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The Man Who Filled The Emptiness In Life

Exodus 32:21-29

Victor Frankl, the great Viennese psychiatrist, was imprisoned by the Nazis in the 1940’s. For three years he was known not as “Victor Frankl” but as “119-104”. Out of that experience he wrote a book which has become very influential in the way we understand the human psyche. It is called Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl declares that when you have a purpose, a meaning, a direction in life you can endure almost anything—but when you lose those things, you will not last.

In one particularly poignant passage of his book, he tells about an old Jewish gentleman whose great love in life was his wife. In the concentration camp, they were separated from one another, seeing each other only occasionally. But the old man spoke of his wife every day, thought of his wife almost continually, and did little things for his wife whenever he got the chance. Then one day word came that his wife had been gassed by the Nazis. Within ten days the old man was dead. Victor Frankl, being a physician, was ordered to perform an autopsy. He found that the old man was full of cancer, so much so that he should have died long before. What kept him going was a purpose, a meaning, a direction in life. When he lost that, when he lost his wife, he soon lost his life.

Frankl goes on to say that “the state of inner emptiness, the lack of a sense of purpose in life is the major challenge to psychiatry today.” Listen also to the words of a giant in the field, Carl Gustav Jung: “A sense of emptiness is the central neurosis of our time.” Or what about Rollo May of the United States. He writes: “The chief psychological problem in our country is emptiness.” Where there is that kind of unanimity, there must be some truth. Yes, one of the great tragedies of our time is the number of people who seem to have no deep, compelling sense of meaning or purpose in life. They are empty inside.

But my friends, there’s nothing new under the sun. That problem is as old as the Book of Exodus. In the passage from which I have just read, the people of Israel were in the wilderness, yes, but the wilderness was also in them. They had no sense of meaning or purpose or direction in life. They were empty inside. So they did what they always did—they turned to Moses for help. They expected him to fill the emptiness in their lives. And I believe that in what Moses said and did we can find the way to fill the emptiness in your life and in mine.

Let’s look first at the causes of emptiness in life.

There is the pace of technological change. Years ago, when people were born, they could safely assume that when they died things would not be terribly different than they were when they were born. That is no longer true. Julian Huxley says that the problem of our day is digestion. In the past, major changes in life extended over the better part of a century, but now they are accomplished in a decade or less. That meant that those changes could be digested over a whole lifetime, while now they must be digested much more rapidly. Huxley says that because of the rate of change, we have to recast our ideas and our attitudes four, five, or even six times in the space of an active, adult life. As a result, there are many people who feel empty inside because they can’t keep pace with the change in our time.

There is the growing abundance of leisure. Most of us understand that as human beings we are like the archer’s bow. You can’t have the bow be strung all the time and still retain the spring in the string. You’ve got to relax the bow from time to time. We’re exactly the same, but the difficulty is that most folks don’t know how to relax. We have earlier retirement and better financing for it, but the fact is that a lot of people get into that circumstance and find themselves feeling empty because they don’t know what to do.

And then—and this is the most profound of all—there is the growth of unbelief in our time. If you take the oars away from a boatsman, he is in trouble. Just so, when you take away the foundations of belief in a society, that society is in trouble. We see it all about us. Fewer people going to church. Fewer people studying the Scriptures. Fewer people knowing what they believe and seeking to live that way. When was the last time you saw a television show in which a Christian was portrayed as anything other than a stuffed shirt or a hypocrite or a wimp? Madonna is a popular young singer. She wears crucifixes all over her. She was asked why. She said that she liked to be surrounded by half-clothed men on crosses. Prince is also quite popular. He now schedules some of his performances at 11:00 on Sunday mornings to show that he is bigger than Jesus. Go out onto the street and ask people about the church’s opinion on matters of morality and they will say in one way or another, that the church’s opinion doesn’t really matter anymore. The result of this diminished sense of belief is an accelerated rate of suicide and addiction and alcoholism. Emptiness inside.

But there’s nothing new under the sun. It all reminds me of the story in Exodus. Moses went off to the mountain to seek God’s direction for his people. Then while he was gone, these people who had not adapted from the life in Egypt to life in the wilderness, these people who were not willing to sit in peace and quiet and wait upon the Lord, these people out of their sense of emptiness, entered very quickly into unbelief. They made for themselves a golden calf to worship. It was an idol of emptiness.

So let’s look now at the idols of emptiness in life.

Many people seek to fill the emptiness in life with money. I remember talking with a young man who loved history and who was gifted in knowing, teaching and writing history. But he was studying to be a doctor. I asked him why when his heart was in another direction. He said: “Because I can make a lot more money as a doctor.” My heart broke when he said it. We need doctors, good doctors, but doctors who are motivated by something other than money. I had occasion to read a suicide note which a wealthy businessman left for his family. It ended like this: “Do me a favor so my death won’t be in vain. Don’t let the pursuit of money and success control your lives. Hold onto one another with a strong faith in God and you will want for nothing else.” Wise words, but the man who took his life didn’t live them. Yes, some people worship the golden idol of success and try to fill their emptiness with money. A golden calf. Empty idols for empty hearts.

