Saturday, November 25, 2006

Jars of Clay (the Metaphor, Not the Band)

[Note: I'm hitting crunch time for finishing my semester papers, so I don't have time to write anything new. And unfortunately, all my papers are too obscure (not to mention unfinished) to post. So, I dug up a short paper I wrote 6 years ago at ACU to reproduce, unedited. I hope y'all will indulge me.]

Jars of Clay
Abilene Christian University
BIBM 391, Intro to Ministry
Profs. Robert Oglesby, Jeanene Reese
By Scott Haile
March 1, 2000

Of all biblical virtues, humility by its very nature eludes me more completely than any other. I can work on compassion and kindness and sincerity and self-control and even patience, but humility times its exits to the moments when I most succeed in otherwise imitating Christ. As the saying goes, once you realize you’re humble, you aren’t humble anymore. Dealing with that reality forces me to admit that too much of my effort has been aimed at fulfilling duty, following rules and performing works. By such means I can manage to be a pretty good person most of the time and treat others well enough that we can all overlook most of my faults. Meanwhile I fail to do the only thing that can really bring about humility--not working hard or studying my Bible, but falling prostrate before God.

Paul’s metaphor of cheap clay jars holding a valuable treasure describes this humility as it applies to his ministry, in sharp contrast to the attitudes of those around him. In 2 Corinthians 4:6 Paul tells of the glorious light God has put in his heart that is the gospel of Christ. But in verse 7 (NIV) he says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Though rabbis already taught a similar message of humility for ministry, this verse contradicted the views of many religious leaders at the time as it does the natural instincts of many of us today. Surely God has given us power so that we will use it, right? Surely a God who came to seek and save what was lost wants us to make his religion appealing to all those lost people so they can be saved?

Being raised in the church, I find Paul’s message here fairly easy to accept, and even preach to others. But figuring out where it works into my life and then actually following through present a greater challenge. Consequently, I need to keep the metaphor of the jars of clay in front of me at all times so that it will guide and shape my ministry--as indeed a potter shapes a clay pot--and keep my focus where it belongs, which is on the cross of Christ. The metaphor itself is simple, and trying to find dozens of points of connection between clay jars and Christian ministry would waste both my time and that of the reader. But the impact of that simple image on Christian ministry is incredibly profound, and that is where I will focus discussion.

First, the prevailing Christian attitude of the day apparently recognized power and prestige as signs of God’s favor. The people Paul was opposing were pretty impressive to young Christians, leading him to rather sarcastically refer to them as “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5). They were superior speakers (11:6) and tried to make themselves look good before men (10:12).

Jars of clay, on the other hand, are not impressive or powerful; some have referred to them as the “Tupperware” of ancient Greece--cheap, common, useful and disposable. But Paul says that God’s power is held in these vessels so that the power is indeed from Him and not from man. Savage notes two paradoxes in the metaphor: a valuable treasure is contained in a cheap vessel, and the incredible power of God is shown through a fragile vessel (165). The NIV translates the verse “to show that this...power is from God...” but the Greek text has a subjunctive “be” verb which more literally means “so that this...power might be from God...” (Savage 166) The point is that our weakness and fragility do not merely show the world that the power is from God (though it does do that) but is actually prerequisite for that power to work in us in the first place. “In other words,” Savage writes, “where there is pride and arrogance there cannot, by definition, be divine power.” (167)

OK, I’ve covered my academic bases. Now I’ll deal with why the metaphor is important to me in my ministry. First of all, my general inadequacy as a person scares me. Even if my own ability were extraordinary by worldly standards, the idea of trying to win souls from Satan by my own power would be enough to send me running. If I try to show how strong I am, I know he has the ability to knock me flat on my back. The simple fact that I have no supernatural powers at my disposal, and he does, assures me of my imminent defeat if I face him alone.

In contrast, seeing myself as a jar of clay to be filled with God’s power and broken if necessary helps conform me to the example of Christ. Following in Jesus’ steps (1 Peter 2:21) has to be my foundational theology, as it was Paul’s: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10-11) Paul wants to become like Christ in his death so he can become like him in his resurrection. I think this so-called theology of the cross is the most important part of Christian ministry because it sums up who we are. I love what Daniel Von Allmen said in one of the articles I read, that “mission is a way of discipleship; mission is following Christ on his way through suffering to death and only then to resurrection” (265). According to Fred Craddock’s Preaching, the form of a sermon should mirror its content, and that applies to ministry as well. If the content of my ministry, what I want to tell people, is Jesus’ emptying of himself, then I need to likewise empty myself in my ministry so they can learn what I teach by how I live.

