The tree glistened behind him as we sipped hot chocolate on the sofa. “Mom,” he wondered, “do you ever feel like there’s an empty seat at the table?” I glanced over at the table dressed with sparkling silver, holly berries, and fine white china. For us, holidays had become a memorable affair. We had come to love dressing up and celebrating with a beautiful meal, creating an atmosphere of warm memories.
This day had been no exception, but his question burned the wound of my heart as if it were fresh. I gazed into the glimmer of the tree with a desperation to ignore him. It was Christmas Eve and despite the excitement filling the air, there was no denying the emptiness of the missing place at the table and the longing of my own heart. It’s not that this day was any different than the rest, only that it was supposed to be a holiday.
You know, one of those very days that by definition is supposed to be all about celebrating with family, singing songs ’round the piano, and remembering all of the blessings we have. Yet, many of us find ourselves lacking the warm fuzzies TV and Facebook promise us. Instead, there’s something about holidays that seems to taunt the broken places in our souls like the embers that dance around the fire.
Somehow what is supposed to be a beautiful celebration turns into a memorial of all that we lack. Perhaps it’s the husband we desire, the loved one who passed away too soon, the financial stability that always seems to be just out of reach, the children who are walking faithfully with the Lord… Or maybe it’s all of those things.
If we aren’t careful, the emptiness will consume us, both on holidays and on all of those days in between.
It’s easy to live in the fantasy of what should have been or could have been, wallowing in the injustice of what we lack. If I’m being honest, I’ve given into it, too. For us, the Christmas my son uttered those words marked seven years since his dad left. In those years, some days felt as if life was the way it was supposed to be. We were wrapped in the promise of God, filling moments with activities, friends, and sweet memories. And then other days felt as if the black hole of emptiness would never go away.
The head of our table is indeed empty and that reality permeates every moment of every day. Our decisions are different. Our moments are different. Even the smiles are not the same as they once were. As I sat there staring into the glimmer of the tree that Christmas Eve, my heart couldn’t help but feel the dichotomy. There was an emptiness, yes. A place we all longed to be filled by the kind of love that never lets go.
And yet there was also a fullness. A fullness of the Comforter, the one who brings the kind of peace that passes all understanding (Phil 4:6-7, John 14:27).
I won’t lie and say being a single mom is my dream job or that the empty chair at our table feels right, but I must also share the truth with you about the ONLY way we can ever be filled. My kids often joke about how certain problems around our house would be solved if I would simply remarry. Ya know, like there would be someone to open the spaghetti sauce and keep me from losing my mind over it.
But, I’m quick to tell them how very wrong that line of thinking really is. No one on this earth can fill the emptiness in our hearts. Whether it’s a loved one who died or one who walked away, that pain can only be healed by our Savior. Whether it’s something we need or just something we want, that hole can only be filled by our Provider.
This emptiness we feel in our souls isn’t as simple as the culture would have us believe. We will never be able to buy love, feel better when we spend more money on nice things, or sleep around to heal our deepest wounds. The broken places in life, the emptiness, can only be filled by Jesus. Nothing else (no things, no circumstances, no people) can ever fill the empty places.
I’m going to be totally transparent with you and admit I’ve wasted so much precious time longing for the things God has yet to give me. Maybe you can relate. When I was a girl, I wanted a family like everyone else had (both mom and dad). As I grew older, I began chasing the love of a man. I’ve longed to be “cool” like the other kids and “rich” like those who didn’t stand in line at the food bank. I longed to have my house back after it was foreclosed on and my husband back after he left for another woman.
I’ve even spent years longing to fill the emptiness with someone willing to sit at the head of the table. But you know what? Every time I get focused on the “doing” of things to fill these empty places, I’m reminded of (and convicted by) the story of the Israelites and their desire for a king. In 1 Samuel 8, the Bible tells us the people begged for a king, even demanded one. They wanted to be like all of the other nations, having someone to rule over them. Through Samuel, God warned them of the ruin having a king would cause, but they refused to listen. So God gave them a king.
Do you know what happened? In all, they had 38 kings, 33 of which were considered to be totally wicked. Under the hand of the kings, the people suffered great oppression, grew away from God, and eventually destroyed the kingdom before being thrown into captivity.
