Jars of Clay

The first chapter of Martinez, Take Care of Yourself: Survive and Thrive in Christian Ministry, Hendrickson, 2018, reproduced with permission of the author. If you find this resource helpful and would like to purchase the whole book, you can do so here.
Photo by Jan Padilla on Unsplash

‘All the unhappiness of men comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to be at rest in a room.’ Pascal [1]

‘They made me keeper of the vineyards; but my own vineyard I have not kept!’ Song of Songs 1:6b, RSV

Some people never think of others; that is the paradigm of a selfish person. Others, on the other hand, never think of themselves and become the paradigm of a fatigued person with a restless life. Neither of these two ways of living pleases God, even though the latter may sound more ‘spiritual.’

When Robert Murray McCheyne, a young Scottish minister, lay dying at the age of twenty-nine, he turned to a friend and said: ‘God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.’ What a graphic picture of spiritual passion turned to overexertion.

Billy Graham was once asked, ‘What would you change if you could start your life again?’ He replied: ‘I would preach only once a day.’ The words of this respected man of God echo a profound and most important principle: a fruitful ministry is not the same as a full ministry packed with activities and unceasing action.

After many years of counselling Christian workers about the danger of exhaustion and about its prevention, I have come to a conclusion similar to Billy Graham’s: the problem is not working too much, but resting (renewing) too little. The purpose of this book is not to make you work less but to help you rest more and renew yourself better.

We are not human doings but human beings

Many times we neglect the care of our ‘vineyard’ because we want to deny God’s original design for us: he made us human beings, not human doings. Our identity and value before God come primarily from who we are , not from what we do . This divine design includes a balance between working and resting, giving and receiving. If this balance is broken, there is a danger that, like the writer of the Song of Songs, we will neglect our own vineyard while we are caring for the vineyards of others.

Caring for our own life means guarding our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. According to the Bible, this is not only a right but a duty; it is part of good stewardship to care for ourselves. To put it in other words, in the same way that we have a ministry, we also need a ‘monastery,’ a place and time to rest, to be still and to refresh our whole person. Our public ministry will be greatly enhanced if we learn to spend time in our private ‘monastery.’

Caring for Your Own Vineyard: Waste of Time or Wise Investment?

Why is caring for your own vineyard not only a right but a duty? In a selfish society where ‘feeling good’ and ‘being happy’ are idols worshipped by many people, this might sound like self-centredness.

God has a lot to say on the care of ourselves. We need to regain the divine wisdom on this issue and escape the hedonism that entangles our world today. God created work, but he also created rest. There is indeed a biblical teaching—a theology—on work and leisure.

The biblical description of human beings—biblical anthropology—explains who we are and, particularly, how we are—our condition—after the multiple fractures caused by the Fall. From this reality we can outline three reasons why we should take care of ourselves.

  • Because it is God’s will for us: We were created in his image, so this is related to God’s original design. God included rest in his creation, and he commanded rest. Caring for ourselves is therefore an expression of obedience.
  • Because of our fragility: We are jars of clay, not of iron. Caring for ourselves is related to our human condition. It is an expression of humility—of dependence on God’s grace.
  • Because it is part of good stewardship: We are temples of the Holy Spirit, so caring for ourselves is part of our responsibility and is an expression of maturity.

In summary, the practice of rest and the care of yourself, far from being a selfish act, is an exercise of godliness and an expression of holiness.

The consequences of not keeping your own vineyard can be harmful, even disastrous. They affect other people besides yourself, especially your loved ones, and also your work (1 Timothy 5:4,8). So neglect of ourselves, far from being a sign of a spiritual attitude, can be a serious mistake and even a sin. Paul urged Timothy to learn this principle when he was still young, in his learning years. His warning ‘take care of yourself’ (see 1 Timothy 4:16) contains one of the keys in Christian work. Notice the order: first the person has to be all right, and then comes the work (the teaching). If the person is not all right, the quality of the work will be affected. A healthy minister is likely to have a healthy and fruitful ministry.

It is noteworthy that Paul approaches this issue with exquisite balance. His advice to Timothy is immediately preceded by an exhortation to effort and consecration: ‘Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress’ (4:15). A clear appeal to a consecrated life is followed by an equally clear call to ‘take care of yourself’ (see v. 16). How much we need the same balance in our lives!

Thank God for leisure times!

