Looking Back: Emptied to be Filled

I’m writing this on Sunday morning as I prepare to preach at Crossway Church in Santa Ana, CA. I’m speaking on “Why Missions Matter for Every Christ-Follower” out of Ezekiel 47:1-12. Gem is with friends in Cambria. Sean is in San Francisco for a class conference. Bryan, Christopher and I are holding down the fort.

For the blog this morning, I found a couple of past posts from a late-eighteenth century French spiritual director, Jean Grou. He talks in practical terms about how we must be emptied before we can be filled, and how that may work in our lives.

Read more of “Emptied to be Filled”
Part One :: Part Two :: Part Three :: Part Four :: Part Five

Buy a copy of Manual for Interior Souls: A Collection of Unpublished Writings on Amazon.com

Who Really Gets Credit?

In his Manual for Interior Souls, Jean Grou offers a contrast between what he calls “interior souls” and “mercenary and self-interested souls”. (You can read the quotation at the end of this entry).

The second group are those who pursue the things of God and even the work of God for some sort of personal gain, self-promotion or self-serving purpose. They may not even realize this is their motive. Of course no one reading (or writing) this entry would ever be guilty of such a motive (but all of us can be and often are!) We want to see a church grow, we say, for the glory of God, but we don’t mind what such growth says about our leadership capability and resourcefulness. We want to preach a great sermon or speak a great message, we say, so that people will be drawn to God and their lives will be changed, but we really don’t mind all of the “great message” comments we receive. We want to bear well a hard situation we’re facing, but secretly hope to perhaps achieve a level of spiritual hero status.

Grou describes the mercenary soul as, in one way or another, seeking themselves even in the service of God. They reference all they think, feel and do to themselves rather than to God. They are greedy and demanding when it comes to feeling close to God, feeling moved by God or feeling taught by God. They expect to always be certain about where they stand and where they are headed (not only for the next few steps, but for the next few legs of the journey). They are the souls with a confident ten-year spiritual plan for their lives and ministries. They forget the counsel of James (counsel that my brother, Dan, reminded me about a few weeks ago in an email):

James 4:13-16 (NIV), “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.

We really are blind when it comes to tomorrow. We don’t want to believe that in our over-confident USAmerican culture. Do we really believe that we are at the wonderful mercy of God as it relates to our future? Do we believe that our life is a brief mist? I too easily think too much of myself and not enough of God.

Father, may You Yourself become the center of my life and of my work. May I learn what this really means. Amen.

“We can understand also why these interior souls are hated and detested by mercenary and self-interested souls, although they may be otherwise virtuous and devout: it is because they are both traveling on such very different roads; it is that the one kind are serving God for His own sake, without any thought of their own interest, which is the necessary fruit of their simplicity; while the other kind are seeking themselves in the service of God, appropriating all to themselves, greedy for sensible fervour and consolation, wishing always to be certain about their state, and never consenting to lose sight of themselves for a moment. It is impossible that these two kinds of devotion can ever be sympathetic, and the simple souls, who have abandoned themselves entirely to God, must always have a great deal to suffer from the others, who see in them a silent condemnation of their principles and their conduct.” (Fr. Jean Grou, S. J. Manual for Interior Souls. London: St. Anselm’s Society, 1913, p. 390-91.)

Emptied to be Filled: Part Five

This post continues from part one, two, three and four:

He knows that the spiritual life has its winters, its hurricanes, its tempests, and its clouds–that is to say, its times of dryness and disgust, its interior weariness and its temptations. He passes courageously through all these trials, and waits in peace for the return of fine weather. He is not uneasy about his progress; he is not always turning round to see how far he has advanced on the road; but he goes on his way quietly, without even thinking if he is walking, and he advances far more because he is not looking to see how he advances. In this way, he is not troubled, he is not discouraged. If he falls, he humbles himself for it, but he gets up against directly, and runs with fresh ardor.” (p. 318-19.)

Grou talks about the orientation and perspective of the maturing follower of God. I wish I could say that I’ve been as faithful as the guy Grou describes. I have not always waited in peace for the return of fine weather (though I have been grateful, for example, for the return of financially fine weather and for the slow return of fair weather for Gem’s back).

