God The Potter | The Potter & The Clay
An illustration by Omar & Bonnie Bravo that explores our relationship with God by interpreting the metaphor of “God the Potter” / "The Potter & the Clay" as they are found in the Bible...
Metaphors, Illustrations, and Parables are used throughout the Bible in order to communicate complex ideas into meaningful, yet easy-to-understand messages. Of the most complex ideas in scripture is that of our relationship with God. As such, the prophets, the apostles, and even Jesus Christ himself used metaphors to explain this relationship. Examples include “God the Father”, “God the Shepherd”, “God the Refiner”, and of course, “God the Potter”.
The problem with these metaphors is that though they were meant to make it easy for the people to understand complex ideas, the people they were meant for led very different lives than we do today. Two-thousand years ago when these metaphors were spoken, shepherds, blacksmiths (metal refiners), and potters were common tradesmen in a community. So, when the people heard these references made about God, they actually did understand what the prophets and apostles were intending to say. Today, however, the majority of us have almost no idea how these tradesmen’s work or what their daily routines entail, which makes it very difficult for us to accurately interpret the intended meaning of these biblical statements. Which is why I’ve decided to dig deeper…
It just so happens that my wife is a professional Ceramic Artist with a bachelors degree in Studio Art. A few years ago, we thought it would be beneficial to go step by step through the pottery process and interpret (to the best of our ability) what was actually meant by the metaphor of the “Potter and the Clay” and “God the Potter”.
Our findings are as follows…
Potter / Clay: Who’s who?
In the analysis of any metaphor, is it of primary importance that the correct roles be assigned. In the metaphor of the potter and the clay, there are two distinct roles: (1) the potter and (2) the clay. Though it may seem obvious, it is my assertion that God is to play the role of the Potter and that we humans are to play the role of the Clay in relation to Him.
To verify this assertion, it is necessary to look to scripture. And where better to start than in the beginning (Genesis):
… the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. - Genesis 2:7
So, just as God created man from the dust of the ground, so too can a potter create clay by mixing dirt and water.
Next, we look to the book of Jeremiah:
Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the Lord. “Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel! - Jeremiah 18:5-6
There is no question that the potter can mold the clay however he chooses to, and it is clear in this passage, God is stating that we are the clay. But, for good measure, let’s look at another verse.
Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. - Isaiah 64:8
Here, it is not God speaking, but Isaiah professing that God is the Potter and we are the clay.
Which bring us to our first question: Who do we act like more: The Potter or the Clay?
More often that not, do we assume control and try to mold God to suit our needs or are we surrendered to the will of God and simply listening for our instructions?
So as not to get bogged down, we’ll come back to this one. For now, let’s start evaluating the potters actual process.
The first step in a potters process is to cut a piece of clay from the block and begin “wedging” the clay. The wedging process is very similar to the process of kneading bread dough, but as the consistency of clay is much more dense than that of dough, a much more firm hand is required with clay. The purpose of the wedging process is to prepare the clay to be thrown onto the wheel by softening the clay , aligning the clay particles and removing any air bubbles within the clay that might compromise the structural integrity of the pottery later on.
To someone unfamiliar with wedging process, it might look as though the potter is simply “beating the clay”.
Which brings us to our next question: Have you ever felt like you were being “wedged” by God?
If you answered “yes”, you’re not alone.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. - Matthew 3:16 – 4:1
Seriously?! Jesus was baptized, God said He was well pleased with him, and then he was immediately led to the desert to be tempted by the devil for 40 days?!
This trial couldn’t have been a punishment.
Though we normally experience difficult situations as a result of our own bad decisions, I believe this is a great example of how sometimes, difficult situations just happen.
Like when your company shuts down and everyone loses their job, or your parents get divorced, or your best friend moves away, or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer. These aren’t punishments for your bad decisions / actions. But, if they aren’t punishments, what are they?
I believe it’s God wedging, making us mailable in His hands, and preparing us for what He has in store for us next.
Once the clay has been sufficiently wedged, it is thrown onto the wheel and the potter begins the process of “centering the clay”.
In order to ensure that the clay glides easily through their fingers, the potter starts off by generously adding water to the clay.
Then, by applying a significant amount of force through a steady hand, the potter pushes the clay into the center of the spinning wheel. This is perhaps the most difficult and most important part of the entire pottery process. It is difficult because the clay is fighting to fly off of the spinning wheel (due to centripetal force) and it is the most important because if the potter moves on to the next step without having the clay in the absolute center of the wheel, the form the potter makes will inevitably turn out lopsided at best and completely unusable at worst.
When the piece of clay is perfectly centered, it appears motionless on the wheel. But when it is off-center, it is very easy to see it’s wobble, especially from at a distance. Which is why a teacher can easily detect that a student’s piece is off-center when the student isn’t sure. In much the same way, isn’t it far easier for us to see the imperfections of others than the imperfections that exist in our own lives?
Here’s our next question: Have you ever felt off-center (out of sync) in your relationship with God?
