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The treasure in earthen vessels - the problem of human imperfection

by Jacob Ninan

We cannot live in this world without forming our own opinions about other people. That is not what Jesus meant when Jesus asked us not to judge others. That kind of judging means to condemn people for their sins or mistakes as if we were God. He is the only One who has the authority to do that (Jas.4:12). It also means looking down on people when we see their faults or weaknesses. This judging begins as a wrong attitude of heart towards others, and may then become words or deeds later on. But Jesus Himself has told us, while warning us not to judge according to how things appear to us, to 'judge righteously' (Jn.7:24). This is to make the right assessment of people or situations. What Jesus is saying here is, of course, that we should not allow ourselves to be influenced merely by what we see and hear, but to keep in mind that there are things about other people or situations that we do not know. It says about Jesus in the Old Testament prophecy that He would not judge by what He saw or heard (Is.11:3). Jesus said about Himself that He judged rightly because He based His judgment on what He heard from the Father (Jn.5:30). We can understand a little more clearly what it means to judge righteously when we see how God judges. He looks at the 'heart' and not at the outward appearance (1Sa.16:7). 'Heart' in this context is another word for our spirit.

We are warned not to be gullible, but to test the spirits to know whether they are from God or not (1Jn.4:1). But we need to do more than that. It is not just a question of determining whether a spirit is from God or the demons. Even when a true prophet speaks in the church, we need to recognise if he is speaking from God or from himself (1Co.14:29). Even when he is speaking on the word of God, there may be a mixture of his own ideas or an unhealthy emphasis of his own viewpoint that comes from his personality or his ministry. We all tend to look at verses in the Bible from the vantage point of our own experience, our temperament and our particular ministry. A 'soft' person tends to tone down what appears to be hard sayings in the Bible and exaggerate the goodness and the mercy of God, while a 'harsh' personality tends to apply God's word in an unmercifully strict way. An evangelist, in his eagerness to win more people to the Lord, tends to ignore or downplay some of the finer aspects of God's commandments and this shocks a teacher who has carefully analysed and understood them. If you think along this line, you can see how all of us have our own special emphasis and pet subjects. When we are trying to understand God's truths we must see if we are trying to fit them into our own special mould or whether we are willing to be moulded into God's image. When we listen to other people or read what they have written, we must see how much of it comes from God and sift out what comes from the people themselves.

We need to have a questioning mentality that does not receive everything at its face value. This is necessary for our own protection and safety. The Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures commended the people of Berea for checking the Scriptures to verify whether what Paul preached to them was right (Acts.17:10,11). That was very good. But what we need now is more than seeing whether people are quoting from the Bible or not. We need to see what kind of spirit they have, and whether they are expressing their own opinion or personal bias. This approach is very much lacking these days when it is especially needed.

Many are too lazy to think for themselves. They are happy for someone else to do their thinking for them and then to receive the final conclusions from them. This mentality is what supports the one-man pastor system where the pastor takes care of all the spiritual matters including searching for the truth, and the congregation is content to be spoon- fed. But spiritual maturity comes by exercising our spiritual senses to understand things for ourselves (He.5:14). Many accept teachings and practices from men because they are quoting from the Bible or doing supernatural things. Many others blindly receive whatever someone says because they admire his Bible knowledge or godly character. They think that to question what a godly man says amounts to pride or a lack of a submissive attitude. Others even think that any kind of thinking on their own is opposed to faith, misquoting Pr.3:5. They think that when they hear a word being preached, their duty is only to believe it. This is, of course, contrary to the exhortation in 1Co.14:29.

The only Man we can accept fully is, of course, Jesus Christ. He never sinned. He always said and did the right thing (Jn.8:29). As far as the rest of us are concerned, we have to admit that the best of us - and most of us are nowhere near the best - are far from being fully like Jesus. The most spiritual people will be the first ones to admit that. The closer they get to Jesus they become more eager to acknowledge that they are so much unlike Christ.

An extreme version of this questioning mentality is when one becomes a scoffer. He does not accept anyone's words or authority. Our safety is to have an attitude of always being willing to learn, recognising that those who are more spiritual and experienced than we are have a better chance to be right than we, and at the same time not swallowing everything without question.

There is another side of the truth which is somewhat opposite of having the questioning attitude which I have mentioned above. I became aware of this after reading books and articles of many Christian leaders, reading biographies, listening to many messages and watching different believers. I came across many faults and flaws in their ideas, words and practices and I could not agree with many things. My initial response was to denounce them in my mind and to write them off. Let me explain this a little more clearly. I am not talking about small differences in the way things are done or expressed. What opened my eyes to see a little more, I believe, of God's large heart of mercy was that many people seemed to have what I would consider as ‘sinful' behaviour or attitudes, or wrong doctrines, and yet they had God's anointing over them in a smaller or greater measure! God was using them, even though it appeared to me as a great puzzle. I knew that if God was supporting them in some way I should not be found to be opposing them. This was how the apostles figured out how their attitude should be when they saw that God had baptised Gentiles in the Holy Spirit (Acts.11:17).

