Jars of Clay
I am often asked in conversations with people outside of Christian faith why I am a Christian. Sometimes, before I am finished with an explanation, a litany of offenses associated with Christianity pours out as evidence against believing: all the bloodshed and religious wars, the Inquisition, anti-Semitism, etc. I actually don’t mind these kinds of critiques or questions. They are very important, and it would be foolish of me to pretend that the record of Christendom in the world was spotless. Much has been done in the name of Jesus by those who claim to be Christians, for which there should be collective shame.
Sometimes my honest acknowledgement of historic faults isn’t enough for my skeptical friends. Next, they scrutinize the Bible. Who wrote it? Can we trust it? How do we know it is God’s word? When it comes to the Bible, I also understand why these kinds of questions are raised. There are some fairly difficult passages, culturally specific events and contexts that can make the work of translation and understanding in this contemporary time—let alone for those who are completely unfamiliar with it—complicated at best. Again, it would be untruthful if those who studied the Bible pretended to understand everything within its narrative perfectly or completely.
One thing that is not difficult to see or understand, however, is all the humanity on display throughout the biblical narrative. Even the most ‘heroic’ or ‘epic’ of biblical characters are shown with their flaws and their weaknesses on display as much as their strengths. For example, Israel’s great deliverer Moses is called long past his prime and after having been exiled from the royal life in Egypt. We find him tending sheep in the middle of the wilderness. By his own admission, he is not a great public speaker, likely suffering from a speech impediment, and he struggles with his temper; he had killed an Egyptian and struck a rock with such force and violence that he was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. King David, the great king of Israel, was actually the youngest of his family when he is anointed as king. He is tasked to keep the flocks. The first born son was the normal and rightful heir to inheritance and leadership. He committed murder and adultery, conducted a census against God’s specific prohibition, yet he is the one described as a ‘man after God’s heart.’
David likely penned most of Israel’s psalter—a psalter still used in both Jewish and Christian worship today. In this psalter, the record of human emotions, human experience, and human questioning is on display. These are the psalms of sacred worship even as they are the deepest cries of the human heart.
There are the twelve disciples; humble fishermen without much education who lived and learned from Jesus, himself. Despite their proximity to Jesus for three years, one would betray him, another would deny having even known him, and all of them would flee from him in his greatest hour of need. Even while having access to this great teacher, they often failed to understand his teaching. The apostle Paul, who penned most of the New Testament letters, was formerly a murderer of Christians and a legalist of legalists. Even though he is the first apostle of the early Christian movement, he couldn’t prevent a disagreement between himself and his fellow worker, Barnabus over John Mark from separating them.
In dealing with skeptics, there might be the temptation to overlook the humanity in the Bible. Perhaps it causes embarrassment, or creates fear that Christianity somehow doesn’t ‘work’ in transforming lives. I don’t see it that way at all. In fact, time and again when I have struggled with doubts in my faith, I am reminded of all the human individuals used by God as witnesses to the greatness of God’s love and redemption. It is one of the first things I point out in proclaiming the trustworthiness and faithfulness of the Biblical record, and indeed of Christian faith. For, unlike any other sacred text, as lofty and as grand as their epics might be, or as poetic and beautiful as their text reads, they do not show the full portrait of humanity on display as the Bible does; their heroes are not broken, but elevated humans and demi-gods.
So it seems worth asking: What kind of God, indeed what kind of religion, takes fallen and broken human beings and includes them in the plan of salvation? As the apostle Paul proclaimed of his own ministry; “for God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness, made the light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:6-7).
Skeptics and critics of Christianity might still have well-reasoned arguments, and legitimate issues to raise with the faith (and with the faithful), but one thing that cannot be denied is that the God on display in the Bible is not afraid of our humanity, nor does that God shy away from using those who many might consider undesirable. It is this common humanity—on display in my own life so frequently—recorded in the narrative of Scripture that keeps me believing in its truth and relevance.
And if that weren’t all enough, Christianity proclaims a God who valued humanity so much that in Jesus God took on flesh, becoming human. He took on his own jar of clay and in so doing gifted all of humanity with immeasurable treasure.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
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