I see in Grou’s counsel a caution for my tendency to keep looking back to gauge my progress. My life focus is not on my spiritual formation, but on the One Who is forming me like a sculptor working with clay. He is my focus, not my own growth (or lack of it). I don’t want to be the child digging up a seed to see if it’s growing yet. That just doesn’t help! Instead of being troubled or discouraged by my apparent lack of progress, I can instead redirect that energy towards God.

Falling is not an occasion for discouragement and, therefore, immobilization. Instead, it is a moment to get up immediately and return to the journey with fresh, God-given energy. Even in my falling, my first glance as I rise must be towards God and not towards myself. Slowly I  learn…

Emptied to be Filled: Part Four

This post continues from part one, two, three:

In the light of this painful, yet effective process, Grou responds in worship:

“How can I understand what it is to love Thee with all my mind, with all my heart, and with all my strength? Who but Thou, O my God! Can penetrate the depths of this precept, and communicate the knowledge of it to Thy creature? Who but Thou, also, can make me understand what it is to love my neighbour as myself? Do I know, can I know, in what way Thou hast commanded me to love myself? And if I do not know how I am to love myself, can I know what is the love I owe to my neighbour? Nevertheless, the whole law is contained in these two precepts.” (p. 313.)

I feel this sense of desperate need to be taught by God Himself just what it means to love Him with all I am and to care for others at least as much as I take care of myself. Grou unpacks the expansiveness of these simple and all-encompassing commands.

Father, if You do not teach me, I will never learn. If You do not lead me, I will wander forever. Once more I entrust my life and my way into Your hands. I do that in naked faith because I do not feel any more led now than I did yesterday. I do not feel any more taught now than I did an hour ago. The consolation level does not seem to rise in answer to my prayers. You are up to something deeper than I can fathom. You are answering my deeper prayers to be transformed into Your image, rather than my prayers of the moment for present relief.

I have to say that I miss times of rapture, of deep calm, of an almost drunken, giddy joy in Your presence. I can recognize, though, how I have been tempted to draw my life from those consolations rather than from You. I’ve fallen too often. It’s like being given a remarkable gift from a beloved person, then ignoring the person while I’m engrossed in the gift. The gift is not the focus. The beloved person showing their love through the gift is my focus.

Grou continues his prayer:

“Give me then understanding, and I shall live. Yes, O my God and my All! Grant me to understand the necessity of thy love, and the extent of Thy love; grant me to understand how in the love of Thee is contained the love I ought to have for myself and the love I ought to have for my neighbour. Give me this Divine light, that, assisted by Thy grace, I may practice Thy whole law; then I shall practice it in all its fullness, and I shall attain to the fullness of the true life–the life eternal! Amen.” (p. 314.)

Father, I welcome understanding and insight from You as a gift. If You give me direction, I will no longer be wayward. If You lift me with Your courage, I will no longer be fearful. If You grant me self-discipline, I will be enabled to walk faithfully in Your ways.

Thank You for Your faithfulness guidance for over 30 years. (September 30 was my 30th faith birthday. A spiritual golden birthday. Wow!).

Read part five

Emptied to be Filled: Part Three

This post continues a line of thought from two earlier posts–part one and part two:

“Then to the trials which come from God are joined the temptations of the devil. The soul finds herself stained with thoughts against purity, against faith and hope and charity; then she begins no longer to rely on her own strength or her own virtue; she thinks herself stained with sin, and her director has much trouble in persuading her that she has not consented to the suggestions of the devil. The temptations are always increasing, and her resistance, I do not say really, but apparently, is always growing weaker, in such a manner that at last the soul imagines she has consented; she sees herself covered with sins, and for this reason she imagines herself rejected by God and forsaken by Him: it is now that self-love is really desolate, and finds the greatest difficulty in serving God for Himself alone, without any consolation. This state lasts until the soul learns to seek herself in nothing. Then self-love leaves her at last and for ever.” (p. 304-05.)

