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The Potter and the Clay: Transformed by God From the Inside

Bible Reflections series of Bible Studies on Faith Forward

There are several places in the Bible where God is referred to as the Potter, but in Isaiah 64, the imagery of the relationship between us and God the Potter and the Clay, is really quite striking. In this reflection, I’ll look at how there are such vivid comparisons in the way a potter shapes clay and God shapes us.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Isaiah 64:8

When I read Isaiah 64:8 this morning, I was reminded of the pottery wheel my friend Ben had when we were 9 or 10. We loved getting our hands dirty; we loved making misshapen creations that Ben’s mom would fire for us in the oven. The things we created were often ugly and never of any use – but Ben’s mom kept them and cherished them all the same. The thing is, we are kind of like those clay creations I made as a child.

Before we surrender to God, as the potter who can mold us, we might be a bit knocked out of shape, dented or lopsided – but God loves and cherishes us all the same – just like Ben’s mom cherished the things we made. We don’t have to be perfect. God can still use us will all our imperfections. And more than that – we’re not entirely like the pots I made as a child. We haven’t been in the refining fire – we’re still on the Potter’s wheel, being molded and shaped lovingly by our Father.

Understanding the symbolism of the potter and the clay in the Bible can help us in our faith journey, so let’s take a look at what we can learn from Isaiah 64 about the similarities between us and a piece of clay!

The Potter and the Clay: Stages of Refinement

It struck me, as I sat reflecting on Isaiah 64, just how profound the symbolism of the potter and the clay is. There are many stages to the creation of pottery – just as there are many stages to the way God shapes us into the creations he wants us to be. In breaking down the stages, there are important lessons to be learned.

Stage 1 – Readying the clay

When a potter is preparing to work the clay, he has to make sure that the clay is soft and pliable before it can be molded and shaped on the wheel. To achieve this state, the potter adds water to soften the clay and make it ready.

Just as the clay needs to be made ready, we, too, have to ensure that we are pliable enough – open enough – to be molded. If we want to be shaped by God, we need to drink the Living Water – the Word of God – to prepare ourselves for the shaping process. Only by making ourselves ready can we benefit from the power of the potter and the clay.

Stage 2 – Centring the clay

Once the clay is soft and malleable enough, the potter has to throw the clay into the very centre of the wheel. If the clay isn’t centered on the wheel, it is impossible to work – as soon as the potter tries to work un-centered clay, it will tear free of the wheel.

This represents our need to be grounded and centered in Christ. It means to surrender – allowing Jesus to be the Lord and Saviour of our lives. By centering ourselves in Christ, we are making the way for God to shape us. It may be difficult, but we have to get out of the driving seat and let Jesus do the driving. We could try to carry on doing things our own way – but ultimately, all we’ll do is fly off the Potter’s wheel.

Stage 3 – Having patience

The potter embarking on a project has to have a great deal of patience – a slow and steady approach is required. Working clay on a wheel cannot be rushed. Impatience, going too fast, results in the clay tearing from the wheel.

The same is true of the way God molds and shapes us. We have to be patient, remembering that God’s timing is perfect. It’s easy to be impatient, it’s easy to feel that God isn’t acting quickly enough and try to take action ourselves – but we have to surrender to His infinite wisdom. We live in a world of the instant – but God wants us to wait patiently on Him, to trust that He knows best. He’s been using the potter and the clay method of shaping us for millennia, so He knows what He’s doing!

Stage 4 – Transformed from the inside as well as the outside

When the clay is malleable and centered, the potter can begin work – by plunging his fist into the center of the lump of clay, beginning the process of creating something beautiful. As the pottery grows, the potter’s hand remains on the inside, shaping from the inside as well as the outside.

Potter and the Clay at work, with hands inside the clay shaping it all the time
The potter and the clay – shaping the clay from the inside.

In the same way, we have to allow God to transform us from the inside. This often means letting Him get deep inside us so that He can clear out all the junk that stands in the way of our transformation. It can be painful because the negative parts of us have to be dealt with – but isn’t it worth it? Isn’t it worth it to be able to be transformed from a shapeless lump of clay to a beautiful creation?

Stage 5 – Growth

The clay grows as it is molded into a piece of pottery. It grows until the potter is satisfied with the result. No potter would leave a piece of pottery half-finished.

Likewise, we have to grow as God molds and shapes us. Many people get so far on their faith journey and quit because the transformation is too hard, painful, and difficult. But God wants to mold us to our full potential. He wants us to grow in Him – to trust Him to know when that point is reached.