Creating the Form
Once the clay has been centered, the potter will proceed to “open the vessel” and “pull up the walls”. This act of creating the form starts with the potter pressing their fingers into the center of the clay, creating a hole that will become the vessel’s usable space. As the potters fingers reach approximately a quarter of an inch away from the bottom of the wheel head, the potter will begin to move their fingers outwards, toward the edge of the wheel, thus causing the walls of the form to expand. Next, the potter will start to gently pinch the walls while raising their hand upwards. This makes the walls of the form grow thinner and taller.
Notice how though the potter is using both hands to mold the clay, their hands are always working together, in the same location, as one unit. Notice the constant adding and subtracting of water with the sponge. Notice the steady hands and consistent contact the potter has with the clay…
This is how I imagine God the potter handling us… Constant attention, constant molding, consistent correction… A gentle touch, but with a firm and steady hand. All in order for Him to make us into what he intended for us to be.
But a problem occurs when we don’t agree with God’s plan for us.
To continue with the metaphor, let’s say that this potter is intending to create a wonderful vase with this clay, but the clay doesn’t want to be vase…
“A vase?!” says the clay. “I don’t want to be a vase! Vases are boring. What good are vases, anyway?”
To which God responds:
“Vases are beautiful pieces of art that hold flowers full of love and bring joy to others.”
“All vases do is watch flowers die.” says the clay. “I don’t want to be a vase… I want to be a punch bowl! Yeah, a punch bowl! Punch bowls live exciting lives, they are at the center of the action, everybody wants to be around the punch bowl! I don’t want to be a vase…”
Does this exchange sound familiar? How many times has God attempted to mold us into something that we resisted? How many times has God called us to serve, to be kind, to love unconditionally, to give sacrificially, and to be more like His Son. How often has he called us to lay down our pride, to stand up for others, to forgive, and to surrender…
“But what about me?” we respond. “What about what I want?! What about my dreams for a big house and prestigious titles and fame and fortune and adorning fans? Or what about my desire for a simple existence, with a happy little family, and comfortable life? Why do keep asking me to do things that are outside of my comfort zone? Why do you keep asking me to do things I’m afraid of?”
To which God responds: “Because I know what’s best for you, I created you for a purpose, and the only way to fulfill that purpose is for you to listen to me and follow me.”
After much wrestling with God and His will for our life, we all eventually reach a situation or circumstance where what God is asking of us is simply too different from our desires and our will.
“God, I’m always listening to you and always following you, but this time you’re wrong. It’s my life and I know what I’m doing.”
It is at this point that we make the bold decision to go our own way and dismiss the potter.
And how does God respond?
Like a gentlemen. He quietly and respectfully honors our wishes and allows us to do as we please.
I think C.S. Lewis summed it up perfectly when he wrote:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
After dismissing the potter, we have no other choice but to literally take matters into our own hands. Even though we are completely unqualified to make a punchbowl, it is now up to us to mold this half-finished vase into what WE believe it should be.
As we awkwardly attempt to mold this form, we turn to our equally unqualified friends and family for advice. But what do THEY know about “making punch bowls”? Chances are, even less than us.
So we are forced to go it alone.
Inevitably, our vase turned punch bowl will fall.
Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the LORD, who do their work in darkness and think, “Who sees us? Who will know?” You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “He did not make me”? Can the pot say of the potter, “He knows nothing”? - Isaiah 29:15-16
In light of these verses, we probably should have known better.
Even so, as we look at the mess we’ve made, we ask quietly at first, and then louder as our frustration grows… “Why God? Why did you let this happen? And where did it all go wrong?”
At this point we can trim off the ruined piece of our form and continue on with our process, but more mistakes will inevitably follow and our punch bowl will shrink to a cereal bowl, then a salsa dish, and eventually the proverbial ash tray.
Ultimately, we will progress through the stages of denial, anger, and sorrow, eventually leading us to the state of surrender. It is here where we ask God, or better yet, beg God, to come back.
“God, I have made a complete mess of everything. I’ve tried to fix it, but it seems like everything I try only makes things worse. I’m so sorry I dismissed you. Will you please come back?”
To which God responds: “Of course.”
As the potter returns to the situation, the setup is now different. Rather than simply taking over, we partner together with the potter to create the form. In order to instruct us properly, the potter will at times demonstrate how our hands should be placed, at times they will place their hands on top of ours, and at times the potter will allow us to give it a try alone. Once we have gotten a proper feel for the clay, it will be time to move forward.
“Now, let’s get back to making that vase!” God will tell us.
“Vase? What do you mean, vase?!” we will respond. “When I asked you to come back because I needed help, I asked to to come back to help me make the punch bowl, not the vase.” And once again, as we will do over and over again throughout our life, we will dismiss the potter.
Once a form has been successfully created, the potter will set it aside to dry. At first glance, it seems as though this drying stage would be pretty tough to mess up, but it’s actually more complicated than it seems.
Before the form is completely dry, the bottom must be trimmed to create a foot and any additional pieces (like the handle of a mug or the spout of a teapot) must be attached.
