The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Like Clay in the Hand?

The hardest question – can I trust that God is now doing what “seems best to him?”

by Doug Pagitt

Old Testament Reading: Jeremiah 18:1-11

For Sunday, September 5, 2010: Year C - Ordinary 23

“Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘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: 5 -6).

This narrative from Jeremiah is a famous and influential one. People understand it and can relate to it. It has a familiar sense to it. Many of us have formed a simple pot in a junior high art class and can relate to the story from the potter’s perspective, but this story is also discomforting to many people.

What Is the Point?

While we may understand the will of the potter to shape a pot, the notion that God’s engagement with nations is to this activity seems petty and capricious. Maybe it is that junior high art class again. I know that I didn’t really see myself deeply invested in the candy dish I made in 7th grade. I think many of us feel that if God is going to behave toward entire nations like a potter deciding the shape of a pot then what’s the point?

Think of Pakistan

Now, read this passage through the lens of our modern day philosophical perspectives — determinism, free will, “God as an independent actor” theories — and it again changes the way many hear this story. It’s hard for us to hear this story and not think of Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina, Indonesia, and Afghanistan. It’s not a story that brings the care and love of God for the world to mind.

It seems that if one puts the emphasis on the line, “’This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you,” we will have one reading of this story. However, if the emphasis is on the line, “so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him,” then the conversation shifts. The second line seems to make it onto a lot of church needlepoints, but not so with the previous line.

The Hardest Question

The hardest question for me to answer in this text is can I trust that God is now doing what “seems best to him”?

When it comes to these sorta-formal, non-personal, psueo-professional introductions, Doug likes to refer to himself self as a social and theological entrepreneur (something he would never do if you were to meet in person). Doug is the founder of Solomon’s Porch -a holistic missional Christian community in Minneapolis ( For more on Doug and his latest book, Church in the Inventive Age (sparkhouse press, 2010), check out


  1. Rick Brand says:

    One aspect of the Free Will-Determinism question and the examples used is that the story does talk about the flaws in the clay. Much of the pain, suffering, damage and heartbreak of natural disasters is caused and increased by our human participation. This does not let God off the hook, but it does remind us that we just can blame God for all the houses destroyed in Katrina. The levee were known to be weak. We cannot blame God for all the death in Haiti as the exploitation and rape of that country has been long standing. There is an inter-action in this potter with the clay and whether it is good clay or not, and apparent in Jeremiah we have some choice in the quality of clay we are allowed to become.

  2. Nice, Rick. What do you think is the hardest question?

  3. Mel Brandt says:

    I can’t quite figure out how to get from your “hardest question” to an actual sermon. It seems like the point of this website is to think up really hard questions to ask the text that may or may not have anything to do with the larger context. Sorta like, what’s on your mind – can’t any idiot do this? I mean, while I think questioning the text is really important, isn’t the text also to raise some questions for us. And isn’t preaching, which certainly is about bringing our questions to the text – also about listening for a word from the Lord in the text to us. In a passage like this, for instance, wouldn’t it be interesting to read the passage in the larger context of the book of Jeremiah so that, with a little work, you might actually be able to answer your own question. I know the exegesis-eisegesis distinction is often overblown – after all, there is no interesting exegesis without some serious self-involvement. Having said that, this site seems like eisegesis-central.

  4. karla says:


    I haven’t worked through what I think the hardest question is in this text. I am, however, a potter. I think that potters, real potters have great investment in clay. There is this relationship between clay and the potter of mutual respect, wonder, creativity, longing, and love.

    I appreciate Rick’s words…

    It is a difficult text, though, because there is a sense of a capricious God in this text, and I think looking at the larger picture of Jeremiah is important, as Mel points out.

    I don’t know how this text will preach through me…

    But after reading it and rereading it, I think the hardest question in this text is what’s up with God changing God’s mind to do good or not?

    “then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it…”

  5. JoeyS says:

    Maybe the question is really, “Do we trust God to make something beautiful out of this rebellious clay?”

    I’ve only dabbled in pottery – just enough to know that though my hands are used to shape the clay I cannot determine how the clay will shape up. I can change the environment, use some more water, change the wheel speed, use a tool here or there, but my hands are used to adapt to the ever moving clay. What if a natural disaster were akin to clay being stubborn and that God’s response is to take the clay in front of him and work to make it beautiful?

  6. Grant Effer says:

    All thought provoking. I have no problem with God’s ‘apparent’ change as his intolerance for disobedience has never changed and is always punishable by a Holy God, who has given everything to sway the disobedient. Knowing that the difference between the marred pot and the pot filled to overflowing is the living water that cleanses out the impurities is exciting ‘good news’. The challenge, and perhaps the tough question for me, is how to help the ‘world’ (aka unsaved) understand how and why they should allow God to mold them, when they don’t see the value of a pitcher full to overflowing that can quench the world’s thirst, when they are satisfied with the dribble they have.


  1. [...] made. Maybe you agreed. Could be you defended the person in question. I read Doug Pagitt’s reflection on two of the RCL texts for the week over at The Hardest Question. For me, this is the hardest [...]

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