Breaking the Alabaster Box

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Watchman Nee

Anyone who serves God will
discover sooner or later that the great hindrance to his work is not
others but himself. He will discover that his outward man and his inward
man are not in harmony, for both are tending toward opposite

He will also sense the
inability of his outward man to submit to the Spirit’s control, thus
rendering him incapable of obeying God’s highest commands. He will
quickly detect that the greatest difficulty lies in his outward man, for
it hinders him from using his spirit.

Many of God’s servants are not able to do even the most elementary
works. Ordinarily they should be enabled by the exercise of their
spirits to know God’s Word, to discern the spiritual condition of
another, to send forth God’s messages under anointing and to receive
God’s revelations.

Yet due to the distractions
of the outward man, their spirit does not seem to function properly. It
is basically because their outward man has never been dealt with. For
this reason revival, zeal, pleading and activity are only a waste of
time. As we shall see, there is just one basic dealing that can enable
man to be useful before God: brokenness.

The Inward Man and the Outward Man

Notice how the Bible divides
man into two parts: “For I delight in the law of God according to the
inward man” (Rom. 7:22, NKJV). Our inward man delights in the law of
God. “To be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man”
(Eph. 3:16). And Paul also tells us, “Even though our outward man is
perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor.

When God comes to indwell us
by His Spirit, life and power, He comes into our spirit, which we are
calling “the inward man.” Outside of this inward man is the soul—the
seat of our thoughts, emotions and will. The outermost man is our
physical body.

Thus we will speak of the
inward man as the spirit, the outer man as the soul and the outermost
man as the body. We must never forget that our inward man is the human
spirit where God dwells, where His Spirit mingles with our spirit.

Just as we are dressed in
clothes, so our inward man “wears” our outward man: the spirit “wears”
the soul. And similarly, the spirit and soul “wear” the body. It is
quite evident that men are generally more conscious of the outer and
outermost man, and they hardly recognize or understand their spirits at

We must know that he who can
work for God is the one whose inward man can be released, just as the
fragrance was released when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with oil of
spikenard (see John 12:3). The basic difficulty of a servant of God lies
in the failure of the inward man to break through the outward man.

Therefore we must recognize
before God that the first difficulty to our work is not in others but in
ourselves. Our spirit seems to be wrapped in a covering so that it
cannot easily break forth. If we have never learned how to release our
inward man by breaking through the outward man, we are not able to

Nothing can so hinder us as
this outward man. Whether our works are fruitful depends on whether our
outward man has been broken by the Lord so that the inward man can pass
through that brokenness and come forth.

This is the basic problem.
The Lord wants to break our outward man in order that the inward man may
have a way out. When the inward man is released, both unbelievers and
Christians will be blessed.

As a Grain of Wheat

The Lord Jesus tells us in
John 12:24, “‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it
remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.'” Life is in the
grain of wheat, but there is a hard shell on the outside. As long as
that shell is not split open, the wheat cannot sprout and grow.

“‘Unless a grain of wheat
falls into the ground and dies…'” What is this death? It is the
cracking open of the shell through the working together of temperature
and humidity in the soil. Once the shell is split open, the wheat begins
to grow. So the question here is not whether there is life within, but
whether the outside shell is cracked open.

The Scripture continues by
saying, “‘He who loves his life [Greek, soul] will lose it, and he who
hates his life [Greek, soul] in this world will keep it for eternal
life'” (v. 25). The Lord shows us here that the outer shell is our own
life (our soul life), while the life within is the eternal life that He
has given to us.

To allow the inner life to
come forth, it is imperative that the outward life be replaced. Should
the outward remain unbroken, the inward would never be able to come

It is necessary (in this
writing) that we direct these words to that group of people who have the
Lord’s life. Among those who possess the life of the Lord can be found
two distinct groups: one includes those in whom life is confined,
restricted, imprisoned and unable to come forth; the other includes
those in whom the Lord has forged a way, and life is thus released from

The question thus is not how
to obtain life but rather how to allow this life to come forth. When we
say we need the Lord to break us, this is not merely a way of speaking,
nor is it only a doctrine. It is vital that we be broken by the Lord.

It is not that the life of
the Lord cannot cover the earth but rather that His life is imprisoned
by us. It is not that the Lord cannot bless the church but that the
Lord’s life is so confined within us that there is no flowing forth. If
the outward man remains unbroken, we can never be a blessing to His
church, and we cannot expect the Word of God to be blessed by Him
through us!

Why the Box Must Be Broken

The Bible tells of the pure
spikenard. God purposely used this term “pure” in His Word to show that
it is truly spiritual. But if the alabaster box is not broken, the pure
spikenard will not flow forth.

