St. Catherine of Siena once said: "If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire." This is our challenge in life—to become the people God created us to be. And yet, as noble as these words sound, we all struggle in some way or other to live them out because of our flaws and weaknesses.
When Paul said he was an earthen vessel that carried a treasure, he was contrasting the presence of God in his heart with his human nature, which had its own share of strengths and weaknesses.
Some of Paul’s strengths included his sharp mind, his perseverance, and his concern for the people in the churches he founded. As far as his weaknesses were concerned, Paul was not the best public speaker, his appearance was not attractive, and he could be impatient at times. But whatever his strengths or weaknesses, Paul was clear about one thing: The gospel he preached far exceeded the witness he gave. This was the foundation of his defense against the “false apostles” who were calling into question his message by focusing on his personal weaknesses.
You can just hear Paul saying, “Christ lives in me. And because of this great treasure, I am confident that God will bless my efforts at proclaiming his name, no matter how many flaws I may have.”
We are not perfect. We have our flaws. None of us can do full justice to the call of the Lord. And yet, like Paul, we all have Jesus living in us. So we don’t have to lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:16). Christ in us is the reason we can rely on what is eternal rather than on what is easily seen (4:18). He is the reason why we live by faith and not by sight (5:7).
Gifted and Flawed. It’s amazing: As imperfect as we all are, God is asking us, with all of our strengths and weaknesses, to be light for the world. He knows us through and through. He knows all our limitations. And still he calls us all to go out into the world and build his church.
If we look at history, we will see that some of God’s greatest servants had their fair share of flaws and weaknesses. For instance, Abraham was a man of great faith, but he laughed incredulously at God’s promise that he and Sarah would bear a son (Genesis 17:17). He also lied both to Pharaoh and to Abimelech, telling them that Sarah was his sister (12:10-20; 20:1-18). Yet despite these lapses in judgment and lack of trust, Abraham was called a friend of God.
Moses, the man God chose to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, was clear minded, brave, and resilient. Yet Moses made excuse after excuse to try to convince God to “send someone else” to lead the Israelites (Exodus 4:13). Moses was also known to have a quick temper on occasion (17:1-4; Numbers 20:10-12). But he was a great servant of God.
David, too, was chosen by God to be the king of the Israelites. He was fearless, passionate, and loyal. Yet this great lover of God committed adultery and arranged the murder of one of his most loyal officers.
Let’s not forget Elijah, the great the prophet of God. He performed many miracles and uttered many profound words. Yet once he got wind of Jezebel’s vow to kill him, he lost all his confidence and ran away to hide in the desert.
All of these people served the Lord both before and after their flaws were exposed, and both before and after they repented. It’s the same for us. God always invites us to serve him. Who can forget Jesus’ words to Peter after he had denied knowing Jesus three times? He didn’t condemn Peter. He didn’t ridicule him. He only asked: “Do you love me?” And then he said: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).
Precious Earthen Vessels. All of these heroes of faith—along with so many others—illustrate Paul’s words about being an earthen vessel holding a great treasure. They all learned that while the messenger of God may be flawed, the message of God is not.
If they once thought that they were impressive in themselves, they soon came to think otherwise. If they were frustrated with themselves or fearful about their ability to fulfill God’s calling for them, the Lord’s comfort turned the tide. If they were bound by sin, their times of repentance and their experiences of God’s mercy took away any sense of failure, guilt, and shame. His grace set them free.
By the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, he had learned much about humility. He didn’t feel the need to puff himself up. He had learned that what counts in life is telling people about Jesus, not the display of his own personal greatness. Paul’s first priority was to tell the Corinthians about Jesus and lead them closer to the Lord. To that end, he wasn’t overly concerned with the impression he made. He was far more concerned that the message go out.
So if we are concerned with how impressive we are, God wants to teach us the value of having a modest opinion of ourselves. He wants us to learn that God’s power is made “perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is far more important that people look to Jesus and not to us. In fact, humility is not only valuable in God’s eyes, it’s also attractive to the people around us.
If, on the other hand, we tend to get down on ourselves and think we have nothing to offer, then we have to change our attitude. True, we are nothing more than earthen vessels. But it’s also true that each one of us has many wonderful gifts. What’s more, we have a great treasure, living in us—Christ in us, the hope of glory! We know that Jesus loves us very much, even to the point of dying on the cross for us. We also know that Almighty God delights in calling us his own beloved children and heirs. So we have far more potential than we often think. In fact, we can echo with Paul: “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Philippians 4:13).
The Messenger Points to the Message. So we are all earthen vessels bearing a great treasure. The main job of the vessel is to display the treasure. This is the same point Jesus made when he said: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Jesus wants his light to shine through us both as a church and as individuals. He has entrusted the treasure of the gospel to us. We have that treasure dwelling in our very hearts, and its light can sparkle and shine to the whole world if we cooperate.
If Paul were with us today, he would say that the size or beauty of our church buildings, the number of our parish programs, or the amount of our budget are all secondary. The most important question is whether we, the people of God, hide the light that is in us or let it shine. It’s whether the glory we display points people to Jesus or to us.
God Believes in You. There is a legend about Gabriel the archangel who is God’s messenger. One day, not long after Jesus had ascended into heaven, Gabriel asked him: “Lord, do the people on earth know how much you love them and what you did for them?”
“No, not yet,” Jesus answered. “Only a handful of people in Jerusalem know the story.”
This made Gabriel sad, and he said: “Then what will you do to let the world know about your love and about the salvation you won for them?”
Jesus replied: “I told Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene, and a few other followers to spread the word to the whole world.”
With a skeptical look, Gabriel asked: “But what if Peter denies you again? What if the others flee like they did before? What if they grow weary and give up? Do you have a backup plan?”
And Jesus said: “No, I believe in them.”
Today, the plan is still the same. God believes in us. He is counting on us—mere earthen vessels—to display his light to the world. He wants us to tell people about the treasure that lives inside of us. And guess what? We can do it. We can set the world on fire because Jesus lives in our hearts!