What helped me to see God's merciful heart in this was my own relationship with Him. I know how I am always coming short of God's standards, far more than what other people are able to see of me. I know in theory that others can see in me other faults that I cannot see myself. I know without a doubt that God can see everything about me and that He is extremely patient and merciful to me. He is willing to use this imperfect, unsuitable and not-so-willing tool like me to accomplish some of His purposes. In the process of using me, He is also working on me to make me more perfect, suitable and willing! I understood that this is exactly what He is doing with the others too (Php.2:13).

Now I look at other people in a different way. Maybe there is some imbalance in personality, some warped development, some rough edge, some compromise, some wrong understanding, some wrong approach, some special weakness, some blind spot, etc. Maybe someone has a different ministry and so his emphasis is different from mine. What seems very important to me does not seem to get his attention so much. Maybe there is even some 'sin' which I notice! The main question is, "How is his spirit?" That is what God looks at, as we saw earlier. How much does he love God? Is God his first priority? What is he living for? Is he willing to learn? If his heart is right, God overlooks all his other imperfections and even his sins. This man may be unaware of his sins, or he may be battling them.

Something I love about God's heart is that He always makes allowances for a man's handicaps when He makes His judgment. In the game of billiards there is a practice called giving a handicap. When an experienced player plays a friendly match with a less experienced player, he gives his friend some free points to start with, as a 'handicap.' In the same way, when the Lord judges us, He gives us a special concession for the warped tendencies in our personality we were born with, the difficult background we grew up in, the trauma that we carry from our experiences, etc. Usually people only look at our present position and our accomplishments. If they look at our past it is usually to blame us for the mistakes we have made. But God is so gracious and understanding!

Of course, even when we love God with 'all our heart' it does not mean that our love is perfect in an absolute sense. What we really mean with 'all our heart' is 'as far as we know.' In other words, all of us have large areas of our life where we are doing things which God recognises as being wrong. But He ignores them because we do not know what we are doing (Acts.17:30). We do not realise that what we are doing is wrong.

Wrong understanding of doctrine may be due to one's background or lack of gift. It is not necessarily from a wrong heart. I read about a certain preacher who was criticised for some wrong doctrines. When he heard that, he explained that it was because he had got into an evangelistic ministry before having had time to study doctrine, and he stopped preaching those doctrines. I wish all of us had that honesty and willingness to change.

Sin too has a lot to do with our background and our personality. Some people have a radical conversion when the Lord takes away old desires almost instantaneously. But in the wisdom of God which we may not understand, He does not do this for everyone. It seems that for the large majority of people, victory takes time. To say that if people were really wholehearted their transformation would be quicker is only one side of the story. The other side is that with the background of sin and corruption many people come from it can take time to become wholehearted too.

Also, victory does not come uniformly in all areas. Some people take more time to overcome their anger than their lust, and for some others it is the other way. Some find it very difficult to forgive others, some have a vindictive tendency, some are stubborn, some give in easily, some are conceited, some have no self-respect, some are self-centred, some meddle with other people's affairs, some just blabber on, some hardly talk, etc., and the differences are many. Psychologists say that we all have strong points and that these strong points usually come along with some corresponding weak points.

We all have a great tendency to judge others who are weak in the areas where we are 'strong.' It may even appear to us as a great question how they can still be believers when they are 'like that!' The answer is that we ourselves are only vessels of mercy. We forget at such times that we have corresponding weaknesses where the other people may be strong. They are probably sitting there wondering how we can be 'like this!'

Let us also make a distinction between those whose intentions are good even when they have many flaws, and those who have guile, crookedness or hypocrisy in their spirit. These latter characteristics have something deliberate about them. These are people who are pursuing a secret agenda for themselves fully knowing that their ways include falsehood, deception and scheming.

As we grow spiritually we also may discover that guile, crookedness or hypocrisy have guided some of our actions in the past. But the question is whether we did them deliberately with guile or whether we had not realised at that time that we were behaving like that. It is a part of spiritual growth that we get to see the sinfulness of what we have been doing in the past, repent and give up those sinful ways.

Let us be slow to judge and slow to pass opinions. Let our opinions be soaked in humility and mercy (Jas.2:13). Let us rejoice in the good that we see in the others even though we see some bad things also. There is great insight in the one- liners, "I am under renovation," and "Wait, the Lord has not finished with me yet." We are earthen vessels, not attractive to look at, and fragile. But the Lord has chosen us to place His treasure within. Let us remember that what is of value in us and the others is this treasure and not the earthen vessel.

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