0 Ev. Leonard Sidharta : “From Emptiness to Abundance:”The Trinitarian Foundation of Christian Spirituality — Part 1

I. Introduction:

Knowing God is undoubtedly the purpose of being a Christian. Aquinas and numerous other theologians said that the ultimate goal of our Christian existence lies in the moment when our faith is transformed into knowledge, that is, when we know God completely by seeing Him face to face. Indeed, this goal of Christian living, according to the New Testament, can and, for believers, has been achieved partially and initially in this life. The new life that Christians receive and experience consists of knowing the true God in Jesus Christ (John 17:3). The bible told us that since God is life itself and the source of all living things, knowing God is identical with having eternal life. The logic behind this statement is basically like this: since knowing God in the bible is much more than possessing information about God, but experiencing God most directly and intimately (i.e., being united with God), then in knowing God, the knower of God partake or share in God’s own nature (e.g., having eternal life, possessing holiness, peace, etc.). Now, since God is the most wonderful Being, then it is utterly reasonable to say that knowing God is the ultimate happiness and goal of believers’ lives; it’s even the very meaning or content of their eternal lives.



And yet, in some sense, knowing God is not easy or at least it’s not as natural as we thought. The process of knowing God requires some particular conditions; here, the object of our knowledge determines the way we know it (for instance, we know mathematical truths by studying; we know playing violin by practicing; and we know our spouses by sharing our lives, etc.). Now, since God is absolutely beyond our grasp, since God completely transcends us and cannot be controlled by us, it won’t be surprising to say that knowing the true way of knowing God would really surprise or shock us. Christianity (and other religions too, to some extent) teaches that to see or know God truly will cause death. When she was just a child, the great Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, boldly went to a hostile country to preach the Gospel openly, knowing only too well that she would be put to death because of that. When her family finally stopped and rescued her, they asked her why did she intentionally do that, and her reply was no less astonishing than her action, “I went because I want to see God, and to see Him we must die.” Commenting on Teresa’s naïve but truly insightful answer, a theologian remarks, “Only death, in truth, can open the gaze of our soul to the vision of the Infinite. It is by a dying, too, but more slowly, effected by continual mortification, that one enters even here below into the divine intimacy. ”

Dying here means the destruction of our own ego, self-centeredness and comfort. As American philosopher and psychologist William James noted, genuine religious experience always begins with the shattering of one’s ego. Without realizing deeply that we are nothing and our hearts or lives are fundamentally empty, we cannot know God properly and fully. That’s why many people claim that they have religious breakthroughs in the midst of utter despair, incurable sickness, career failure, persecution, and other sorts of self-emptying sufferings. In fact, the seemingly bottomless depth of emptiness is ultimately the awe-inspiring height of the divine presence. “Height and depth bring forth one another” (Angela of Foligno). In other words, if only we don’t want to give up to our despair, what we feel in the apparently dark destruction of our hopes and wishes is nothing but the shadow of the Almighty. At that time, instead of surrendering to despair and losing ourselves in fatalistic depression, we’d be better to surrender ourselves to the mysterious presence of God, which is deeper and higher than the depth and height of our despair. This experience of emptiness or nothingness is essentially an experience of dying, which, writes Martin Laird, “is about letting go and letting be, as is the awareness of God. ” When we let go everything in the hands of God, we might realize for the first time that “…our center is not self, but God—‘the center of the soul is God’—that means that we become ‘centered’ by surrendering our ‘selves’ for the sake of this Other. That sounds fine, but in practice we cling to ourselves with all the life-force that is in us, and to be cleaved off ourselves means dying…there exist treasures wrapped more tightly round our sense of who we are, and losing them is like being violated. ”


Also, nothingness or emptiness that we should practice with Christ here is not the same as the Eastern religions’ (e.g. Buddhism’s) concept of nothingness. Christian emphasis on being nothing before the Lord is actually a way of being humble, which detaches oneself from one’s disorderly desires and preoccupations, so that one can be overwhelmed by one most necessary and valuable desire, that is desire to love and be filled by Jesus. “If you want to enjoy everything, seek to desire in nothing…Purity of heart is to will one thing” (John of the Cross; Kierkegaard). It is at this point that we realize that in fact, our anxieties, depressions, struggles and agonies are “at root, tokens of our deeper need, then when …[they begin] to ache, when it cut into our flesh, this is not an obstacle to prayer. It can be the point which opens on to God. ” Therefore, our emptiness or despair, which is like dying, is not the end in itself; it’s only the means to lead us to God. We’re so accustomed to the word ‘God’ that we’re barely aware anymore that God is a wholly majestic and mysterious being who is totally beyond our grasp and refuses to be controlled by our wishes or desires. Since God is totally beyond us and yet sustaining us, knowing Him for us is inseparable from death! “I want to see God, and to see Him we must die.”


