I am sure you’ve figured out by now that followers of Jesus Christ are not exempt from hardships just because we happen to be following Jesus. There is no special inoculation from suffering for the Christ follower. This truth can really bother us, especially when a hardship comes. We sometimes we get it in our heads that we ought to have a little bit of entitlement since we’re connected to God through Jesus. I am sure you’ve figured out by now that followers of Jesus Christ are not exempt from hardships just because we happen to be following Jesus. There is no special inoculation from suffering for the Christ follower. This truth can really bother us, especially when a hardship comes. We sometimes we get it in our heads that we ought to have a little bit of entitlement since we’re connected to God through Jesus.
I remember a humorous little story about St. Teresa Avila. She seemed to have a bit of that feeling about her. She was a little spitfire nun from the early days of the Church and was instrumental in setting up many convents. One day she was walking to one of those convents when a rainstorm came up. Her path became slippery, she lost her way and fell face first off an embankment into a mud puddle. As she picked herself up from the puddle and wiped the mud away, she looked up to the heavens and said to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”
Maybe you have wondered that yourself. Paul the Apostle knew this truth well. As he describes his life to a congregation in Corinth, a nation of Greece, he reflects on his tough times with them. He shares these truths that have proven helpful for him to keep going and I believe are helpful for us in our own journey through life. Sometimes life throws hard knocks our way.
First of all, Paul announces to them, I want you to know, I’m not thinking I am any big deal at all. I’m a clay jar. But I have this treasure in me. That can be said about any one of us if we have Jesus Christ in our life. When Paul talks about the treasure, he’s talking about the Gospel, the Good News of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. We were lost in our sinfulness, but God came to be with us through His Son Jesus Christ. Christ went to the cross and died for us. God is for us! He paid for our sinfulness. When we receive Him into our lives, God dwells in us through the power of the Spirit forever and ever. We have salvation.
This was Paul’s message. He says, I have this treasure. I am a clay jar but God chooses to use clay jars. They knew exactly what he was talking about when he used a clay jar to describe himself. A clay jar was an ordinary utensil that may not look very impressive, but was usable. Clay jars are fragile, easily cracked, and chipped. Paul says, I am a clay jar chosen by God to bring this treasure within me into the lives of others.
Why does God use clay jars? Paul explains it is so people can see the extraordinary power comes from God not from us. God is working in us. He uses the weak to bring Himself glory. This work we are doing is God’s doing. All the results are to His glory. We, as messengers, are the ordinary vessels through which the Gospel is carried to the ends of the earth. Rather than sit around and regret our weaknesses, we rejoice that God so wondrously uses that very weakness in us to His glory. I am a clay jar. I have this treasure within me.
Next, Paul tells us this clay jar has taken quite a beating. Jesus said one time, “In this world you will have trial and tribulation. But fear not. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul experienced that firsthand. He said, “I have been afflicted in every way.” To be afflicted is to be pressured, stressed, feel trapped, under great, great strain.
He says, “I have been perplexed, bewildered, oftentimes confused, wondering, ‘So what now?’” Have you ever experienced being perplexed?
Paul also says he was persecuted – hounded by his foes, picked on, beaten, jailed. People even tried to take his life! He was struck down again and again, literally knocked to the ground.
Maybe he had in mind his time at Lystra (from the book of Acts) when they tried to stone him to death on the outskirts of town, but he managed to escape. In chapter 11, he describes in detail being flogged and whipped, and putting himself in danger – the danger of mother nature as he traveled, the danger of bandits, the danger of people who hate him. He talked about the pressures of the churches he was trying to start and keep going. He knew firsthand what Jesus meant when He said, “You’ll have trouble.”
Paul spent about a quarter of his ministry time in prison. Christian History magazine describes what life in prison was like. Roman imprisonment was preceded by being stripped naked and then flogged – a humiliating, painful, and bloody ordeal. The bleeding wounds went untreated as prisoners sat in painful leg and wrist chains. Mutilated bloodstained clothing was never replaced, even in the cold of winter. The cells, especially the inner cells of a prison like the one Paul inhabited in Philippi, were dark and unbearably cold with a lack of water. Cramped quarters and sickening stench from the lack of toilets made sleep difficult and waking hours miserable. Because of the miserable conditions, many prisoners begged for a speedy death. Others simply committed suicide. It was in settings like this that Paul would oftentimes compose letters to his congregations.
Notice though, even with all of this hardship Paul describes, there are four “buts” in this poetic passage he is sharing with them.
• I’m afflicted in every way, but not crushed. (I have been hard-pressed but never driven to give up. I keep going.)
• I’ve been perplexed but not driven to despair. (I’ve been bewildered along the way but I never wanted to quit or give up.)
• I’ve been persecuted but never forsaken or abandoned by God. (He’s never left my side.)
• I’ve been struck down but not destroyed. (I’ve been knocked to the ground but not permanently grounded.)
And then he sums it up. “I’m always carrying in my body the death (the suffering) of Jesus so the life of Jesus may be made visible in my body.” Paul believed living the life of suffering for the sake of the Gospel would have an impact on people’s lives.
