The Earthen Jar By Isobel Kuhn

May 28, 2012 - 19 minutes read

[In her book, Ascent to the Tribes, veteran missionary Isobel Kuhn describes five “drumbeats” that symbolize essential principles for spiritual growth and fruitful ministry.]

“Living in such unhandy primitive quarters, don’t your earthen vessels ever jar each other?” “What about personality rubs?”

There is no easy cure-all answer. We would say with Paul, “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended … but I follow after.” My answer, then, would not be as to what we have apprehended, but as to what we are following; in other words, the drumbeat we march to in this very vital matter. Sometimes a soldier gets out of step with his drumbeat;that is possible in the spiritual realm also. But the drumbeat–or, in plain language, the idea–is important. In the words of Andrea del Sarto,

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a Heaven for?”

It is possible to stop reaching. Woe betide the missionary who has sunk into contentment with what he has been able to grasp! It is the reaching that sends the juices into flabby spiritual muscles. Dr. J. H. Jowett says, “Our visions always determine the quality of our tasks. Our visions are our dyes–quietly, ceaselessly pressing against the plastic material of the lives for which we labour. Our visions of the possibilities help to shape our actualities. They pull us back up after a fall. They refuse to let us be content with anything inferior. When we are sinking into the rut of ordinary living, our ideal is like a hand that catches us, but the chin tilts our face upwards again.

Our first drumbeat, then, is 2 Corinthians 4:7, “I am keeping this jewel in an earthen jar, to prove that its surpassing power is God’s, not mine” (Williams). We have a precious jewel to share with others, but we carry it in only an earthen jar. Our friends at home, who send us off to foreign shores with adulati on and tears over our sacrifice, throw us out of step with this drumbeat. They are apt to give us the idea our particular jar is a vase; less of earth and more porcelain, you understand. Then the Lord has the unpleasant task of getting us back into step with his drumbeat.

Before I went to China I had a girl friend who was a counsellor with me at a Bible conference. She came from a family of millionaires, but she gave up all that easy life to be God’s missionary to the Chinese. I sailed before she did, and it was sixteen years before we met again. In talking over our missionary experiences I have never forgotten a quiet word she dropped. “The first few years of my service,” she said, “the Lord had to spend in bringing me to an end of myself.” I gasped, dumbfounded. I had not told her, but that is what I would have said about my first years in China too! But I had not given up what she had.

Before we can show off our jewel, we must thoroughly learn that we ourselves are bu t earthen jars. And our fellow missionaries must be patient with us while we are learning. Anyone who comes to the field with even a subconscious idea that he or she is someone special is due for a crucifixion experience. That one will not be useful to the Lord until he receives it. The senior worker may see the need of some such humbling, but he has no right to give it; our Lord alone is fit to assign to each his own particular clarifying of vision, his crucifixion of self-life. But everybody gets involved, unfortunately, when such a lesson is needed. This brings us to our second drumbeat.

“Bear the burden of one another’s failings” (Galatians 6:2, Knox). Or, as someone calls it, the ministry of bearing is our second drumbeat. Our mission is interdenominational and international; within those two words alone lie many possibilities of difference and resultant anger. A willingness to yield in non-essentials is necessary to maintain unity. A refusal to be taken up wit h the puny pricks is another. One of our dear old CIM [China Inland Mission] saints had a little word that has often helped me. When someone has done something irritating or disappointing, she would say, “Oh, let’s press on! Press on!” Refuse to be taken up with the petty and small. We have great issues at stake; let them have our undivided attention and strength.[1] That will mean the bearing the burden of another’s failings–forgiving and forgetting in order to press on to the important.

When a missionary is going through a crucifixion experience, it will be a burden to have to live with him; he may be forgetful, morose and irritable–and always critical. He may even write to the friends in the homeland criticizing the work on the field. That is the hardest to take of all.

I have never forgotten the lesson my husband taught me in a matter like this, many years ago. We had such a case, and the letter to the homeland folk was pungent because the writer had a natural gift for writing! I was all for sitting down and putting our side on paper too, especially to certain friends whom we deeply valued. But John refused to let me write. Then he said a potent word, which has also become a drumbeat down the years. It was this: “Don’t vindicate yourself or the Christians. Trust the friends at home to have wisdom enough to discern this matter. They are not fools.” I did not believe he could be right, but he was.

Some months passed before we heard from the homeland about that thing, because in those days airmail was not much used; then one day came a letter from these precious friends. It read something like this: “We are much in prayer for you and John. Although you have said nothing, X writes in such heat of spirit that we feel he cannot be wholly right; therefore you are going through difficulties, and we wish you to know we are standing with you in prayer.”

That was a moment in our family history when the man said, “I told you so!” Years have p assed. X is no longer young, but his zeal and devotion to the Lord all these years have been unremitting. How often, as we praised the Lord for X, I have also thanked Him that I was not allowed to write against a precious brother who was just passing through a needed crucifixion-of-self period, that was all. But it took a little bearing at the time. “We are disciples of clay. And there is still the skill of the Potter,” said Peter Marshall. Do we count on that skill? Or do we shrug our shoulders and give up our fellow Christian with a hopeless, “Oh, he is always that way!”? Such an attitude is surely sinning against the Potter; we should count on His skill and the fact that He cares about the blemishes of the earthen jars which bear His jewel.

