The language of “self-emptying” can have a sort of Buddhist ring. It sounds as we are referencing a move towards becoming a vessel without content – the non-self. Given our multicultural world, such a reference is understandable. It is, however, unfortunate and requires that we visit the true nature of Christian self-emptying. Our self-emptying is deeply tied to shame and the Crucified Christ. As a touchstone, I cite the primary passage (Philippians 2) that undergirds the notion of self-emptying:
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
The passage is not a random choice. It is, as St. Paul states, a description of the very nature of the mind that should be in us. It describes how we are to live and think. Considering Christ, we can see that He emptied Himself of Divine Prerogatives and humbly accepted death on the Cross. But what is the “mind” of this self-emptying? What is it that we are emptying when we empty the self? And how is it an “emptying?”
There is nothing precise that we can identify as the “self” in such a manner that we “empty it.” We could identify desires, thoughts, plans, wealth, energy, and the like as things that we might choose to deny or give up. And this has been a well-worn path in asceticism and monastic life through the centuries. But it still concentrates our efforts on an absence, leaving us with nothing within. Such an absence is ultimately a misunderstanding of self-emptying.
Like many things in the Christian life, “emptying” is a paradoxical phrase. We do not and cannot “empty” the self without reference to another. Christ’s own offering on the Cross was not an act of isolated renunciation. It was profoundly an act of love in which He emptied Himself but also filled Himself in union with our brokenness. A key to understanding Christ’s self-emptying is found in Hebrews. In many ways the passage is a parallel to the Philippians passage.
[Christ], for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)
Our own self-emptying has the same characteristic. Christ, who is our joy, is found in the union of the Cross, as we ourselves “despise the shame,” and sit with Him in His throne at the right hand of God. This “despising the shame” is the equivalent of “bearing shame,” in which we acknowledge the brokenness of our own selves, without turning away, uniting ourselves with the Crucified Christ.
Shame is the “unbearable” emotion. It is the deep pain we feel in association with “who we are.” It is an extreme vulnerability and nakedness. Our deepest instinct in the face of shame is to hide. That is precisely what Adam and Eve do after their sin in the Garden:
So the man said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Gen 3:10)
God Himself does not shame the man and woman. Indeed, in the conversation with Adam, God directs Adam’s attention to what he has done (guilt): “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat?” Adam’s attention is on his shame (nakedness). And his shame is a distraction.
God’s direct attention is to the action and the need to understand and deal with its consequences. But even when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, God covers their nakedness, providing them “tunics of skin.” God covers their shame.
This theme of “covering” continues throughout the stories of Scripture. Even our daily clothing is associated with shame. Shame is always about identity and character (“who I am”). We use clothing to hide vulnerable aspects of our lives, or to signal belonging, or competency, or beauty, all of the many things that hide who we are, the nakedness of our shame.
However, the Cross is a return to primordial nakedness. Christ is “naked and unashamed.” There is a shame associated with the Cross: the shame of humanity’s brokenness and sin. And it is this shame that Christ accepts in the self-empyting of the Cross, described by Hebrews as “despising the shame.” The word translated “despise” (καταφρονήσας) simply means to “have little consideration for.”
Stated positively, Christ “bears our shame.” Isaiah has this prophetic description:
I gave My back to those who struck Me, And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting. (Isa 50:6)
Our own self-emptying has a similar action. We “bear a little shame,” in the words of the Elder Sophrony. This is reflected in the language of beholding Christ “face to face.” For it is primarily in the face that we experience shame. When shamed, our instinctive reaction is to lower our eyes or hide our face. We can only see Christ face to face when we unite ourselves to him and “bear a little shame.”
In Revelation, the fear of shame is experienced as a judgment:
And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:15-17)
So this “bearing a little shame” is one form of our self-emptying. Another takes a very positive, though equally difficult path. It is the giving of thanks – always and for all things. Its similarity to bearing a little shame comes particularly in the “always and for all things.” Everyone can give thanks for the things they enjoy and that give them pleasure. Even unbelievers are thankful in such situations despite their inability to figure out whom they should thank. But it is the “always and for all things” that brings us face to face with Christ, particularly at those points where we would rather turn our faces away.
