The words are beautiful and inspiring, poetic and memorable. From the very first Bible I owned, I underlined them:

“…We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” 2 Corinthians 4:7-12

Perhaps you’ve read them, too, or drawn comfort from them.

Imagine my surprise years later when I realized these words were not meant for my personal comfort. Paul was talking about himself and his fellow-apostle, Timothy. Nor was he trying to inspire the Corinthians, he was trying to defend his ministry. The church he planted in Corinth—the result of 18 months of concentrated ministry—had turned away from him in favor of stronger, better-looking, smoother-talking, flashier “apostles.” Paul was yesterday’s news in the fast-moving urban center of Corinth, and he didn’t fit the mold of a great leader. Paul was short, balding, scarred, and perhaps nearly blind. Plus, he had left town—what did they owe him?

Now, writing in 2 Corinthians, Paul defends his calling and actions as an Apostle, and he does so for the first six chapters of the letter. Try reading those six chapters with this in mind: Paul defends his “authority” by sharing the extent of his suffering. Paul had no website, no book deal, no video crew. His suffering was his business card. Listen:

“…as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” 2 Corinthians 6:4-10

I count 16 qualifications for this man of God. Each one involves taking the low road, the sacrificial road, the humble road. How many do you see?

My personal lesson was seeing the words of Jesus worked out in Paul’s exemplary life. Jesus said,

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10: 42-45

Our brother Paul lived these words to the full. It’s a fullness to which I aspire.

Let’s not be too quick to appropriate Bible verses for our personal use. The passages of soaring beauty have been purchased at great cost, let’s not buy them second-hand and wear them cheap. The scriptures are filled with comfort and encouragement, and some of that encouragement is to embrace the hard way. I’ll continue to be inspired by the jars-of-clay, but for entirely different reasons. Will you walk the path with Paul?

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