The Other Side of Nothingness



I felt empty. I felt nothing. I felt no inclination to say yes or no, to ask another question or devise another strategy for success or resolve. Faced with an unexpected opportunity, spending more than a week wrestling and wrangling, I found myself one Saturday morning as empty as my dried up fountain pen. There was nothing more to work with–a blank page with no ink.

I felt emptier, though. Empty like the Grand Canyon–big, wide and utterly vacant. I surveyed the strata, looking up at a week’s worth of possible ways to yes, layers upon layers of ideas and “Maybe this will work” and “This impasse seems insurmountable” and other veins of exploration on the matter. But looking up at all the formations, attempted and failed, made me feel further on the bottom of it all.

This emptiness was familiar.

Think back to the beginning–no, go further back still. Before there was anything, there was not anything. A soupy, dark mess of nothingness is what we find before creation. The ancients called this sloshing nothingness a “formless void,” “without form or life,” says another translation of Genesis. The Hebrew language combines two words, emptiness and wilderness, to try and convey the vast barrenness of this nothingness.

This unformed material is what God had to work with on the first morning of creation. Theologians cut to the chase and call it “nothing”–God created ex nihilo, out of nothing or thin air. Except it wasn’t exactly nothing, it was just some substance with no direction, no definition, no potential.

And that is the kind of emptiness I felt. Void of all potential on a Saturday morning after days of tossing and turning, trying to create some way forward out of my own vast barrenness.

But here is one thing I’ve learned about the emptiness. This kind of nothingness is a predicate for God’s creative work. I am empty of all possibility–until God speaks something new into existence.

As I mentioned, this is a familiar sensation for me. Not only because I see it in the pages of Genesis, but because I’ve seen it in my own family scrapbook. You see, I’ve been empty before.

I’m that odd sort of woman who never wanted a child and never longed to experience pregnancy. For all the stories about closed wombs like Sarah, Rebecca, Hannah–I am the anomaly who would have preferred barenness. And then, when I was in Burundi with my husband one summer, I met a truffle-skinned boy. And I heard, or something akin to it, God ask me if I would be willing to make a home for this boy.

Once again I wrestled, this time for weeks, with the question. It was another opportunity to become something other than what I imagined–to become a mother. By the end of my wrangling and hand-wringing, I found myself empty. There was no more argument left in me, no more imagination, either.

The same picture came to mind, the formless void. I told God I was a mess of maternal nothingness, there was no material for God to work with here. God reminded me that this would not be the first time creation happened under such conditions. And so the Spirit hovering over me, over my emptiness, spoke. And out of nothing, as if out of thin air, I became a mother of a son and a daughter through adoption.

These are the only two times I’ve felt this kind of emptiness. When I learned that my lack of anything useful was the place the Spirit hovered. When I discovered I needed to wait in the dark for God to speak.

This kind of emptiness, this kind of sloshing nothingess is thick with divine potential. It is also my thin place. When there is nothing left of me on the table–out of that threadbare place God conjures a miracle of newness that defies all my nothingness.


Image credit: Moyan Brenn