We all know that God uses his people to bless others. I’m sure you’ve been there—that perfectly timed conversation where all the words were right and were said at the right time, and the runway was cleared for the good news to land and do its work. A glorious thing to behold and an honor to be a part of. At the same time, I’m sure you can remember when the exact opposite was true, and an untimely joke, your insensitivity or oversensitivity to an event, a poor split-second decision, or a misunderstanding sabotaged everything you were hoping to accomplish. How do we make sense of this maddening paradox of majestic successes scattered among our cringeworthy disappointments? After all, the list of reasons for our miscues is endless. If only we weren’t so intense, opinionated, forgetful, self-conscious, naive, uptight, eccentric, rigid, gullible, abrasive, sensitive, awkward, shy…and the list goes on and on. And on top of it all, most of these characteristics we're just plain stuck with. They're an indelible part of us.
Being an instrument of God means that we live in a paradox. On one hand, God does significant things through us to advance his kingdom, and on the other, we are acutely aware of how much better things could go if we weren't constantly tripping over our own feet. We’re tempted to think that God’s kingdom would be so much bigger, so much better, and so much more efficient if we could just get out of his way!
However, the good news of the gospel is not that God has taken his children out of this fallen world or sheltered us from the inevitable results of living in it. God, in his wisdom, has decided not to tame our histories, take the edge off our personalities, standardize our preferences, nor abolish our limitations, weaknesses, deficits, and handicaps. Rather, the good news of the gospel is that God uses us and our messy lives rather than requiring the perfect and pristine. He operates within our finitude and frailty through the work and power of the Holy Spirit.
In 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul pulls the curtain back on the workings of weakness and limitation in God's kingdom: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” This section of Scripture, more than any other, sketches out the radicalness of God’s redemptive economy. For Paul, the imagery of “jars of clay” is meant to capture our limitation, weakness, and finitude. It highlights a common and mundane household container, storing anything from wine and flour to waste and animal feed. These jars are formed from the dust of the earth, are easily broken, and are meant for common everyday use. They are not stately, strong, or unique.
There are at least two takeaways for us here.
First, our weaknesses and limitations are inevitable. If we are jars of clay, we are finite, expendable, earthen vessels. By using this illustration, Paul orients us to reality and manages our expectations about our participation in kingdom ministry. If you and I are jars of clay, “getting in the way” is inevitable, and in fact, Paul is implying that doing so is a feature of God’s economy. We should, therefore, guard against the thought that somehow we can, and should, get our broken and deficient selves out of the way of God’s kingdom work on earth.
Second, our weaknesses and limitations are useful. While the first half of verse 7 communicates that we don’t have to get out of the way because our weaknesses and limitations are inevitable, the second half communicates that we don’t have to be ashamed of them either. Jars of clay are God’s chosen theater and a vehicle of God’s glory and power. The advance of the kingdom of God, and the display of his power and grace, only happens within the context of our limitations, deficiencies, awkward personalities, and checkered yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows. We are jars of clay that are always getting in the way, yet this is God’s chosen means of accomplishing his redemptive purposes.
If our weaknesses and limitations are inevitable and useful, and we don’t have to be ashamed of them, then we are given permission to both humbly accept them and become better acquainted with them. An expert knowledge of our own finitude becomes an opportunity for humility, dependence, and wisdom. As we give ourselves grace to be imperfect, resting in God’s merciful posture toward us rather than our own competencies and successes, we can simultaneously give this same grace and compassion to others. Instead of running, hiding, avoiding, defending, or self-protecting, we are free to love, and these jars of clay become a theater for the display of God's glory and wisdom, an avenue for our sanctification, and a vehicle for the humble loving of others.