Stage 6 – Wonderfully and fearfully made

The potter knows what he is going to create before ever he starts working with the clay. He has an end result in mind – he knows exactly what he wants to achieve.

So does God. He has a plan for us from the moment we were formed (this is mentioned in Psalm 139:16; and Jeremiah 29:11, too.) We have to trust Him. We have to let go and let Him shape us as He decrees, not as we think we should be shaped.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Psalm 139:16

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Jeremiah 29:11

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 29:16

Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’

Isaiah 45:9b

Stage 7 – Being attentive

When a potter is creating a piece of pottery, he cannot take his eyes off the clay he’s working on. His attention is focused on the thing he is creating.

Likewise, God is always focused on us – He is always attentive. It may seem that there are times when He has taken His eyes –and indeed His hand – off us, but that is never truly the case. He takes great delight in His creations!

The LORD your God is with you; he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

Zephaniah 3:17

Stage 8 – Getting rid of excess clay

Once the potter is satisfied with the pottery he has created, he has to trim away the excess clay that has accumulated around the pot.

In the same way, God has to toss out the trash that invariably accumulates in us – the things that don’t contribute or indeed hinder the person God wants us to be. Bad habits, residual sin that we haven’t got rid of ourselves – God will trim all these things away, as painful as that might sometimes seem.

It’s important not to try to hold onto the things God wants to cut away because these are usually the things holding us back. He knows best – and we need to submit to His will.

Stage 9 – Each creation is unique

Every piece of pottery fashioned on a wheel is, by default, unique. There may be similarities between two pieces, but they can never be completely identical because of the way they are made.

We, too, are unique creations, fashioned by God to be individuals designed to His own specifics. We each have our talents and giftings – and none of us are, in God’s eyes, any more gifted than the next. We might think that because we can’t do X but someone else can, we’re not as important – but God chose our giftings specifically for us. He had a plan for each and every one of us – and He loves us all the same. He doesn’t practice favoritism! 

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.
16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?
18 But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.
19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”
22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.
26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

(1 Corinthians 12:12-26)
Potter and the Clay reflections on Isaiah 64 how God is the potter and the clay represents us

The Potter and The Clay – The Context of Isaiah 64

The potter and clay imagery in Isaiah 64 is strongest in verse 8, but there are other important lessons that we can take from the verses that surround it. As with all Bible study and reflection, reading verses in context is important so as to avoid misinterpreting the meaning. Too often, people will take verses out of context to hammer home a certain point, in some cases completely skewing God’s intended meaning.

Key Takeaways from Isaiah 64

  • Isaiah 64:1-5a: crying out to God. In these verses, we see a crying out and recognition of the fallenness of God’s people. of the need to surrender to the Potter’s hands, of the need to be molded and shaped and stripped of sinfulness.
  • Isaiah 64:5b-7: the effects of sin. These verses are important in understanding both the un-watered clay and the un-centered clay: it cannot be worked, and it cannot be transformed into something beautiful. In my heart, this stirs a need to fall on my knees and cry out for mercy for those who continue to resist the Potter’s hand.
  • Isaiah 64:8a: But God! He is merciful. He is our loving Father. This is also seen in Isaiah 63:16b: “you, O LORD, are our Father,  our Redeemer from of old is your name.” He doesn’t give up. He waits patiently at the wheel for us to surrender, to become malleable and ready to be shaped. The image of God as Father is a powerful expression of God’s care and responsibility in the world – but it is rare in the OT.
  • Isaiah 64:9-12 – God has the right to be angry. He has the right to turn His back on us, but He is our Father, and we are His children. There is recognition that the suffering is deserved because of rebellion and the resistance to the Potter’s molding hands. There is also recognition that the ultimate punishment would be for God to step away from the Potter’s wheel, to hold up His hands and say, “No, enough is enough.”

The threat of vengeance, of the wrath of God, is a frequent theme in Isaiah – but so too is the promise of redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. There is redemption for those who trust in the Lord and mercy for those who surrender to the Potter’s hands.