A third major drumbeat is “Love covereth” (Proverbs 10:12). Bearing is not quite enough.[2] I was taught this by a worker much my junior. A “jarring of the earthen jars” affair was on, and I was talking with a young worker who was said to have criticized me. “Oh, I didn’t mean that by what I said,” she broke out quickly. “I’ll go right and tell them.”

“No, please do not tell them a thing. I meant to apologize to you, that was all. If you go and say that, it will stir up everything again. Remember Proverbs 26:20, ‘Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out.’ Don’t add any more wood.”

“You are right,” she replied sadly. “Kill it with love; that is the only way.” I felt stunned. I had meant to bear up nobly, but I saw instantly that she was right.

Bearing did not go far enough; I should put myself out to do something loving toward the one who I felt had begun the fire. C.S. Lewis has helped me much in this matter of loving one’s enemy. He says this, “Christian love is an affair of the will … does not mean an emotion… Loving your enemy in the Bible is wishing Him good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he isn’t!” It is wonderful how the exercise of one’s will in a matter li ke this will eventuate in the correct emotions. Determining to wish that person’s good; deliberately trying to do something loving for him; and praying for him–all this will some day bring about the emotion of love itself. But love, as the Bible interprets it, is an affair of the will, not necessarily of the emotions.

A fourth major drumbeat is found in Psalms 51:17: “A broken and contrite heart.” Brokenness. Hudson Taylor once said, “Hard missionaries are not of much use; they are not like the Master. He is never hard. It is better to be trusting and gentle and sympathetic, even if often taken in, rather than sharp and hard.” It is a broken earthen jar which most reveals the jewel within. The Holy Spirit does the breaking through crucifixion experiences, but the outcome of it is confession of sins. A modern saint has said, “In the deep mental and physical pain of humiliation before a brother–which means, before God–we experience the Cross of Jesus as our rescue and salvation.” Then that same one adds a wise word of caution. “For the salvation of his soul let him guard against ever making a pious work of his confession… an idle, lustful babbling… Confession as a routine duty is spiritual death.” But a holy desire to live without blame and offense toward one’s fellows is scriptural.[3]

We were most fortunate in having J. O. Fraser as our superintendent when we began missionary life. [4] One of his drumbeats was Matthew 18:15-35. He practiced it himself and taught the Lisu church to practice it. No telling of the brother’s fault behind his back; go to him when he is alone and tell him right to his face. If he will not listen, take another for a witness and the two of you go and speak to him about it, again when he is alone. If he does not listen, then tell it to the church, and the church must take action.[5] Anyone who practices this will live in a state of brokenness. As has been said, “The basis upon which Christians can spea k to one another is that each knows the other is a sinner [is not yet sinless in behavior]… We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need.” There is no room for pride or hardness there.

Knowing you are but an earthen jar is basic. But a sense of humor helps, and a small ditty like this on one’s wall:

To live above with saints we love,
Oh, that will be the grace and glory;
To live below with saints we know,
Oh, that’s a different story.

The last major drumbeat which I would record is found in Philippians 1:12, in the phrase “the furtherance of the gospel.” Dr. C. R. Erdman has this comment: “Passionate devotion to the things which are vital delivered Paul from bitterness of soul, from anger and ill-will. Taking advantage of the fact that Paul was in prison, some Christian leaders, jealous of Paul’s influence, were preaching ‘of envy and strife,’ possibly saying that God’s blessing was not on Paul or he would not be in prison. But Paul w as delivered from bitterness of soul at their puny thrusts by the fact that they were getting out and preaching!” Passionate devotion to the things which are vital. That will deliver from discord in any group; it is a wonderfully unifying power.

I remember seeing this in action, as a fellow missionary once unfolded the following story to me, quite unconscious of what [selfless devotion] she was revealing regarding herself. I had asked about her Chinese fellow worker, for whom I had often prayed. She answered, “Oh, do continue to intercede for her. She has an awful temper, and more than once in a conference she has become furiously angry at me. I have gone down on my knees to her–literally on my knees–to ask forgiveness, lest her exhibition of such temper be a hindrance to the young babes in Christ in the conference.

“Then why keep her on as fellow teacher?” I asked, indignantly. I have never forgotten the picture of my tall queenly friend down on her knees to that furi ous girl.

“Oh, I keep her because she is the best teacher I have found for teaching the phonetic script to the old country women,” she explained. “Most of the others I have tried are not nearly patient enough. And I think the Lord is changing her. She has not so many spells as she used to.” It was best for the furtherance of the Gospel; so this missionary accepted the consequences to herself. Passionate devotion to things which are vital is one of His drumbeats.

[ May each of us as walk in step with these drumbeats, whether we serve in cross-cultural missions or are ambassadors for Christ in our homeland.]



[1] [ See 2 Timothy 2:3,4,”You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” NKJV.]

[2] See Paul Billheimer’s book on this theme: Love Covers. ( bookstore)

[3] On the ro le of confession of social sins as a factor in revival, see Norman Grubb’s book, Continuous Revival. ( bookstore)

[4] J. O. Fraser’s biography, entitled Mountain Rain, has been written by his daughter, Eileen Crossman.

[5] On church discipline, see When a Christian Sins, online at

This article is an edited excerpt from Ascent to the Tribes, available in print from OMF Books.