Jeremiah 18:1-11 (NIV)
Everyday Life in Bible Times (John A. Beck)
We all yield to something, whether we are aware of it or not. We are controlled by what we value. For some of us, it’s emotions, the need to please, or addictions. For others, it’s a career. A boss. Greed. Sports. Competition. Some of these things are not wrong or bad in and of themselves, but it’s the degree to which we surrender to these things and sacrifice other things that determines who we become.
In Jeremiah 18, God is comparing himself to a potter and the nation of Israel as the clay. This comparison is significant because no other artifact is found more frequently in archaeological sites of the Promised Land than pieces of pottery (potsherds). God is urging the fledgling nation to yield to his guiding. The metaphor can also be extended to our individual, personal relationship to God. “This generates a highly personal image of the creating process and suggests an intimacy in the Lord’s relationship with his creation. The election of the Israelites as God’s chosen people is characterized with the same vocabulary; he is the one who carefully shapes his handiwork (Isa. 43; 44:2, Jer. 10:16; 51:19). While such imagery conveys the intimacy between the Lord and his creation, it also defines the hierarchy in that relationship. As a potter, God is clearly sovereign,” (Beck, 201-203).
But what if a lump of clay had a will of its own? What if the clay rejects the potter, or is scared to let go of control? That’s what was happening through the time during which the book of Jeremiah was written. So the Lord directs Jeremiah to go to a potter’s house and observe the potter shaping the pot on a wheel, noting particularly the moment when the dissatisfied potter destroys the imperfect piece on the wheel and reshapes the raw material into a better vessel (Jeremiah 18: 1-4.) The point here is that the potter destroys an imperfect clay vessel not because he made a mistake, but because the clay is not cooperative.
We have all gazed at the finished product, but how many of us have an appreciation for the hours and hours of work and skill required of the potter to create the beautiful and functional art? I had no idea myself, and I have never been one to enjoy making anything tangible with my hands, but I decided to take one ceramics lesson to get a feel for what it takes to shape clay. A five-once cup and a slightly taller warped cup were the products of my one-hour lesson. During my first two attempts of “centering,” when you thrust the clay on the wheel and start the spinning to secure it, the clay was wobbly under my inexperienced hands. “You’re letting the clay control you. You have to control the clay. This takes a lot of upper arm strength,” my teacher reminded me. I had to imagine doing a push-up, and by my third try, I (sort of) got it right. With both hands cupped around the clay, I squeezed as hard as I could while simultaneously pressing (it felt like shoving) downward with my thumbs.
The next step is the shaping process of creating the walls and rim of the cup. Your sense of touch is more important here than a visual study of the clay. You need to apply just enough equal pressure between your index finger and thumb as you pull the clay up while avoiding too much pressure thereby creating a weak spot and causing collapse. I struggled. I couldn’t find the right balance. (This is not unlike working with cookie dough to find just the right combination of flour and water to make cutout cookies, which I find equally vexing.) My teacher had to stop my wheel several times to fix my lopsided walls. Twice she and I agreed to discard the clay and start over. “Even the most skilled potter has to start over a few times, when either the clay isn’t cooperative, or the potter simply messes up,” she said.
But God, the master creator, never makes a mistake when he creates. He does not survey his work and realize, “I did not apply enough pressure to make that rim even.” It gave me a deeper appreciation for the perfect and good God that he is. Unlike me, a master potter knows exactly where and how much pressure to apply in order to form the perfect vessel.
Our God needs no practice. He was, is and will always be perfect. But that does not mean we are to strive for perfection, but gives us more appreciation for what only he can do. And that’s where I find gratitude and can then surrender into what he wants to create in me. Because I can trust that it will be beautiful even though the process is scary and often uncomfortable.
The pressure and the squeezing of the master potter are like the trials, problems and challenges that God allows in the lives of believers who choose to yield to an often uncomfortable, unpleasant leading in order to become useful vessels and transformed into beauty. Will we choose to believe that God can create beauty out of our mess? Or our lump of nothingness? There are days when I know my stubbornness and fear prevent God from doing only what he can do in my life, and I yield to doubt and complacency instead. We all like our comfort zones where life just seems easier. Mine is called “lumpville,” and I am slowly working on getting out of here on my journey of transformation.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for your infinite patience while you watch us struggle when we can’t see beyond lumpville the plan you want to work out in us. Forgive us for yielding to everything else but you. Help us to trust that the pain and discomfort we almost always experience as you stretch us and press down is for a higher good. We were meant for more because that’s how you created us. Help us out of lumpville and into vessels of beauty. Amen.