition of the time, one that has largely been lost to the modern world and replaced with verbal prayer. He described verbal prayer as “only the first stage of prayer; beyond it are deeper levels of prayer characterised by internal silence and lengthy periods of time. In this state, one enters into deeper levels of consciousness; ordinary consciousness is stilled, and one sits quietly in the presence of God. Typically called contemplation or meditation, its deepest levels are described as a communion or union with God. One enters the realm of the Spirit and experiences God.”
Once we embark on this process of self-emptying, letting go and surrendering our lives and wills to God, then this communion with God becomes the way we are subsequently filled up again. Like a reservoir, we need to create the space to be filled from the spring of living water that already exists within each of us. It is in this filling up with the presence of God that we can manifest the likeness of Christ in our lives.
So far I have only spoken broadly about the principles behind the practice of self-emptying, and have been short on the practical details. I have focused more on the spiritual and less on the conscious elements of the self. The intent of my message today is not so much on how to do it, but to serve as an encouragement and reminder that this is an aspect of our faith and spirituality we should be seeking and exploring. I know it comes a little late, since Miak’s series of Lenten workshops on spiritual practices, which covers contemplative prayer, is already coming to an end. But I’m confident there will be no lack of opportunities for you to explore this further, whether through workshops or in small groups or your own reading. I’m really not an expert at this in any way- I’m also still learning and exploring, but if you have any questions about this, or feedback, please don’t hesitate to approach me or Miak or Pauline. We would be glad to help. The key takeaway should be that God is already ever present in our lives, existing at the very core of our being. We just need the discipline, and the skills, to learn to look out for and honour the spaces of silence in our daily lives, to allow this holy communion to happen.
I would like to leave you with a poem today, written by St John of the Cross titled “Dark Night of the Soul”. The ‘dark night’ in the title refers not to a form of spiritual lacking, but rather represents the mysterious, unknowable quality of God and the spiritual journey. To me, the poem is a beautiful reminder that communion with God occurs not in any way by our own efforts, but because God has already found us.
All in the dark went right,
Down secret steps, disguised in other clothes,
(O coming of delight!)
In dark when no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose.
And in the luck of night
In secret places where no other spied
I went without my sight
Without a light to guide
Except the heart that lit me from inside.
It guided me and shone
Surer than noonday sunlight over me,
And lead me to the one
Whom only I could see
Deep in a place where only we could be.
O guiding dark of night!
O dark of night more darling than the dawn!
O night that can unite
A lover and loved one,
Lover and loved one moved in unison.
And on my flowering breast
Which I had kept for him and him alone
He slept as I caressed
And loved him for my own,
Breathing an air from redolent cedars blown.
And from the castle wall
The wind came down to winnow through his hair
Bidding his fingers fall,
Searing my throat with air
And all my senses were suspended there.
I stayed there to forget.
There on my lover, face to face, I lay.
All ended, and I let
My cares all fall away
Forgotten in the lilies on that day.