The experience Grou is describing here is the growing pain of God’s apparent absence amplified by a growing sense of the enemy’s increased attacks. I do not think that I have done well in this place resisting the temptations of the devil. I have seen self-love become demanding, whiney and trying to take the wheel. Grou claims that self-love will actually and finally leave at last. I can hardly imagine such a thing. He says that this happens only when my soul learns to seek myself in nothing and seek God even without any consolation to encourage or sustain me. At least I can say there are plenty of “grow places” for me on this journey!

Personally, we have been amazed recently at how God has relieved our years-long financial pressures, but then allowed a summer of Gem’s severe back pain to press and test us from a different direction. It has exposed places of real weakness and failing on my part, but it has also been the opportunity to draw on the actual resources and compassion of Christ in me…then through me.

As Grou suggests, all of this aims at bringing me to places of utter desolation as it relates to trusting in myself. I have to see that apart from God, I really have no resources, no capacities, no abilities. He Himself is my strength, my compassion, my energy, my creativity. Whatever attempts I’ve made to live my life apart from God, no matter how subtle those patterns are, have to be brought into the refining light of God to be laid bare and seen as utterly void, empty and powerless.

Read part four

Emptied to be Filled: Part Two

This post continues from part one:

In my last blogpost, I talked a little about Jean Grou’s idea that, in my words, each new beginning in the spiritual life tends to come with a sense of the sweetness of His blessing and His presence to draw us away from the emptiness of “without God” pleasures.

As we continue, Grou suggests that this “sweet places with God” may become sour, or dry, or tasteless:


“Then self-love attaches itself to these consolations, to this peace, to this sensible recollection, until God takes away that support, and withdraws little by little all sensible feeling, leaving to the soul, at the same time, its peace and tranquility.” (p. 304.)

Many never recognize this temptation. We often don’t realize that the blessings and consolations God gives to draw us away from sensual passions and into His felt affection can become another place of idolatry. I can find myself wanting a repeat performance of some felt sense of His presence, or some powerful insight, or some inspiring motivation. My self-promotion gets attached to my spiritual experiences. I seek blessings more than I seek the Blessor.

So, to help us stop seeking spiritual comforts for their own sake, God removes their support from us. But even though the felt sense of His presence seems to fade and go dry, we are still left with a deep peace. It may not be a profoundly felt peace, but it remains a deep sense of quiet confidence that God is making everything well. We can learn to let these felt experiences of God go peacefully and rest in His unfailing (even if unfelt) care.

But eventually, we may find that

“At last, by various kinds of trials, He apparently disturbs this peace upon which self-love was relying. We begin to lose ground, and to find no longer any resource in ourselves.” (p. 304.)

This seems to describe my journey of late. I have felt a kind of inward restlessness. Grou says that Self, when it can find nothing to attach to in consolation, attaches to inward peace. God then removes even this, which is a harder, more painful inward trial. I think this is another way of talking about John of the Cross’s “Dark night of the Senses” and “Dark Night of the Spirit.” This feeling of losing ground is horrible. The sense of inward resourcelessness is discouraging. I am pressed to cease trusting in my own understanding and trust in God alone. Simple trust. Naked trust.

Read part three


Emptied to be Filled: Part One

I’ve continued to review and write up some excerpts from Jean Grou’s Manual for Interior Souls. Over the next five posts, I’ll be sharing some of his insights into the process of God’s getting at the major roots, then the minor roots, all the way to the tiniest rootlets of self-love. How does God take us from beginner places where we tend to love ourselves (or even God) for our own self-interest, to places where we learn more and more deeply that all of our love finds its truest place rooted in God and God himself.

Grou talks about the spiritual life in terms of states that we move through. No one’s life is the product of a cookie-cutter, but his insights have helped me:

“Let us follow the different states of the spiritual life, and let us see in a general manner, without going into details, how God pursues self-love from place to place in each of these states.

The most gross kind of self-love lives in the senses, and in the attachment to the things of sense. God drives it out by purifying the senses with His own sweetness and with heavenly consolations, which inspire the soul with the disgust and contempt for all earthly pleasures.” (p. 304.)

