We have focused on pain and suffering in this series. Numerous times over the recent Nuggets I have digressed from my intention to begin to address the matter of Glory in the midst of suffering and pain in order to share with you recent examples of God’s touch on people who have been going through hard times. With this Nugget I want to begin to address the matter of glory and its place in the midst of pain, suffering and grief. I know that appears to be nonsensical. I am aware it may even seem incongruous but it is nonetheless a truism where God is forging a deeper work within us. God does indeed take bad situations and turn them for good (à la Romans 8:28). He does take what others meant for evil and work it for our benefit (à la Joseph). He does indeed enable us to rejoice in Him when the fig tree doesn’t blossom, there’s no fruit on the vine, the produce of the olive has failed and there’s no herd in the stall (à la Habakkuk 3:17-18).
I am struck by the number of times I have seen this in evidence when dealing with people going through extreme times of stress, suffering and pain. It has been evident in the lives of the seven that I have been writing these Nuggets around. The Seven who have been added to as time has gone by. I am amazed at how young people like Jeremiah, Kate and Honour can manifest spiritual maturity beyond their years in the midst of pain, suffering and grief. It really is a paradox. It is as though a greater measure of God’s glory comes upon a person who It has gone through hard times. It is the nature of that paradox I would now like to address with the help of in-depth investigation of some key Bible passages. I will work my way through these passages and demonstrate to you why Paul writes about the pain, suffering and grief in the context of praise, solace and glory.
Firstly, let’s look at what Paul is doing in 2 Corinthians. He begins a section addressing the false teachers or false prophets who have constantly criticised his ministry. Paul begins in 2 Corinthians 2:14 by introducing us to the idea of us being led in Christ’s procession. Many times I have heard this passage preached by the name it and claim it exponents as indicating:
- “We are going forth in victory.”
- “We are the head and not the tail.”
- “We are always led in victory.”
But Paul was actually using the Roman victory parade as his inspiration in this passage. Where are we in the Roman victory parade? We are at the head of the parade being marched into the city as slaves later to be sold at the slave market. To some we are the stench of death, to others the fragrance of life. That is exactly what the victory procession was like. It was smelt before it was seen! The stench of the odour emanating from the slaves mixed with the fragrance of the incense wafted from the bowls of burning incense along the side of the procession as it made its way along.
This is the beginning of Paul’s challenge addressing the teaching of the false teachers and preachers criticising him for not being a “super apostle” always evidencing he is on the side of Christ, by living in victory. This passage begins the first of Paul’s challenges to this idea of us always living in the victory in Christ. To counter this false idea, Paul begins a long series of his list of credentials for being a true apostle – pain, suffering, beatings, persecution, shipwrecks throughout the second letter to the Corinthians. We must learn to read the letter in its true context. A true apostle is not one who pedals the Word of God for profit. Rather the mark of a true apostle is suffering, deprivation and persecution. That doesn’t sound so appealing. Maybe I don’t want to be an apostle if that’s the expected outcome.
Following this, Paul uses two very powerful word pictures to correct this false notion of us always being on the winning side. God often uses the process of brokenness to bring his children to a place where He can mould them into true servants of God. Not those who are arrogant and laud it over others but who are made humble by what they experience and upon whom God can release His strength and His glory. Before we can receive glory, God has to prepare us through what we encounter or endure in order to humble us to the point where He can use us mightily by clothing us in His strength.
The two word pictures used are:
The Plax (A Letter from Christ)
Clearly, you are a letter from Christ showing the result of our ministry among you. This “letter” is written not with pen and ink, but with the Spirit of the living God. It is carved not on tablets of stone, but on human hearts.2 Cor 3:3
The Plax were quite unique in the Ancient Near East. A message was carved on a clay tablet and then the message on clay was encased in a clay envelope upon which the same message was written once again. The message was then sent to a dignitary or ruler by messenger. The message on the outside of the envelope was read and then the clay envelope was broken in order to verify the message on the inside was the same as the message on the outside.
God plans the same principle for us. The message on the inside of us (our inner core) must be the same as what all observers see on the outside. In order for this verification process to take place God often puts us through a process of brokenness. That process is used by God to test our authenticity and to use adversity to forge a deeper level of trust in Him in our inner being. But we want to avoid the process of brokenness either because of the pain it brings or because we have a false notion of how God works in our lives. While we strive to avoid facing the foibles and shortcomings within us, God is wanting us to own them and confess them. By doing so we free ourselves from our own self-appointed prisons.
The Ostraca (Vessels of Brokenness)
We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.2 Cor 4:7
A large earthenware vessel stood inside the door of an ancient villa or estate house filled with water called the “Vessel of Honour”. The vessels of honour contained the water used for washing the feet of all guests or visitors to the house. Over time these huge jars would become cracked and would begin to leak water. Such vessels would then be termed “ostraca”, indicating they could only be used again when they were broken. Any cracked or damaged vessel was placed in the storage area for ostracon (singular), these jars were called ostraca, the collective term given to all such damaged vessels before they were broken in order to be used again. The fragments of pottery could then used as “note paper”, fragments to cast a vote with or as instruments to be used for scraping and curing leather or any other suitable household tasks. Ostraca became a symbol of brokenness. We are vessels of brokenness in the LORD’s hands as He uses the hurts and hard times we go through in order to fashion His glory within us.
In the context of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he makes it abundantly clear that God’s intention is to break the outer shell of our lives which we use to protect ourselves from prying eyes . His intent is that we are open and honest about our imperfections in order to give glory to Him when confessing that whatever He has accomplished in us has been because of His strength working in our weakness.
If you will now read through all of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians with that theme in mind, you will have a greater understanding of what Paul was talking about. You will also understand why this letter includes a polemic against the attitude of the super apostles and false teachers who claim a true apostle is one who is eloquent, successful, polished and manifests the marks of success. Whereas in reality God Himself brings about a deeper work in our souls through the process of brokenness, pain and suffering.
In the following Nuggets I will explain this process more fully and demonstrate why this principle is true from Scripture.