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Beyond an ’empty vessel’ … to a whole person

Updated: Jul 9, 2020


The image of the individual as an ‘empty vessel’, carrying only the spirit of God and nothing of themselves, is a common trope in evangelical culture. Prayers such as “I can do nothing without you” and “God fill me” express an ideal state of emptiness that indicate being ready to be filled. In this post, I will look at two popular phrases commonly found in evangelical churches, which function to remind the Christian that they are supposed to be an 'empty vessel'. I will then propose moving beyond that metaphor towards getting to know and accepting our whole selves.


1) "Surrendering to God"



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.”

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

  1. their heart

  2. everything they love and care about

  3. their hopes

  4. dreams

  5. rights

  6. pride

  7. everything the world values

As an empty vessel, each person is supposed to let go of the agency over their life, instead allowing God to control of the development of their personality.  This is unhelpful and fraught with hazards.  Giving up all belief in one’s own rights and importance means that many feel unable to uphold personal boundaries or stand up for themselves when it is needed.


Likewise, it is unclear what one is supposed to surrender to and accept, and what should be addressed or fought. Both pain and awareness of injustice have at times been depicted as opportunities to share in God's sufferings rather than as alarm bells which require action. In her book ‘Pure’, for example, Linda Kay Klein vividly describes nearly dying of undiagnosed Crohn’s disease, after holding this belief led to accepting and surrendering to worsening pain for months. Similarly, I'm sure the Church would be more effective at tackling injustice if there were fewer people accepting the status quo.


Moreover, this paradigm can severely hinder one's life prospects, as no credit is to be taken for success since it is God who caused it; any pride in one’s achievements is misguided and sinful; and any ambition is wrong, since it necessarily includes trying to exercise control over one's future. Each person is God’s puppet to move, and the important thing is remaining passive and pliable, while working out 'what God wants'.  Against this backdrop, making active life choices becomes difficult, as one's 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 then 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.


2) "Living for God"


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 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 try to think about God continuously, all day, every day.  In this scenario, forgetting to think about God for a few hours is known as “ignoring God”, which is a shameful inability to honour God rightly.


Towards valuing the 'whole person'


God made a world where there are many things that need to get done, and God 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, 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?


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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