The "Zero Point"

Only when we get to the end of our selves do we find the beginning.

"I'm at the end of my rope!" Have you ever felt like this? Maybe you've experienced what David was feeling when he wrote, "I am poured out like water … my heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me" (Ps. 22:14). Being at the end, at the bottom, or feeling empty inside are common sentiments for us who live in a fallen, broken world. Loved ones die, marriages fail, and children rebel. We lose jobs. We lose friends. The terms "sadness" and "sorrow" seem too simple to label what we truly feel inside—nothing, numbness, void.

People in ancient civilizations needed something to represent nothing. That's why they developed "zero"—the symbol for nothing, none, nada, nil. For many people, zero represents an end, a stopping point. But what if zero could represent a new beginning?

Experiencing Grief

In his book Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann uses the language of "zero point" to describe a certain type of nothingness that we can encounter in the wake of grief, that sense of sorrow or sadness that we experience after a loss. Sometimes our grief is more temporary and subtle, like the grief we feel over the loss of friendships when we move. Other times, our grief is more long-lasting and profound, like when we lose a marriage or face the death of a child. More than an emotion, grief is often a season or a process.

I experienced a difficult season of grief several months ago. I had been accepted into a doctoral program, and I needed a job to help pay my tuition. About 1 month before my first semester began, I started work on a curriculum development project that would last about 10 months and provide enough income to completely pay for my doctorate. The new company even paid for me to travel to their offices for training. After a long season of unemployment, I was excited about the work and the opportunity to go back to school.

The day before I was leaving for new student orientation, my boss called me. I had talked to him the day before, and he had complimented me on my work and asked how he and his team could better support me. I thought this would be another encouraging conversation, but I was wrong. He had called to tell me that the company administrators had met and determined that budget cuts needed to be made. Because of the cuts, they were no longer in need of my services.

Fighting back tears, I thanked my boss for the opportunity and hung up the phone in utter shock. I asked, "How am I supposed to pay for school now?" I called my husband to tell him that I had lost my job, and then I collapsed, sobbing on the floor of our living room. I was devastated. In a matter of minutes I had lost my job and my way of paying for school.

Moving to Zero Point

Even though I was sad and discouraged, I still had not yet reached the zero point. You see, zero point rarely happens simultaneously with grief. When we grieve, we often try desperately to hold on to what we've lost, believing that holding on will bring us relief or comfort. But the zero point happens only when we let go.

Brueggemann states that grief requires a rhythm of relinquishing and receiving. Instead of holding on to what we've lost, we have to open our hands and hearts to release it. When we no longer cling to what once was—the satisfaction of gainful employment, the ability to cover the cost of tuition, the life and presence of a loved one—we truly reach the end, the zero point.

At that point, we have to accept our present reality. In my case, I had to tell myself, "I am jobless, the semester begins soon, and I barely have enough money to pay for my first class." But we also have to accept that we have no earthly hope of moving forward. When we get to the point where "I'm at the end of my rope" becomes "There is absolutely nothing I can do to make this situation better," we've reached the zero point.

The zero point is not only the point at which we come to the end of ourselves and our strength, but also the point at which we can find a new beginning. It's the point at which our open hands can now willingly receive from God. Brueggemann reminds us that we "believe in a God who can work a real newness at the zero point."

God Fills the Emptiness

God has a track record of bringing something out of nothing. I love how Sally Lloyd-Jones highlights this concept in her retelling of the Creation story in The Jesus Storybook Bible: "In the beginning, there was nothing. Nothing to hear. Nothing to feel. Nothing to see. Only emptiness. And darkness. And … nothing but nothing. But God was there. And God had a wonderful Plan. 'I'll take this emptiness,' God said, 'and I'll fill it up!' "

God wants to take our emptiness and fill it up. He wants to fill us with the hope of the gospel—that death, in all its forms, has been defeated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And God graciously gives us glimpses of that hope every day. Only by passing through death, passing through the zero point, can we find new life.

Treating the zero point as a beginning instead of an end provides us with the courage we need to believe that life exists on the other side of death and disappointment. In that hope, the day after I lost my job, I loaded my car and drove to new student orientation. My husband had encouraged me to go and see what God had for me there. Sure, I spent most of my nearly four-hour drive crying and praying, but I had a new sense of expectation for what God would do in my life in the coming year.

As I stepped onto campus, my heart and my hands were open to receive from God. And God was gracious to me, reaffirming my call to pursue the doctoral program and providing a graduate assistantship that would provide financial support for my studies. A few days later, God also provided a partial-tuition scholarship. But even more, as I began my classes, God provided a deep sense of satisfaction and of experiencing his pleasure and delight. I wonder if I would have been aware and open to receiving such good gifts if I had never reached the zero point.

Meryl Herr is currently pursuing her doctorate in educational studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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