“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” (2 Corinthians 4:7, NASB)
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7, NIV)
“The groans of the dying rise from the city, and the souls of the wounded cry out for help. But God charges no one with wrongdoing.” (Job 24:12, NIV)
“Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and He hears my voice.” (Psalm 55:17, NIV)
Since the beginning of the year, 2 Corinthians 4:7 keeps creeping its way into my messages. God has had me minister on 2 Corinthians 4:7 about six times now, all with the same basic theme: emphasizing us, as His earthen vessels, with the excellency and the power of God working within us by His Spirit. It is not something we can explain, nor something that makes sense to us by natural means. The principle of 2 Corinthians 4:7 is simple: God works through us – through human beings who are frail, errant at times, deal with sins in their lives, and who, as I often say, “got stuff.” Every one of us, as long as we are this side of heaven, will be dealing with issues as long as we are breathing for one reason: if any of us attained perfection, we wouldn’t need God anymore.
God keeps bringing me back to this verse for a reason, and it is to address some serious issues going on in the church today that are hurting people. We won’t even get into the fact that these issues are causing Christian life to be unappealing to many non-believers and causing otherwise good Christians to fall away from the faith. For now, I want us to look at the complications of the problem and recognize the reason why God works through earthen vessels – and how we can raise this up rather than constantly putting it down.
The modern church has gone through a number of phases. Anyone who studies history can attest to this, but the level of change I am speaking of is more recent and drives home at a very wide audience as opposed to some of the other phases that have come and gone. As I often reiterate, I became a Christian in 1999. For the record, that is not nearly as long as some have been saved, and longer than some others. Even before I became a Christian, I went to a church, the Catholic Church – and believe it or not, God gave me a foundation there. No, they didn’t have it all right and no they are most definitely off the mark – but God used the things that were familiar to me to reach out to me just as He did with Abraham and His people of old. Why? Because God uses people. That is the point of “earthen vessels.” He used people in that church and in my Catholic school to help get me where I needed to be so that when the time was right, I would reach another earthen vessel who would lead me to where I needed to be in Him – and another and another and another. God has always had a way of getting me to where He needed me to be. I acknowledge and recognize that – and in days gone by, even though we didn’t talk about it like that, we understood it more. We honored God’s work in people more. We appreciated God working in those who worked in street evangelism, we honored those who brought us to the Lord, we honored the church “mothers” and the women who had honored God and spent years praying for us, walking with us, and teaching us in the Lord. We had a sense of awe at the fact that God worked through His willing vessels.
We also had a different sense of trial and tribulation. We acknowledged that people ‘went through.’ It wasn’t that God was punishing them because they spoke a curse on themselves, but that sometimes things just happen because we live in the world and we have an enemy in this world. When somebody didn’t have food, we found them a food bank or we fed them ourselves. When somebody was out of a job, the people in the church shared the information (instead of gossiping about it) and found someone who knew someone who had a brother who was looking to hire someone for a job. When somebody had a problem, we prayed them through it – laid hands on them, prayed for them, encouraged them. One of the first services I ever went to at Living Water Faith Fellowship back in Oneonta, New York in 1999 was an Easter Sunday service. A couple in the church had just experienced an ectopic pregnancy and the woman miscarried. The pastor himself was there with them the night before and the very next day, the couple was in the church to be prayed for and encouraged. Nobody patronized them, told them how to feel, or what they should or shouldn’t say – they just stayed there and hugged them, prayed for them, and reached out to them. The entire church extended their hands in prayer and encouragement. And you know what? Nobody that day who was a member of that church felt particularly ‘joyful.’ They worshipped God, and cried out to Him on behalf of this couple. There was a profound sense of unity as the entire church grieved with them and worked to encourage them. Somehow, some way, we had a way of helping one another through things in a way that didn’t seem so offensive or patronizing, because they followed Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (NIV)
Today I have this profound sense of patronization in the church. I don’t think, as a rule people mean to be that way, but it almost feels like people really don’t care what you are going through – or if you are going through at all, for that matter. They just don’t want to hear about it. They have their “own” problems. They have their “own” issues God is working within them. They are caught up in their “own” relationships. If they want to know what’s going on with you, it’s so that they can tell you what to do about it – or tell someone else. Any time you raise an issue, you get a trite little expression. Someone who is tired from caring for a sick one gets sarcastically told, “Well, sister so-and-so, you know that he who doesn’t care for his own family is reprobate!” Someone who has problems in their marriage has people trying to give them marriage advice and then faces gossip because they confided in the wrong person. Let’s all be real – it’s not like these people who we talk to don’t have issues! I meet so many people I just want to spit in their face with their sarcastic, little comments. They just say it because they don’t want to hear it and they don’t want to be bothered. They have taken modern teaching and used it as a vehicle for denial.
We’ve even taken to ragging on different Bible characters because they don’t reflect the concepts that we have today. Take Job, for example. Job didn’t need a million little trite sayings, which his friends and his wife gave him. He was going through and he needed people to support him in his going through. Instead he got a lot of busybodies who tried to tell him what he should do. Now the church even plays the role of Job’s friends and wife. Was Job not prosperous because he lost everything? Did God not “favor” him because he had 40-years of trial? If you read the book of Job, you see that all this modern nonsense about Job is unfounded. Job had an experience he did not understand and he talked about it. He whined at times. He cried out to God. And, you know what? God called back to him. Job had a 40-year dialogue with God in his state of existential angst. He cried to God, and God answered him. He built him up in wisdom and in truth. He learned the deeper depths of wisdom and human experience. In that 40-year dialogue, Job received prosperity that no one could take away: His soul prospered and maybe it prospered in a way that it couldn’t have had he had all of his stuff. Job had a prosperity and understanding of the meaning of life that nothing and nobody could buy. Some of you with all your stuff rag on Job who prayed for 40 years. You can’t pray five minutes. Who’s the one who isn’t prosperous now? That car, that money won’t get you into heaven!