The clay jars metaphor also has a great practical strength, namely that it works. First, as I noted above, Paul seems to suggest that God only works through weakness. If this is the case, then living as jars of clay is not just preferable but necessary to Christian ministry, at least if God is to be involved in any active kind of way. Second, Allen says that our own weakness, or “the fragility of the clay pots” can witness to the world concerning the power of God (287). Again, how we teach can convert people as effectively as what we teach.

This metaphor can cause problems if someone interprets it in an unhealthy way. First, a person’s excessive focus on his own weakness and inability could lead him to the conclusion that he cannot do anything for God. Consequently, he probably won’t do anything for God but instead will walk around in fear of making a mistake and awaiting a voice from heaven to instruct him on exactly what he needs to do. The other major pitfall which I foresee brings me back to where I started, to the difficulty of learning humility. The easiest thing in the world for me to do, once I find myself working by God’s power rather than mine, is to look down on all those around me whom I perceive work by their own strength. At that point, my humility has obviously yielded to spiritual arrogance.

I don’t think humility can be taught by or deliberately learned by a human. There isn’t a person alive whom I could not find fault with if I looked, and that always allows me a loophole, it always allows me to write a person off if I don’t like what he says. God reserves the right to humble us when we need it, because like Job we can’t really answer him at all when it come right down to it. This really convicts me as I consider my call to ministry. If God calls me to do his work, I know he will give me the preparation I need, and so I trust that he will teach me humility in light of his holiness. Before sending Paul, God knocked him on his back so that he would serve in holy reverence. But if I decide for myself to go into ministry for him, I don’t know that I can count on that preparation. In the meantime I need to seek God so that I can learn who he is and wait for the day--or decade--when he confronts me and shows me what I’m made of.


Allen, Ronald J. “Between Text and Sermon: 2 Corinthians 4:7-18.” Interpretation 52 (1998): 286-289.

Barnett, Paul. The Message of 2 Corinthians. The Bible Speaks Today. Ed. John R. Stott. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988. 86-87.

Craddock, Fred B. Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985.

Kistemaker, Simon J. II Corinthians. New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House Co, 1997. 146-147.

Savage, Timothy B. Power through weakness: Paul’s understanding of the Christian ministry in 2 Corinthians. Paradise Valley, Arizona: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 164-169.

Von Allmen, Daniel. “The Treasure in Clay Pots.” International Review of Mission 77 (1988): 265-271.


micah said...

Good thought on the necessity of being cheap and fragile so that God can work in/through us. What implication might this have for the church as a whole? Do we as the people of God hinder His power by entrenching ourselves in sturdy buildings, powerful marketing, and professional worship?

How can the church embody the clay jar today?

scoots said...

Thanks, Micah. To push it futher, there's another passage later in 2 Corinthians that I think adds a lot to the discussion:

"But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:9-10).

I was struck by this passage recently because of what it does and doesn't refer to as "weakness."

I've been reading a series of ancient Greek novels recently, and one of the things they show about the culture of the ancient Mediterranean world is that a person without status is at the whim of whoever is stronger than they are.

In the various novels, wealthy, educated people often are kidnapped by thieves or pirates and taken to other lands where they have no money and where no one knows who they are. They instantly become vulnerable to sexual exploitation (male or female), beatings, shipwreck, homelessness, unjust imprisonments and lawsuits, and even execution or human sacrifice.

Often these dangers come in the course of being made a slave, which is the weakest, most vulnerable position one can be in. In text after text, whenever a crime is committed, the first response of the investigators is to torture the slaves to find out what they know.

I mention all this to say: it's striking that Paul isn't here describing weakness as fear, or timidity, or lack of natural ability. Instead, weakness is a matter of status and circumstances. A strong person could avoid suffering or persecution; only a weak person or a slave would have to submit to floggings and danger.

I think this is the implication of the passage quoted above as well as 2 Cor 11:21-28, where Paul lists all the hardships he has undergone. We may admire Paul for being so tough, but to the Corinthians the sufferings are shameful because they indicate that Paul lacks the status or power to keep them from happening.

It is one who is weak like this that will truly be used by God, because when you lack all status of your own, you rely solely on God for your sustenance. This is why Paul (right after the "jars of clay" verse) says,

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Cor 4:8-9).

In light of this, I think Micah's comment about "entrenching" ourselves is especially appropriate. Jars of clay don't constantly work to protect themselves against any danger that might come their way; instead they serve God with a certain reckless abandon, trusting the consequences to him.

So essentially, I think being jars of clay means we take risks and put ourselves in situations where we can't control all the outcomes, where we might get hurt for doing something good without being able to do anything to stop it. Paul's text is particularly suited to apostles, meaning people who go take the risks inherent in traveling to preach the gospel, but it seems that it should have some application for churches as well.

