Weakness and Failure in the Christian Life: We Hold This Treasure in Earthen Vessels
The first reading from Monday’s Holy Mass was from St. Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth contains these heartfelt words:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters,proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:1-5)
Paul was quite frank about his limitations and well aware of his weaknesses. In his second letter to the same community of early believers he writes:
For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of (Jesus) Christ.
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death, for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4: 7-15)
I have been reflecting upon my own weakness a lot these days. I have discovered that the older I get the less I know and the more imperfections I discover in myself. As a younger man, I labored under a misconception that living the Christian life would somehow get easier as I figured it all out.
Well, nothing could be further from the truth.
There is, in fact, a reverse reality at work. I am more and more aware of my own weaknesses as I age and have only just begun to understand the honest admission of St. Paul to the young disciple Timothy that he was “the chief among sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). This honest admission of Paul did not reflect some kind of poor self image.
To the contrary, it revealed the mature self awareness and humility of a Christian man who had come to understand why we call God’s redemptive work in our lives amazing grace. Classical Christian theology speaks of the ongoing struggle we will face as we try to live a faithful Christian life. We constantly need a Savior precisely because we are Earthen Vessels.
Yet, the Lord in His infinite mercy and love has made our own weakness and frailties become the path to a deepening relationship with Him. They are the door to our own progress in our baptismal call to holiness. This process of being emptied of self and filled with His life happens by grace. However, that wonderful free gift invites our continual response, our cooperation, with His loving plan.
St. Francis DeSales (1567-1610) was a great pastor of souls. He once wrote in a letter to one of the many who sought his holy counsel, “God wants your misery to be the throne of His mercy. He desires that your powerlessness be the seat of His omnipotence.”
So it is with each one of us. The reality of our frail human nature is that we are weak; the struggles we face in our daily lives do not necessarily lessen as we age. We fall and fail. The Good News is that the Lord is always there, ready to forgive, to heal and to help us to get back up and, with the help of His grace, begin again and again and again.
In another letter to a pilgrim seeking his spiritual counsel, Francis DeSales wrote:
“Be patient with the whole world, but, above all with yourself. I want to tell you not to lose your serenity because of your imperfections, and always to have the zest to raise yourself up. It gives me joy to see each day you begin again. There is no better way to finish life well than to return to the starting point always and not ever to think that we have done enough.
This is sage advice for all of who are coming to understand the truth that we hold this treasure of God’s life within us, in earthen vessels.
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