This is one of the purposes of God’s early gifts of consolation at the beginning of any new chapter of our spiritual journey. He draws us away from the allure of godless, sensual pleasure by letting us taste and see just how good God really is. He allows the sweetness of His blessing and His presence to expose the emptiness and meaninglessness of “without God” pleasures.

Most of the time these days, I don’t feel a great deal of inspiration. This is probably good reason to think that God has me in a more desolate season so as to address deeper places of my God-unawareness and self-orientation. There are so many subtle ways that I act without actual regard for God’s guiding, God’s grace, God’s empowering. Forgive me, Father.

Read part two


What Needs to Die in Me…and How?

I’m blogging from up here at the Journey retreat near Idyllwild, CA. I got up here yesterday evening. This morning, Dr. Leslie Allen, Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Seminary, taught on “The Spirituality of the Psalms.” Wow! (I took a course on Old Testament Theology about twenty years ago when I did my M.Div work at Fuller)

I’ve enjoyed been here with our ongoing Journey group, some of whom have participated in this three-retreats-a-year process for well over a decade. This formational process continues to bear fruit in both their lives and their ministries. And it bears fruit in large part because it is a process. The Leadership Institute seeks to do as much of our work as possible in a process, rather than as an event. A process can be a series of events, but one-time events, though they can catalyst us in new directions or give us new understandings or insights, don’t tend to deeply transform us.

This evening, as I continued reviewing some recent reading, I came across another excerpt from Jean Grou. (If you search my blog up above for “Grou”, you’ll see a few earlier entries):

“Prayer is the death of self-love, and it is never more effective for producing this death than when it is dry, distracted, and without any consolation or sensible devotion.” (Fr. Jean Grou, S. J. Manual for Interior Souls. London: St. Anselm’s Society, 1913, p. 176.)

This exposes our misguided ways of evaluating our prayer experiences. We tend to think that the best ones are those in which we feel God’s presence, or sense His Spirit giving insight, or recognize Him moving us in one direction or another.

Instead, Grou suggests that my continuing to communicate with God through prayer, even when there is no felt connection, is powerfully effective in putting to death my whiny self-life with its demands, desires and drives. Do I believe this? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. When your prayer feels boring, dry and pointless, that is likely the very time that you can offer the gift of your presence without the promise of “spiritual goodies” from Him.

Good Faith When Life Feels Bad

Over the summer, I reviewed some reading I did in Jean Grou’s Manual for Interior Souls. (I’ve recently shared some other excerpts in this blog on the themes of spiritual direction and tested faith).

Below, Grou addreses a common theme in spiritual direction: consolation and desolation. Experiences of consolation are those experiences of God’s felt presence, tangible comfort, refreshing insight or energizing guidance. The Christian life feels good in seasons of consolation.

Experiences of desolation are those times when spiritual disciplines are dry, we sense God more as absent than as present, or we feel unprotected from attacks or hardship. The Christian life feels bad in desolation. Grou puts it this way:

“Those who have given themselves up to the spiritual life have no difficulty in persuading themselves that they are pleasing to God, when He makes them feel the sweetness of His presence, and when He overwhelms them with His caresses, when they enjoy a peace which nothing seems to trouble, and when they experience nothing painful either from the attacks of the devil or from the malice of man. But when God withdraws His consolations, when he allows the devil to tempt them and men to put their virtue to the proof, then, if they are told that all this is a certain sign that they are pleasing to God, it would not be so easy to persuade them of it; on the contrary, they then think that God has forsaken them, that they please Him no longer as they once did, and they seek uneasily to discover what there can have been in their conduct to induce God to treat them with so much severity.” (Fr. Jean Grou, S. J. Manual for Interior Souls. London: St. Anselm’s Society, 1913, p. 167.)

In seasons of consolation, we have easy confidence in God’s favor. In seasons of desolation, we are painfully tempted to believe that we are in the dungeon of God’s great disfavor. This simply points up my tendency to evaluate the quality of my walk or the reality of my faith based on how it feels at a particular moment. Grou further describes experiences of desolation:

“The effect of anxieties, of weariness in doing good, of disgust at everything, of evident repugnance to duty, of extreme desolation, so that all sensible grace is withdrawn from us, and God seems to have forsaken us–the effect of all this is to purify our love, to increase our courage, our fidelity, and our perseverance. The effect of [slander], [aggravations], and persecutions is to raise us above all human respect, and at the same time to take away from us a certain good opinion of ourselves which the praise of men nourishes in us without our perceiving it. Finally, the general effect of all temptations is to detach us from the things of this world, to humble us in our own eyes, to inspire us with more trust in God, and to draw us into closer union with Him.” (Grou, p. 170.)

