Treasure in jars of clay

“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

Here is our Pastor Hershael York’s message from 2 Corinthians 4.7-18, The Paradox of the Christian Life.

All of his messages are delivered to us from the Word of God with clarity, conviction, integrity, and passion – “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2.1-5). They are all challenging, convicting, and confirming – all at the same time.

But this one is so very personal to me. If ever I have had a ‘life verse’ [as is so common to have] that summarizes and defines my experience as a disciple of Jesus Christ and a minister of the Gospel, it is 2 Corinthians 4.7.

In fact, in a very real sense, it has been my “signature” verse. For all of my life over the past 50 years, I have signed “2 Cor 4.7” along with my name because it so tells my life story.

My very best friend from our very first day of Bible College, Jim Park, gave me this NASB back around 1972. “II Cor 4:7” was already imbedded into my experiences and conversations with those closest to me.

God began crushing me 50 years ago to the point that I thought He was taking my future ministry of preaching away from me. I despaired that I had any future in Gospel ministry.

I had never wanted to do anything else. I had never prepared to do anything else.

I was just getting started, and I thought I had already slammed into an impassable dead-end. I had just begun my ascent, and I was already in an irrecoverable tailspin, ingloriously crashing and burning.

In fact, I told my Dad during that season [I was still living at home at the time], “Dad, please don’t ask me to preach again. I can’t do it anymore.”

I was kind of the “rising young star” among the younger generation of preachers in our particular circles and fellowships of churches. I was beginning to receive invitations from pastors we knew to preach in their churches, at their events, fulfill pulpit supply for them, preach in revival meetings, etc.

But all that prospect of future ministry hung precariously in the balance … quivering and ready to tip to the “dread” side. It was like I had just walked out on the stage of ministry, but all of a sudden, the curtains were descending and all the lights were going dark.  

And [to run ahead of my story just a bit…] I am convinced of this as much as anything: as I pondered these dark experiences and cried out to God “What are You doing? What is going on with me? What am I supposed to learn from all this?” [as in 2 Corinthians 12.7-9] – it became obvious to me that God was, indeed, taking my ministry from me so He could give it back to me again with the understanding that He is the Potter, I am the clay.

{A personal aside:

as I have evaluated these experiences over the past decades, I have come to the conclusion – at least for me – that God will not give me a signal gift, blessing, or privilege to enjoy and exercise for His Glory without somehow, somewhere along the way taking it from me and then giving it back under the terms of His gracious Lordship (2 Timothy 2.20-21; 1 Peter 4.10-11). I have no idea how He is pleased to deal with you or any of the others of His faithful servants. I have no empirical or anecdotal witnesses to cite. I just know that any time I have ever referred to Abraham’s test in Genesis 22, or Jacob’s in Genesis 32, or Paul’s in 2 Corinthians 12, I have at least alluded to this personal principal in my own ministry. “For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103.14), and He can blow or kick our dust at His pleasure when we need to be reminded that our dust is His making and He has framed us for His Glory – not to seek great things for ourselves (Jeremiah 45.5)…}

He had begun to pound me, break me, crush me so He could re-make me to be “a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the Master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2.21).

He was willing to allow me the privilege to serve Him, but I must surrender to His terms. He was making me willing in the day of His power.

I vividly remember the crisis watershed occasion and the specific message I was preaching when this crisis experience took place. I’m looking at the notes to that message right now. [Yes, I still have pretty much every sermon outline and message notes I have ever used.] It is dated 4.11.71.

I was just barely 20 years old.

That Sunday morning was Easter Sunday morning 1971. I had prepared the message from 2 Corinthians 5.14-21, “Life with the Living Lord.”

But from that Sunday morning, God began to crush me with what I can only best describe as a total ‘nervous breakdown / emotional, psychological meltdown’ to the point that I was terrified at the prospect of standing in front of people to speak – what could be called ‘stage fright,’ I guess.

I suffered panic attacks, high anxiety, hyperventilation to the point of having sudden rushes of adrenalin, becoming mentally disoriented, feeling almost detached from myself and ‘out of body,’ sweaty, and breathless. It was more than just mere nervousness or jitters. It was total, abject, paralyzing, debilitating fear … terror. And it was all triggered by the very thought of standing before others to speak.

I still continued to preach as I received invitations [and I was receiving more and more invitations to preach at this time], but I lived in this paralyzing terror that I wouldn’t be able to speak when I got up and opened my mouth to do so. That I would get up to speak, but that when I opened my mouth, my voice wouldn’t come out.

I even got to the point that I would prepare my preaching notes, but I wouldn’t put the date on it, because I didn’t know whether I would be able to speak to deliver it. I would insert the date after I had, in fact, delivered the message.