Still other people try to fill the emptiness with experiences. Their golden calf is alcohol or drugs or physical pleasure. There’s too much to cover here, so let’s just focus on one drug: cocaine. Staggering numbers of people are making cocaine into a god. I define god like this: The one who most frequently occupies your mind. In other words, the thought which comes to you when your mind is otherwise at ease, the thought on which you focus most intensely—that is your god. And for a tragically increasing number of people, that is cocaine. A young man in this church who works just a few blocks from here tells how so many of his fellow workers each day make repeated trips to the men’s or women’s restrooms and when they return their eyes are red and their noses are running. Why? Cocaine. And then there is the sad spectacle of our star athletes who have money and success and who still go seeking after a new god in the sick dreams and false highs given to them by this hideous drug. One more golden calf. Empty idols for empty hearts.

But there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s as old as Exodus. The people of Israel had no sense of purpose in life so they built a golden idol. You see, nature abhors a vacuum, so when there is an emptiness in a life, you can be sure that very quickly some treacherous, deceitful deity will come to occupy that space. Empty idols for empty lives.

So now let’s look at the only way to fill that emptiness in life.

Moses knew the answer. When he came down from the mountain, having received God’s direction for his people, he saw the golden calf. Immediately he smashed it to pieces. Then he called the people to him and said: “Who is on the Lord’s side?” He then took those who claimed to be for the Lord and set them to a dreadfully costly exercise. He put them in a position where they had to demonstrate that their commitment to the Lord was complete. No casual commitment would do. Moses said: “If you want to fill the emptiness in your life, then you have to do what I have done—offer everything that you have and everything that you are to the Lord.” That’s the answer.

Paul says the same thing in Romans. “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Paul uses three key words in those lines. “I appeal to you to present your bodies”—that’s the first word—”body”. Paul is not speaking about offering your soul only or your mind only. He is speaking of the body which holds all of the rest. This is a total self-offering. He says that this is our “reasonable worship”—second word—”worship”. The word he uses for worship does not just mean going to church and engaging in an exercise like this. No, the word means the tasks of our daily experience. Paul is saying that we are to give our whole selves in all of the experiences of our everyday lives. We are to be—third word—”transformed”. No longer are we to be like chameleons who blend in with whatever our surroundings happen to be, but we are to be changed. We are to be different. We are to stand out against the backdrop of society as special people—specially strong and specially righteous. Paul is calling us to an active, deliberate centering of our lives on God. Nothing casual about that. We are to be so full of God and the things of God that the plans of God are our plans, the purposes of God are our purposes, the will of God is our will, the goals of God are our goals, and the glories of God are our glories. We are—as one friend has put it—we are to become “the glove on the hand of the Lord.”

One illustration please. From the pages of British history I select a man worthy of our admiration: General Charles George Gordon. He was popularly called “Chinese Gordon” because of his distinguished, heroic service in the Far East. Equally distinguished and heroic was his service in Egypt. He was profoundly Christian and mixed his military skill with a legendary compassion for people. Finally, Gordon was sent to Khartoum in the Sudan, there to fight the infidels who were slaughtering the people. He was promised reinforcements, but they never came. After a long and courageous fight, Gordon and all of his forces were killed.

There are two monuments built to honor this great man. One is a statue in Khartoum portraying Gordon seated on a camel, not looking toward Egypt from where the reinforcements were supposed to come, but looking out at the desert, and there’s a look on his face as if he were hearing something which comes to him in some…well, the poet puts it best:

For this man was not great
By gold or royal state
By sharp sword or knowledge of
Earth’s wonder.
But more than all his race
He saw life face to face
And heard the still, small voice of God
Above its thunder.

The statue portrays Gordon listening to the voice of God. The other monument is in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London where it says this of him: “Major General Charles George Gordon, who at all times and in all places, gave his strength to the weak, his substance to the poor, his sympathy to the suffering, and his heart to God.” He was like “a glove on the hand of the Lord.”


It’s true that there is nothing new under the sun. But it is also true that there can be a new “you” under the sun. Here’s the way to be changed, here’s the way to become a special person in this world, here’s the way to find a sense of meaning and purpose every day, here’s the way to fill the emptiness in your life: In all things and in all places to give your strength to the weak, and to give your substance to the poor, and to give your sympathy to the suffering, and to give your heart—all of it—to give your heart to God. What was it that Jesus said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for…” What?

“For they shall be filled”!

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