II. Abiding in Christ: Why?

I believe that the explanation above provides us with an important spiritual background to understand Jesus’ crucial injunction in John 15: “Abide in me, and I in you; for apart from me, you can do nothing.” Why? The logic is simple: if we are not emptied from our preoccupations and desires, no matter how beneficial or even ‘holy’ they might seem, how can the Lord fully abide in us? (It’s interesting to note here that abiding in Christ is by letting Christ abide in us; I’ll discuss more about this reciprocity later). This is indeed one of the most crucial conditions for being holy and sanctified: our being unified with and attached to Christ. That’s also why Jesus emphasizes that only by abiding in Him, believers can bear fruit and obey or keep His commandments.

Now, I want to discuss more thoroughly two things that can clarify this point (Christ’s abiding in us or our sharing God’s life):
1. Why does God want us to participate in His life?
2. What is the meaning of participating in God’s life?

Finding the answers of these “why” and “what” questions would, I think, disclose the amazing richness of Christian life. Let me discuss the first question first, which cannot be separated from God’s and our own shared history. Answering the first question would require us to compress the core of Christian theology in a nutshell. For this reason, I have to omit many details and focus on relevant materials only, but I encourage you to learn more about this yourself, so that you can appropriate the richness of Christian faith for your own spiritual benefits.


One important clue that can help us find the answer to the first question can be seen in Jesus’ strange way of speaking in the Fourth Gospel: “Abide in me, and I in you.” Why did He employ this reciprocal way of abiding to stress believers’ dependence on Him? Why couldn’t he just say “abide in me” or “let me abide in you”? Some might think that this is just a mode of emphasis; some others think that this reflects the importance of mutual love between Jesus and His disciples. None of these accounts are wrong, and yet, I believe that this way of speaking is rooted in Jesus’ equally strange and similar way of describing His relationship with the Father: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me…” (John 17:21-23). Here we might say that the mutual abiding between Jesus and believers is modeled upon the Father and Jesus’ own mutual indwelling. But still, why this is so?

Omitting exegetical details, I would jump directly to the theological underpinning of this ‘mutual indwelling’ between the divine persons. According to our faith, God is Trinity: the unity of three distinct persons in one indivisible divine nature. Orthodox Christian theology (as especially shared by Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant theologies) also emphasizes that even though the Three Persons of the Trinity are equally divine and worthy of worship, the First Person is the fons divinitatis (the source of divinity). It doesn’t mean that the Father is the creator of the divine nature or other divine persons, for fons divinitatis here only explains an important part of the inner life of the Trinity. Early church fathers attempted to explain the inner life of the Trinity in terms of ‘movement’. They think that the life and nature of the divine persons can be understood somewhat dimly (because we can never understand them well) in terms of the ‘mutual indwelling’ or perichoresis between the divine persons. In this mutual indwelling, the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father, and the Father is in the Son (and vice versa) through the Spirit. This mutual indwelling is called perichoresis (from which element (chor) the English word ‘choreography’ was derived), for it can be analogized to elegant, graceful, and unending dance. Now, the Father is fons divinitatis means that the Father is always the origin of this movement eternally. What does it mean?


The story, we might say, runs as follows: the Father, being the source of excellences and perfections, knows or sees Himself. And it is in this act of perfect knowing, that the Father begets the Son. That is, in the act of knowing Himself, the content of the Father’s knowledge is none other but His own perfect Image, who is the Son. In this act of eternal generation, the Son gets His fullness from the Father (that’s why, the Father is the Father because of the Son [a childless man cannot be called a father] and the Son is the Son because of the Father [a fatherless son is self-contradictory]). In giving the Son His whole being, the Father loves the Son as the Perfect Image of Himself, and in receiving His fullness, the Son reciprocates the Father by ‘emptying’ Himself, that is, surrendering Himself in love to the Father. And in this wondrous act of mutual giving, the mutual love becomes ‘personified’ as the Third Person, which proceeds from both the Father and the Son.

