In early 2009, I hit a wall after years of performance Christianity where, among other things, I thought God’s opinion of me rested upon my progress as a Christian. God was pleased with me, so I thought, when I was getting better at the whole Christian life thing. Was I reading? Was I being hospitable? Was I improving as a dad and husband? Was I becoming a better pastor? Was I becoming a better counselor? Was I becoming a better teacher? Was I becoming better as a worship leader? Was I meeting regularly with other believers? Was I growing in my knowledge of God? And on and on the list goes. I, I, I, me, me, me.
The Christian life became all about me and my supposed progress. I believed in grace alone thru faith alone in the finished work of Jesus alone but functionally, I was obsessed with my own behavior modification and the behavior of those around me. They in turn were preoccupied with my behavioral progress as we would casually toss around phrases like, “A believer looks like [Fill in the Blank]” in order to passive-aggressively manipulate one another to try harder to convince each other that we were getting better at the whole Christian thing. Add to that the fear of punishment and possible public humiliation if I didn’t look like a believer (whatever that means!) and the mask-wearing begins. Out of fear of rejection and exposure, we start wearing masks to fool those around us (who are also wearing masks) into thinking we have our act together so they will leave us alone and not come after us. That, my friends, is law-laden, rules-based performancism. And I lived the dream for years.
Enter, God’s gracious crash and burn. When God brought my world down around me in early 2009, I wrote a blog. It was different than my previous blogs which, looking at them now, had become lifeless, dry, cold, theoretical, and impersonal. Fact-filled, but dead. Right perhaps (perhaps not), but not real. Fake. Then all of that crumbled to the ground and out of the ashes God showed me anew his all-sufficient grace and power, which in my story, was strongest when I was at my weakest. It was at that time, in February 2009, that I wrote the blog I’m sharing with you below, for which I took quite a bit of flak at the time because I talked about how weak I discovered myself to be instead of pretending to be strong. I’ve resisted the temptation to tweak it in any way in order to preserve what I was thinking at the time and to allow you to see what I was coming to grips with in that moment. From February, 2009:
I’m going to write this blog not knowing exactly where it’s going. But that’s ok because spontaneity doesn’t ALWAYS have to be planned! Just most of the time. I’ve been coming back to 2 Corinthians 4 over the last week or so, and reading and rereading it as a devotional. Maybe I should put it here for you so you can have it in front of you.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)
The treasure that Paul is speaking of is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” from verse 6. It is the life-altering power of the gospel. It is the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. It is a participation in God’s glory because of the cross of Christ. It is knowing Christ intimately and knowing the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10) firsthand. It is the forgiveness of sin and unconditional acceptance with the Father because of the cross. It is a knowledge OF God, not a superficial knowledge ABOUT God. This is experiential knowledge as every believer experiences God. Every believer experiences saving grace. This is treasure! This is true and lasting treasure! This is priceless treasure (Matthew 13:44) that never fades away and is reserved in heaven for those who believe (1 Peter 1:3-5), and it can never spoil, fade, or rust away. God himself is its keeper. This is true and lasting treasure.
This is ours in Christ by grace alone. And yet, we have this all surpassing power in jars of clay to demonstrate that our perseverance is from God and not ourselves. We are weak but he is strong. He is always strong and we are always weak – even when we think we are strong. Paul goes on,
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)
Possessing this treasure in jars of clay means that we are weak in ourselves. Our humanness is fragile, but God is strong. We may have times in our walk when we feel crushed, in despair, forsaken, and even destroyed. We’ll think we’ve reached the end of our rope and our life may start to unravel before our very eyes as things seemingly spiral out of control. What we are experiencing can be very real and we may think all is lost. But if we are truly his, we aren’t really crushed, in despair, forsaken, or destroyed, as real as those things can seem at times. We’re really just afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, much like Paul was. It’s easy to lose our perspective when life’s coming at you fast. In the midst of feeling crushed, we can easily melt down for a time. In the midst of being perplexed, life can seem to unravel in front of us and nothing makes sense anymore as we begin to question every motive. In the midst of persecution, we can experience moments of anger or even hatred which can lead us to the conclusion that God must not be at work in our lives, all is lost, and we are on the road to destruction.
We must be patient and give those in severe trials room and time to encounter God through them, allowing the Holy Spirit time to accomplish his purposes in them. A heart can be a fragile thing, not because we run the risk of failing to persevere ultimately, but for the simple reason that it is housed within a jar of clay and that jar is fragile and easily bruised at times. Perseverance is housed in a fragile jar which means that trials can knock us around and sometimes overwhelm us. But not ultimately. During severe trials, perseverance can look as though it’s been temporarily interrupted. But it hasn’t been derailed. We simply lose focus sometimes because of this fragile jar of clay.
But here’s the good news: we have this treasure in jars of clay for the express purpose of showing us and the world that this all-surpassing power is from God and not us. He is strong even when I am weak. In fact, He is at his strongest when I am at my weakest. Ultimately, we will persevere, not because our love for him is so strong or because we have our act together, but because he loved us first. He is the author and finisher of our faith. Not us. We dare not become impatient with those experiencing fiery trials, nor expect a superficial level of performance from those in the midst of severe trials. Trials are real. Especially to the one in the trial. I recently read someone who said that the Holy Spirit seems pleased to work in decades, not days, weeks, months, or even years. Our only job is to be a patient resource and help to those other jars of clay who are feeling afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down and to gently come alongside to lovingly remind them that God would never crush them, put them in a place of utter despair, abandon them, or destroy them.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Galatians 6:2-3)
Postscript: if you’re interested in reading it, I recently posted a blog entitled, My Valentine’s Day Grace Massacre that tells a little more of my story.