Some of these are personal risks: we can welcome people into our fellowship who might take advantage of us or hurt us, we can let God lead us into tasks where we might fail miserably, or we can challenge people (inside or outside the church) to follow Jesus even when they may turn on us and attack us.

But I think most Americans' primary security is in money. So people are welcome to answer Micah's question any way they want, but if you're looking for a particular angle, why don't people suggest what fragile jars of clay would do with their money, practically speaking.

J. Burton said...

Sorry to not answer your question, but I have to point out that one reason I keep coming back to your blog is for the chance to read phrases like, 'I've been reading a series of ancient Greek novels recently...'

scoots said...

Full disclosure: I'm reading them in English translation, just in case my comment sounded way over the top.

The ancient Greek novels particularly have some fascinating (if offensive) things to say about ancient views on sexuality. So for example, in a second century A.D. novel called Leukippe and Kleitophon, two male characters have a debate on whether sex is better with a woman or with an adolescent boy. Elsewhere one of the characters raises the question whether "there is such a thing" as male virginity.

The importance of virginity comes into play in a several of these lovers' stories. While both the man and the woman in love are expected not to have sex with anyone else, nevertheless the stakes are seen as much higher on the part of the woman, if she's a virgin. So in the context of couples being kidnapped and sold into slavery, etc., it is imperative that the woman remain a virgin (e.g., not be violated by those who kidnap her), whereas if the man has sex in the meantime, it's regrettable but not that big a deal.

Anyway, I guess I am asking a bit much when I write stuff as nerdy as I do and then ask for practical reflections. Still, a guy can hope.

A quick comment on my previous comment. I'm not suggesting Christians should go out of their way to lose their money. But my assumption is that most of us know of a lot of things we're pretty sure God wants us to spend our money to do or support (,,, not to mention supporting our local churches), and the reason we don't is because we're either (1) greedy and materialistic or (2) worried about not keeping enough money for our own security.

Paul seems to have sold the farm, so I think that gives him credibility to talk about the importance of being weak. We're talking about a guy who was dragged my mobs in front of the authorities and flogged. If he took his shirt off at a church workday, his entire back would have been a mess of jumbled scar tissue. That, in my view, is a reminder of what it means to be a Christian.

So if we're going to enjoy our cushy lives, I think we should at least leave ourselves a little exposed by giving away some of the money we would have saved up for our next car or computer or vacation--or even surprise medical expense. If we do get in trouble, the church should be there to help us anyway. The reasons we don't, I think, are pride and desire for security, neither of which makes much sense for a weak, fragile, jar of clay.

J. Burton said...

One daunting aspect of giving is the feeling that what you're doing is merely a drop in a bucket. A huge bucket. It's difficult to look at someone like Bill Gates who is nearly ideal marriage of quantity and quality giving and not feel a bit inadequate.

Does my $100 go further with Heifer? Do I put it in my savings for adoption? Should I drop it in the collection plate? What about World Vision's AIDS work? The decision is, at times, paralyzing. By choosing one, I often feel like I'm specifically not choosing another...

Moreover, the idea of a clay jar brings with it the notion of being used. You may fill a clay jar with a variety of materials and use it in a variety of ways. Perhaps one day I'm filled with that $100 for a specific work. Maybe another day I'm filled with words to write to my congressman about the need to address water supply around the world. Maybe another I'm filled with the ability to withstand insults as I stand beside an outcast who has no other advocate.

There's an interesting amount of yielding implicit in this analogy. I can't fill myself. I can't carry myself where I need to go. I can't do anything to repair my own cracks or keep myself from getting dashed and broken.

But it works in conjunction with the same spirit that allowed Abraham to call God out concerning Sodom and Gomorrah. Sometimes we completely yield, like a clay jar. Others, we dig in our heels, stand up, and confront God.

The dialectic here isn't exact. I don't mean that we resist being emptied and becoming servants to humanity, but, rather, that sometimes it's not as easy as being pointed in the right direction and told what to do. Often, we have to figure it out for ourselves and make terribly difficult decisions about just where our clay jar is most needed and best used.

micah said...

I think one of the most important reasons to give money is simply to give it away. Because we are willing to give it away, it shows that we do not bow down to money as an idol.

I have been thinking some about the importance we place on money. It can be overwhelming to consider how my money might be used best. But in being so concerned with money we might be putting our trust in its power rather than the power of God.

I am particularly frustrated with our public school systems. The language school officials use and the action they take reveal the belief that money educates children. For example, if we provide more money for schools and teachers then our children will be better educated. But money and the things it provides don't educate children, parents and teachers do.

So to bring this back around, if I am so concerned with how money is spent to bring about the Kingdom of God I may be trusting in the power of money to bring about God's Kingdom rather than simply believing that God will do it.

Now, I don't think we should be unconcerned with using our money, but we can't let that paralyze us from giving it away.