Paul had his more dramatic experiences of the treasure in jars of clay. He and Silas sang and prayed while in prison (Acts 16:25)! Much of the time, in his day-to-day service to Jesus, the enabling of the Spirit was far less dramatic, but no less real.
The more dramatic, and the less — I will share both from our own experiences.
My wife Margaret and I arrived in this communist country in 1991. Our hope was for a low-key relational ministry through which we could lead local people to Christ. “There is no spiritual realm” is a core tenet of communism. It's interesting that this ‘non-existent’ spiritual realm sought to deter us in our first year there. We decided that initially I would study the language while Margaret’s primary concern would be our two small children. After the first six months she was feeling pressured on different fronts. In addition, my growing but still limited language ability with local friends made her feel excluded. She felt unneeded and increasingly depressed — “If I weren’t here it wouldn’t make any difference to anything,” she thought. “Perhaps I should leave Colin and the children and return to Australia and he can get on with the Lord’s work.” Yes, irrational thoughts and emotions — which gave us a clue to their origin.
A few verses before Paul’s treasure in jars of clay passage he wrote that, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ…” (v4). Peter warned believers to “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). The god of this age targets both unbelievers and believers. We are in a spiritual battle. In this country Margaret and I were a challenge to the powers of darkness.
As our concern for Margaret increased, I one day prayed over her in the name of Jesus and bound any demonic activity in her life. I commanded anything of the evil one to leave. Her testimony is that as I prayed she had the sensation of something rising up from her stomach and leaving through her head. Instantly her demeanour changed and the irrational thoughts ceased. She was free. Potential collapse of our ministry in this country was avoided.
On reflection, there was a sequence here: Margaret’s discouragement led to self-pity, which seemed to make her more vulnerable to demonic oppression. This appears to have developed into a foothold expressed in further mood changes and irrational thoughts. Then came a faith-response in Jesus’ name, followed by deliverance from oppression, and finally a return to normal thought patterns.
“The One Who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4). Let’s paraphrase that: the treasure in the jar of clay is greater than the evil one.
One of my more ‘dramatic’ experiences of the Lord came just recently, after 26 years of missionary service. In the cold north of this country, the winter of 2015 brought on a chest condition for several weeks. Doctors didn’t know what it was. It didn’t respond to medication. The next winter it returned, again no diagnosis. Winters here seem long. I was feeling discouraged. Then my stomach became uncomfortable, similar symptoms to an ulcer I’d had years earlier. “Here comes another week of ulcer tablets,” I thought. That night I took the first tablet. Somehow I just felt overwhelmed, that I just couldn’t ‘do this’ anymore. I lay awake most of the night, mapping out in my mind a plan to leave this country as soon as possible and return to Australia. It all seemed so clear. Margaret would finish her current year of teaching and I would wind up the things with which I was involved. This is the way it had to be. After all, we had ‘done our time’ and I was now 60 years old. The next day I would explain everything to Margaret.
In the morning I sat down for time with the Lord. I don’t often weep but that morning I did. I was at the end of myself. “Lord, please help me!” I groaned. Almost immediately I felt a pleasant sensation in my body. The heaviness and hopelessness lifted as joy rose up within me. My stomach also felt instantly better. A gracious touch from the Lord — that’s the only way I can explain it. A power that was from God, and not from me. And with the joy came renewed energy and readiness to persevere, to stay as long as the Lord wanted. My anticipated abrupt closure to our service in this country was avoided.
(We later discovered that my chest condition was caused by contaminated water in our air humidifier. Easy to fix!)
Yes, dramatic experiences of the treasure within are real and sometimes necessary. But most of the difficulties we have faced over the years have been the low-level ongoing stressors that other cross-cultural workers face in similar contexts around the world. Our primary source of help is through what God has provided for all of his children — regular and unhurried time in His Word, prayer, obedience to what He is saying, worship, fellowship, and input from other believers.
At this point allow me to expand the topic of ‘treasure in jars of clay’ to my broader missionary journey and to my own experience with depression.
After serving in Asia for 15 years we returned to Australia for five years to take up a leadership role in the organisation with which we serve. This proved to be the most difficult trial in my walk with God and resulted in a personal crisis, but with a corresponding deep work of God and further equipping for future service.
It is well known that many cross-cultural workers go through a difficult process of re-entry on their return to their passport country. Although our organisation prepared us well, I faced unexpected challenges in this Australian team. After eighteen months in leadership I was diagnosed with reactive depression.
