In 2 Corinthians 4:7 Paul writes, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
Paul is writing to a group of Christians here who are experiencing God in powerful ways. But they’ve grown a little obsessed with their experience, and arrogant too. So he writes to remind them that while we should seek God with the expectation of experiencing his presence and power, it’s not a constant thing.
Far from it. The Christian life is one of cross-bearing, on a narrow and lonely road, where there is real suffering, and sometimes the only thing keeping you going is naked faith without the warm fuzzies of experience.
Paul compares us to “jars of clay”. Jars of clay are fragile. Easily broken. Easily worn out. Short-lived.
These words of Paul are included in a famous (and lively) worship song. It’s so easy for us to sing: “I’m pressed but not crushed, persecuted not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed.” But when it comes to actually having to go through it, it’s not so easy to sing anymore.
Jesus warned us about having shallow roots to our faith that wouldn’t be able to endure hardship. Matthew 13:20 – “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.”
I want you to notice something that Jesus makes clear – Christians in this life receive extra hardship over what everyone else gets. We not only get the everyday trouble – the rain which falls on the just and unjust. That’s not all, Johny, but tell these Christians what else they’ve won!
We get the suffering of persecution – of people who mock us for our faith. We get the suffering of fighting off temptation and needing to acquire spiritual discipline. We get the suffering which comes when God seems to just disappear – what the saints of old have called the “dark night of the soul”. Then we get the suffering which God intentionally brings us through. Like Israel coming out of Egypt, like Jesus after his baptism, God will bring each of us into a spiritual desert where you feel alone, hard-pressed, perplexed, struck down.
Jars of clay, baby.
Christians in this life receive extra hardship over what everyone else gets.
But the suffering isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When a butterfly is trying to bust out of the cocoon, it struggles in a way that appears almost violent to our eyes. And if you came across that butterfly, you’d be tempted to help it out for pity’s sake. Maybe widen the slit in the cocoon so it could pop it open, with less exertion. But if you were to do that, you would doom that butterfly to a life without flying, and an early death.
Why? Because it needs that struggle to strengthen its wings. It needs to feel hemmed in, hard-pressed, perplexed to become all that it was meant to be.
My friend, Jesus wants you to fly. For that reason, the Christian life will not be one experience of God after another. You should be glad for that! You don’t become a Christian so that you can now lay back on some chaise lounge, having angels fan you and Jesus feeding you grapes.
When you become a Christian, God girds you with armor – why armor? Because you’ve got a battle ahead for you. But if you persevere and press on and never surrender – guess what? You will experience God in the end in a far deeper and richer way than you could ever possibly imagine.
Romans 5:3 – “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”