When I told a friend I was reading one of Nancy Guthrie’s new books, she responded with, “I assume it’s another book on grief?” It’s a fair enough assumption. Guthrie has written openly and prolifically about her family’s experience with grief, and how others can deepen their reliance on Christ in similar situations or support those around them who are suffering. While God Does His Best Work with Empty does touch on grief and sorrow, its actual focus is addressing our common experiences of emptiness. A short read (just 200 small pages), this book helpfully and practically explores how God responds to our emptiness, filling us by His Spirit through His Word. It’s a book I highly recommend.
But first the title—I don’t like it. It’s a pretty big call to identify God’s best work, and while Guthrie does present a solid Christ-centred case in her book, I still think it’s an over-reach to say, “God does his best work with empty.” Certainly God is at work when we are at our rock bottom, but “God does his best work at the cross” sounds more accurate to me. Perhaps she is trying to appeal to an audience who likes to read books with these kinds of titles?
Nevertheless, Guthrie’s main thesis is sound: God fills our emptiness, dissatisfaction, and grief with his Holy Spirit. He has done this repeatedly throughout history, and he will do it for us as we entrust ourselves to him. Guthrie writes:
I want to draw back the curtain to look with you into the fullness of all that God is and does in regard to the emptiness inherent to life in this world. I want to turn up the volume on his promises so that you might find them both believable and impossible to avoid. And I want to believe with you that God can and will fill up your emptiness in a way that nothing and no one else can. (6)
Guthrie’s main thesis is sound: God fills our emptiness, dissatisfaction, and grief with his Holy Spirit.
She does this by exploring eight different biblical accounts which she then applies to our lives today. Some of these stories are predictable ones—Israelite’s wandering in the desert (Exodus); Naomi’s emptiness and bitterness (Ruth); the woman at the well (John 4). But there are also others I didn’t expect yet are retold and explained masterfully in service of her main idea—David’s grace to Mephibosheth (2 Sam 9); Habakkuk’s prophetic writings. There were also some stories I was surprised weren’t included, like Hannah in 2 Samuel or the Israelites’ experience in the exile from Lamentations. But a small book cannot cover all!
God Does His Best Work with Empty
It’s amazing how heavy the weight of emptiness can feel, how much room it can take up in our souls, how much pain can be caused by something that isn’t even there.
Join Nancy Guthrie in discovering why emptiness has never been, and never will be, a problem to God. As Nancy pulls back the curtain on God’s work to fill up emptiness as revealed throughout the Bible, you’ll experience page after page of grace and hope that your emptiness can and will be filled. You’ll begin to see that God really does do His best work with empty—as he fills it with Himself.
Each chapter also considers a particular aspect of emptiness. Guthrie looks at topics like dissatisfaction, loneliness and bitterness to show how the character of God fills each of these in the stories. She then points us to Jesus, in whom these glimpses of God at work find their fulfillment and full revelation.
The chapters could be read as standalones. As I was reading, I wasn’t quite sure where the book was heading beyond the individual points being made, as it wasn’t signposted up front. But Guthrie certainly pulls it all together in the conclusion.
The reading experience itself was a pleasure. My edition is hardcover and it’s attractively type-set. It was also refreshing as a female to be able to relate so easily to the examples Guthrie gives. Females will understand what I mean here! We don’t mind reading chapter introductions about fatherhood, football, men’s fire nights or pastoring a church, but it is engaging to read opening illustrations and application scenarios that are more inclusive of our experiences too. This shouldn’t dissuade male readers though—Guthrie’s wisdom and skill are gifts for all the church to benefit from. She really is a master at faithfully yet refreshingly drawing out truth and highlighting God’s glory in the stories she retells.
It was also refreshing as a female to be able to relate so easily to the examples Guthrie gives. Females will understand what I mean here!
It is for this reason God Does His Best Work with Empty is also a challenging read. Guthrie patiently insists God will feed and fill us by his Spirit through his Word, so we need to work at understanding and accepting the Bible. We can’t expect God’s Spirit to fill and transform us if we are not taking the time to feast on his Word. Guthrie models this well by giving full weighting to the Bible verses she references: they’re printed in full, not footnoted. For this impatient, often fast reader of God’s Word, it has been a good challenge to deliberately slow down and drink deeply from the well of truth. We are often empty, and it is only by looking to God that we can be filled.