Life was meant to be full of trials, tests and temptations — all intended to build beautiful, godlike character in man.
Many of you have experienced — or are experiencing — severe trials and tests. Unfortunately, some buckle under the pressure instead of learning the vital lessons these trials are intended to teach us — lessons that are absolutely essential for growing Sons of God! We all want to endure and conquer trials and temptations. But in order to do so, you must understand why your Creator designed your life to be a seemingly unending multiplicity of problems.
The potter and the clay
The prophet Isaiah understood man was merely a clay model to be formed and fashioned by the hand of his Creator. "O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand" (Isa. 64:8). The apostle Paul uses the same imagery or symbolism of the potter and the clay in Romans 9:21-23. God compares Himself to a master potter. And all mankind is likened to clay. "I also am formed out of the clay," said Job's friend, Elihu (Job 33:6). Yes, man is made out of clay — we are just the clay model God created for the specific purpose of molding into the image of His perfect character. For years I knew one of Britain's foremost pottery sculptors. On numerous occasions he explained to me some of the fascinating aspects of his art. There are seven important steps in pottery making: 1) The master potter must first select the type of clay he wants to use in making a specific piece of pottery. There are many types and colors of clays, each with its own particular advantages. 2) The potter then lets this clay age, weather or ferment until it, "stinks" and is therefore ready for use. 3) Next, the potter wedges kneads, beats, treads upon or pummels — the clay to remove lumps and air bubbles and to make it more pliable. 4) The potter is then ready to begin actually shaping and forming the clay into whatever shape or design he has chosen. Throughout this process it is necessary to add water or oil to keep the clay malleable. 5) Once the potter has shaped the clay, he puts it into a furnace (or kiln) where it is heated until it reaches its "maturing point." This initial baking or firing in the furnace permanently sets or hardens the vessel in its desired form so that it can never be altered. 6) After the first firing of the clay model, it is removed from the fire, let cool, decorated and finally glazed over. This newly glazed pottery is then given a second firing to bake these decorations onto the clay model. There are often several decorations and firings before the pottery vessel reaches its ultimate perfection of beauty. 7) Finally the potter is ready to judge his work. If the clay model hasn't cracked, exploded or become marred in some way during these firings, it is at last ready to be used in whatever manner the designer and creator may decide. Now let us understand the crucial spiritual analogy of these seven vital steps in pottery making. We will thus acquire a deeper comprehension of exactly how the great master Potter deals with us mortal "clay models." Remember, this is God's analogy — not mine!
First: God must choose us
Just as the potter chooses the type and color of the clay he will use, so God chooses the individuals He will use. Different kinds of clays have different properties. Some are more malleable than others. Some are better for certain types of work than others. Likewise with different human beings. The potter must decide which color and type of clay he will use before he begins his work. By looking at the illustration of the potter and the clay, we first learn (draw the parallel) that God must always choose us. We never choose Him — any more than the clay chooses the potter who will shape and mold it. Christ said to His own disciples, "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you" (John 15:16). He also told the disciples, "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him" (John 6:44, 65). Certainty, no one can say that it is God's will that all mankind must hear and receive the truth during this age. Many have never heard the name of Christ, have never seen a Bible and don't have a chance to be converted and receive true salvation during this life. Paul shows that it is God who decides what He will do with His creatures — the clay models He has created. "So then it is not of him that willeth, nor ,of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy" (Rom. 9:16). Paul asks, "Hath not the potter [God] power over -the clay [mankind], of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?" (verse 21). All right — God has -chosen you. But why? Many in God's Church ask this question: "Why has God chosen me? What have I done?" The answer is not what you have done, but what you will do, because you have been chosen for a specific purpose. Our God does not choose at random. Our God does not play roulette. You have been called and chosen for a particular level of responsibility and some very specific jobs in God's Work today, in God's government tomorrow and in God's Family for all eternity.
Second: Our stinking sins
After a potter selects the clay he wishes to use, he must let the clay weather, age, ferment, sour — and it often literally stinks. "Aging the clay — that is, keeping it moist in a container for several months — makes it better to work with. (Don't worry if your clay begins to smell bad — that's really a good sign.) Sometimes inoculating a fresh batch of clay with some of an old batch promotes the growth of bacteria and, so helps plasticity" (The Complete Book of Pottery Making, John B. Kenny). It is commonly known among potters that clay that matures — that has literally come to stink — is more malleable than unmatured clay. What lesson are we to draw from this? Simply this. God cannot really begin to deal with us — cannot begin to convert (change) us and bring us to the place of true repentance — until we have come to "stink" in our own eyes! Many scriptures show that our sins are a continuous stench in the nostrils of God (Isa. 64:6-8). But it is impossible for the carnal mind to see itself as it really is. Therefore God cannot begin to use us until we come to see ourselves as we really are. Christ summed it up, "For I am not come to call the [self-] righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Matt. 9:13). A most difficult human being to bring to true repentance was Job — because he thought he was righteous — he thought he was pretty good in God's sight. But eventually, God really did get through — Job was finally whittled down to size. Then Job repented, "Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6). Many profess to be true Christians, but are still wallowing around in their own self-righteous filth! God cannot really begin to shape and mold beautiful spiritual character in such individuals.
Third: Why beat clay?
