One year ago, we lost our youngest daughter to her longstanding battle against addiction. Walking alongside her in this multiyear struggle sank us into parts of this broken world we never dreamed we would inhabit. Dark places with desperate people became familiar terrain. We fought for life. Death won. Now our precious daughter is gone. Each morning I stare into the eyes of her 2-year-old son, now entrusted to us.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about grief. I have seen how it attacks meaning and motivation. Grief creeps up and seizes a moment, an hour, an afternoon. I think it’s going to be like this for a while. The shadow of death; the empty chair; the burden of shame; the clay pot, broken.
Ministry, if I’m honest, is conflicting. It’s been more splendid than I possibly expected and more painful than I ever dreamed. Somewhere along the way, I began to think differently about resilience. It’s no longer the place I am reaching for after the pain. It’s the work of God, in and through mystery and agony, by which he is helping me persevere in a way that reveals his power.
Treasure in Jars of Clay
In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd was herding his flock on a hill near the Dead Sea. Since sheep are prone to wander, one little lamb ambled away. The shepherd set out on a search that led him to a dark cave on the northwestern ridge.
The young shepherd approached the cave mouth, peered inside, and then chucked a rock into the darkness. Something shattered. Crawling through the entrance, the intrepid shepherd came face to face with an archaeological wonder.
The boy found a row of enormous clay pots, larger than him — each one sealed shut. Popping one lid, he found ancient scrolls inside — some wrapped in linen, others blackened to the point of being unreadable. Little did the shepherd know that he would be immortalized as the guy who discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls.
A treasure of incomprehensible value. Stored in clay pots.
Make no mistake: ministry is hard. We come aboard assuming God tapped us for our strengths. But God’s program incorporates many of our weaknesses. In a broken world, ministry is often conveyed through broken vessels. Listen to how the apostle Paul describes it:
We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:7–12)
Paul faced opposition in Corinth. Tradition has it that he was somewhat unattractive and sported some kind of eye condition (see 2 Corinthians 10:10; Galatians 4:13–15). From his opponents’ point of view, Paul was too plain, too contemptible, too weak. But Paul counters with a decidedly unconventional defense. To the charge that he’s insufficient, Paul says, “Guilty.” To the charge that he’s an unrefined orator, Paul repeats, “Guilty.” To the charge that he’s weak, Paul asserts, “Guilty!” Paul flips the script on his detractors by saying, “You think my weakness disqualifies me. But actually, it’s the core of my credentials.”
Paul discovered a secret: his weakness was an opportunity for God’s power. He learned that when our weakness meets God’s grace, strength abounds. It’s what I like to call the “clay-pot conspiracy.”
Although the word conspiracy has dark overtones, I think it accurately conveys the essence behind God’s hidden agenda. God has a covert plan to sabotage the enemy and to display his power. It’s a secret design to humble the proud, abolish boasting, and establish the ground for our longevity.
That’s what I mean by the clay-pot conspiracy. And it’s as simple as this: Our weakness + God’s power = resilient ministry.
Filled with Gospel
Paul states, “We have treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Paul’s treasure is his gospel ministry. Paul is speaking about the resplendent worth of the incomparable gospel, the priceless message about the Savior who left the glory of heaven and died to save sinners. But let’s connect a couple of dots. Gospel ministry is a privilege many of us share with Paul. It is a privilege that we’re called to when we enter ministry as leaders in the local church. We share the glorious honor of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, to see the light of God’s glory go forward through the finished work of Jesus.
Now comes the conspiracy. At the heart of this passage rests a stunning contrast. This incomprehensible treasure is stored in fragile jars of clay. Church leader, God is talking about you. You have something of infinite value stored in your ministry, your body, your life — your clay pot. You are the receptacle; you are the clay pot in which the treasure of the gospel rests.
Can You Own Your Weakness?
When I was 7 years old, my brother — such a nutcase, my brother — called me over to the gravel parking lot across from our house. “Dave,” he said. “Come here. I want to show you something.”
In his hand was a gold nugget — at least what looked like a gold nugget; I didn’t yet see the gold spray-paint cans littered on the ground around his feet.
“Whoa! Where did you get that?” I said.
“Right here, man!” he said. “And they’re sprinkled all over the parking lot. It’s filled with gold!”
