December 20, 2014

Treasure in an earthen vessel

For many years I did not understand the Apostle Paul’s odd statement about weakness and power. He said that when he was weak, then he was strong. It was only after learning the difference between me, the earthen vessel in which Christ dwells, and Christ the treasure in the vessel, that I began to understand what Paul was talking about.

In my own strength, meaning whenever I do anything without relying on the Lord, I am helpless. It didn’t used to be like that. At first, it seemed I could do anything I wanted. But as time went by, God began allowing me to see the uselessness of my efforts alongside the greatness of my need to rely on Him.

This is hard to explain. Imagine reading by candlelight and not knowing it was difficult. Then someone gives you a LED lamp and suddenly you realize the difference. The candle is nothing alongside that lamp. However, the other element that is more difficult to describe is the sense of being weak that goes with this power of God and that both exist at the same time.

Paul said that the power of Christ was strong in him, but only when he was weak. It is one thing to admit not being able to do something, but this is a different kind of helplessness. It is about being unable to do anything on my own and feeling that helplessness, yet at the same time totally trusting the Lord and knowing that His power and ability is somehow giving me an energy and ability that is otherwise not there. This is a paradox.

The devotional reading for today is Paul’s attempt to explain with this feels like, not so much concerning helplessness, but concerning sinfulness. Being a spiritual person is made possible by Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is not in any of us to be spiritual without Him, yet the more we draw near to Him in trust and obedience, the clearer we see our sin and its pull on our lives.

Paul said, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” (Romans 7:14–25)

Most of us have to read that several times to understand just the English, never mind the concept. And this passage is not about an unsaved person or a new Christian who thinks sin is not a problem. It is about a mature believer who knows the war. His mind is the mind of Christ and his heart is dedicated to serving God, but there is this constant thing going on, this sinful stuff that bubbles to the surface like a putrid, festering, polluted well. It is from that old nature that is dead (and stinks like it is dead) but refuses to rot away and disappear.

Apparently in some parts of the biblical world, the dead body of his victim was strapped on the back of a convicted murderer. The guilty party had to wear it until it rotted away, likely taking him with it. Horrible image, but this could have been what Paul was trying to convey.

For me, the image that is closer to how I see it is that of a person whose limbs are shattered and cannot move. The feet are incapable of walking; the arms cannot carry or lift anything. The desire is there, but the ability is not. However, by the grace of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit, this wretched being can love God and love people. In his weakness, God’s power is the only reason his life has any value and he knows it. There is no faking it, no hypocrisy. This person’s life is an open book, and strangely enough, to some that life appears wonderful, even beautiful, not because of itself, but because Jesus is there.

These are hard lessons, but I am learning that the mind of Christ works the best in a person who is totally broken. If anyone wants that, God will do the crushing, but be prepared; it will be like nothing ever experienced before.

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