It may surprise you, but some Christian workers feel guilty when they rest. They have a mistaken concept of leisure and they wrongly believe that God wants them to be doing something all the time (they are ‘human doings’!). It is important to remember that leisure and laziness are very different things. [2] Laziness is wrong because it is a waste of time; leisure, [3] on the other hand, can be a wise way to invest your time. In laziness you do nothing; in rest you are actively engaged in renewing yourself, restoring your physical, emotional and spiritual energy. By so doing you are obeying God, renewing your dependency on his grace, and acting as a good steward of your time and your life.

‘Jars of Clay’

‘ But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.’ (2 Corinthians 4:7)

We are jars of clay, not jars of iron or broken jars! The Christian worker must be aware of the glorious nature of the ministry—‘that treasure’—but also of the fragile nature of the minister. We need to start here, knowing our natural condition. This will deliver us from making life mistakes, errors that affect our life profoundly. Notice that the two extremes are equally wrong: we are not jars of iron, all powerful and never failing individuals; but God does not want us to be broken jars either. Thus, we have to be careful with our fantasies of omnipotence, and we should not praise exhaustion per se as an expression of zeal and commitment.

Fragility has a purpose

What is the benefit of our being ‘jars of clay’? Clay is a fragile material. It gets broken easily. Our fragility makes us depend fully on the divine supply of grace and strength every day, ‘to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us’ (2 Corinthians 4:7).

In this sense, our limitations and our fragility are to our soul what tiredness, hunger and thirst are to our bodies. They are warning signs that urge us to seek a daily renewal of God’s provision. It is through our fragility—and not in spite of it—that God fulfils his purposes for our lives and ministries.

Handle with care

We need a clear sense that we are jars of clay if we are to start caring for ourselves. If we don’t grasp this, we will not see the need. We must handle a fragile object with care because it is easily broken. It is the same with our lives. Because God made us ‘jars of clay,’ we are to handle ourselves carefully. I am firmly convinced that our Master does not want his servants to be broken jars. Far from it—God has always intended to protect our fragile vessels from dangers that could spoil them.

As a medical doctor I am fascinated by the Ten Commandments, a superb programme of social, spiritual and personal health. If you study each of the commandments thoroughly, you will discover their unsurpassed preventive (prophylactic) value. Their purpose was to preserve and to promote a good quality of life at all levels. Through the Ten Commandments, God is sending us a clear three-fold message: take care of your relationship with God, take care of relationships with your neighbours, and take care of yourself.

God wants to accomplish his purposes through fragile, even weak servants—jars of clay—but not through burned-out, exhausted servants—broken jars. These broken vessels are in need of prompt repair because the divine design is for us to be healthy and whole, not broken into pieces.

On the other hand, workers who view themselves as iron jars overvalue their capacity and undervalue their limitations. This will lead to problems with boasting and self-sufficiency, the temptation Paul had to face. ‘In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12:6–7). Awareness of our limitations greatly helps us to set limits in our life programme.

We have looked at our condition, what we are like. Let us now consider another clue in the care of ourselves: the sort of life God wants us to live.

‘Make It Your Ambition to Lead a Quiet Life’

At first sight, this is a surprising statement. Even more surprising is the context in which Paul places it; namely, the kind of life that pleases God: ‘As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more’ (1 Thessalonians 4:1). It sounds like an important appeal. By the end of the section, verse 11, he adds: ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.’ Therefore a quiet life is part of holy living. It is not only good for ourselves, but it pleases God.

What is a quiet life? Let Paul himself answer this question on the basis of his own testimony. In his second letter to the Corinthians, the most autobiographical of all the epistles, Paul opens his heart and makes some personal confessions that are very helpful to us.

A quiet life is not a life without problems. ‘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 . . .’ (2 Corinthians 6:4–5). Paul is realistic. Christian ministry is not a holiday experience but tough work! Paul does not hide the cost of discipleship. Our salvation is free, but there are no bargains in discipleship. Following Christ has a cost.

A quiet life is not a life without stress. ‘Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches’ (2 Corinthians 11:28). Pressure and concern could be also rendered as worry and anxiety. The modern word that best defines this pair of emotions is stress . The conclusion is clear: troubles and stress are inevitable for any Christian worker who takes their calling seriously. [4] There is no blessing without sacrifice. Dangers, toils and tribulation are a frequent companion in Christian service.