Leith Anderson, a fellow pastor, told the story of the daughter of a missionary to the Congo Republic. As a little girl, she participated in a daylong rally to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the coming of missionaries to that part of Africa.
At the close of a long day of speeches and music, an old man stood before the crowd and insisted on speaking. He soon would die, and if he didn’t speak information he alone possessed, it would go with him to his grave. He said that when the missionaries arrived, his people thought them strange and their message dubious. The tribal leaders decided to test the missionaries by slowly poisoning them to death. Over a period of months and years, missionary children died one by one. “It was as if by watching how they died,” the old man said, “we decided we wanted to live as Christians. You see, those who died painful, strange deaths never knew why they were dying or what the impact of their lives and deaths would be. But through it all, they did not leave. They kept going. They stayed because they trusted Jesus Christ. And lives were changed.”
Now, imagine you are a reporter for the Corinth Gazette. You’ve heard about Paul, and so you do an interview with him. He shares stories filled with adventure and success as well as stories about the hardships he went through by serving Christ. At one point in the conversation you ask, Paul, how do you do it? What keeps you from giving up? What keeps you from losing heart? What keeps you going instead of getting caught up in a never-ending pity party, cowering in the corner crying, “Nobody likes me; everybody hates me. Guess I’ll go eat worms!”
Paul replies, It’s quite simple. Number one – in all of this, God is with me. It’s not me keeping myself going. It’s the presence and the power of God in me. He had a personal relationship with God, and the Lord was saving him from being crushed, from despair, from abandonment, from destruction. He says, The results of my ministry and the power to persevere during the hard times came not from me – but from God! He gave God the glory.
Paul also says, By the way, another reason why I was able to keep going is I’m staying plugged into the power God offers. Verse 16: “So we don’t lose heart, for while our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” How did Paul receive daily renewal within? We read again and again that he was a man of prayer. He was always asking for prayer from others as he wrote them letters, and he talked about how he was constantly in prayer. We find it also in the stories of Paul from the book of Acts. He was a man of prayer, and when you’re a person of prayer, you have the working of the Holy Spirit in you. You’ve opened up your life. He’s promised to come in and sup with you and you with Him. That’s all prayer is – opening the door and inviting Him in.
He says, And besides that, I’m keeping my eye on the big picture. That’s the third thing. I know where I’m going. I’m going to heaven someday. These afflictions are really nothing compared to what’s waiting for me in heaven.
He talks about the weight of glory. I keep my eye on the big picture; I know suffering is not the last word. I managed to stay focused on my purpose remembering daily that I’m an ambassador for Jesus Christ. I have a calling on my life, and I am always on call whether I’m feeling good or not. I am on call to share that eternal life with others.
Then Paul says, Finally, I don’t just endure my problems, you see, I employ them. I don’t just endure problems; I employ them. When you think about it, Paul is basically giving a testimony to the power of God in his life. As he talks about his suffering, he is using it to promote the Gospel. God is getting me through this. When people see the scars and wounds in your life, they listen as they watch you keep going. The light of Christ has an opportunity to spill out of you when your clay jar is cracked, when you’re taking it on the chin, and it pours into the lives of others.
A 90-year-old friend of mine, Phyllis, recently fell down the steps and broke her hip. When I saw her in the hospital a couple days later after surgery, I asked, “How did you manage to get to the ambulance to come?” (She lives by herself). She said, “I crawled over to the couch, hoisted myself up on one leg, opened the closet to get my cane, and then I dragged myself over to the phone and called the ambulance.”
“That must have hurt!”
“It was very painful.”
“How did you do it?”
She smiled and said with a twinkle in her eye, “Well, you know, God was with me.”
That sounds just like Paul, doesn’t it? Using her suffering to give a testimony to the power of God working in her.
I have another friend who recently passed away. He had ALS. Last Thanksgiving he spoke before our congregation as we talked about how we can give thanks, even in tough circumstances. He said, “Life has dealt me a rough hand.”
“How do you do it?” I asked
“I have a Bible verse I hang onto: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’” My friend promoted the Gospel with his suffering.
I’ve been with many a family around a hospital bed watching a loved one – a mother or a father or a grandparent – ready to graduate into heaven. This person smiles and says to their children, You don’t have to worry about me; I know where I’m going. Jesus has prepared a place for me in His heaven, and I’m ready to go. Then they talk about how important it is to trust Jesus. That person is not just enduring a problem, but also employing the hardship as they give a testimony to bring God glory.
So my fellow cracked pots, here’s what worked for that ordinary, fragile, cracked pot named Paul in his times of suffering. I invite you today to take this list of how to keep going and use it. Scripture isn’t just for us to know, it’s for us to apply in our lives. I encourage you to let the treasure within you – the Gospel – leak out into the lives of the people around you so they might join you in giving glory and praise to the God who has saved you through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Go ahead. Take what you’ve learned today. Put it to work.
God bless you in your ministry. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer