God uses emptied vessels. Not empty vessels in the proverbial sense, but emptied vessels.
Emptied vessels are those people who have been emptied of their selves. Their pride and ego have been hollowed out through adverse circumstances, which God has either allowed or designed. Nothing is left in them except for the humble awareness that they live by the grace of God and that they are fully dependent on Him. Such people are useful to God.
The apostle, Paul, is such a man.
Paul understands the emptied-vessel principle. Paul views himself as an emptied jar of clay, unimpressive and unappealing, but filled with the surpassing power of God - God’s power; not his (2 Corinthians 4:7). Read his letters and you would quickly realise that Paul has a somewhat upside-down understanding and perspective of power. He made this paradoxical remark to the Corinthian believers: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians12:10).
Paul learned this fascinating lesson the hard way. He suffered from a thorn in the flesh. We do not know what it is exactly except that it is “a messenger of Satan,” which was sent to harass him. He prayed to God three times to remove this thorn in the flesh, but God would not accede to his request. Instead, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul understood from this incident that the thorn was given to keep him from becoming conceited because God had given him many great revelations (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).
Paul is acquainted with suffering. His life after coming to Christ is a series of never-ending series of trials. He experienced troubles continually for the sake of the gospel. I cringe just by reading his horrendous experiences – persecution, afflictions, hardships, calamities, beaten with rods, whippings, imprisonments, riots, hunger sleepless nights, shipwrecked, falsely accused (2 Corinthians 6:4-10). His endurance was repeatedly tested and stretched beyond his limit. God sustained Paul with His grace.
In the Jewish context, Paul’s past was a combination of impeccable pedigree and stellar credentials. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews hailed from the tribe of Benjamin. Trained under the famous rabbi, Gamaliel, Paul made it to the ranks of a Pharisee at a relatively young age. He was a model Jewish rabbi. With regard to the Law, he was blameless. As for religious zeal, it was unmatched though misplaced. Paul was certainly proud of himself and his achievements.
However, all his credentials and accomplishments mean nothing to God. God cannot use a man who is full of himself. Through his sufferings and afflictions, God emptied Paul of himself – his pride and ego – and kept him humble. Even the great apostle, Paul, needed doses of suffering to keep him humble. It does well for us to understand that when God wants to use a man mightily, He would first strip the person of himself. Only an emptied vessel is useful to God because God’s power is – can only be - made perfect in our weakness. When we are weak, then we are strong. That’s the irony of faith. When we feel weak, we trust God the most. That is when God’s power can work in and through our lives.
In his book, Born Again, Charles Colson shared how he learned this lesson. Colson was a brilliant young lawyer who at the age of 38, reached the pinnacle of political power. He was the Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon and an influential member of the President’s inner circle. He was the President’s ‘hatchet’ man – the problem-solver. At one point in his book, he called President Nixon the pretender to the throne and he the kingmaker.
But because of the Watergate scandal, he was implicated and imprisoned. Overnight, he was stripped of everything. He lost his job, prestige, power, status, lawyer’s licence, freedom and in his words, even his own identity.
Soon afterward, he came to know Christ. After his release from prison, Colson founded the Prison Fellowship in 1976. Three years later, Prison Fellowship International was formed. Now, Prison Fellowship is the largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families in the United States of America. It is also operating in more than 120 countries. It is the largest and most extensive Christian ministry working in the criminal justice field and proclaiming the gospel.
In his book, Colson wrote: But all at once I realized that it was not my success God had used to enable me to help those in this prison, or in hundreds of others just like it. My life of success was not what made this morning so glorious - all my achievements meant nothing in God's economy… No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure - that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation - being sent to prison - was the beginning of God's greatest use of my life; He chose the one thing in which I could not glory for His glory.
Colson sounded like Paul. Indeed, God could not have used Charles Colson until Colson was emptied of himself. Only then could God use this brilliant man for His good purpose. Many lives have been impacted by this man and Prison Fellowship.
God works in paradoxical ways. Like Paul, Colson’s loss turned out to be his gain and a tremendous blessing to millions of broken people and families worldwide.
Pastors Leslie & Adeline Chua