Our goal as servants of God is not to live a life free of trouble or pressures. This is not a biblical idea and it is not realistic either. The goal is to avoid permanent stress. Occasional stress is like an ally that helps us overcome difficulties and troubles; permanent stress is an enemy that drains our energy and causes dryness in our vineyard. To live under permanent stress cannot be pleasing to God, who established different sorts of rest in his creation (see chapter two). Permanent stress is an enemy to be defeated, a signal that something is going wrong in our life and needs to be corrected.

A quiet life is a life without turbulence. Remarkably, the Greek word rendered as ‘lead a quiet life’ literally means ‘without turbulence.’ It conveys the idea of silence (it was used for the quietness of the night), peace, rest and even leisure. It implies being still, exactly the opposite of stress. A quiet life reflects the deep peace and rest that come from God’s presence with us.

Exhaustion does not make us more holy. In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 we discover an important principle on giving (offering) and self-giving: generosity is not measured by the total quantity you give but by your attitude and purpose. The churches in Macedonia ‘welled up in rich generosity. . . . Entirely on their own . . . They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us’ (8:2,4,5). Paul is impressed by—and praises—primarily the spirit behind their self-giving.

Great zeal for the Lord does not mean great stress for you!

We tend to believe that the more we give ourselves—quantity of time, energy, etc—the more holy we are. But quantity per se does not make you more spiritual. A generous self-giving ministry does not imply a masochist spirit that leads you to exhaustion. It cannot be God’s will for his servants to jeopardize their health or their family life. Generosity in God’s service is not at odds with order and balance, two features that God stamped as a seal on his creation and on his creatures. Notice that ‘order’ (cosmos) is one of the hallmarks of God’s world. Order and balance, therefore, should be a hallmark of God’s servants too.

A quiet life is a life of glorious paradoxes

This quiet life is not incompatible with the cost of discipleship. Paul would never have advised the Thessalonians or Timothy so earnestly on this line if he believed it was utopia. The apostle was a deep thinker, but he also had a practical pastoral heart.

The coexistence of a quiet life with the troubles of Christian ministry is better understood through a passage like 2 Corinthians 4:8–9: ‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.’ Notice this text follows straight after the statement that we are ‘jars of clay.’ A parallel text is 2 Corinthians 6:9–10: ‘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.’

These glorious paradoxes reveal to us that the secret of a quiet life does not depend on the absence of problems but on the presence of Christ with us through all these troubles. God’s mercy and comfort in Christ make it possible for us to live a quiet life in the midst of any storm. This is what Paul describes in the first chapter: ‘Praise be to the God . . . who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God’ (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). We cannot avoid the storms in Christian ministry, but we can indeed avoid the turbulence of these storms.

A ‘Minor’ Issue with Major Consequences

‘As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.’ (Ecclesiastes 10:1)

You may think neglecting your vineyard is a minor issue in your life, or that you have much more important things to do than caring for yourself, so you keep postponing any action related to it. Beware! The small enemy may become the greatest enemy. Small does not mean unimportant.

The wisdom of the Bible warns us that in the same way a bottle of perfume can be spoiled by a dead fly, ‘a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.’ Neglecting your vineyard may seem like a ‘little folly’ to you, but it can bring forth major consequences.

Nature, an endless source of practical lessons, confirms the wisdom of the biblical advice. Did you know that the tiny mosquito is responsible for killing more human beings per year than wars or homicides? A small bug, apparently insignificant, is more dangerous than the fearsome wild beasts. Be careful with the ‘mosquitoes’ of the Christian life! The devil is a specialist in taking advantage of our weak points. Even when we feel strong, or precisely because we feel strong, we are reminded: ‘So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’ (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Caring for your own vineyard is not a minor issue. Your own life, the wellbeing of your family and the quality of your ministry are at stake. God wants his servants to be good guards of their own vineyards because that is one of the secrets of a fruitful and blessed ministry.


[1] . Blaise Pascal, Pensees , ed. Michel Le Guern, Folio classique (Paris: Gallimard, 1977), fragment 126, 118. French original: ‘Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne pas savoir demeurer en repos dans une chambre.’
[2] . For a further study on the subject, see Leland Ryken, Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987).
[3] . Leisure —from the Latin licere, to be allowed—is the time at one’s disposal, free time, a time that is not under obligation or duty.
[4] . For more on this, see experienced missionary psychiatrist Marjory F Foyle, Honourably Wounded: Stress among Christian Workers (London: Monarch Books, 2001).