Plenty of Nothin’

How to know God deeply, get along with yourself, and love like Jesus the people you can’t stand

At a unity service with Roman Catholics recently, I was asked to share what’s on my heart, what I hear God saying to me.

And I said, “Nothing. Nothing is in my heart, because nothing is really important.”

Years ago I heard Richard Wurmbrandt, author of Tortured for Christ, talk about celebrating the Eucharist in solitary confinement. He had no bread. No wine. So he served himself the Lord’s Table with nothing. “Nothing,” he said, “is really something, because God made everything out of nothing.” Ex nihilo is what we call it in theological circles.

Nothing mattered to Jesus, too. In Philippians 2, Paul describes the incarnation of Christ this way: “He made himself nothing.” This has been called the doctrine of the kenosis, the Greek term used in this passage and which means “emptied out.”

Maybe you recall this rhyme:

Nothing in my hand I bring.

Simply to thy Cross I cling.

In fact, nothing is a master key to life.

When I say, Jesus is everything, it means nothing else matters. Only God. Only my relationship with him. But for you and me, more often than not, those are empty words. Jesus isn’t always everything to us, because in our distraction-filled world Jesus is usually just one other thing. Yeah, we like to say he’s the most important thing, but so many other things are just as important. Which is why losing a thing or two, or maybe losing everything, is necessary to get us back to the only thing that matters.

The ancient Psalmist wrote, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, and that will I seek after: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of his presence” (Psalm 27:4).

Just one thing.

What’s your thing?

Whatever happened to the dinosaurs?

We just spent the Easter week with our son Matt, his wife Kate, and their two children. He’s in the Navy band, but on Easter Sunday he had a solo trumpet gig, a piece from Handel’s Messiah at a historic Presbyterian church in Norfolk.

I sent a video of Matt’s performance to my brother Tom, who was a high school band director for many years. He emailed me back, “I really get emotional listening to that. I picture how our Dad [Matt’s grandfather] would have reacted to his grandson performing like that.”

When I read Tom’s email to my wife Marilyn, she said, “Maybe God let him hear Matt.” It’s a common hope, that dad, who passed away, is with his son as he plays in a championship basketball game. If, indeed, that’s the case, the Bible is certainly not clear on what exactly we know or don’t know in heaven about our families back here on earth.

My son Matt kinda laughed when he heard his mom’s comment. He said he had friends say something like this: “I can’t wait to get to heaven, because I have a whole of questions. Why this? Why that?” Or even, “What ever happened to the dinosaurs?”

“Heaven,” Matt declared, “is about experiencing fully the incredible presence of God. So when I see God face to face for the first time, I’m gonna ask him what happened to the dinosaurs? I think not. I think the only thing I’ll be thinking about is God. Nothing else will matter.”

God plus nothing.

Just give me Jesus

Jesus’ friend Martha had him over for a meal. Her sister Mary was sitting there talking to Jesus, and busy Martha was annoyed. Mary is doing nothing, she thought. “Hey sister, help me in the kitchen,” she demanded.

Jesus gently intervened, “Martha, Martha, you are troubled and anxious about many things. Only one is needful, and Mary has chosen this better thing.” And what was that? To do nothing, except to spend time with Jesus (Luke 10:38-42).

In his Gospel, John calls this abiding in Christ, remaining in his life giving presence like a fruit-bearing branch abides in the vine. But the ancient temptation of another tree is ever present: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We hear its siren song: “Know what’s good, and do it. Know what’s evil and don’t do that. Work on being a better person, and you’ll become more and more like God.”

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is, simply, religion. It’s all the things you should do. Have to do. It’s the endless and hopeless self-effort in the pursuit of the person you will never be. Religion says do. Grace says done.

On the other hand, the tree of life is an ancient symbol of the presence of God in Christ, of his perfect life and sacrifice to love us, to make us his own, to sustain us. “Come to

me,” Jesus said to simple people living in a culture of religious rules and demands, “Come to me, all of you who are carrying the burdens of life, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In other words, Jesus was telling them, “I am your Sabbath. Let go of yourself. Stop working for the perfect righteousness that I will give you out of my perfect sacrifice and infinite grace.”

A life worth nothing

This brings me around to my persistence about Jesus plus nothing. If nothing matters but God’s presence and our shared life with him in heaven forever, what could possibly matter to you in the here and now? This is why the Apostle Paul writes, “We look not to the things which can be seen, but to the things which cannot be seen, because the things which can be seen are transient, but the things which cannot be seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). It’s why we live by faith and not by sight. Why faith is the evidence of things not seen.

It’s why nothing is so important. The more we empty ourselves like Jesus, who made himself nothing, the more room we have in us for God.

Don’t you just hate it when people are full of themselves? Don’t you just love it when people have died to themselves and are full of God? We have a treasure in jars of clay, Paul wrote, to show the world that it’s not about us. The apostle used cruder terms to describe all his former rigorous efforts to be religious: a heap of dung. In fact, the Greek term he uses is more vulgar. Why? So that he could know Christ deeply, fully, freely, to abide in him, lacking nothing.

So how much is all the stuff in your life worth? Your things, your identity, your dreams, your absolutely correct doctrinal statement which pretty much makes everybody else’s doctrinal statement incorrect?

Man, is it ever hard to live out this scripture: “I [Paul] consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24 NIV).

It’s the grand irony. The closer you live to nothing, the more you are emptied of yourself, the more open you are to God, who is everything! Yet I have to confess: I hate this because I love myself so darn much.

