PREDESTINATION AND FREE WILL
"As the clay is in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand" (Jer. 18:6)
The pottery industry is mechanized nowadays, and cups and plates and dishes are pressed out by the million. But even today most large potteries have at least one potter's wheel, at which an expert craftsman may be seen doing miracles with a lump of clay. He "throws" it on a flat revolving turntable, centralizes it and thrusts his fist into the middle. Up it leaps around his knuckles forming a bowl. Then he cups his other hand around the outside, and presses the two hands together. The clay magically responds, taking on whatever shape he pleases. When the required vessel is formed he removes it carefully from the wheel, leaves it to dry out, and eventually "fires" it in the kiln or oven, where its shape is fixed forever.
The potter's wheel has remained unchanged in principle since the dawn of civilization. Only the method of driving it is different. Nowadays it is powered by electricity. Before that, there was a treadle and crank. In Biblical times even the treadle and crank had not been invented: they had two turntables, an upper and a lower, connected by a vertical spindle. The clay was thrown on the upper and larger one while the potter sat and rotated the lower, smaller table with his bare feet.
A potter was working on such a wheel in Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was watching the man at his fascinating craft. He took up some coarse clay, threw it on the wheel, spun the lower disc with his feet till he got up speed, then pressed his hands into the clay. He was trying at first to fashion a delicate vase, but the material was too gritty and uneven; the slender walls broke through. So he flattened it out and began again, this time moulding a pot of cruder and rougher design, to suit the nature of the clay.
As Jeremiah gazed, the scene changed in his inward vision and he saw the LORD GOD seated at the wheel fashioning his people Israel. The Lord had intended that Israel should be a holy nation—a delicate vase in which the mellow wine of truth might be stored. But the people had sinned, adulterated themselves, coarsened their clay; as a consequence, his high purpose for them had to be reconsidered, revised. Now he was moulding them afresh, giving them a destiny more in keeping with the worldly tendencies which they had chosen to cultivate.
"O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter?" said the Lord. "Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. I may at one time speak concerning a nation, to build it up and to plant it; but, if it do evil in my sight by obeying not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them." And we know this came about historically. The high destiny the Lord had planned for Israel was not fulfilled. "The vessel that the potter made was marred in his hand; so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it." Yet, if the house of Israel were at any time to repent, the divine Potter would again reconsider their destiny, and fashion them into a noble vase. "Now, therefore, return every one from his evil ways, and make your ways and your doings good."
That was the message which Jeremiah delivered to the people next day in the market place, exhorting them to repent of their evils and be converted, in order that the Lord might give them another chance. But instead of hearkening to the prophet's words, they plotted against his life. So, in the next chapter of the Book, we find him carrying a pot outside the city walls, in company with the elders and priests, and deliberately smashing it there and throwing the pieces down. (Very dramatic, some of the things the prophets did!) "Thus says the Lord," he cried; "Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter's vessel that cannot be made whole again."
The teaching is clear. The LORD is the potter, but he fashions the pot according to the nature of the clay. Thus, although Providence over-rules everything, nevertheless in the long run we ourselves are responsible for what we become, since we provide the clay.
Strangely enough, it is customary to quote this concept of the potter to prove exactly the opposite idea—that of Predestination. Paul started it in his letter to the Romans, where we read, in the Authorised Version, "Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?" (Romans 9:21.) The implication is that God could deliberately choose to make certain vessels unto dishonour, which is quite shocking; we certainly cannot accept that! Maybe the translation is at fault. The New English Bible is a distinct improvement. It reads, "Is he not free to make out of the same lump two vessels, one to be treasured, the other for common use?" That is all right, as the pot in common use is just as "honourable" as the fancy vase in the show cabinet. Perhaps more so!
Obviously there is some truth in the widely accepted doctrine of Predestination. The areas in which we can exercise our freedom of choice are conspicuously small. We are as we are. Some are born rich, some poor; some healthy, some ailing; some black, some white; some clever, some not so bright. Is it our fault that this or that happens to us? There really does seem to be a superior Power moving us about like pawns on a chess board. The Greeks called it "Fate" and thought of it as being more or less malevolent. The old philosophers spoke of "determinism" and said that our lives are the inevitable outcome of our heredity and environment....