What was even more distressing and disconcerting about this whole experience is that I had no idea what was happening to me. At that time of my life, I had never heard of ‘panic/anxiety attack.’ As far as I was concerned, this had never happened to anyone else before, and I was the only one who had ever experienced this kind of breakdown.

I told no one. I honestly thought that no one would understand what I was experiencing – that they wouldn’t know what I was trying to describe. Also I was afraid to even acknowledge that this sort of thing was happening to me at all. I couldn’t deny it was happening, but I thought that if I didn’t acknowledge it, it might just go away, or at least I would be able to manage and survive it. I was also afraid that if I acknowledged it, that it would spiral totally out of control and completely, totally consume me.

And I didn’t tell anyone about these experiences for probably 25-30 years afterwards. When I did relate some of these experiences, it was only to individual persons who were struggling with the same anxiety for the purpose of helping them, encouraging them, and giving them hope.

I have never been as publicly transparent and open with this testimony as I am now.

These seasons of suffering this kind of fear, high anxiety, and panic attacks would go on for months on end at a time. They would be accompanied by bouts of deep depression, mainly just from the mental and emotional stress of constantly dreading and being in terror at the prospects of preaching again [which I still was], and also from the possibilities that my future ministry was being taken from me.

I couldn’t see any prospects that it would ever be any different than this. And I couldn’t bear the thought that maybe I was going to suffer this fear and anxiety for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to entertain the prospects of that future. I didn’t even want to live with that kind of future.

I am thankful to God that He began to teach me what He purposed for me to learn from these experiences. It was at that time, very early on in these experiences, that God led me to 2 Corinthians, and especially to chapter 4, verse 7. As I learned it in the Authorized Version,

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.”

I had no doubt from the very beginning that God was dealing with my pride. My pride, self-confidence, and all seeking of any recognition, glory, and praise for myself must be crushed. And crushed, it was. It has to be if I am going to be God’s preacher. And I did want to be God’s preacher.

The ‘excellency of the power’ or ‘the surpassing power’ belongs to God and is given and ministered through us by God in the moment when it is used. The ‘treasure’ that God has entrusted to us is His Son and His Gospel – what Paul describes in chapter 3, verse 18 as “the glory of Christ,” and later in chapter 5 as the ministry and message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.11-21).

God entrusts this glorious Treasure to us, as clay jars, so that when His power is ministered to others through us, we will know that it is Him and His power – and not from us. We need to know, and we will have to learn, that as ‘jars of clay,’ we are weak, fragile, brittle, and broken. If we don’t know that sufficiently, then God will proceed to break and crush us until we do.

But when He does crush us, then we learn to cast ourselves helplessly and hopefully upon Him to work and minister the Glory of Christ through us to others. God continuously works death in our fleshly bodies through our afflictions so that He can clear the channels so His Life can flow through us to others.

So, going back to 1971… This initial season of crushing didn’t last forever. It did go on for a long time from then – maybe as long as two years. But God was teaching me to commit my ministry to Him for His use, His Glory, His pleasure. And He would supply the strength I needed to fulfill His calling and assignment.

2 Corinthians 4.7 was becoming my life’s and ministry’s “user guide.” It was the protocols by which I learned to function. It became my very signature.

In the ensuing years, there have been seasons when it would return. The fear, the anxiety, the panic, the depression – sometimes it would come back on me. I have cycled in and out of it for seasons at a time. But there is something loving that is going on even in those times. It is a Hebrews 12 kind of season. My Heavenly Father is exercising His loving discipline to train me more completely, develop me more fully, and share His Holiness with me. And as He promises, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12.11).

There is an inexplicable and unique kind of intimacy with the Father that grows and is cultivated to ‘the peaceable fruit of righteousness’ during those seasons. And maybe, just maybe, it can’t be experienced and enjoyed apart from them.

It is like my Father has to touch me every now and then with His heavy finger of love to remind me, “Son, remember, it’s not about you – it’s about the Glory of Christ. You belong to Me. You are My chosen vessel, and I will be pleased to use you; but I will use you My way. You’re not sufficient for any of this – but My Grace is always sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in your weakness.”

To which I can only reply: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses … For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12.7-10).

In that same message from Pastor York that I referenced at the head of this testimony, he quoted from Amy Carmichael a poem I had never heard before. I instantly identified with it and related to it.

Hast Thou No Scar | by Amy Carmichael

Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land,
I hear them hail thy bright ascendant star,
Hast thou no scar?

Hast thou no wound?
Yet, I was wounded by the archers, spent.
Leaned me against the tree to die, and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned:
Hast thou no wound?

No wound? No scar?
Yet as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me;
But thine are whole. Can he have followed far
Who has no wound nor scar?

Yes, I do. I have some wounds, some scars. They are the cracks and brokennesses in my jar of clay so the Glory of Jesus can shine through me – “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

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