A number of factors contributed to this. It is comforting and informative to reflect on Paul’s own interpersonal challenges, which had a variety of causes. They include theological differences (e.g. with Peter — Gal 2:11-14); his responses to selfish ambition in others (e.g. with Alexander — 1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 4:14-15); and conflicting opinions in ministry (his separation from Barnabas — Acts 15:36-41).
In my own case the causes only became clear through reflection in the ensuing years. Here are some examples. In Asia I had become accustomed to leading in a ‘High Context’ culture. That means people respect age, experience and position. Respect is ascribed. Leading this particular Australian team was a shock. Australia is a ‘Low Context’ culture. Here, respect is acquired — by demonstrating one’s competence. Often, age, experience and position count for little. The way I handled conflict was also unhelpful; I tended to withdraw rather than resolve issues. I felt intimidated. I was also processing some mid-life issues. All this is to say that many factors precipitated a personal crisis.
I took an open-ended leave of absence. There was so much going on in this jar of clay. Here was a missionary in reverse culture shock. Cracks were showing — what about the treasure?
Paul wrote of his team that “inwardly they were being renewed day by day” (2 Cor 4:16). If not yet renewed, I was certainly sustained day by day. Renewal came about 12 months later. The Holy Spirit, the indwelling Christ, was indeed my Treasure. But I needed to be intentional in drawing close to Him through His Word. I felt the Lord told me the posture I was to adopt. I was inspired by Matt 1:19 — “Joseph was a righteous man. He didn’t want to expose Mary to public disgrace. He decided to deal with things quietly.” The righteous way for me to deal with this was to not fight for my leadership position, to not make waves, but to quietly trust God to work out his purposes among us. Insights and lessons learned on later reflection were not apparent to me then, but have since become resources to constructively respond to similar situations.
I needed to be intentional in prayer and faith — “Lord I don’t understand what you are doing but I trust you implicitly” was my frequent declaration. God used people to speak into my life. He took me aside for a while. I believed that my days of full-time ministry were over. On the other hand, my main antagonist in the team became the leader and gained much needed experience and equipping in his own journey with the Lord (God blessed Paul and he blessed Barnabas as well). I stand amazed at how God works redemptively within the web of such complex situations. Hmmm. The Treasure was at work in all of the jars!
But how specifically was He at work in me?
I resumed an M.A. in Leadership that had lapsed. My first course was on global mission. God began to stir my heart through statements like “It is in finding that our lives are part of God’s purposes in and for the world that we discover the meaning for which we hunger” (Marianne Meye Thompson). Yes, I had been sustained; now I was being renewed. Depression was replaced with optimism and anticipation. I began to realize that God was using the whole crisis experience in his own ‘school of ministry’. Bobby Clinton, retired Professor of Leadership at Fuller School of Intercultural Studies, documents a work of God in leaders that takes them deeper into Himself and prepares them for their next ministry phase. He calls it isolation. A deeper spiritual growth occurs there that cannot otherwise happen.
Surprise, surprise — this was not a dead end but a new beginning!
Soon after completing my M.A., we returned to the same country, inspired for this new phase of service.
In our current city security concerns demand a practical response in ministry. When our team meets together we collect all the mobile phones, switch them off and shut them in another room just in case the government has the technology to eavesdrop through them. When socializing with members of other agencies or churches (did I say ‘church’? I meant ‘club’…) the unspoken rule is to not ask too many questions about other people’s ministries. It’s on a need-to-know basis. What you don’t know can’t incriminate others. Recently I texted some Bible references to Martha, a local believer whom we disciple. She didn’t receive them. I texted again and then once more. Again, they were not received. “Yes,” she said. “They might block texts with this kind of content.” Okay…so how much do ‘they’ know?
Back to Martha. How does the ‘treasure in jars of clay’ work for her? She is a Muslim-background believer. She’s single, in her late 20s, and has been a Christian for two years. For the past few months she’s been translating an English Christian book into the local language. She could get into trouble with the police for doing that and also for her association with us. She could get into trouble with her family and ethnic group if they knew she was a Christian… “And why, at her age, is she still single? She should be married to a good Muslim man!”
Recently we asked her why she follows Jesus in light of these pressures. Her reply was punctuated with tears, “I used to drink, I had a bad temper, and not many people liked me. Jesus has changed me and his people love me.”
As we intentionally encourage people like Martha in things that could get them into trouble, we feel it. But Martha is symbolic of the many others around the world who enter the Kingdom of God as the Spirit draws them. Her testimony is powerful. Clearly, ‘jars of clay’ cannot accomplish this. But — and it is a big but — there is the Treasure within.