I don’t mind telling you that I had to read this paragraph a few times to take it in. Grou is providing what spiritual directors often find themselves offering: encouragement that seasons of desolation when combined with continued seeking and abiding in Christ, actually draw us into simpler and closer union with God through Christ.

In the midst, what I mostly feel is abhorrence of my own waywardness and felt distance from God. It is disturbing and disquieting. I find myself thinking, “What kind of ministry can I offer when my own spiritual journey is so dark and dry?”

I don’t feel anything happening with me that seems like purer love, increased courage, deeper faithfulness or longer perseverance. But, over time, I realize that this is exactly what God is up to in seasons like this. It happens without much conscious awareness. I prefer to know (or at least think I know) what’s going on. What about you?

[I will be helping to lead A Journey to Reach the Next Generations in Southern California next week–here’s a PDF that describes the process. I would deeply appreciate your prayers. And my blog posts might be a little more occasional.]

The Priceless Worth of Tested Trust

It can be very hard in the world of instantly expected results to understand that spiritual formation always takes longer than we thought it would—in our own lives, in the lives of those we care about, in our faith communities.

Below are a couple excerpts from Jean Grou (who I quoted in an earlier post) on this theme:

See by what a series of misfortunes Joseph attained the summit of honour: for long years he only escaped from one danger to fall into a still greater one; and when he believed himself to be hopelessly forgotten in the depths of a dungeon, God drew him from thence and raised him to a position of the highest dignity. What was it that supported Joseph during this chain of adversities? It was the spirit of faith: he never lost his confidence in God; he always believed that God would accomplish what He has promised.” (Fr. Jean Grou, S. J. Manual for Interior Souls. London: St. Anselm’s Society, 1913, p. 135-36.)

Do I have such a spirit of faith as Joseph did in his long wait for God’s fulfilled promise? Do I believe that faith is only proven through testing, and only deeply proven through deep testing? Sometimes! In my own waiting rooms, do I continue to believe that God will accomplish what He has promised to me in the past? And will God’s faithfulness dim if mine falls short at times?

As Grou continues to comment on the place of testing in the lives of the faithful, he offers one view of the terrain in this extended excerpt (and it’s not for the faint of heart!)

“So it is in the law of grace with those souls whom God calls to a high state of [holiness]. He generally begins by unveiling His designs for them; He loads them at first with gifts and favours; and when they think that they are far advanced in His good graces, little by little He withdraws from them: he takes away his gifts; He casts them from one abyss into another; and when He has brought them to a state apparently of utter loss, to an absolute sacrifice of themselves, He raises them up again, and, with the new life which He communicates to them, He gives them an assurance and a foretaste of eternal beatitude. This state of probation, which is a series of crosses, of bodily sufferings, of mental agonies, of desolations, humiliations, calumnies, and persecutions, lasts sometimes for fifteen or twenty years, sometimes longer, according to the designs of God, and the greater or less generosity and faithfulness of the soul.” (Grou, p. 136.)

This won’t sell a lot of his books today, will it! And it may take you a couple of readings for it to soak in. 

Grou may be overstating his case a bit, but my experience is that the reality of the life, the death and the resurrection of Christ has to actually do its work in me over time so that He might be more formed in me. By His life, I mean those experiences of vitality, exuberance, comfort and consolation. By His death, I mean those trying, losing, suffering places. By His resurrection, I mean those expressions of His presence and power that cannot be explained by merely human resources—a life that comes on the other side of a death (hence resurrection).

Are there times when you feel like something you had hoped for from God (and perhaps even felt promised by him) has actually died? Perhaps it won’t be until it is well dead and gone that He surprises us with an unexpected resurrection.