by Tamie Davis
One of the hardest things for me about Bible college was discovering that I was good at it. I won awards, and was publicly recognised. Far from being an achievement to be celebrated, this made me intensely uncomfortable.
Part of that is cultural. In Australia, we have this thing called ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’. We value egalitarianism, and so we cut down those who are successful. High achievers learn to cover their tracks as a means of self-protection.
But it was also theological: Was accepting the award allowing myself to be recognised, rather than insisting that any competence comes from God (2 Cor 3:5-6)? If God’s power is made perfect in weakness, what does that mean if you have strong skills?
It was also missiological: I began to look forward to working cross-culturally, where I would be incompetent and a baby, so that I could show that God’s all-surpassing power doesn’t come from me (2 Cor 4:7).
And yet, I had plans to work hard at language study, and to throw myself into understanding culture at a really deep level. Would this be a liability? I wondered. What happens when you get some competence in the culture you’re working in? When you start being able to communicate, when you actually know what the unsaid expectations are? Are you then relying on God less, or showing his power less? Are our latter years of cross-cultural ministry somehow less glorious than our early ones because we know what we’re doing a bit more, or do we simply expect to continue to be incompetent?
In order to answer my questions, I embarked upon a study of 2 Corinthians. The first surprise for me was learning that Paul – the same one arguing for weakness – actually wrote 2 Corinthians using very convincing persuasive skills. His rhetoric in 2 Corinthians is not the highest form of argumentation available in the Greco-Roman world, but it’s getting up there. At the very least, it’s far from incompetent. I started thinking that perhaps the ‘weakness’ which showcases God’s power wasn’t about having inadequate abilities.
I had always assumed the jar of clay image in 2 Corinthians 4 to be about weakness or disposability. After all, in the verses that come after, Paul highlights his own fragility. However, to the Corinthian mind, this is not the most natural reading. Corinth was known for its bronze industry and, in particular, the ornamentation of vessels ranging from trays to vases to mixing bowls. Corinth was known for its superior work craft that was pleasing to the eye and made with rare material. Both clay and bronze jars were practical and adequate vessels for storage, but the Corinthians took great pride in their splendid bronze jars. To the Corinthian mind, then, the notion of a plain, common clay jar is much more likely to be perceived in terms of its un-impressiveness than its fragility. Paul’s point is not that jars of clay are breakable rather than durable, but that they are plain rather than ornate. The image here is one of status, not practicality or usefulness. It is its humility which emphasises the glory of what it contains.
Even the list of his hardships (2 Cor 11:23-30) is a picture of Paul’s wretchedness when viewed by worldly standards, designed to lower him in the eyes of his listeners, as he carries around the death of Christ in the body. Beatings were shameful. Perhaps even as shameful as admitting to being illiterate in today’s world. Neither beatings nor illiteracy make you an inadequate minister of the gospel, but they sure do decrease people’s opinion of you, depending on which century or culture you live in. For Paul, these are his ‘weakness’, the things that lower his status in the eyes of others.
So what then for the high achieving Bible college student, or the experienced, knowledgeable missionary? How might we pursue this kind of status? Another story from Australia has been instructive for me.
Arthur Stace was barely literate and worked in menial jobs his entire life after being born into poverty, and living half his life in drunkenness and crime. During the Great Depression, at age 45, he walked into a church to sit through a sermon so he could get a free meal at the end. There he gave his life to Jesus. Two years later, in a different church, he heard a sermon where the preacher cried, “Eternity, Eternity, I wish that I could sound or shout that word to everyone in the streets of Sydney.” Stace took the preacher literally, and for the next 35 years, he would rise early each day and spend several hours chalking the word ‘Eternity’ on Sydney’s streets.
The response was electrifying: Who was this anonymous artist? What was the meaning of the word? Why was it written in such an ephemeral medium as chalk? Countless discussions about eternity were started, and when Stace’s identity, background and story of redemption became known in 1956 (after 25 years of chalking the word!), his place in Australian history was cemented. During the New Year’s celebrations of the year 2000, Eternity was written in lights for the fireworks on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The man whose preaching originally converted Stace was Robert Hammond, one of the most respected Australian Christians on the 20th century. From a wealthy family, well-educated, a football star, and an ordained Anglican minister, he was everything Arthur Stace wasn’t. The preacher who spurred Stace to start chalking ‘Eternity’ was John Ridley, a military cross winner and war hero, a far cry from the weak Stace who had been medically discharged from the army for a weak chest.
These men are far more like myself than Arthur Stace if I am honest. We are educated, wealthy, privileged, respected. Of course, before God we are all lowly, but in worldly terms, we are the people of high status. If we are jars of clay, it is not immediately apparent how. Now, God uses such people: he used them to convert Arthur Stace, and to propel him into ministry. Yet, it has been observed time and again in Australia that though these men preached eloquently to hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, Arthur Stace’s one word was seen by millions, and created a stir like no other. Here is an example of God using the one of low status: uneducated, poor, low-born Arthur Stace.
If we are the Robert Hammonds and the John Ridleys of this world – educated, wealthy, privileged, respected – the question for us is whether we will look for, recognise and support God’s work through the Arthur Staces of the world.
Hammond and Stace’s story continues after Stace’s conversion. Hammond also provided him with employment and housing. Yet, Hammond never considered Stace in his own debt, or himself as benefactor. Hammond had the opportunity to meet some of the most powerful men in Sydney at that time, but he considered supporting Stace one of the great honours of his life. To speak of himself as in the service of Stace was far below his status in worldly terms — but then, Hammond could see the treasure in the jar of clay.
For those of us who are high achievers, like the apostle Paul, like Hammond, the question is how we will leverage our skills and privilege for the sake of others. If we have brilliant insights into culture, how will we use these to point away from ourselves? And if we have excellent ability with language, how will we use this to shout far and wide of the wonders God is doing through those who might otherwise be despised?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie who lives with her husband and two sons in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They partner with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students and blog at meetjesusatuni.com.