Preparing Ourselves for the Potter’s transformation

If we want to fully benefit from God’s potter and the clay approach, we need to be prepared to work with Him. Just as a potter can’t mold a piece of dry clay, God can’t mold us unless we:

  • Make ourselves ready to be molded and shaped. God can’t work with dry clay. We need to prepare ourselves spiritually by drinking from the water of life (i.e., embracing the wisdom of Jesus in our lives.)
  • Center ourselves in Christ. We need to surrender to His sovereignty and infinite wisdom and start living our lives as a reflection of His teaching.
  • Have patience. I know that this is a hard one. Patience is not one of my virtues. However, we have to trust the process and not try to rush God.
  • Allow God to get rid of the junk within us. This can be painful, but it’s worth it. God wants to remove the parts of us that are unhelpful so that we can reach our potential. We must allow Him to transform us from the inside out.
  • Allow ourselves to grow in faith. Growing is part of the process transformation by God, but when things get tough, it’s easy to think about quitting. Growth is hard sometimes, so we need to resolve not to quit when life gets hard.
  • Recognize that God has a plan for us. There are plenty of references to the plans that God has for His people, but sometimes we can’t see that plan and that’s when we can start to make our own plans. We need to resist that temptation and trust that He knows best!
  • Remember that God never takes His eyes off us. When bad stuff happens, it’s easy to feel abandoned by God, but He promises never to leave or forsake us, and we can depend on the truth that He never takes His eyes off of us.
  • Allow God to trim away the excess clay. Even when we’re fully obedient to the process that God is enacting as the Potter, we may still accumulate things that drag us down, such as bad attitudes, unhelpful thinking patterns, and such like. Allowing God to trim away the parts of us that don’t contribute to the person God wants us to be is important.
  • Realize that we are all unique and special to God. We’re all individuals, and one of the biggest obstacles to the potter and the clay process is our tendency to compare ourselves to others. God gives us individual gifts and has individual plans for our lives. We should never covet the gifts that God has given to someone else. It doesn’t make us any less special to God – He simply has a different plan for us.

Understanding the implications of Isaiah 64

The message of Isaiah 64 is that we have a choice. We can risk the wrath of God. We can carry on in sin and disobedience – and risk Him stepping away from the Potter’s wheel – or we can surrender, make ourselves malleable, and let God shape us into the people He wants us to be.

History tells us that God has stepped away from the Potter’s wheel in the light of continued rebellion and disobedience. The people of Israel turned away – and first, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded (by the Assyrians) and the people exiled (720BC), then the Southern Kingdom of Judah was invaded (by the Babylonians) and the people exiled (597BC).

The chosen people of God, who had rebelled so much, would not be truly free until the formation of the nation-state of Israel in 1947. There is an urgency in Isaiah 64 that is as relevant today as it was when Isaiah was writing hundreds of years before Christ. The day of vengeance will come, and when it does, I want to be a lovingly molded piece of pottery, not a lump of dried-up clay. 

What will you choose?

Other References to the Potter and Clay in the Bible

2 “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 4 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.5 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

Jeremiah 18:2-6

8 “Your hands shaped me and made me.  Will you now turn and destroy me? 9 Remember that you moulded me like clay. Will you now turn me to dust again?

Job 10:8-9

16 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 29:16

Frequently Asked Questions About the Potter and the Clay

What does clay represent spiritually?

There’s a lot of symbolism in the Bible, and in the case of clay, one of the main representations is of God shaping us. However, clay can also symbolize renewal and reincarnation. That’s because nothing is wasted while a piece of clay is being worked – the potter can always start again and reshape the clay. Clay is always moldable until it’s fired in a kiln. This represents how God can reshape and remold us no matter how much we mess up by trying to do things our way.

What did Jesus say about clay?

Almost all of the imagery about the potter and the clay in the Bible are in the Old Testament, so Jesus Himself never actually talked about clay. In John 9:6, Jesus uses mud to heal a man of blindness, which is similar to the idea of molding clay, but there’s no direct evidence of Jesus talking about clay.

Who did God create out of clay?

Technically, the answer to that question is no one – but in the early chapters of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, we’re told that God “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7) Clay comes from the earth, so we can say that all human beings originated as clay. The Old Testament is rich with references to the potter and the clay, too.

Why did God send Jeremiah to the potter’s house?

In Jeremiah 18, we read how God sent the prophet Jeremiah to the Potter’s House – but why, and what can we learn from it? At the Potter’s House, God taught Jeremiah an important lesson:
“So I went down to the potter’s house and saw him working with clay at the wheel.  He was making a pot from clay. But there was something wrong with the pot. So the potter used that clay to make another pot. With his hands, he shaped the pot the way he wanted it to be.” (Jeremiah 18:3-4)
God wanted to show Jeremiah that God, as the potter, shapes and molds us into the people He always planned for us to be.

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