What to do when you feel emptied

If you have been called to serve, you likely know what it is to feel emptied.

When I became serious about seeking God, I remember an immediate sense that God was inviting me to a life of ministry, vocationally and organically.  Initially, this felt sustainable, and with my youthful energy I joyfully led faith-based groups, supported friends in need, and volunteered my time.  I entered college pursuing a degree in Religion and Christian Ministries and was ready to serve.

That’s when I started to feel emptied.

I had been operating from this understanding that relationships were mutual; sometimes I would give more of myself, but then when I was in need the friend would pour into me.  Suddenly, I became painfully aware that it was possible for me to give, and give, and give, and the other never give in return.  I found myself drained by a close friend with undiagnosed mental health struggles who used and deceived me for years, another who frequently called to say she was considering suicide, and other simpler situations that simply weren’t reciprocal.

In the midst, I had a clear sense that God was calling me to sacrificially serve, though I had no clue how it was sustainable.  As I entered adulthood, that didn’t change; I served in ministry roles that didn’t always produce clear fruit, developed relationships that often demanded more than I had to offer, and was frequently entrusted with responsibilities without support, all while feeling perpetually emptied.

In fact, at times I realized it wasn’t simply a feeling: I was, in fact, emptied.

I can recall clear moments when I cried out to God, “I have nothing left… no strength, no desire, no understanding to get through this… so why am I still here?  Why won’t you free me from this situation?”

If oil jugs could talk, I bet the one in 1 Kings 17 would have said the same.  He knew his purpose was to serve others by storing and providing oil, and he could do so because he was regularly filled with oil.  Then tragedy struck as the patriarch of the household passed, and the widowed wife struggled to afford necessities.  The oil jug continued to serve, but was often stretched thin.  Tragedy struck again as a drought depleted resources and raised prices; the widow could no longer afford oil, and the jug become nearly empty.

This jug knew its purpose was to serve others by providing oil, and was painfully aware that without being filled with oil by another, he could do nothing.  When the widow could no longer supply oil, they resigned themselves to one final meal:

“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”

1 Kings 17:12

The widow had just been asked by a stranger for food, and she and the jug knew the painful reality that they had nothing left to give; they were emptied.  What they didn’t know is this stranger served a God who was not bound to their reality, but one of “immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20).  This stranger — Elijah the prophet — was about to reveal that though they were indeed emptied, this God could miraculously fill them.

Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’”

She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.

1 Kings 17:13-16

The end of the story is that the oil jug was miraculously filled, but the journey there is interesting.  The filling was not immediate, but came when he was asked to once more give when he had nothing to spare.  Have you experienced this?  Have you sensed God asking you to serve when you had nothing left to give?  The widow had enough for a final meal, and this stranger had the audacity to say, “Feed me first.”

And she does.

This woman, who had nothing, gave up her last meal, not because of her goodness, or resources, or strength — after all, she had resigned herself to death — but something beyond her.  We discover it earlier in verse 9:

“Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.”

When Elijah meets the widow, she does not say, “You must be the may God directed me to feed.”  Instead, she says she is gathering food for her final meal.  In other words, God was directing her and she didn’t realize it!  Even more, he was equipping her though she felt emptied.  It could be that God is directing you as well; right now, he could be positioning and equipping you, all while you believe you are at the end of yourself!  What God can do we see overtly reflected in the oil jug, which “did not run dry”; this jug, whose purpose it was to serve by pouring from itself, was supernaturally able to feed Elijah as well as the widow and her son, that day and for many to come.

The other interesting element of this filling-journey is that it was not all at once.  When Elijah announced God’s provision to the widow, he did not say, “and here is a giant barrel of oil!”  The widow remained stuck with this tiny jug that was only sufficient for her small family; yet God knew the little jug was enough.  God chose to fill that jug daily — not all at once — which meant every day there was the potential for that jug and widow to fearfully say, “what if this is the last of the oil?”  However, because God faithfully filled that jug daily, every morning they witnessed a miracle and were reminded of God’s goodness.

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

God could have provided abundant oil all at once, but instead He provided His daily presence!  We long for God to meet all of our needs; what if He is instead providing something better… Himself?

The little oil jug had to accept the reality that he could not fill himself, and that others may not fill him either, while having faith that God could and would fill him, in His wisdom.  The jug had to pour himself out once more when he felt depleted, and then choose to continue serving through God’s capacity, not his own.

I resonate with the little oil jug, and can choose to respond the same.  The lifestyle of ministry God has called me to has meant pouring myself out in spaces in which I may give, and give, and give, without others giving in return; it has meant moments of being painfully aware of my limited strength, capacity, and desire.  In those moments, I can respond from my justified human understanding like Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4, “I have had enough, Lord!”  Yet the story of the oil jug gives me another option: I can continue to serve because He provides the strength, capacity, and desire.

Perhaps you feel emptied.  Perhaps you have given, and given, and given, and now feel utterly drained with nothing left to give.  Perhaps you feel hallowed out to the roots, on the verge of collapse.  Perhaps you are right… but perhaps there is a source of strength and restoration ready to “do immeasurably more than you can ask or imagine.”   Today you can simultaneously know your limitations and hold to His limitlessness, and find that — like the little oil jug — God’s Love is new every morning.

 

If you feel these words capture your situation, take a moment to sit with God and listen to this song; it is a powerful expression of what it means to be hallowed out to the roots, yet find strength again.

Hear the story behind this song, and Sarah’s personal journey here:

Hollowed out to the roots… we will find strength again // Questioning mini-series (Bonus: sneak peak of “Strength Again”!)

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2 Responses

  1. Needed to read this today. Timing and message were for me. Thank you! I loved the benefit of not getting everything at once, of not being self sufficient and in turn getting to be in God’s presence everyday.

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