I stood astounded. But my brother was just getting started. “And guess what? I bought the whole lot!”
Then he stepped forward. “And since I’m your brother, here’s the first piece of gold from my new lot.” He reached over and set the spray-painted piece of gravel in my sweaty hand. When I close my eyes, I can still remember the sensation of awe as I palmed this priceless mineral that had transformed me into a wildly wealthy kid.
Feeling the burden of spontaneous wealth, I knew my gold needed to be secured. So I ran home, rushed upstairs, and grabbed a shoe box. I put my gold nugget in the middle of the shoe box, and I stuffed newspaper all around it. Then I wrapped it in duct tape (because we all know that duct tape is impregnable to burglars). The box then went into the bottom drawer of my dresser (because no criminal would ever think of going into the bottom drawer). Even at 7, I knew that my treasure should be in the safest place I could find.
But God’s strategy is different. God stores his treasure in something common and breakable. We think our battle with anxiety makes us less effective to lead. We assume our bodily illness or our prodigal child means the end of usefulness for God. But beneath your pain there is a plan — the clay-pot conspiracy. God is working to make your life speak in ways you never imagined. How? God stores his treasure in clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to him and not to us (2 Corinthians 4:7).
We are not always strong. We are weak. And the only way to experience God’s surpassing power is to own our fragility. God stores his treasure in jars of clay. Can you own it?
Break the Pot to Free the Power
The intruders in Corinth were known for boasting about their power — for talking incessantly about the triumphs of their leadership. So, Paul says to them, “Let me share with you my ministry profile.” Then, the apostle provides these four contrasts (2 Corinthians 4:8–9):
- “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed.”
- “We are . . . perplexed, but not driven to despair.”
- “We are . . . persecuted, but not forsaken.”
- “We are . . . struck down, but not destroyed.”
Ministry, for Paul, was complicated and excruciating. It was a life where you’re afflicted, baffled, persecuted, and struck down. Paul summarizes it by saying, “We are . . . always carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:10).
“Your pain is designed to produce a leader who embodies the gospel message.”
As with Paul, your pain is designed to produce a leader who embodies the gospel message. God triggers experiences of death in us so that gospel life might flow. It’s a series of trials where your kids see you maligned, but you do not retaliate; where one sleepless night rolls into the next; where you keep loving when you feel like your heart is empty.
But it’s all part of the plan. Death is at work “so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” Do you see the plan? God breaks the pot to free the power.
That’s right. Your weaknesses and struggles — the very places your mind is going as you read this — are the very places God makes his power known most clearly. You are walking the path behind Paul. “I carry death, so that the life of Christ may be manifested in me.”
It’s strange, isn’t it? We come into leadership thinking the kingdom advances by strong people using amazing gifts to bear epic fruit. But God says, “Not really. When I want to shape a soul for service, I bid him to come and die. When I want my gospel to ring forth, I break the pot.”
Your suffering is meant to produce life for others. It’s not merely confounding. It’s the clay-pot conspiracy. Our weakness + God’s power = resilient ministry.
Resilience Right Now
Leader, remember: Your suffering is not an obstacle to resilience. It’s the means of producing it. It’s all part of God’s conspiracy, where “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3–4). God breaks the pot to shape the soul. It’s a mysterious grace we are given, a grace upon which we stand (Romans 5:2).
If you’re struggling for resilience right now, remember: Your pot is not the first to be broken. The clay pot of Christ’s body was broken for our sins. Then Christ rose from death on the third day. It’s the conspiracy’s origin: God made death produce life.
“From the ashes of your brokenness, God is kindling the fire of hope and life.”
Leaders, don’t begrudge the nails that pin you to the cross. Don’t despise your places of death. From the ashes of your brokenness, God is kindling the fire of hope and life. Though it baffles the mind, those wounds are fortifying the resilience you seek. And they are preparing your soul to meet a Savior. Each day in heaven will be more glorious because of what you have borne on earth.
When I look into my grandson’s eyes and see my daughter, the pang reminds me that God breaks the pot to free his power. If you’re in ministry and experiencing any kind of loss, the breaking is also forging a more durable soul. The kind that reminds the world of the true power behind a crucified Savior.
My weakness plus God’s power equals my resilience. It’s the clay-pot conspiracy. And it is magnificent!