Life was meant to be full of trials, tests and temptations — all intended to be the means of building beautiful, God-like character in man. Isaiah, Elihu and Paul all used the analogy of the potter and the clay. Jeremiah was advised to go to the potter's house to learn how God works with men to mold them in His spiritual image. In this article these important principles are clearly and interestingly explained.
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. 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.
God's Great Design
Sir Winston Churchill, speaking before the U.S. Senate in Washington on December 26th, 1941, said: "He must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some GREAT PURPOSE AND DESIGN is being worked out here below of which we have the honor to be faithful servants." What is the "great purpose and design" which God Almighty is working out "here below" on this good earth?
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 the 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 which God created for the specific purpose of molding into the image of His perfect character!
The Potter's Amazing Wheel
A few years ago I had the interesting experience of seeing a potter at work with a potter's wheel near Luxor, Egypt. It was truly fascinating to watch the skillful Egyptian potter at work. He would take a lump of moist clay and put it upon his potter's wheel, which he kept turning with his foot. Within only a matter of seconds, the lump of clay would, as if by a miracle, quickly take the shape of a cup, a jug, an earthen pot, or a vessel of some sort. The old Egyptian potter kept some water within easy reach and would, from time to time, put a little more water on the lump of clay to make it more malleable. Millenniums ago, the prophet Jeremiah was told to "go down to the potter's house" in order to learn a similar lesson (see Jer. 18:1, 2). "Then I went down," says Jeremiah, "to the potter's house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel" (Jer. 18:3-6). It is interesting to note that a potter has to keep the lump of clay on dead center of his potter's wheel — otherwise the lump of clay will begin to wobble, and this will cause the vessel to have an uneven or irregular shape instead of being perfectly round. So it is with the Master Potter and us. He has to keep us on dead center of His Way, or we will begin to "wobble" and develop "spiritual irregularities" — imperfect, marred spiritual character. God must continually nudge us — or shove us — back to dead center as we continually veer to the right or to the left! Before we can really understand the marvelous lessons to be learned from the potter-and-the-clay illustration given by Isaiah, we need to examine briefly some of the important, interesting and valuable steps in making pottery. This will enable you to see just how the great Master Potter deals with you — His "clay models."
Seven Vital Steps
For years I have known one of Britain's foremost pottery sculptors. He has, on numerous occasions, explained to me some of the fascinating aspects of his art. There are seven important steps in pottery making. First, let us briefly examine these seven steps. Then we shall draw the crucial spiritual analogy — how God actually develops spiritual character within the lives of the "clay models" with whom He is directly dealing. (1) The Master Potter must first SELECT the type of clay which 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, air bubbles, etc., 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 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 then 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. The FINAL DECORATIVE WORK may include fine gold, silver or other beautiful and precious metals arrayed in artistic patterns) (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.
The Crucial Analogy
Now let us understand the spiritual application of these seven vital steps in pottery making. We will thus acquire a much deeper comprehension of exactly how the Great Master Potter deals with us moral clay models. Remember this is God's analogy — not mine!
FIRST: God Must Choose Us
Choosing the clay. Just as the potter chooses the type and color of clay which he will use, so God chooses the individuals which He will use. Different kinds of clays obviously have different properties. Some are more malleable than others. Some are better for one type of work and some for another. 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). All right — God has chosen you. But why? Many in God's Church often 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.
SECOND: Our Stinking Sins
Weathering the clay. After a potter selects the clay he wishes to use, he must then 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). Also notice how Bernard Leach describes this same important aging process in A Potter's Book: "Clay is improved by long storage; it gains in plasticity, its decomposition continues, it changes color, and may even begin to STINK. I have been told of old potters who speak of such matured, or soured clay with the quiet impressiveness of epicures discussing vintage wines." The author then states: "The storage of plastic clay over long periods increases its plasticity by combining the water more intimately with the clay, and also by continuing the process of decomposition whereby the pure clay content is increased. Some clays alter their color and give off a bad smell." It is commonly known among potters that clay which matures — which 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. "but we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness's are as filthy rags..." (Isa. 64:6-8). Until we come to see that we have sinned grievously against the Great God of Heaven, and acknowledge that we are stinking and foul in His sight — then we can't possibly even begin to repent and approach God. Christ summed it up: "For I am not come to call the [self] righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Matt. 9:13).
