After 35 years away from the college scene, I found myself back in a classroom in a creative writing class. Based on my brother-in-law’s experience as a college professor, I assumed I was as good a writer as the rest of them—or hopefully even better. I looked around at my classmates that first day wondering who they were, and as days turned into weeks I soon found out. Although Alisha’s piercing stood out in her round face and I smelled the smoke of a smoldering fire in her breast whenever she talked about her parents, her writing talents had won her a place as a contributor to the school’s prestigious newspaper. Quiet, red-headed Betsy was an art major who wrote great poetry about her photography. Even David the dental student was an excellent writer. Observing these talented students, my hopes of being their equal melted as quickly as butter in a hot iron skillet, and I decided it was wiser to follow that old adage to keep my mouth shut and be thought smart than to open it and remove all doubt. Happily, during that first month of class my scheme worked and I was able to maintain my facade.
But that soon came to an end. One day the teacher called the entire class out to the lawn to contemplate a water fountain gracing the campus landscape. Delicate arcs of water sprayed from nozzles into a shallow pool and our assignment was to write inspired lines of poetry while looking at the fountain. I stared blankly at the water, trying to think up a clever simile that would impress my colleagues. I imagined the arc of water as prancing horses, maybe a lady’s full, white petticoat, or even a contortionist. Our time was up all too quickly and the teacher called us to sit in a large circle on the grass so each student could read his or her poem to the class. I felt a twinge of panic.
The first person read his four lines using beautiful prose. Strange, I thought, his lines didn’t rhyme. The second student’s didn’t either, nor the third. Like the first rays of light stealing over the mountains, it slowly dawned on me that these students were on a different level than I was. I’d always thought poetry needed to rhyme, but now my rhyming lines appeared somehow amateur and childish. I felt embarrassed just thinking about how they would sound to their “professional” ears. Betsy compared the fountain to a baker scattering flour, and I gasped inwardly when Becky said the fountain was like an orgasm. As my turn got closer and closer, I saw the destruction of my facade approaching like an army tank advancing in slow motion toward its victim. Blood rushed to my face; my heart beat accelerated. Somehow, a fifty-six-year-old missionary seemed terribly out of place in the midst of these incredibly creative young people. Then it was my turn. Slowly, I opened my mouth, and each syllable uttered into that warm, autumn air sounded more like a death rattle than beautiful poetry. Like Adam and Eve after the fall, I had been found out. I felt naked and ashamed.
Throughout that semester, I struggled to write to the best of my ability, but the teacher handed out complements like a miser giving money to a beggar, and I concluded I was just “average”—not the stunning writer I tried to be.
Feelings of inadequacy…who wants them? How many times have I stood before a crowd of people to sing or speak feeling inept and unqualified and praying desperately for God’s help? How many times have you felt inadequate in roles you were asked to fill? Is it just human nature or are these feelings of inadequacy another manifestation of prideful competition? Is there something to learn in these situations? In the past I may not have recognized it, but I am beginning to understand that God is somehow, in these agonizing moments, using these feelings of inadequacy to drive me to lean on his strength.
I’m thankful for the Apostle Paul. After giving a recital of his accomplishments to the Corinthian church, he tells them he was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him from getting proud. (Does that make a light go on?) After pleading with God to take it away and being refused, he proclaims, “Now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may work through me…I am quite content with my weaknesses…for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9b-10).
God used a thorn in his flesh to give Paul a crystal clear picture of himself: a weak, inadequate Paul, who by insisting on doing things in his own strength, could actually block the divine power from flowing through him. Paul needed a “reality check”—just like we do.
Is God the one sending us these feelings of inadequacy then? Not necessarily. Not all feelings of inadequacy are part of a divine scheme. A general feeling of inferiority is not God-sent and is often a result of wrong thinking patterns. False humility, refusal to recognize personal abilities or putting oneself down to look humble, is also of human origin.
We also need to differentiate between unpreparedness and inadequacy. If we are asked to teach a class, but don’t prepare, we may feel inadequate and rightly so, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s about responding to what we feel God is asking us to do—be it in our secular job or in a ministry at church: teach a class, preach, sing, counsel, lead a group of people or pray— and in spite of preparing for the task, we still feel inadequate.
