In which the filling depends on the vessel.
I’ve spent a lot of time this week refreshing-refreshing-refreshing websites for the fleeting split-second vaccine appointment times freckling New York City. Sometimes a sudden windfall of appointments opens all at once, and in the fray, I struggle to control my tone as I direct R into filling out a vaccine registration (I juggle two of my own on different browsers) before the shining chink closes, fractions of seconds later (of course, using the law of rational numbers, all measurable time periods can be fractions of seconds, but I digress). Then I call the seniors who received their registrations only to face endless voicemail, or transportation difficulties that preclude the use of the hard-won slot. Sometimes the voice on the other line seemed annoyed that the appointment I got for them was so far away when there clearly are vaccine administration centers within walking distance. My apologies for their inconvenience didn’t always ring true. My resolve at diving in again for a more suitable appointment was a little shakier.
I’m in the no-man’s-land between electives, so I was happy to help out people who had trouble jockeying on the internet for appointments. It’s a service to my community and to God. But as is engraved into my fallen nature, somewhere between the intention and the execution, I forgot to fully employ the grace allotted for my service. I had a job to do; it got done. But did I receive God in the doing? Was God pleased by my hollow replies to disappointment, or by my preening at praise?
I had accidentally slipped from serving God to serving man, or worse—serving myself. Something I read today encouraged me to look away from all the things of the earth:
In Hebrews, [Paul] points us particularly to the Christ seated in heaven with so many aspects to care for us in every way… the heavenly Christ is contrasted with the earthly religion and all earthly things. To experience the indwelling Christ we need to turn to our spirit and contact Him. To enjoy the heavenly Christ we need to look away from all things on earth unto Him who is seated at the right hand of the throne of God… Now in His ascension He is sitting in the heavens, in the person of the Son of God (Heb 1:5) and the Son of Man (2:6), in the person of God (1:8) and man (2:6), as the appointed Heir of all things (1:2), the Anointed One of God (1:9), the Captain of our salvation (2:10), the Sanctifier (2:11), the instant Helper and constant Succor (2:18), the Apostle from God (3:1), the High Priest (2:17; 4:14; 7:26), the Minister in the true tabernacle (8:2) with a more excellent ministry (8:6), the surety and the Mediator of a better covenant (7:22; 8:6; 12:24), the Executor of the new testament (9:16–17), the Forerunner (6:20), the Author and Perfecter of faith (12:2), and as the great Shepherd of the sheep (13:20). If we look unto Him as such a wonderful and all-inclusive One, He, ministering heaven, life, and strength to us, will transfuse and infuse us with all that He is to enable us to run the heavenly race and to live the heavenly life on earth, carrying us through all the lifelong pathway and bringing us into glory (2:10).
The wonderful Jesus, who is enthroned in heaven and “crowned with glory and honor” (2:9), is the greatest attraction in the universe, like an immense magnet drawing all His seekers unto Him. It is by being attracted by His charming beauty that we look away from all things other than Him.
Thank God, there are people doing good in every corner of the earth. In the midst of the darkness and chaos, people of all faiths and all walks of life do good to their neighbors. But as for believers of God, doing good is not enough. We are called to do good through His transfusion and infusion, imbuing our actions with God, and effacing entirely the self-serving, self-aggrandizing old man who rears at every opportunity to grow. It doesn’t mean I should drop my service, but it does mean I can turn, be washed, and begin anew.
Back in bible school, I often sang a short song:
Amen, Lord. I can’t do it anymore.
Lord, I love You, and I pray, do it in me.
There was also a saying: “You are where you are until you’re not.” The song and the saying are full of grace. No matter who I am or what I am, there is sufficient blood for me. And even if I can’t do something I am called to do (or even don’t want to do something), I’ll be there someday. Those words have sustained me through many valleys.
But a conversation with R lent new dimension to this practice. On the one hand, God knows who I am and has given me space for that. On the other hand, He knows who I will become. Though He can forgive me for not rising to His call, how much He can do in me depends on my cooperation and response.
What do I mean?
Every morning the Lord calls me to spend time with Him, but the gravitational field of my bed is mysteriously ten times stronger than usual before 10 AM. I often think to myself, “Sorry, Lord. I just can’t do it today.” Then I roll over (Prov 26:14) and scroll through my phone notifications and social media until I reach escape velocity. I had only made it through half of the song—“Amen, Lord, I can’t do it anymore.” I had never given the Lord the chance to get to the second half. “Lord, I love You! Do it in me.” Yes, I am where I am until I’m not. But until I acknowledge my own part in the Lord’s doing, I’ll never progress. By overemphasizing the role of God’s grace, I had forfeited the role of man’s cooperation. Verses that had seemed familiar to me had new emphases:
1 Cor 15:10. But by the grace of God I am what I am; and His grace unto me did not turn out to be in vain, but, on the contrary, I labored more abundantly than all of them, yet not I but the grace of God which is with me.
2 Cor 6:1. And working together with Him, we also entreat you not to receive the grace of God in vain;
Phil 4:13. I am able to do all things in Him who empowers me.
