“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” 2 Corinthians 4:7
When you enter the business of ministry, that is, you study and go to seminary, you take on a few role-models, people you really look up to. I have many all-time favorites, but one of them in particular illustrates Paul’s point in this verse: J. B. Phillips. Phillips was an outstanding Christian leader, a scholar of the first rank, and a marvelous author.
Years after I began to admire and learn from him I ran across a book called The Wounded Healer. It is a compilation of letters and journal entries. I was surprised to find out that this supernova in the Christian galaxy was possessed of a dark depression he fought all his life. At one point he wrote “It is only in the last few weeks that I have been seriously assaulted by the thought that it isn’t worth trying any more, I am too tired to make further effort and I really do not see the slightest ray of hope at the end of this very long tunnel” (p. 80). Or in another place, “Take away my performance and the facade of my defenses and I am nothing. I am frightened and would do anything to feel safe” (p. 17).
How different that is from the great Christian models I had grown to expect. Rev. Joe, Christian superstar, will tell you that he has a great prayer life, has a profound spiritual encounter while pouring his Cheerios in the morning, he has a slick brochure that pictures him speaking to huge crowds. His marriage is a bonfire of commitment. He’s even still got all of his hair. These kinds of testimonies leave the impression that we should all be this way.
You do well to learn early that the ministry entrusted to all Christians is carried around by a lot of earthen vessels. Each one of us is chipped and flawed in some way. It is something we all share. But instead of thinking that your brokenness somehow disqualifies you from fulfilling service and growth in the name of the Lord, think again.
Actually it’s a fairly common attitude among many Christians I talk to. “Damaged goods” is the term I have heard many times. They feel God could better spend his time on people with a stronger résumé, work experience, and unbroken success. They believe they have been disqualified by some brokenness in their lives.
Paul probably considered it. In the two verses that follow our text for this week he listed four sets of trying circumstances that threatened to undermine him completely. He was afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. He had experienced each one of them. His was not a charmed life. He suffered. He was broken. However, Paul persevered, and in so doing learned that through all he faced he was not crushed, driven to despair, crushed, or forsaken. God was stronger than all of his brokenness.
Grace is resilient. Your brokenness becomes an opportunity for God’s grace to fill in and heal the cracks. Peter, Mary Magdalene, Paul, John, etc. were all inadequate, but through God’s grace raised to glory. In fact, God does not waste a single experience in shaping you. If you open your life more deeply to His grace, and transparently kneel before Him, then God redeems and restores and enables you to carry the ministry to other people. Nothing renders you beyond God’s grace and service. He does not throw away the broken vessels. Here we meet grace in its greatest power and beauty.
J. B. Phillips was able to continue an impressive ministry not because he was able to conquer his depression but because he allowed God to use him. In his writings you can see that the real strength, the real spirit of insight is not due to Phillips, but God. Phillips was an earthen vessel, a broken vessel, chipped and flawed, that God was able to use. God demonstrated His transcendent power in him, in the same way He wants to demonstrate it in you.
When Paul wrote 2 Corinthians he was by many measures an unimpressive man who simply recognized his earthiness. God would use him to inspire millions. At the time he was an unheralded hero. Now we look to his letters and find the fingerprints of God.
And we learn God loves chipped and flawed sons and daughters. Where might we look for the next inspiring example? Well, the way God uses broken vessels the next one is in your mirror.
Dr. Terry Ellis
May 22, 2011