Sometimes we evangelicals forget how much we “ghetto-ize” our vocabulary. Videos like this one humorously remind us of how foreign our conversations can sound. One of the phrases that often gets tossed around in ministry circles, especially in the spheres of worship leading, is “being a clean vessel.” We pray prayers like these before worship services:
Lord, we just want to be clean vessels this morning as we come to You. We don’t want our sin to get in the way of people worshiping You, so please forgive us and use us as channels of Your mercy.
It’s a good prayer. It’s an honest prayer. I’ve prayed it many times myself. I’ve come to the conclusion, though, that this prayer could mean a bunch of things we don’t want it to mean. I think there are probably honest and formative ways to pray such a phrase, but to me it can too easily mislead us down roads we don’t really want to go. I know it has misled me.
Where Does the Phrase Come From?
Biblically, a “vessel” (especially in the King James) is “something which contains,” like a jar, pot, or vat. The Pentateuch is filled with references to “vessels,” particularly for holy use by the priests. They were containers for holy water (Num 5:17), or oil (Num 4:8; Matt 25:4), for instance. They were sprinkled with blood (e.g. Heb 9:21) to be set aside for holy use. They even became the receptacle for the spilled blood of a sacrificial animal (Lev 14:4-6). Vessels were the “props” of worship, liturgical instruments whose care and maintenance were charged to the Levites (Num 1:50; 3:31). Not only were vessels made out of clay; they were also made of precious metals, which is why the vessels of the sanctuary were often taken as the spoils of war (2 Kings 4:14). Vessels were precious, and their cleanliness and purity, especially when it came to worship, were important. They were “the holy vessels of God” (2 Chron 22:19). In contexts of prophetic judgment, Isaiah contrasts “clean vessels” with Israel’s unclean offerings (Isa 66:20).
We Are Vessels
We start to see the crossover of “vessels” as a metaphor for “people set aside to be used by God” in places like Acts 9:15, where Saul-about-to-be-Paul is named God’s “chosen vessel.” Romans 9 famously and puzzlingly depicts God’s sovereign providence over “vessels of mercy” and “vessels of wrath.”
We get more specific in 2 Cor 4:7, where Paul talks about believers being ordinary “earthen vessels” who get to paradoxically contain the “treasure” of God. But perhaps the verse that most accurately mirrors our prayers is 2 Tim 2:20-21 (KJV):
But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.
There we have it. It appears that our prayers for “being a clean vessel” are derived from ceremonial-liturgical language of holiness, set-apart-ness. We “prepare for the good work” of worship by asking God to make us a “vessel meet for the master’s use.”
Praying Down Wrong Roads
The difficulty of asking God to “make us clean vessels” lies in some unhealthy theology we may be unknowingly buying into when we employ this phrase. Though this prayer seems like just an echo of 2 Tim 2:21, the way we pray it often gives off the air that a worship service’s success is riding on whether or not we’ve adequately confessed our sin to God. We often pray to be “clean vessels” with the metaphor in our minds of a dirty or clogged pipe through which the power and presence of God cannot travel, so long as it’s plugged. Our prayer asks God to roto-rooter our souls with the snake of His grace so that His holy presence can rush forth through us as we lead worship.
If we’re thinking this way, we’re thinking dangerously too highly of ourselves. We’re starting to transgress the edge of territory that is reserved for Christ alone. Worship leaders often get caught up in language and thinking that puts us in the position of “mediators of God’s presence.” We can unknowingly pray in such a way that reveals that we believe that we, or the worship band, or the music somehow mediates God’s presence to His people. Suddenly, we’ve reverted back to the Old Covenant where the priestly mediators (who prefigured Jesus), functioned as the connection point between God and the people. But Christ has shut those temporary operations down once and for all at the cross, becoming both priest and sacrifice (Heb 9). Why would we want to set up shop again at the construction site, when the work is finished? We need to be very, very careful not to begin to think of ourselves as mediators of God’s presence. We are nothing of the sort. Such “secondary mediators” include things like preaching and the Lord’s Supper, in which there is indeed human involvement. But my fear is that we worship leaders go farther.
Some of us pray to be “clean vessels” as if the whole worship service is dependent upon our personal confession. The truth is that the Holy Spirit is a gracious, incremental revealer of the depths of our sin. If we knew just how deep our depravity was, we would probably be overwhelmed to the point of spiritual, even physical, paralysis. If the worship service is dependent upon whether we’ve gotten all that sin exposed out the way, we’re sunk before we’ve even started, because we don’t know the half of it.
The reality is that God does what He does in worship much more in spite of us than because of us. The whole point of us being called “earthen vessels” and “jars of clay” is precisely SO we recognize that we are broken, not whole; dirty, not clean. God’s glory shines much more magnificently as we realize our weakness, not as we try our darndest to get clean.
We also mustn’t forget that God is so much bigger, His purposes for worship are so much grander, and His presence in worship so much more brilliant, than our sin and confession. Sometimes, when we’re praying to be “clean vessels,” we’re acting as though God’s presence and power are bound by whether or not we’ve performed a certain prayer ritual. If we’re thinking like that, we’re thinking way too small about God and His ability. God has been in the business of sovereignly subverting our piddly little selves for millenia.
Already Clean Vessels
The paradox of the worship leader (and any Christian, for that matter) is that we are already clean vessels by virtue of Christ…here and now. We’ve already been justified, already declared righteous. God sees us as holy, perfect, spotless vessels, and He sees us as such by virtue of Another. The good news for worship leaders is that even though we don’t feel like clean vessels, even though we don’t demonstrate ourselves to be clean vessels, IN CHRIST WE ARE. Here and now. Forever and ever. Amen. Luther described this “place” as simul justus et peccator, “simultaneously saint and sinner.” It’s a weird place. But it’s precisely where we are.
A Better Prayer to Pray
What might we put in place of desperate pleas for God to make us clean? I often lead our other leaders in worship with prayers like this:
God, we confess that we’re unclean vessels. We confess that we’re jars of clay. Why would You choose to use us this day? Forgive us our sins, yet again. We confess our inadequacy, our brokenness. We confess that even our best efforts, left to themselves, are poisoned wells of unclean water.
Show us Christ again today. Holy Spirit, remind us of His great love, His great life, His great sacrifice. Reveal the excellencies and perfections of our Great Mediator. Make Him seen and known today. And we will gladly be used by You, knowing that You love us, forgive us, and choose to use us, in spite of us.
Perhaps it sounds awfully the same as “make us clean vessels,” but do you see the difference in posture? In prayers like these, we’re not aiming at getting right with God so that we can be used. We’re aiming at humbly asking that God use us in spite of ourselves, precisely because we are already right with Him. The best prayer we can pray is a simple, “Show us our sin that we might confess it, but show us the Christ that is greater than all our sin.” As worship leaders, we don’t need to necessarily feel more clean in order to get the job done. Rather, we need Christ, in all His glory, to be more clear, more powerful, and more beautiful.
Jesus is the only Clean Vessel. Jesus is the only mediator of God’s presence. Jesus is the one true Worship Leader. Let’s make it a point to make THAT our greater confession.
Thanks Zac, I've been really struggling with the "vessel mindset" lately. This helps a lot. I have to keep reminding myself it's not up to me in other situations, I love how everything in ministry connects! Certainly takes the pressure off and allows more time in the things that are needed. I have found that when I take the mindset of "it's all up to me" up that family and friends get the backburner, which is not staying true to God's call for us to be Jesus-like, specifically loving and caring, in all aspects of our lives.