James 2:17–18. So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead in itself. But someone will say, You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
Just as Jesus was not merely God nor merely man, but a mysterious mingling of two natures, the responsibility for our daily choices lies not just with God, nor solely with us, but with the mindful mingling of divinity and humanity. The Christian race is equally cheapened by an abdication of self-will and a ascetic self-reliance to fulfill its demands.
From Adam’s first choice until now, God has made His principle clear through the Bible: He is all-powerful, but He chooses to work within the confines of imperfect human vessels. He can raise empires and pulverize regimes alike, but He stays His hand until prayer on the earth matches His will (Rev 8:3–5). He could send a lightning bolt through my window to strike me every morning to consciousness, but instead He waits for me to choose Him of my own free will. He has limited how much He can grow in me to the strength of my character.
Character? You mean like training yourself to be the human equivalent of fat-free Greek yogurt: diligent, frugal, punctual, and humorless? Didn’t Paul count all of that nonsense (his Pharisee education, his career success) as dung? I thought salvation, grace, God coming in to do all things for us and instead of us, annulled the pursuit of character building as a vain, self-seeking activity. This reading helps (from Character, by Witness Lee, ch. 5):
The cross works on us to deal exactly with [what we have]; it breaks us and kills us in order to deal with this very issue. It deals with our own wisdom and overthrows our capable person. Why? Because if our cleverness, wisdom, and ability are not subdued by the Lord, what we do will definitely be of ourselves, not of the Lord. For example, if God had used Moses at age forty to save Israel, his service would have been full of his own ability, cleverness, wisdom, and knowledge. Therefore, God allowed him to run up against a wall. That was the cross breaking his talent, ability, wisdom, and cleverness. He was a prince in the palace and a captain in the army. Yet he was dealt with and became a wanderer and a shepherd in the wilderness. God used all these experiences to break him.
We must see that when we serve in the church and participate in the Lord’s work, we absolutely cannot minister what we have in ourselves. Whenever we mix what we have into the Lord’s service, the cross will come to us. This is very difficult, because God wants us for His work, but He does not want what we have.
Let us look at the other side of this matter. Although the Lord does not want what we have, He wants us to be useful to Him. After much consideration before the Lord, I believe that the matter of being “useful to the master” has much to do with a man’s character. Our talent and ability must not be mixed into the service of the Lord. However, our character can determine whether we are suitable for the Lord’s use. The character of some people is useful to the Lord, but that of others is not. Even though those who serve the Lord must not bring in what they have, their character must be suitable for the Lord’s use. For this reason I have been repeating that to be useful to the Master, we must build up a character that is useful to Him. Brothers and sisters, we bear a tremendous responsibility in this matter.
Suppose there is a brother who sincerely loves the Lord and is not occupied with the world. He has been enlightened, he has seen the Christ of God, and he sees that the purpose of God in this universe is Christ, and that it is to work Christ into men and then to work Christ out from within men. He truly has the revelation of Christ. He also sees that what hinders Christ the most is his self, his flesh, and his natural life, and seeing this, he has fallen down. He has the knowledge of his natural life, which is the revelation of the cross. When you meet this one, you always sense that the Lord is so sweet, so lovely, and so great. However, you see some peculiarity in this brother. For example, if you ask him if he could find time to assist certain brothers who need help, he will answer, “Fine, fine.” But when he goes home, he will soon forget about it. Such a thing actually happened. This brother really loves the Lord, receives mercy, and sees himself and the way of the cross; however, there is something lacking in him that renders him useless to the Master.
I’ve been serving God for almost the last decade in my own way, by what little character I have gleaned through the years, but now I’ve reached an impasse. At some point in my growth, I had internalized the false dichotomy that spiritual pursuit and denial of the flesh (including good intentions) meant that I had to deny the cultivation of my character. I had the incorrect assumption that the growth of Christ in me would eventually swallow up my flaws and turn me into a Spirit-powered superhuman. But now I turn to find my vessel has limited the amount of growth God could have in me; my Christ is root-bound.
Eventually, a genuine seeker and servant of God will be forced to refine and build her character; not for its own sake, not to perfect or strengthen her self, but to progress in the Christian service, to mature instead of stagnate. And what that means—rising early, physical exercise, keeping a schedule, responding to messages immediately, caring for family, cleaning regularly, staying in touch, and not taking grace as an excuse for sin to abound (Rom 6:15)—will be work. Hard work. Unpleasant work. But we have grace for this calling.
Second Kings chapter 4 tells in seven enigmatic verses of a casual miracle. Elisha, a nomadic prophet, came upon a bankrupt widow whose sole possession was a jar of oil. He told her to send her children to borrow containers from everyone in the neighborhood, and to pour that jar of oil to fill every vessel, great or small. One by one, each vessel was filled and set aside. When the woman had filled the vessels, she told a son, “Bring me another vessel.” But he said to her, “There is no other vessel.” And the oil stopped.
The sum of oil amassed in those vessels paid off the widow’s debt and provided enough income to keep that family for life. And yet, if there were more vessels available, that oil would have continued to flow. The oil only stopped because there were no vessels left.
God has an infinite supply to pour into our finite vessels (Rom 9:23). If we fail to increase our capacity (for service, for time with Him, for the other believers), we shortchange God and ourselves. What price could be greater?