The Beauty of Refining Trials

My lovely wife loves pottery, so one of my “sacrificial” ways to love Joni is to accompany her to pottery shops. Guys refer to that as “hitting behind the runner” or “taking the charge.” Once we visited a shop where the artisans were making vases and pots right before our eyes, surrounded by shelves of the colorful, beautiful, and functional finished products.

While Joni looked around, I watched a potter take a nondescript lump of clay and skillfully make a unique creation. This 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.  (Isaiah 64:8)

I was fascinated by the complexity of the process. The potter must make sure that no dirt or impurities are in the clay. These unwanted materials will make the pot weak and unusable for its intended purpose. God desires to do the same with us. Impurities (sin) weaken us and keep us from our intended purpose.

The potter kneads the clay to ensure that there are no air bubbles, otherwise the pot might crack when fired in the kiln. In my life, my “air bubbles” are pockets of resistance when I decide I must control my destiny instead of trusting God. I can appear to be molded and conformed to God’s image, but I have unseen “bubbles” of pride and anger and control. These self-generated bubbles can cause me to crack under the heat of adversity.

The metaphors that Scripture uses are so powerful when we take the time to understand context and culture. The newly formed pottery, called “greenware,” is carefully placed on a shelf to air-dry before the next step. It is brittle and easily broken. Something else needs to happen to permanently set the object’s shape and make it strong and usable. The clay must endure the fire of the kiln.

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, if we are unprepared, the fire of life’s trials can cause us to crack and make us useless for His plan.

I can choose to be content in my “greenware” state, brittle and useless for service. But God knows that it is in the trials of fire that we are strengthened and most effective. It is nearly always in that uncomfortable adversity that the true beauty of our creative process is revealed. I cannot think of an instance of significant growth in my life that has happened without the refining heat of trials.

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 discards it. Our heavenly Potter patiently works with us even when we seem misshapen and worthless. A shattered piece of pottery is often thrown out or repurposed in some way. Only our heavenly Father can take the shards of our brokenness and reshape us into something beautiful and effective for Him.

The words of the apostle James make 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. (James 1:2-3, NIV)

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 midst of a trial or about to face a trial, take comfort 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 have infinite potential because we have an infinite God who is patient and good. We should not fear or run from the dark moments. What happens when we walk through them is worth the cost.

An excerpt from Stay: Lessons My Dogs Taught Me about Life, Loss, and Grace. Check it out here.