An Empty Pail at the Ocean

How can I pour myself out for others when I feel empty myself?

I struggle with this question when I feel burnt-out and unmotivated to love others.

Jesus tells us that one mark of Christian love is we love even when it’s not reciprocated (Lk 6:32). The opposite is often true of me. I can appear loving so long as my own needs and expectations are being met. But when I feel that isn’t happening, my strength and love run dry with alarming quickness.

Instead, I begin to pity myself:

“I try so hard for others. What about my needs?”
“No one understands or appreciates me”
“Why does no one care for me the way I care for them?”

The longer I linger on these thoughts, the more I spiral into bitterness and discontentment, and the less motivated I am to love those God has placed in my life.

Broken Cisterns

What is going on in my heart when I fall into this pattern? I am carrying out my own version of what God condemns Israel for in Jeremiah 2:13: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer 2:13)

I am looking to the wrong source to be filled. Usually, I am seeking undue, unrealistic satisfaction and comfort in my human relationships. I am looking to marriage, ministry, or friendships to give the consolation and validation that only God can provide.

I am looking at the wrong source to do the filling. Rather than depending on God for strength, I am relying on myself. I am pridefully trusting in my own abilities to be patient and kind.

Jeremiah’s rebuke reminds me I am no victim, as my self-pitying thoughts would lead me to believe. Rather, I’ve turned from the fountain of living waters to broken cisterns that can carry no water.

The Bountiful Fountain

In Communion with the Triune God, John Owen chooses the image of an overflowing fountain as the central metaphor to describe the Father’s love for his children. He writes:

The love of God is a love of bounty…it is held out as the cause and fountain of some free gift flowing from it. He loves us and sends his Son to die for us – he loves us and blesses us with all spiritual blessings…as the sea communicates its waters to the river by way of bounty out of its own fullness — they return unto it only what they receive from it. It is the love of a spring, of a fountain (118)

Owen reminds us that the Father is the source of all love. It may sound like a simple, elementary truth, but it directly addresses the pattern of burnout I describe above. God alone can fill my emptiness and longing to be loved, and God is the only source who can fill me so I can pour myself out to others. Love originates from God, not us. We love because he first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).

Second, Owen highlights the abundance of God’s love. It is a love of bounty; it is not a slow drip from a leaky faucet, but as explosive as a fire hydrant and as vast and deep as the ocean. To echo the language of Ephesians, God, according to the riches of his grace, has lavished us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3-10)

An Empty Pail at the Ocean

Here is my spin on applying Owen’s fountain metaphor, particularly when I’m struggling to love others: I like to imagine filling an empty pail at the ocean.

In the moment, perceived unmet needs can feel like cavernous channels that require torrential rain and countless gallons of water to fill the void. But this image helps restore proper perspective. My needs are not so dramatic and are nothing compared to the overflowing resources I have in Christ.

How many times could you fill up a pail until the ocean runs dry? An infinite number. That is how sufficient and abundant God’s love is to meet my needs and strengthen me to love others.

His only requirement? To humbly come each day to fill my pail. As Jesus taught his disciples: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” and “give us this day our daily bread” (Jn 7:37, Mt 6:11). Through prayer, God fills our empty hearts and hands with the grace and strength we need for the day.

How might this look practically in our prayer lives?

It begins with last week’s post. We lay aside any dull thoughts of God as distant, impersonal, or irrelevant by meditating on his love for us. Owen gives similar counsel. He exhorts his readers to eschew hard thoughts of God and dwell on the Father’s love:

“Assure yourself, then, there is nothing more acceptable unto the Father than for us to keep up our hearts unto him as the eternal fountain of all that rich grace which flows out to sinners in the blood of Jesus…Exercise your thoughts upon this very thing, the eternal, free, and fruitful love of the Father, and see if your hearts be not wrought upon to delight in him… Sit down a little at the fountain, and you will quickly have a further discovery of the sweetness of the streams. ” (127)

Once our hearts are warmed by reflecting on God’s character, we bring our needs to him. We examine our motives and confess where we’ve turned to broken cisterns, either by idolizing the praise of man or by trusting our abilities to love apart from him. We recognize the weight of our sin but also rest in his full forgiveness.

We lift up relational struggles and ask for God’s help to be merciful as he is merciful, rather than responding to provocation.

We refocus and remember that we do not live for the approval of man but to be servants of Christ (Gal 1:10). His validation, recognition, and praise are what matters most, and his love for us is secure in the Gospel.

We ask God for strength to faithfully love those He has placed in our path for the upcoming day.

Then, we go forth to the busyness and chaos of daily life. Circumstances may remain the same, but inwardly we are different. We are filled.

“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Lk 6:32) Jesus calls us beyond the reciprocal love the world has to offer. He calls us to love even our enemies and to expect nothing in return.

It sounds and feels impossible, until we realize who our God is. We can pour ourselves out again and again, because our hearts can turn again and again to our Father, the fountain of living water (Jn 4:13-15, 7:37-38)

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