Good for nothin’

Ok, so what on earth is all this good for? Well, of course, nothing is good for you. You get the peace of God that passes all understanding. You get to trade elusive happiness for priceless contentment. The joy of the Lord becomes your sustaining strength. To put it another way, you’ll find yourself getting along with yourself!

You’ll also find yourself getting along with others. Even loving your enemies. Because it’s not about you anymore. It’s about Jesus in you. Totally. And Jesus in you loves the people you hate more than you love the people you love.

My wife and I wrote our wedding vows. Shallow me included Colossians 1:15-20 (NIV).

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that [ponder this] in everything he might have the supremacy.

Everything in this world, everything in this life is lost in the shadow of the One by whom all things were created. But there’s more:

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], 20 and through him [ponder this too] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

As Jesus becomes the center of the universe, everything is reconciled to him, and as everything and everyone gets closer and closer to Jesus, everyone gets closer to one another. When Jesus is fully Lord over us, nothing can come between us.

Jesus plus nothing is why Christians of every persuasion are able to enter into the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Jews and Gentiles. Men and women. Rich and poor. African, Asian, Anglo, and Latino. Catholics and Protestants. To be one. Because we are all one in Christ Jesus, as he and the Heavenly Father are one.

What?!

Jesus prayed for us to be as one with one another, and the Triune God is one with himself? Yes, the perfect union of the Persons of the Trinity is our model for Christian unity, absolutely nothing between us. In fact, perfect community is the very image of God in and among us. And God (Elohim, plural) said, “Let us create human persons in our image.” So in the image God (Elohim) made he them, male and female, made he them (Gen. 1:26-27).

And those two very different people, a man and a woman, became one flesh, one with each other, an image of the perfect, eternal oneness of the triune Being of God.

Through his work on the cross, Jesus not only forgives our sins, but he opens the door to a new creation, a new world where the lion lies down with the lamb, a new humanity where people with extraordinary differences become one in the One God who is One. Jesus has destroyed the dividing walls of hostility and made the two one: God and fallen humanity—and all the fragments of fallen humanity.

Next time you participate in Holy Communion, consider this: it’s not about just you ‘n God. It’s a celebration of our co-union with Christ. Every week around the globe, his body is broken into millions of fragments, bits of bread which each of us consume to heal our fractured lives and fragmented relationships. Jesus was broken so we can be put back together.

Nothin’ but Jesus

The Corinthian Christians are a case study of division in the church and how to bring the fragments of the body of Christ back together. God’s people in Corinth weren’t getting along. They had their reasons. You know, everyone always has their reasons. Some were following one apostle, other another. Like Luther. Or Calvin. Or Wesley. Or Pope Francis.

According to Paul, they were behaving like children, or worse, they were unspiritual, carnal (1 Corinthians 3:1-4).

What to do? Nothing!

Listen to Paul, “I am determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2 NASB). Nothing except Jesus. Jesus plus nothing. As we take up the cross, we become dead to the world and alive to God, dead to ourselves and alive to one another.

To me, this is the practical outworking of Jesus plus nothing. In contrast, when you add things to Jesus, when your life is about Jesus plus this or that, it’s the this-or-that which becomes, in effect, more important than Jesus himself. It’s the plus-something that becomes our point of division, misunderstanding, even hostility. It could be a doctrine. Our denomination. How we do church. Or in a marriage, a relationship, or at work, it’s the issue that divides us, never Jesus.

Ponder Paul’s approach to the problem of disunity in Corinth: nothing except Jesus, the introduction of the idea how we are all members of one another in the body of Christ, and the supremacy of love in the transcendent words of 1 Corinthians 13. God is love, and love does.

Nothin’ matters. Not spiritual gifts. Not knowing it all, like having several seminary degrees. Not faith to move mountains. Not giving away everything you have. Not even giving your life away in blazing martyrdom. Nothing. Nothing but love matters. If we don’t do everything in love, we’re just making a lot of noise. And the very best of religion can make the worst kind of noise.

Resolution or reconciliation?

You can always find Jesus plus something when someone is more concerned about resolution than they are about reconciliation. Resolution focuses on the problem, but reconciliation focuses on the person. God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not holding our sins against us. In fact, a study on forgiveness some years ago at UCLA found that there was no correlation between conflict resolution skills and long-term marriages. What was common? Empathy and forgiveness.

But Jesus plus the issue keeps the conflict—and the division that comes with it—alive. So what’s your thing? What’s your issue that’s putting Jesus in the shadows? The “irreconcilable difference” in your marriage? What marriage doesn’t have those?! Praying to Mary? If you don’t, is God going to think less of you? If you do, are you going to hell?

Who is anyone to speak for God and tell others that what they are doing or the way they are living their life is a breaking point for God? I don’t pray to Mary. It’s just that my soul venerates so many other things. And so does yours. Yes, things matter, but mostly nothing matters. Nothing has to be our starting point for everything.

I know this ain’t so religious, but why can’t we all sing this song from the musical “Porgy and Bess”?

I got plenty o’nothin’ and nothin’s plenty for me

I got no car, got no mule, I got no misery

Folks with plenty of plenty, they got a lock on the door

Afraid somebody’s gonna rob ’em while they’re out a’makin’ more

What for?

I got no lock on the door, that’s no way to be

They can steal the rug from the floor, that’s OK with me

’cause the things that I prize, like the stars in the skies, are all free

Say, I got plenty o’nothin’ and nothin’s plenty for me

I got my gal, got my song, got heaven the whole day long

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