Once there was a woman with nothing. No husband. No income. No food. No money. No prospects. Nothing. She was the mother of two boys, but her late husband’s creditor was already on his way to claim them as slaves. So she came to the man of God. With nothing.
And he said to her… “How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?” “Your servant has nothing there at all,’ she said, ‘except a little oil’” (2Kings 4:2)
One terrified, desperate woman was about to learn something about nothing. She must have listened in amazement to the prophet’s instructions.
“Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons” (vv.3-4)
It was as if the prophet were saying, “Listen, we don’t have enough emptiness here. I want you to collect all the emptiness in the neighborhood – as much as you can beg, borrow, or finagle. Then go inside with those boys of yours and shut the door.”
So the widow gathered up all the nothing she had and all the nothing she could borrow and went into her empty house with sons no longer her own. And God smiled. It was just enough nothing.
“She shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her, and she kept pouring. When all the jars were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another one.’ But he replied, “There is not a jar left.’ Then the oil stopped flowing.” (vv5-6).
Nothing Short of Miraculous
I’ll admit: I’m drawn by our Lord’s interest in nothing. How his eye seems to linger on the empty things. How he prefers to lead his people through empty places. How he relishes wrestling beauty and splendor out of a vacuum. How he smiles at an inventory sheet that tallies zero.
I think of Philip, watching the people climb the hillside. Hundreds – no thousands. They kept coming and coming, in long, winding lines. There was no end to them. They seemed to crawl up out of the earth itself. He stared, fascinated, his concentration so intense the question caught him by surprise. “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5)
Phillip caught his breath a moment, then exhaled with relief. It could have been one of “those” questions. But, no, he couldn’t discern any hidden meanings here. No mysterious parable woven behind the words. It was what it seemed to be: a simple, practical query. A matter of logistics, calling for a little calculation.
Okay…bread sells for so much a loaf, and you multiply that by the number of people, divide by the number of bites per loaf (how many kids out there, any teenagers?) and…right. Got it. “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” (v.6-7) In short, Lord, we have nothing.
Nothing in the provisions bag. (Give me a break, Andrew, he’s not interested in some little kid’s lunchbox!) Nothing in the money bag. (Those numbers right, Judas?) Nothing plus nothing equals nothing.
“Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down’” (v.6:10) Phillip had a lot to learn about Jesus Christ and nothing. Had the wedding in Cana been so long ago? Hadn’t that dinner party come to nothing? A wedding with no wine left. One simply did not have a wedding with no wine. Better to have wine with no wedding.
Yet there they were. All the guests. All the dignitaries. Piles of aunts and uncles. Heaps of brothers and sisters and cousins. The bride and groom. And no wine. None. Zero. (How else can you say it?)
That’s about the time Jesus noticed six large, stone water jars. The jars were empty. Profoundly empty. Which was just enough nothing to catch the Nazarene’s attention.
When Nothing is Enough.
There’s just something about nothing that moves God’s hand. Job reflected how the Creator “spreads out the northern skies over empty space” and “suspends the earth over nothing” (Job 26:7). He began everything with nothing, and he’s been beginning with it ever since.
Richard Wurmbrand was a man who knew he had nothing. The Romanian prisoner of conscience had an indelible experience with nothing in a solitary cell deep in the cement bowels of a Communist prison in Bucharest. Over the weary months of his 14-year captivity, he and several other Christians worked out a system of communication through tapping on a sewer pipe that connected their dark, tiny cells.
Running on Empty
In comparison with Richard Wurmbrand, I have had everything in life. Yet there are days when-in spite of all I am blessed with-I feel utterly empty. As if all the sky over Montana were somehow compressed inside my chest.
Call it depression. Call it mid-life readjustment. Call it artistic temperament. Call it burnout. It all feels like nothing.
But I have a lot to learn about Jesus Christ… and nothing. I am coming to understand emptiness for what it is: One of my Lord’s best gifts.
I can remember empty feelings from earliest childhood. I remember laying on my back behind my home in a summer field of wild grass, mustard, and clover, staring up at the vault of blue sky. I remember the silence, broken only by wind in the grass, the buzzing of a honey bee, or the lonely drone of a distant airplane, up there in all that vastness.
I felt lonely in a way that went beyond a temporary lack of playmates. I felt homesick within a rock toss of my home. I longed for something…Someone I didn’t even know yet. There was a nothing inside of me looking and looking for a Something.
That nothing brought me to Jesus Christ at age nine. That’s when I first learned how God can use nothing. And emptiness that sets the heart to aching and wondering and searching.
Only recently did it occur to me that if I am empty, I empty of something. Emptiness means a realization of a need. It is this emptiness that finally tears me away from stupid, hollow distractions and lifeless preoccupations. It is this emptiness of a slowly withering branch, dying for the sap of the Vine. It is the emptiness of a Samaritan woman, who brings an empty bucket to a Well deeper than she knows.
It is the emptiness of a prodigal, who suddenly wakens to a shriveled heart and the stench of a hog pen and says, “I will set out and go to my father.” It is the emptiness of a Simon Peter, who in the numbness of his sorrow says, “I’m going to fish’ … and they said, ‘We’ll go with you.’ So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing” (John 21:3).They worked so long. Tried so hard. Pushed themselves so unrelentingly through the long, dark hours, yet the nets came up sodden and empty. Nothing, nothing, nothing. So much nothing that it attracted the interest of One who stood on shore.
A voice reached across the water, pierced the morning mist. “Friends, haven’t you any fish?’ ‘No,’ they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
“Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ “(vv.5-7) Yes, his Presence and provision followed a long night of empty and fruitless labor. I can see that, but… How I have feared and dreaded those seasons of emptiness and depression in my life. I don’t want to be nearsighted, overweight, unfulfilled, 40-year-old underachiever. I don’t want to fish through the long night only to reel in an empty hook.
Yet, if I am beginning to understand God’s ways, I ought to look at the situation differently. Yes, I struggle with a sense of futility at times, but I may not be empty enough! The widow in Second Kings 4 would have had more of God’s provision if only she had procured more empty jars. There would have been no end to the oil. She was not limited by her emptiness, she was limited by her lack of emptiness.
And if I am to lay hold of his best provision, I must admit to an emptiness that is vast, not small. How can I petition the Almighty to reach from heaven to meet some pale, puny, feeble bit of emptiness? Better to have a Grand Canyon in my heart! I must not drive into his provision station and ask him to top off my tank. Better to coast in on fumes and flat tires with an expired credit card. I must not come to his banquet table when I am mostly full and ask for a sip of coffee and an after-dinner mint, I must cry out my hunger and need.
For the truth is, whether I realize it or not, I am always in deep, acute need of Jesus Christ. Apart from him, my nets are always empty, my bucket is always dry. Whether I realize it or not, his presence, blessing, and filling is blood in my veins and air in my lungs…my very life. It is when I don’t sense that need, when I think I can coast by without him for a day or two, when I say that my cup is already full—that is when I am in deadly peril.
Jesus said as much to the self-satisfied Christians in Laodicea: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you don not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked….Here I am! I stand at the door and knock” (Rev. 3:17,20).
To a similar group of smug, complacent Israelites, he cried, “Hear, O my people and I will warn you….I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth, and I will fill it” (Ps. 81:8,10).
Anybody got some empty jars I can borrow?
Author: Larry Libby is senior editor at Multnomah Press. This article originally appeared in Discipleship Journal, issue 66, c.1991. All rights reserved.