THIRD: Why Beat Clay?
Wedging the clay. Before the clay is ready for use it must be beaten and pummeled — "bashed around a bit" — to help remove any AIR POCKETS and also to break up the HARD LUMPS in the clay. 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 and unpleasant circumstances before we will really repent. Just as a potter cannot properly work clay which hasn't been thoroughly wedged (beaten and pummeled — to break up the hard lumps and to expel the air bubbles) 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).
FOURTH: Molding the Pottery
Shaping the clay. Once the potter has gotten the lumps and bubbles out, he is ready to start molding and shaping his clay into the form which 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" — in order to be properly molded by God's Law. No one can truly obey God — can truly yield to Him — unless and until he has the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. But when anybody really thirsts for God's Spirit, He will give it to him (see 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). Just as the potter must add sufficient water to the clay to make it completely pliable and malleable, so must the Master Potter add the gift of the "living waters" — the gift of His priceless Holy Spirit — before we can truly become pliable and YIELDED in His hands! 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. The Apostle Paul told the Christians at Rome: "YIELD YOURSELVES UNTO GOD" (Rom. 6:13). We are to yield ourselves completely to God as "a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable, unto God, which is your reasonable service" (Rom. 12:1).
FIFTH: Plunged into the Fire
Firing the clay. After the potter has molded his vessel and has let it dry out thoroughly, he then puts his unbaked piece of pottery into a fiery furnace (or kiln) where it must be heated (very slowly at first so it won't explode) to a very 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 low a temperature, the pottery will be "soft" — and will not obtain its maximum "maturity," density and hardness. The master potter has ways of testing to find out the proper "firing range" (the proper 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 (remember, God tempts no man — Jas. 1:13), 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 which is absolutely required for Sonship in God's Family. On the other hand, if He were to let us be tried by such a big temptation that we couldn't cope with it — then it would destroy us beyond redemption. So God, as the all-wise Master Potter, 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). Just as it is most essential that a clay vessel be put through the fiery test of a furnace, so it is equally necessary that a Christian have his share of temptations, trials and tests. Without these we would never develop much strength of character. But God has solemnly promised not to let our trials and temptations over-power us — if we continue to really rely upon Him in faithful obedience. Peter understood and wrote about the severe temptations and trials which would befall God's people: "Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 1:6, 7). James, the brother of Christ, writing to the "twelve tribes" of Israel, understood the need for Christians to be prepared to be plunged into the fiery kiln to become perfected — if God so willed. Notice his admonition: "My brethren, count it all JOY when ye fall into divers TEMPTATIONS [Or trials]; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience" (James 1:2, 3). James explains that temptations are actually a blessing — because when they are resisted, eternal character is built: "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the CROWN OF LIFE, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him" (verse 12). A wise master potter will not permit his furnace or kiln to become too hot when firing his pieces of pottery, for he knows this would ruin them beyond repair. He, therefore, carefully watches and controls the fire to make sure that just the right temperature is maintained at all times. He would not think of going away and leaving his pottery in the fire. So it is with God. He carefully watches over every believer, over every true Christian, to make certain that he isn't tempted beyond his capacity — making sure his "fiery trial" doesn't become too much for him to bear. God has faithfully promised: "I WILL NEVER LEAVE THEE, NOR FORSAKE THEE" (Heb. 13:5). Notice how this is explained by Paul: "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: But GOD IS FAITHFUL, WHO WILL NOT SUFFER YOU TO BE TEMPTED ABOVE THAT YE ARE ABLE; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it" (I Cor. 10:13).
SIXTH: Finishing Touches
Decorating the clay. 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! 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 — out great Master Potter!
SEVENTH: At Last — A Work of Art
Judging the pottery. The potter is now ready to judge his work. 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 life, 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 — Especially 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. The Scriptures reveal that God sorely tested and tried Abraham (Gen. 22:1-19), David (Psalm 51), Daniel (Dan. 6), Paul (II Cor. 11:23-28). And they will all have very high positions in the Kingdom of God. And Jesus Christ, our Savior, will have the greatest reward and position of all — for He was tempted more sorely than any man — yet without sin! (Heb. 4:15; Matt. 26:38 through 27:50) 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 trails will inherit EVERYTHING! He that overcometh [sins, 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!