“The strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing. Maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged.”
These words from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel Tender is the Night have haunted me ever since I first read them. They give profound and disturbing insight into human nature. I believe this principle is true: The more empty and hollow we feel inside, the stronger the guards we place to keep others from finding out who we really are.
Hiding our Emptiness
Emptiness is a feeling we all experience to some degree or another. It’s the feeling that we are adrift without purpose and unable to find stability; the feeling that life is chaotic and nothing really matters because we are just pawns. It’s the feeling that we are not important, we are not valued, we are not loved. Emptiness is the feeling of being alone and lost with no way out. It is the realization that we don’t have answers to life’s deepest questions and most painful situations. In emptiness we come face to face with our imperfections, failures, finitude, and insignificance. No wonder we want to hide these thoughts and feelings from the world! So we build walls to hide behind, and these barriers cut us off from others. This makes deep, genuine, and meaningful relationships that much harder to cultivate, which only serves to make us feel more lonely and more empty.
We all have a fear of being exposed. To keep people from finding out who we truly are or how we truly feel, we will fiercely project an image of wholeness and purpose. People do this in a variety of ways. It could be through how we dress—we want to appear put together even if we are falling apart on the inside. We do this in the virtual world by carefully and meticulously selecting which picture to post online even though we know deep down that these images are projections of what we want others to think about us and are often not based in reality. We fill every moment of our lives with people and things, using “busyness” to convince others and ourselves that we are not empty. We are important! We use our work or our salary as evidence that we have life figured out, but inside we are hollow. We search for pleasure, fulfillment, joy, and stability, yet we do not seem to find it. We hope that spirituality will bring peace and balance, and yet life is still frustrating, painful, and absurd. When this is our experience we can become terrified that our secret will be found out, and people will see us for what we really are: insecure, insignificant, and unimportant. To prevent this from happening we put up barriers between ourselves and others. If anyone gets too close to our secret we cut them off, shut them out, or lash out at them. We repel anyone who comes close to discovering and exposing the reality behind the walls we construct.
Why do we experience emptiness and unfulfillment? Why do we try to cover it up? The most satisfactory answers I have found to these questions are in the Bible. There are three important truths it teaches us about our feelings of emptiness.
1. Emptiness is normal, but it shouldn’t be.
The Bible tells us that emptiness is a common part of human experience. Scripture affirms the fact that something is horribly wrong with this world. The Apostle Paul says the world has been “subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20). It was not always like this, but the world we inhabit now has been corrupted. The world is broken; things aren’t the way they should be.
What the Bible claims is consistent with our experience. We feel this at different times with varying degrees of intensity. Sometimes the beauty and splendor of the natural world cause a pang of emotion. We feel there is some greater meaning or order to the universe. We have a sense that there is some meaning behind the seeming randomness and chaos of life. We feel that there must be a purpose behind the things that happen to us. We are outraged when we see and experience injustice and hatred. We sense on a deep level that there must be some moral order beyond ourselves. Sometimes we feel the ache of emptiness when we are deeply moved by beauty. It could be a towering mountain or the rolling ocean waves that trigger this feeling. It could be a favorite painting or the haunting melody of one of Chopin’s Nocturnes. All of these experiences give us a sense that there is something more, some greater meaning, a greater purpose behind the universe. Life is futile, but it doesn’t feel right that it is so.
These common feelings and experiences point to one truth: we yearn for Eden. We long for a world without shame, where there is nothing to hide. The nakedness of Adam and Eve beautifully expressed this state of existence. They are whole, they have nothing to hide, no walls to put up, no emptiness that is too shameful to be divulged. What incredible peace, security, and freedom! We can only imagine this life because, as the story tells us, Adam and Eve have been cast out of the garden, and we along with them. Their rejection of God means that from birth we are thrust into a world which groans under the crushing weight of God’s curse on sin. This is why emptiness is normal. This is why emptiness should not be normal.
2. We can be whole again.
There is hope for the empty-hearted. The Bible teaches that we can be made whole again. For that to happen we must first come to know God as our creator. St. Augustine famously wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” If we want to find relief from our emptiness the best, and really the only place to look is to our creator. Only by discovering the God who made us we can find purpose, peace and fulfillment. J.I. Packer puts it this way in his book Knowing God: “we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it.” Imagine a student who enters a new class with a teacher they have never had before. If they refuse to learn anything about the teacher—for example their style of teaching, likes and dislikes, or policies—they will not do well at all. If they refuse to learn about the classroom environment, procedures, and expectations, they will struggle to succeed and in all likelihood fail. In the same way, if we live in God’s world without learning about God and the way he designed things to work, we have little hope of thriving in life. Therefore, leaving behind emptiness and finding wholeness comes first by recognizing and submitting to God as our creator.
Knowing God as creator, however, is not enough to eradicate emptiness and brokenness from our lives. We must know God in a more intimate and personal way. We must know him as our Redeemer, that is, as the great physician of our soul. The Bible tells us that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ in order to redeem and reconcile us to himself. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Through and in Christ we find the cure to our emptiness and sin. We have nothing to offer God, it is true, but he has loved us and sent Christ to die in our place anyway. Through faith in Christ we can be restored to a right relationship with our holy creator. In Christ our guilt and shame is lifted and we are free. There is no need to hide behind walls because our identity, our purpose, our meaning, our satisfaction are found in Christ and Christ alone!
3. Being a Christian doesn’t mean our feelings of emptiness just disappear.
We don’t become perfect at the moment of conversion. We don’t immediately feel whole and unashamed from that moment on. We still sin, we still feel empty, we still fear being exposed, so we still construct barriers and walls to hide behind. The Christian life is one in which we seek to tear down those walls so that we can be free and so that we can have real, meaningful, genuine relationships with others. This is a process that we can accomplish with God’s help.
If we find security and stability in the fact that we are forgiven through Christ, we need not fear the judgment of others. Paul tells us, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Free from guilt and shame we no longer need to hide obsessively behind walls that project a hologram of a whole self. Yes, our sin is great, but God’s grace is greater. What great freedom there is in letting go of our prideful desires to appear perfect and put together. This allows us to develop deeper friendships where others truly know us rather than the superficial images of ourselves we create.
What should relationships look life if we are finding our identity, meaning, value, and purpose in Christ? They will be marked by one driving characteristic: love. We must be patient with others because God has been patient with us. It takes time for walls to come down and relationships to develop. We must be kind and gentle as we seek to understand and to build trust. We should encourage and respect one another. We should humbly serve one another, following the example of Christ. We should forgive as we have been forgiven. If we are striving to live according to these principles, confident of our identity because we are eternally secure in Christ, then we will tear down the walls we use to hide our emptiness and open ourselves to deep, meaningful relationships.