A tram has to keep to its tracks, but a bus can go careering wherever its driver fancies. Which are we? A bit of both, I guess. There definitely are occasions when we can take over the controls. But even a bus driver doesn't usually career irresponsibly down any old road; he keeps to a pre-determined route and stops voluntarily at the proper bus-stops. We receive our instructions beforehand, and if we obey them faithfully there is a kind of collaboration or co-operation between us and our Master which gets us along admirably. Providence works through us, and we work through Providence, and all goes well.
Can the clay say to the potter, "Make me this way, make me that way"? Of course not! The Potter is wiser than the clay, and has ideas of his own which the clay can know nothing of. Yet, and this is the point which the Determinist misses, the clay has a say in it too! Indeed, the quality of the clay actually determines, in the final analysis, what the pot shall be. We provide the raw material with which the Potter works. And this is not just our inherited character; we alter it daily. If it eventually becomes so coarse that he cannot achieve the plans he had in mind for us, he has to modify those plans. And in the end perhaps the pot breaks altogether and has to be thrown on the rubbish heap outside the city walls. Or, on the other hand, if our nature becomes purer through the positive exercise of our free-will within the limited areas of its operation; if we succeed in refining our characters sufficiently—then the Lord can set to work on a more delicate design.
Does this mean he is continually changing his plans for us? In a sense, yes. He looks ahead, sees how we are going to behave in certain circumstances, and immediately sets in motion forces which will, when the time comes, produce the best possible outcome from the point of view of Eternity. Of course there are millions of other people, also making free choices, so that getting the best possible results for everybody is not easy! None of us could do it, not even with the most sophisticated computers. It is a work involving infinite Love, Wisdom and Power. But it does involve the continual modification of plans.
I think it mostly goes in phases. There are crisis periods in our spiritual development. We can look back afterwards and say, "At that point the direction of my life seemed to change." Of course the change had been building up before, out of sight; but suddenly it is as if the Potter said: "The quality of this clay has deteriorated so badly that I cannot continue with what I am doing; I must crush it down and start again on something else." Or, on the other hand, hopefully he will say: "This clay is so much finer than it was when I began, I think I could make something really worthwhile out of it!" He will squeeze and press it between his fingers on the wheel, testing and straining it to the utmost to see what it is capable of sustaining. It will be a painful and disturbing process while the pressure is being applied; but what bliss when we begin to realize what a transformation he is effecting in us! It might be a good thing if we ourselves did a bit of introspection, to check up on the quality of our clay. What sort of raw material are you? Do you think the Lord can do much with you as you are? Is your clay smooth and consistent all through? Or are there rough, gritty bits of ill temper, corroding areas of acid resentment, or a lack of cohesion due to doubts, faithlessness, no confidence in anything? Some people are just about to fall to pieces owing to the fact that their external lives are utterly at variance with their internal thoughts and feelings; what can they expect God to do with them? What kind of vessel would you like to become? Well, it is ultimately up to you! Perhaps, if you were to purify your basic clay a little, he would be able to do better with you than you might expect—better than your highest dreams of what you would like to become. No, he doesn't need your advice! He can think up better things for you than you yourself ever could! Some quite ordinary people, when they die and wake up on the other side, find themselves changing rapidly for the better as they drop their earthly limitations. It's like a plant bursting into blossom. They are amazed to find themselves taken up into heaven, when all they did was to provide suitable clay! Isn't it wonderful what the Lord can do?
Don't worry, then, no matter what happens to you. Be joyful and confident, knowing that "all things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose." (Romans 8:28). We should accept our destiny gladly, even though the pressure of the Potter's fingers is sometimes painful as he shapes us either into a vessel to be treasured or one for common use—but in any case a vessel of honour in his sight.
God's over-ruling Providence is controlling everything for the best, taking the whole picture into account. There is a kind of "predestination" in this sense, and we can thank God there is, as he knows much better than we do. But we have our responsibility in the contract; we must provide the best possible lump of clay. We must, by shunning evils as sins, strive to be good, through and through. Clever? Yes, that can be useful, but it is not essential. Cleverness is terribly over-valued in our western culture. The essential thing is to provide the Potter with workable clay. If we do, then he will wonderfully manipulate it with his firm yet tender hands; and, like the expert craftsman he is, he will produce a thing of beauty—even from someone like me and you! A miracle of beauty, which will astonish even ourselves! Then he will gently remove us from the rotating wheel of time and circumstance—that wheel which is perpetually spinning round and round; and will fire us in the kiln of death. We shall be taken out of time into eternity, and will occupy, as it were, an honoured place in either the kitchen or the parlour of one of the many mansions of heaven.