Although it is not readily apparent, we experience disappointments and hardships first as shame. It is only after the experience of shame that these experiences become occasions of anger and depression. We find the shame too hard to bear and so it is very quickly translated into anger or depression. We experience these things as shame because we feel in ourselves that disappointments and hardships declare our unworthiness, incompetence, inadequacy, etc. The same is true of the sins in our lives. It is not our guilt that is hard to bear – it is our shame – how our sins make us feel about ourselves.
St. Paul emphasizes that we are saved in our weakness rather than our strength. Our strength offers us no shame (quite the opposite), and, as such, offers us no solidarity with the self-emptying of Christ. We are not only saved from our sins, we are saved only through our sins, as we thankfully behold Christ face to face.
The giving of thanks, always and for all things, brings us face to face with Christ. To give thanks in the middle of our shame, is a primary means of “bearing” our shame. It embraces the fullness of Christ’s offering on our behalf, and unites us with that same offering. It is in the giving of thanks always and for all things that we find self-emptying as fullness. It is there that the Cross of shame becomes the “joy set before us.”
It is essential that we understand that the bearing of shame must be voluntary and never coerced. Shame that is placed on us by others is generally toxic in nature. God never shames us. This is frequently misunderstood. Many experience Christianity as a deeply shaming way of life. This is a fundamental distortion and a spiritual poison.
A very good example can be found in the liturgical prayers offered in preparation for communion. This prayer of St. John Chrysostom is typical:
Lord and Master, I am not worthy or sufficiently pleasing for You enter under the roof of the house of my soul. Since You, the Lover of mankind, wish to dwell in me, I boldly approach. Command me, and I shall open the doors, which You yourself have made. In your constant love for mankind You may enter in and enlighten my darkened mind. I believe You will do this, for You did not send away the harlot who came to you in tears or the publican who repented. You did not refuse the thief who acknowledged Your kingdom, or the penitent persecutor, Paul, to continue in his ways. Rather, You numbered among Your friends all those who came to You in penitence, for You alone are blessed always, now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.
Many (if not most) people misunderstand such prayers. What they hear is God saying, “You are not worthy or sufficiently pleasing for me to enter under the roof of your house…” But this is utterly false. His words are very much in opposition to this. The origin of this prayer is found in Christ’s encounter with a Centurion whose servant was sick. Christ made as to go to the Centurion’s home, but was told by the Centurion, “I am not worthy for you to enter under the roof of my house, but say the word only and my servant will be healed.” The Centurion bore a little shame. Christ recognizes in this the Centurion’s union with His own suffering and sees the Centurion as a friend. He announces, “I have not seen such faith in all of Israel!”
The language of prayer, often expressed in similar terms of self-emptying, is not the language of toxic shame. It is, or should be, the language of voluntary union with the shame-bearing self-emptying of Christ. It is, at its very heart, the balm that heals us from the wounds of our shame. We bear our nakedness – and Christ clothes us in His righteousness.
Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex makes this observation:
It was through the Cross of shame that He saved us; so, when we bear a little shame for His sake, in order to repent and come to confession, He considers it as a thanksgiving to Him, and in return He gives us the comfort of the “Comforter”. (The Enlargement of the Heart, Kindle 1712).
Like the Cross of Christ, this is a voluntary offering and cannot be otherwise.
Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father. (Joh 10:17-18)
The whole of this action, our grateful thanksgiving, always and for all things, in which we bear a little shame, unites us with the self-emptying life of Christ and becomes the gate of paradise and salvation. This is the very heart of repentance, and the secret of its joy. Chrysostom’s prayer, quoted earlier, reminds us of this joy:
You numbered among Your friends all those who came to You in penitence.
Friends of God in transfiguring joy, unashamed and unafraid, we behold Him face to face.