Before the clay is ready for use it must be beaten and pummeled to help remove any air pockets and to break up its hard lumps. This makes the-clay more plastic and consequently more easily shaped. What is the significance of this wedging of the clay? God has to rebuke and chasten us — He has to subject us to some tough, unpleasant circumstances before we will really repent. This is precisely what God did with self-righteous Job. God allowed Satan to take away all of Job's physical possessions and to destroy his children. Then He let Satan afflict Job with grievous boils — all to pummel Job to his senses, to bring him to-real repentance (Job 1, 2). Just as a potter cannot properly work clay that hasn't been thoroughly wedged, so God can't properly work with us until we repent of our self-righteous hardness of heart and our wind of vanity — both of which puff us up and prevent us from yielding to God (I Cor. 5:6-8). Wedging the clay can be done by many different methods: beating or pummeling, kneading, slamming the clay against a special table or bench top, repeatedly cutting it in half by using a taut wire or treading heavily on it with the feet ("as the potter treadeth clay," Isa. 41:25). Similarly, God has many ways to chasten and correct us. But He never chooses the ones we want — He always seems to find our most sensitive nerve.
Fourth: Molding the pottery
Once the potter has gotten the lumps and bubbles out, he is ready to start molding and shaping his clay into the form he desires. But there's still a problem: The clay is not supple and consequently cannot be properly molded. The solution is basic: The potter must add the right amount of water (sometimes oil is used instead of water) to make the clay more plastic. Once God has beaten our hardness of heart out of us and knocked (some of) our vanity out of us, then we must receive the "living waters" — God's Holy Spirit — in order to be properly molded by God's law. No one can truly yield to God and obey Him unless and until he has the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. But when anybody God calls really thirsts for God's Spirit, He will give it to him (Isa. 55:1). Jesus said: "If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly [or innermost being] shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Spirit was not yet given...)" (John 7:37-39). Without the addition of water to the clay, it will not be malleable enough to be continually molded in the hands of the potter. Likewise, without the addition of the spiritual waters of God's Holy Spirit to our minds, we could never be yielded enough to be continually shaped in the hands of our Creator, the Master Potter.
Fifth: Plunged into the fire
After the potter has molded his vessel and has let it dry thoroughly, he puts his unbaked piece of pottery into a furnace (or kiln) where it must be heated (slowly at first so it won't explode) to a high temperature before it will become sufficiently baked to attain its maximum hardness. If it is fired at too high a temperature, it will warp. On the other hand, if it is fired at too Iowa temperature, the pottery will be "soft" and will not attain its maximum "maturity," density and hardness. The master potter has ways of testing to find the proper "firing range" (temperature) at which a particular type of clay should be fired. There is an amazingly close parallel here between the human potter and the Master Potter. When God allows us to be put through trials, He has to know just how high the "heat" should be "turned on." If God doesn't allow us to be subjected to enough trials and tests, we get spiritually flabby and never develop the hard, firm character that is absolutely required for Sonship in God's Family (I Pet.1:6-7,Jas.1:2-3). On the other hand, if He were to let us be tried by such a big temptation that we couldn't cope with it, it would destroy us beyond redemption. So God knows the precise degree to which each true child of His can be subjected, and He watches over us very carefully to make sure that the trials and tests we receive are neither too light (Heb. 12:6-11) nor too severe (I Cor. 10:13).
Sixth: Finishing touches
After the clay has been baked in a furnace to give it its permanent shape, strength and hardness, it is removed from the kiln and decorated, after which it is glazed over. Then what happens? Back into the fire — back into the furnace it goes so that the decorative work and the glazing can be baked onto the surface of the vessel. This constitutes the second firing. What should we learn from this decorating, glazing and second firing? God often puts finishing touches into our character — polishing different aspects of His perfect character within us through allowing additional fiery trials of various types. It is, remember, through trials and temptations that the most beautiful facets of our character are developed.
If God has permitted you to be sorely tried — perhaps repeatedly — then that's the surest sign that your Creator knows you've got it in you to "endure unto the end." And that's, also the surest sign that the Ruler of the entire universe is working out some higher purpose in your life.
Now, even after a piece of pottery has been fired twice, it often has further stunning decorations applied — perhaps fine, ' pure gold or silver metals. Then after these exquisite finishing touches are added to the nearly finished vessel, it must go back into the furnace. So, back into the fire this beautifully decorated piece of pottery goes, for the third and (in most instances) final firing. So it is with God and His children. We sometimes think we have had enough, that we've gone through enough fiery trials, but God, in His infinite wisdom, usually feels otherwise. He may realize that still more beautiful godlike facets of character need to be added if we are to have the exquisite, indescribably stunning character that is made in the image of the perfect, holy and glorious God!
Seventh: At last — a work of art
At this point the piece of pottery has withstood three or more firings. The master potter can now survey his work. And he will judge it very critically. Has it stood up to the test? Has it come through all of the firings a hard, strong, beautiful creation — something the potter can truly be proud of? Or has it cracked, exploded, sagged, drooped, flaked or become warped somewhere' along the line? Likewise, at the end of our lives, our Master Potter will judge us extremely critically to see how we have come through all our trials — and He will reward us accordingly.
Rejoice in your trials
So take courage! If God has permitted you to be sorely tried — perhaps repeatedly — then that's the surest sign that your Creator knows you've got it in you to "endure unto the end." And that's also the surest sign that the Ruler of the entire universe is working out some higher purpose in your life. Because it is only by means of severe tests and rigorous trials that God can develop His character in you, and will consequently give you a greater reward in His Kingdom — if you come through. Christ has solemnly promised that those who hold steadfast till the very end — those who endure all their fiery trials — will definitely make it! "He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved" (Matt. 24:13). Think of that. When a potter finishes his work, he only has a beautiful piece of pottery. But when the Master Potter finishes His work with you, He will have a Son of God! The great Master Potter has reassuringly promised that those who endure their fiery trials will inherit everything! "He that overcometh [sin, trials, tests, temptations] shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son" (Rev. 21:7). What a fantastic future to look forward to!