This is such a convicting lesson. When we go about demanding things from God, insisting, digging our heels in and refusing to listen to Him, sometimes He gives us those very things… even if they come with a rough life lesson. I spent over four years of my life in this kind of stubborn place, pretty much demanding that God restore my marriage.
Here’s the thing, God hates divorce and He never wants to see marriages end. But He also hates death, suffering, murder, rape, and children with cancer. Does He heal or save all of those people? You and I both know He doesn’t. The trouble is, we think we are smart enough to understand how God is good and how He would view a particular circumstance in our lives (like emptiness) and then we assume what the outcome must be, since we think we know Him. But we can’t do that. The Bible promises God’s ways are higher than ours. We can’t begin to fathom how He works in our lives, nor can we see the whole picture.
We’ve got to get our hearts to the place where we are willing to trust God with the emptiness, instead of demanding deliverance from it. Whether it’s death, divorce, financial ruin, a prodigal child, cancer… God has purpose in the darkness. No matter how crazy it seems to us, not one minute of this season in your life (or mine) will be wasted. It might feel like a scorching desert with no relief, but God promises to always work ALL things for our good. And in the meantime, do you know what else He promises? To be there with you, through every moment of brokenness.
To me, these are two of the greatest gifts we could ever ask for. We know life won’t be perfect. There will be emptiness, barren moments, wilderness wanderings, but God is always with us and always working even those hard things for our good.
What to do when there’s an emptiness in your heart:
1. Talk about it.
So often we hide our pain, stuff it in, or even try to tell ourselves we don’t feel it. I often do this in the name of “trusting God,” but this is very dangerous. We are lying to ourselves and those lies will eventually blow up in our face. There is nothing at all wrong with sadness, hurt, pain, and even lamenting the emptiness in your life. Tell God. Tell a trusted friend. Allow those feelings to be expressed, so you can better grab hold of the truths you need to overcome them.
2. Understand who God is and trust His plan in the emptiness.
If you struggle to believe or understand the character of God, you won’t be able to trust Him. Start there, especially if trust is something you are struggling with. Look up the verses I mentioned and any other verses to help you understand WHO God is. It’s only in the character of God that we find salvation, comfort, healing, and goodness in our lives.
3. Create new traditions
Practically speaking, look for new ways to enjoy holidays, events, and even some of your everyday habits if you are struggling with feelings of emptiness. For example, if there is a particular restaurant that brings back difficult memories, eat somewhere else. If pumpkin pie is difficult to swallow, why not try some pecan pie for Thanksgiving instead?
This is one thing I worked really hard on when life fell apart for us. Everything I knew and loved about “family life” was stolen from me and I purposed myself to live not as a victim, but instead to replace difficult memories with ones we could cherish. Yes, that meant I redefined some things. For example, we always have Thanksgiving dinner on Tuesday the week of Thanksgiving, because the kids aren’t with me.
I had to come to a place where I could recognize that thankfulness to God didn’t need a national holiday and it would be perfectly all right (and maybe even better) to celebrate in a less conventional way… even if that meant doing it on a different day.
4. Make holidays and celebrations more about OTHERS
I have to be honest, the first time I did this, it wasn’t because I wanted to give back or because in my own right I had any thoughts about others, much less compassion. But I knew one thing, the more focused I was on myself, the worse my condition became.
Focusing on giving to others helps us get outside of the pain of our own emptiness and gives us the opportunity to see God working not just in our lives, but in all kinds of circumstances.
If you’d like some fun printables to help you think of ideas, check out this Random Acts of Christmas Kindness.
5. Write out Psalm 23 with your name instead of the pronouns.
This is one of my favorite ways to bask in God’s truth. If you keep a journal, write out Psalm 23 (yes the entire thing) and replace your name with the pronouns. For example, if I did this it would read… “The Lord is Kim’s shepherd. Kim shall not want.”
This might seem silly at first, but it’s incredibly powerful. God’s word is meant to be applied to our lives. He is the good shepherd. He has provided everything we need. He leads us beside green pastures and still waters. He restores our soul. He prepares a table before us!
Oh friend, don’t miss this beautiful truth today! There may be an empty spot at your table right now, but this is the table YOU set. There is a much better table waiting for you, one prepared specifically for you by a gracious and loving God who protects, provides, comforts, and leads.
How can we not trust that promise with the empty seats of today?