Strange to say, many are
still treasuring the alabaster box, thinking that its value exceeds that
of the ointment. Many think that their outward man is more precious
than their inward man. This becomes the problem in the church.

One will treasure his
cleverness, thinking he is quite important; another will treasure his
own emotions, esteeming himself as an important person; others highly
regard themselves, feeling they are better than others, their eloquence
surpasses that of others, their quickness of action and exactness of
judgment are superior, and so forth. However, we are not antique
collectors; we are not vase admirers; we are those who desire to smell
only the fragrance of the ointment.

Without the breaking of the
outward, the inward will not come forth. Thus individually we have no
flowing out, and the church does not have a living way. Why then should
we hold ourselves as so precious, if our outward man contains, instead
of releases, the fragrance?

The Holy Spirit has not
ceased working. One event after another, one thing after another, comes
to us. Each disciplinary working of the Holy Spirit has but one purpose:
to break our outward man so that our inward man may come through.

Yet here is our difficulty:
We fret over trifles, we murmur at small losses. The Lord is preparing a
way to use us, yet scarcely has His hand touched us when we feel
unhappy, even to the extent of quarrelling with God and becoming
negative in our attitude.

Since being saved, we have
been touched many times in various ways by the Lord, all with the
purpose of breaking our outward man. Whether we are conscious of it or
not, the aim of the Lord is to break this outward man.

So the Treasure is in the
earthen vessel, but if the earthen vessel is not broken, who can see the
Treasure within? What is the final objective of the Lord’s working in
our lives?

It is to break this earthen
vessel, to break our alabaster box, to crack open our shell. The Lord
longs to find a way to bless the world through those who belong to Him.

Brokenness is the way of
blessing, the way of fragrance, the way of fruitfulness, but it is also a
path sprinkled with blood. Yes, there is blood from many wounds.

When we offer ourselves to
the Lord to be at His service, we cannot afford to be lenient, to spare
ourselves. We must allow the Lord utterly to crack our outward man so
that He may find a way for His outworking.

Each of us must find out for
himself what is the mind of the Lord in his life. It is a most
lamentable fact that many do not know what is the mind or intention of
the Lord for their lives. How much they need for Him to open their eyes,
to see that everything that comes into their lives can be meaningful.

The Lord has not wasted even
one thing. To understand the Lord’s purpose is to see very clearly that
He is aiming at a single objective: the breaking of the outward man.

However, too many, even
before the Lord raises a hand, are already upset. Oh, we must realize
that all the experiences, troubles and trials that the Lord sends us are
for our highest good! We cannot expect the Lord to give better things,
for these are His best.

Should one approach the Lord
and pray, saying, “O Lord, please let me choose the best,” I believe He
would tell him, “What I have given you is the best; your daily trials
are for your greatest profit.”

So the motive behind all the
orderings of God is to break our outward man. Once this occurs and the
spirit can come forth, we begin to be able to exercise our spirit.

The Timing of Our Brokenness

The Lord employs two
different ways to break our outward man; one is gradual, the other
sudden. To some, the Lord gives the sudden breaking followed by a
gradual one. With others, the Lord arranges that they have constant
daily trials, until one day He brings about large-scale breaking.

If it is not the sudden first
and then the gradual, it is the gradual followed by the sudden. It
would seem the Lord usually spends several years upon us before He can
accomplish this work of breaking.

The timing is in His hands.
We cannot shorten the time, though we certainly can prolong it. In some
lives the Lord is able to accomplish this work after a few years of
dealing; in others it is evident that after 10 or 20 years the work is
still unfinished.

This is most serious! Nothing
is more grievous than wasting God’s time. How often the church is
hindered! We can preach by using our mind; we can stir others by using
our emotions, yet if we do not know how to use our spirit, the Spirit of
God cannot touch people through us. The loss is great, should we
needlessly prolong the time.

Therefore, if we have never
before wholly and intelligently consecrated ourselves to the Lord, let
us do so now, saying: “Lord, for the future of the church, for the
future of the gospel, for Your way, and also for my own life, I offer
myself without condition, without reservation, into Your hands. Lord, I
delight to offer myself to You and am willing to let You have Your full
way through me.”

And then let us prepare for the breaking of the box and the releasing of the fragrance within.

Watchman Nee (1903-1972)
was a Chinese evangelist and prolific writer on spiritual topics. He
dedicated his life to sharing the message of Christ and establishing
local churches. In 1952 he was arrested by the communists and spent the
last 20 years of his life in prison, ultimately surrendering his life
for his faith. Adapted from
The Release of the Spirit by Watchman Nee, copyright © 2000. Published by Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc. Used by permission.

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