That’s why, as Augustine told us, the Third Person is called the Holy Spirit, since He shares ‘what is common’ to both the Father and the Son (their holiness and Spirit), or, more precisely, because the Holy Spirit is the bind that unites the Father and the Son and makes Three Persons share everything in common. The Holy Spirit, we can say, is the very love that fulfills and unites both the Father and the Son, and for this reason, we can also say that the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father by the Spirit, and the Spirit loves both the Father and the Son through the Father’s and the Son’s mutual love, which is the Spirit itself. Thus, as Louismet said, the Trinity is like eternal circulation: “The whole Divine life proceeds from God the Father to His Divine Son and returns to Him through their Holy Spirit: proceeds from Him without going out of Him: returns to Him without having been separated from Him.”


It is clear that from the beginning, God’s life is defined by mutual giving and loving. “Father, Son, and Spirit are each absolutely poor because they each give themselves completely—so each is utterly rich with the other’s generosity. ” Thus, God does not need creations (angels, human beings, etc.), because God Himself is filled with love and perfections. However, it is precisely because God is a giving or loving God that the dynamic inner love within the Trinity spills out, so to speak, in the act of creation. Love is always characterized by sharing, by a free willingness to let others share and enjoy the beauty of love. Because of this love, in the act of creation, the Father, as John of the Cross beautifully narrates, “wants to share His appreciation of His Son. The Son thinks that is a wonderful idea…because the bride can then relish the beauty of the Father. Father wants bride to enjoy Son; Son wants bride to relish Father. It is as if creation was the fruit of an excess of unselfishness. ” In creating human beings, who are His masterpiece, God wants them to share in His life and being. Not only that, it is as if the creation itself is the mirror of God. The beautiful creation as a whole mirrors the glory of the Trinity. In seeing His creation, God can see a reflection of Himself (just like the Father sees the reflection of Himself in the Image of His Son, although creation is less perfect an image). God the Trinity is always reflecting Himself, always loving, always fulfilling, and we might say, “always dance.” However, as we know, human beings fell into sin and disrupted God’s glorious plan.

Since the problems in creation (decay, destruction, etc.) were brought forth by human beings, so the restoration of everything, which is initiated by God’s very love, would address human beings first (as the source of the problem). Here, God the Son emptied Himself by “taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7; TNIV) to redeem human beings from their sin and from death. It is an astounding character of the Son to always offer or empty Himself and it is precisely for this character, that the Son’s emptying Himself (kenosis) for us is fundamentally a reflection of His’ emptying Himself to the Father in the Trinity’s eternal inner life. Not only that, it is precisely because the Son’s emptying Himself for us reflects very clearly His’ emptying Himself to the Father that we know that the Son’s act of emptying Himself for us is essentially identical with His’ emptying Himself to the Father. That is to say, the Son’s incarnation to redeem fallen human beings is also the Son’s loving obedience to the Father’s loving will. As Columba Marmion, an excellent spiritual writer, explains, “The whole of [Jesus’] personal life consists of being ad Patrem, directed towards the Father. In giving Himself to us, He gives Himself as He is—entirely ‘oriented’ towards His Father and His Father’s glory. And that is why when we receive Him with faith, trust and love, He makes real in us our own orientation towards the Father. ” The total depth of the Son’s love to the Father and humans is shown through His complete obedience unto His agonizing death on the cross. Through His earthly life and death, the Son astonishingly show to us God’s plan for human beings, namely, God’s will that human beings, in living their life, reflects and shares the very relationship between the Father and the Son. Christ reveals to us that His relationship with the Father should be the paradigm or model of our life, and only by living in this way that we can live out God’s original plan for us, which is mirroring and partaking in the inner life of the Trinity. That explains, I think, the reciprocal language that Jesus often used in the Fourth Gospel: as the Father remains in Jesus and Jesus in the Father, we also must remain in Jesus and Jesus in us. Here, the Son’s emptying himself to death becomes our causa exemplaris, the model of our perfected life.


Ev. Leonard Sidharta

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