Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Month: November 2022


Growing up, my Mom had all kinds of jars around the house. She used most of them for canning vegetables in the summer. But she had other jars for other purposes: her spare button jar, her loose change jar, her spice tea jar, her sun tea jar, her jars for drinking sun tea, her cotton ball jar, and lots of other jars. 

Jars are useful for holding things. They’re designed to be filled. They’re functional. And even though Pinterest probably has all kinds of decorative ideas for jars, they’re primarily utilitarian. 

The apostle Paul compared Christians to jars: “Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Timothy 2.20-21).

I suspect that most of us don’t spend our days contemplating the nature of being jar-like. Nonetheless, the analogy is useful. By way of application, I’d like for you to think about three things that can help you be, in Paul’s words, “a vessel of honor”.

First, jars come in all sizes, shapes, and materials. Different jars have different qualities and uses. That’s to be expected because that’s what makes them so incredibly useful. In the same way, Christians have different qualities and uses. No two Christians are exactly alike. Each of us brings different gifts, abilities, experiences, knowledge levels, maturity, and insight to the kingdom. Each of us has a place in the body of Christ. As the apostle Paul said elsewhere, “For the body is not one member, but many” (1 Corinthians 12.14).

Second, jars exist to be filled. The Bible speaks of being filled by God with many things. We’re to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5.18). Filled with joy (2 Timothy 1.4). Filled with knowledge (Colossians 1.9). Filled with righteousness (Philippians 1.11). Filled with comfort (2 Corinthians 7.4). Filled with the fullness of God himself (Ephesians 3.19). These are the things God gives to us in our relationship to him. We can’t achieve them ourselves, we can’t buy them, and we really can’t even control them. 

Third, and most importantly, jars must first be empty before they can be filled. When we’re full our ourselves, there’s no room to be filled with God or by God. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9.23). We must empty ourselves of pride, worry, materialism, worldly ambition, busyness, doubt, lust, greed, anger. All the sinful things that occupy space in our hearts, we must empty.

God does the filling, but we do the emptying. If you want to be filled, start with an empty jar.

The Joy of the Lord

Then [Nehemiah] said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8.10)

When you have nothing else, you have the Lord. In this is joy.

When Nehemiah gave this admonition to the Israelites, it was after 70 years of exile. It was after generations of disobedience against the Lord. It was after their holy city had been razed, their homes destroyed, their dignity crushed, their humiliation complete. When all was taken away, they still had the Lord. This was their joy.

It was by sheer grace that the Lord allowed them to return to the land and restore their national life. Granted, there were some who were still dissatisfied. The prophet Haggai cautioned those who pined for “the good old days” (Haggai 2.3). He promised that whatever glory they thought they remembered would be eclipsed by an even greater glory from the Lord (Haggai 2.9). The text in Nehemiah showed a people overwhelmed by fresh memories of their sins. But even more they were overwhelmed by fresh compassion from the Lord.

The noun “joy” occurs about 180 times in the Bible. The verb “rejoice” occurs about 230 times in the Bible. Joy isn’t just something we have, it’s something we do. When God tells us to rejoice, it’s not a suggestion, it’s a command! This tells us that joy and rejoicing are choices we make about our lives. We choose whether or not we’ll have joy.

I might have expected Nehemiah to say that the strength of God is our joy, but he reversed that: the joy of the Lord is our strength. What Nehemiah was saying is that grace precedes strength. We draw strength as we contemplate and appreciate the good things God has done for us. 

So, if you have been blessed by God, rejoice! If God has taken care of your needs, rejoice! If God has helped you through a hard place, rejoice! If God has comforted you when nothing else could, rejoice! If God has chastened you to bring you back to him, rejoice! 

And as you rejoice, you’ll be stronger for whatever obstacles and challenges ahead of you. 

God’s people have every reason for joy every day. So, for today, do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!

On Letting Go

Martin Luther once wrote, “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.” (Letter #1610, to Justus Jonas the Elder, 29 June 1530).

Humans have a tendency, even an instinct to cling tenaciously to our valuables. Whether our valuables are material possessions, relationships, jobs, status, or whatever else, we often have a death grip on them for one simple reason: We’re afraid that if we let go, we’ll lose them.

For Christians, the key to keeping something is to let go of it. Jesus said, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16.25). Jesus was saying that letting go of your life is the only way to ultimately save it. Letting go means that you quit trying to control things, to control others, and to constantly get your way. 

The apostle Paul’s life is an excellent illustration. In the third chapter of Philippians, he warns against putting trust in the earthly things. To illustrate, he says that at one time he did exactly that, and then lists seven aspects of his life in which he once took pride. Those seven things were all part of his Jewish heritage and his life before becoming a Christian.

But then he says, “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3.7). Paul says he had to let go of those things because they kept him from coming to know Christ (v. 8-11). How may we do the same?

First, we must let go of past successes. Success feels great, but it can keep us stuck in the past, afraid to try anything new. Success fine, but growth is even better. Past successes tend to stifle our growth by making us think we don’t really need to improve. 

Second, we must let go of past failures. Past failures can cripple us by making us slaves to our anger, our fears, and our disappointments. We sometimes make the mistake of letting past failures define us. Sometimes we equate our failures with our identity. 

Third, we must let go of our desire to control everything. This may be the hardest thing of all. Most of us understand that both success and failure are part of the ebb and flow of life. But ego convinces us that if we give just a little more input, if we have a little more control, if we grip just a bit tighter, then everything will work out. 

Paul says later in the chapter (v. 13-14), “one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” In other words, why not trade something you can’t keep for something you can’t lose?