If we are lazy, and we leave the form drying too long, not only will we not be able to attach the additional pieces, but the form will dry out and crumble, eventually returning to dust. In our performance-based society, as it is speed and results that are rewarded, we often tend to consider laziness as the worst character trait a person can have.
And yet, though the form is destroyed by laziness, it is our impatience that causes the most damage.
When we are impatient, we will tend to move the vessel on to the firing stage before it has had time to dry completely. When heated in the firing stage, the moisture still present in the clay will rapidly expand, causing the vessel to literally explode.
So what’s the difference? Crumble, explode, either way the form is destroyed. The difference is that when a form crumbles, only the form is destroyed. But, when the form explodes, not only is it destroyed, but it destroys all of the forms around it as well.
Here’s the question: How many times have we hurt the people around us because of our impatience? How many times have we rushed God’s timing and taken matters into our own hands, only to make a mess of our situations?
Often times, we think that we are are going through our trials alone and that our actions don’t affect anyone else. But the truth is that we have never, ever gone through a trial alone. Though it may feel as though we are alone, our loved ones are almost always hurting with us and for us when we make poor decisions that lead us into unfortunate situations.
Once the clay form is sufficiently dry, it is placed in an electric kiln (oven) and fired (baked) up to 1,945 degrees, for upwards 8 hours. When the clay form goes into the kiln, it is smooth and fragile. But when it comes out of the kiln, it is hard and rough and dry, like cement. When the clay goes into the kiln, it is full of chemical impurities, but when it comes out, the majority of the impurities have been burned away.
Does this sound familiar? Isn’t this how it is with us and our life trials? Long spells of intense heat, seemingly trying to kill us, but in the end making us stronger, and more refined?
After the bisque firing, though the form is strong, it is still porous, meaning that liquid can seep through it’s walls. As such, the form is unusable and needs to be glazed.
Glaze is a coating that serves to decorate and waterproof a ceramic vessel. When the glaze is ready to be applied, it is in a liquid form similar to paint. As such, the ceramic vessel can be decorated by dipping it in the glaze or the glaze can be delicately applied using a fine-tipped paint brush.
Thus, with attention to detail and a gentle touch, the potter cares for and prepares the masterpiece in progress.
Cares for and prepares… Well doesn’t that just say it all? As I understand it, there are only three possible stages in life: You are either about to go through a trial, you are in the midst of a trial, or you just came out of a trial. If you are about to go through a trial, then God is preparing you. If you just came out of trial, then God is caring for you, and yes, preparing you for the next trial. God cares and prepares.
So it is too, with the potter and the clay…
Once the vessel has been glazed, it is ready for the next firing.
Yes, that’s correct, another firing. But this firing is different. This is a Soda Firing as opposed to a Bisque Firing. While the Bisque Firing only lasted 8 hours, this Soda Firing will last upwards of 14 hours and while the Bisque Firing only reached 1,945 degrees, this Soda Firing will top out at 2,350 degrees. Another difference is that the bisque kiln utilized electricity to heat the oven, where as the soda kiln uses gas, which introduces flames into the kiln.
Now, doesn’t this metaphor fit right in with our life experiences? We go through a difficult trial, we then get a period of recovery, rest, and preparation, only to go into another trial that is hotter and longer than the last one?
Here’s a point of interest: When do you think that the kiln reaches the peak temperature of 2,350 degrees – In the first hour of firing, the seventh hour of firing, or the last hour of firing?
Normally, our trials start out manageable, but as time progresses, they tend to get more and more difficult. The longer the trial lasts, the harder and hotter they get, right? Well, here’s some encouragement: If you are in the midst of an incredibly long, incredibly challenging trial, and you’re not sure how much more you can take, then it is literally time rejoice! For just like the soda firing, the intensity of our trials peak at the end. If it’s getting hotter, that means your getting closer. The finish line is just around the bend.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. - James 1:2-4
Though at times it may be difficult to recognize, these trials purify us and make us stronger. They humble us and at the same time create in us a confidence that with God, nothing is impossible. In the long view, these trials are good for us.
The same is true for the pot: During the Soda Firing, the glaze that was painted onto the pot transforms from a coat of paint into a thin layer of glass. Most people think that the glaze is primarily for decoration, but it’s this layer of nonporous glass that makes the ceramic form safe to eat and drink out of. Which means that without this last firing, this vessel would leak, break apart, and be of no use.
And just as the pot needs the firings to be made useful, so too do we need our trials.
God creates forms to be useful. He didn’t make us simply to sit and look pretty. He made us so that He could use us in order to carry out His will of loving one another. But, in order for us to be useful, we must first be wedged and centered and pulled and trimmed and handled and dried and fired and glazed and fired again.
At this point, it should be no secret: being clay is hard work. Some people think that once you become a follower of Jesus Christ that all of your problems simply melt away, but that’s just not the case. On the contrary, surrendering your life to Christ and staying surrendered is incredibly difficult. Even so, the only thing harder than following Jesus and His will for our lives is, well, not following Jesus and trying to do it on our own.
Without the potter, the clay has no purpose. Without the potter, the clay is of no use. But, with the potter, like us with God, oh the possibilities.