Last weekend the striking Mrs. Burchett accompanied me on a speaking engagement in Knoxville, Tennessee. We spent a few days at a cabin in Pigeon Forge and did the tourist thing. One of the highlights took me by surprise. My bride loves pottery so one of my “sacrificial” ways to love her is to accompany her to pottery shops. Guys refer to that as “hitting behind the runner” or “taking the charge”. We stopped by a local shop called Alewine Pottery and I was immediately fascinated by the open work area. There was the owner making vases and pots right before my eyes. Behind me were shelves of the finished products – colorful and beautiful and functional.
I watched him take a nondescript piece of clay and skillfully make an unique and beautiful creation. The verse from Isaiah came to mind.
O Lord, you are our Father.
We are the clay, and you are the potter.
We all are formed by your hand.
Suddenly that verse came to life. But the complexity of the potter’s work and his skills made the metaphor really connect for the first time. The forming of the raw material into unique forms is just the beginning of the process. That is how it is with us as unique creations of our Father. He forms us by His hand. Like the pottery in that shop, everyone of us is an original. But our process is also complex and it has just begun when we first submit to shaping by the Potter’s Hands.
The potter must make sure that no dirt or impurities are in the clay as he forms the pot. If he finds those impurities he carefully removes them before finishing the shaping. These bad materials will make the pot weak and not useful for it’s intended purpose. God desires to do the same with us. Impurities (sin) weaken us and keep us from our intended purpose.
The potter must also make sure that air bubbles don’t remain in the clay. Air bubbles can cause the pot to crack when the heat is applied in the kiln. I thought of those air bubbles as pockets of resistance in my life. I can appear to be molded to God’s direction. But I have “bubbles” of pride and anger and control. These bubbles of self can cause me to crack under fire.
The metaphors that Scripture uses are so powerful when we take the time to understand context and culture. I realized that the pot on the potter’s wheel is beautiful but essentially useless when it is initially formed. The pot is carefully dried and set aside. At this point the piece is called greenware and it is extremely brittle and easily breakable. Two things need to happen to make the pot strong and usable. The clay must go through the fire of the kiln to be strengthened and it must be glazed. An article on pottery at Wikipedia had an interesting parallel to the spiritual metaphor.
Pottery is made by forming a clay body into objects of a required shape and heating them to high temperatures in a kiln to induce reactions that lead to permanent changes, including increasing their strength and hardening and setting their shape.
Trials by fire can have that same effect on us as followers of Jesus. Trials can make us stronger and set our shape as His followers. Or the fire of life’s trials can harden us against God and make us useless for His plan.
I realized that I am just beginning to really understand that process in my life. I would be content to stay in my greenware state, brittle and not useful for service. But God knows that it is in the fire that we are strengthened and made useful. It is in the heat of trials that the true beauty of our creative process is revealed. And every instance of significant growth in my life has been in the fire of adversity.
There are a couple of huge differences between the earthly potter and God as the Potter. When the earthly potter finds a bad piece of clay he will just discard it. Our Heavenly Potter patiently works with us even when we seem unshapable. If careless handling or air bubbles cause an unfired pot to break the pieces are discarded. Only our Heavenly Father can take the shards of brokenness and make a pot more beautiful and useful than before.
The words of James made more sense in the context of the potter’s process.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.
There is no joy in the trial but there is joy in the knowledge of how God uses such events in our lives. If you are in the trial or facing a trial be comforted that God desires for you to emerge strengthened and beautiful and useful. One potter said that the greatest thing about making pots is that each lump of clay has near-infinite potential. The lump of clay that is me and the lump of clay that is you has infinite potential because we have an infinite God. I pray that we will allow Him to shape us in His image. I pray that we will confess the impurity of sin and ask Him to remove it. I pray that we will burst the bubbles of self that control us. I pray that we will trust the Heavenly Potter as we enter the fire. And most of all I pray that we will not fear the process that God uses to make us beautiful and useful creations.