I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. (Jeremiah 18.3-4)
Shaped by Weaknesses
My cousin and I were having a heart-to-heart discussion about past mistakes we’d not been comfortable sharing when we were younger. We marveled at how essential our foolishness became to our growth and maturity. The feeling no one understood planted in us a calling to understand. The fear our mistakes were unforgivable taught us why forgiveness is such a gift—not in terms of being forgiven, but in being able to forgive. The pain and isolation we suffered heightened our compassion for those suffering pain and isolation. Would we do things differently? Probably. We would be better for it? Perhaps not.
We were astounded by how much we’re shaped by weaknesses. Remorse is a powerful motivator and sorrow often steers us to happier places. How we’re affected by our failure indubitably affects our response to failure around us. As we talked on about this “shaping” business, our thoughts turned to the Jeremiah passage about the potter. And we noticed something that neither of us ever considered before—something that may have changed us both forever.
The First Half of the Story
“I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel,” Jeremiah says. When he enters, the potter's been at the wheel quite a while. He doesn’t say what’s gone into getting the clay this far. But it's clear Jeremiah only observes the back half of the story. The clay has already taken the shape of a pot—a vessel. Even at this late stage, there are issues. “The pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him,” we’re told. (Jeremiah 18.4) The pressure of the molding causes the potter to start over again. The process has reached a point where his sole concern is the vessel. The metaphor is very clear. We are clay in our Potter's hands and He patiently works at the wheel, molding and remaking us until we're shaped to His pleasure. Still there’s more to this than shaping a vessel. The first half of the story is buried in the clay.
Jeremiah doesn’t see the potter dig the clay out of a pit, or how he holds it in his hands, warming it to his touch. He kneads it to make it more malleable. Once he’s confident this inert lump can become something useful, he puts it on the wheel. As the clay revolves, flaws and impurities come to the surface. Some are inherent to the clay. Some are imbedded by the carelessness of others—shards of glass, cast-off paper and twine, bent nails, etc. With each spin, the potter meticulously pulls these unworthy bits from the clay. He smoothes out the flaws and reinforces the weak spots. As he continues, the clay falters. Forces at work cause it to buckle and collapse. The potter knows he’s working with an unwieldy medium. It’s sticky and resistant. So he introduces water to increase its pliability. He’s prepared to refine his approach, recalibrating his touch until the clay becomes the vessel he envisions. This is the part of the story Jeremiah witnesses—the reshaping of the pot. But what he misses—what we miss—is the time on the wheel that makes the clay useful.
We are vessels with clay beginnings. Our Potter doesn’t take us off a shelf of prefabricated pots. He digs us out of the pit. He sees in our raw material something He can use. And long before we achieve any recognizable form as His vessels of honor, He works with us, removing our impurities, smoothing out our flaws, reinforcing our weak spots. The water of His Spirit makes us pliable and easier to work with.
Rather than lament past failures due to inherent flaws and impurities imbedded in us by others’ carelessness, we rejoice. All those “lost” times were not lost at all. They comprise the first half of our story—the time on the wheel needed to make our clay useful. We’re not pretty during this phase of our shaping. It’s a messy, messy experience. The beauty comes later, when the vessel becomes a recognizable product of the Potter’s patience. But even then the vessel’s value is in the clay—its strength to withstand future heat and pressure because of its time on the wheel.
We waste too much worry trying to escape or explain our past, when we should embrace it (in all its messiness) as essential to our making. Battles with guilt and resentment are futile relics of a time before we discovered our Potter held us in hands all along. “Being confident of this,” Philippians 1.6 encourages us, “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” The good work in us began long, long ago, long before being aware we were clay in the Potter’s hands, long before we responded to His touch, long before we believed we could become honorable vessels. We’ve been on the wheel longer than we realize. And yes, we've got a long way yet to go. But once we recognize how much the Potter's already done with us on the wheel, trusting His care and judgement become part of the process.
Long before we take shape as worthy vessels, the Potter works with our clay.