The modern church has put so much emphasis on, as Prophetess Yolanda Davis-Greggs says, “majoring in minors” that we are forgetting the essential principle of being an earthen vessel – of being the one, that power of one, who God may use of His excellency. We are so preoccupied with what words we use, being “positive,” distorting the passage that says “call the things that be not as though they are” (this is about prophecy y’all, NOT about pretending you don’t actually have a problem that you do), and expecting people to not have issues that we are forgetting that people are human. There’s a fine line between positively confessing this, that, and something else and total denial about one’s situation. Because we don’t want to reach out to the world, we are expecting people to cease being human. We deny the element of existential angst within the human experience that causes a person to cry out to God – the experience that causes us to “wrestle with God” and receive His revelation – and, in turn, bring about a state of reasoned understanding to help us walk our life of faith in a deeper way. Being in God should help us understand things more, not help us pursue a state of denial. the result of such is the compounding of problems upon problems and never finding an answer to issues. No wonder we are not dwelling in a victorious church! In the pursuit of not hearing the truth about ourselves, we are not hearing or dealing with what God wants to reveal to us.
I am all for watching what we say and speaking in agreement with God. I am also very aware that speaking in agreement with God also means acceptance – accepting the truth about us, our situations, and our realities. We need to seek God in our state of existential angst – voicing the truth, voicing the issues we have – and finding answers beyond triteness and little sayings that diminish God’s Word to a slogan for a T-shirt. We need to stop making everything about what we confess, think, and perceive and start doing things to help one another out again. The church needs to be what people NEED, not what people SAY. We need to be people who are worthy of confidence, know when to give a hug instead of a Bible verse, know when a listening ear is more relevant than pretending something doesn’t exist, and recognize that we need to be deeper than just being satisfied with God because we think He sent us a car, a house, or a bigger paycheck. I believe God prospers His people and blesses His own as a part of His economy, but I do not believe that prosperity is measured in how much ‘stuff’ we have. The church needs to move from this literal materialism and spiritual denial and start finding a purpose beyond correcting word usage (not the same as checking spelling and grammar – before someone uses this in defense of poor language usage) and telling people the way they should think or view situations. We need to be a people who stop confessing and talking…and start doing…so we can finally walk in AND receive the fullness of all God has for us.
We need to glean hope from history, hope from the Bible (in people such as Vashti, Job, Moses, Noah, the woman at the well, and others too numerous to mention), hope from God’s principles of earthen vessels. If I look at my own life, some of the people God used most powerfully were people with incredible problems. My seventh grade English teacher, a powerful influence, had an eating disorder and severe relationship issues. The woman who led a Vacation Bible School I attended at the Presbyterian Church (who once upon a time was so cool) overate to the point of nearly being unable to walk or move. The woman who brought me to the Lord couldn’t move past the death of her granddaughter, which at that time, had occurred almost seven years earlier. My former apostle battled mental illness, moodiness, and bipolar disorder. One of the first women who gave me a powerful word about my ministry lived a most difficult life, stopped coming to church at one point, and lost her husband only a few years later. I’ve had people from every varied theological background reach out and give me a message – Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mormon, Methodist, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Jewish, New Age, Baptist, Lutheran, Buddhist, Hindu, atheists, agnostics, even some in off-color cults spoke something that God wanted me to hear. Whoever they were, whether they understood God or not, whether they knew God or not, served to speak something to me that was from Him – and whoever they were is who they were, and so be it. They prove that God works through whoever, whomever, whenever He will to make His point. Maybe today I don’t see them as I once did, maybe today I wouldn’t be their friend or associate, maybe today I would question things I saw in them, but I can’t deny that God worked through them to benefit me – and if me, someone else as well – despite the problems, issues, place in their relationship with God (if some of them even had one) and areas of life that were questionable that they had. This is not about being saved or unsaved – it’s about the fact that God can use whomever He wants, whenever, to make His point in our lives – and that should be so much more true among those who claim to be Spirit-filled than those who are not. If we are going to reach this point, we need to get off our moral and verbal high horses and start ministering (that word ministering meaning serving) to others. People throughout history had the same issues, temptations, and problems that we all have today. They struggled with infidelity, adultery, addictions, alcoholism, gossip, temptations, greed, poverty, unemployment, divorce, heartbreak, haywire children, unsaved loved ones, and every other issue we battle today. With their same issues, they looked to God, they found answers and hope, sought forgiveness, and sought something out that was deeper than they were. Denial, specific word usage, and positive thinking were not going to airlift them out of their circumstances – but God could work and empower them to overcome. We need to be a church of overcomers: a church of earthen vessels, full of the Holy Spirit and empowered to overcome rather than degrade or deny. It is my prayer that we can restore the humanity in the church and see God’s principle of “earthen vessels” at work in you, in me…in all of us, especially as we continue to move forward in these last days. We need to stop focusing so much on the vessel and start focusing on that excellency of God at work in them. God works through people who don’t always say the right things, feel the right way, have the best days imaginable, face every moment with joy and confidence, or even through people who get it right all of the time. Let God use you. Let the Holy Spirit shine through you and make that difference in someone’s life today, right now…that the excellency may be of God…in us, as flawed human beings…and not of us.
“People know this world is a wreck
We’re sick and tired of being politically correct
I see through it now but I didn’t at first
The hypocrites made it worse and worse
Lookin’ down their noses at what people say
These are just words and words are okay
It’s what you do and not what you say
If you’re not part of the future then get out of the way”
– John Mellencamp and India Arie, “Peaceful World”
(c) 2012 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.