Moses is a great example. In his early phase, he oozed self-confidence as he strutted around the country in his royal garb, a well-prepared man who had probably graduated from the best schools, who certainly lived in the best house in Egypt and had the richest, adopted father in the country. Moses was “The Man of the Year!” He was so self-confident that one day as he was visiting the Hebrew slaves, he felt justified in killing an Egyptian man!
Fast-forward forty years. God and Moses are having a conversation and God has just finished asking Moses to return to Egypt to deliver his people. And Moses says, “Who am I to appear before Pharaoh? How can you expect me to lead the Israelites out of Egypt? Look, they won’t believe me!” Moses incites God’s anger when he says, “I’m just not a good speaker. I never have been, and I’m not now…Please, send someone else.”
Does that sound like the same Moses?
I don’t think anyone likes to feel weak or inadequate. Self-confidence and capability suit us so much better. Yet, God couldn’t use Moses until his unhealthy, self-confidence was broken and he saw himself as he truly was: weak and inadequate for the divinely-appointed task.
So, in living the quotidian life, how should I change my perspective from excessive self-confidence to a healthy dependence on God, without falling into an unhealthy inferiority complex or passivity trap? Strange as it may seem, the word ‘clay’ may be the clue to our finding the answer.
1. Clay is commonplace. It is probably one of the oldest and cheapest materials accessible to man since creation. The Bible compares us to clay through the prophet Isaiah: “We are the clay; you [Lord] are the potter…” (Isa. 64:8) We’re pretty common stuff which may be why we might feel at times like the cartoon character, “Where’s Waldo?” Do I matter in the midst of more than six billion people? The answer is an emphatic YES. If we didn’t matter to God, He would never have died to redeem us.
2. Clay is useful. From Bible times until the present, clay continues to be used even though modern technology has presented us with plastics, stainless steel and other superior materials. Around the world clay pots continue to hold gallons of water and clay bricks shelter a large chunk of humanity. God desires to use us and will use us if we own up to our ‘clayness’—our weakness. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find this place of weakness more comfortable than I thought it would be. It’s so much better to be my real self than posing as Miss Self-Sufficiency.
3. Clay is fragil. Even a child can smash a clay jar or break a single brick, yet when supported by cement and steel its fragility can be transformed into strong, high-rise apartment buildings. We, too, can be useful though fragil. We don’t have to put on the bold face—the big talk. God wants us to be ourselves. Many times I've prayed that prayer, “Lord, help me. I don’t think I can do this.” And then he comes and fills my clay vessel with his own presence and power. I have a hunch this is the true meaning of humility, not, as it is sometimes portrayed, as a poor or illiterate person. Humility is taking off the mask and the costume and allowing others to see the “real” me.
4. The value of a clay vessel is in what it contains. Would you rather have a clay pot filled with a thousand gold coins or a silver pot filled with dirt? Paul exults in our weakness, “But this precious treasure—this light and power that now shine within us—is held in perishable containers, that is, in our weak bodies.” (2 Cor. 4: 7) When we are willing to be seen as clay—inadequate, incapable or even less intelligent than we feel we are—yielded to the potter’s will—the light and power of Christ can shine forth… “So everyone can see that our glorious power is from God and is not our own.” (There’s no room for pride to grow here.)
Jesus is always the perfect example. “Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing” (Phil.2.6-7a). The word ‘nothing’ rings of inadequacy and weakness, doesn’t it? Jesus chose to minister from a place of weakness, not strength. He, the omniscient, all-knowing God, chose to depend solely on the revelation of the Holy Spirit when he walked this earth. He, the omnipotent, all-powerful God, chose to become the helpless prisoner of Roman soldiers. He, the omnipresent, ever-present God, chose to constrain himself to the limitations of the human body.
God calls us to be ‘nothing’ as well. He calls us to minister from our weakness, not our strength, from a place of dependence, not independence. He is calling us to be nothing—so he can be everything.
This, then, is how we should respond when God asks us to minister: Instead of fleeing situations that make us feel weak and inadequate, we embrace them as opportunities to trust God to use us in spite of ourselves. Then, as if on cue, the miracle begins.