The Potter and the Clay

The Potter and the Clay

Arthur F. Winnington Ingram
Arthur F. Winnington Ingram

Author: Winnington Ingram, Arthur F. (Arthur Foley), 1858-1946
Church of England — Sermons
World War
1914-1918 — Sermons
English — 20th century
The Potter and the Clay

The Potter and the

By the

Right Rev.
Arthur F. Winnington Ingram, D.D.

Lord Bishop of London
The Young Churchman Co.
484 Milwaukee Street
Milwaukee,   –   –   –   Wis.




Another year, and we are still at War! But we must not mind, for we must see this thing through to the end. As Mr. Oliver said in his letter on “What we are fighting for,” published this week: “We are fighting for Restitution, Reparation, and Security, and the greatest of these is Security.” He means security that this horror shall not happen again, and that these crimes shall not again be committed; and he adds: “To get this security we must destroy the power of the system which did these things.”
Now it is clear that this power is not yet destroyed, and to make peace while it lasts is to betray our dead, and to leave it to the children still in the cradle to do the work over again, if, indeed, it will be possible for them to do it if we in our generation fail.

This book, then, is an answer to the question asked me very often during the past two years, and very pointedly from the trenches this very Christmas Day: “How can you reconcile your belief in a good God, who is also powerful, with the continuance of this desolating War? How can we still believe the Christian message of Peace on earth with War all around?”
It is with the hope that this book may comfort some mourning hearts, and bring some light to doubting minds, that I send forth “The Potter and the Clay.”
Feast of the Epiphany, 1917.




“Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear My words. Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.”—Jer. xviii. 2-4.

I suppose there is no metaphor in Holy Scripture that has been so much misunderstood and led to more mischief than this metaphor of the potter and the clay. Do not you know how, if any of us dared to vindicate the ways of God to men, again and again we were referred to the words of St. Paul: “Who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it: Why hast Thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” And so the offended human conscience was silenced but not satisfied. There is no doubt that the monstrous misrepresentation of Christianity which we call Calvinism arose chiefly from this metaphor; and few things have done more harm to the religion of the world than Calvinism. Those who believe that God is an arbitrary tyrant who simply works as a potter is supposed to work on clay, irrespective of character or any plea for mercy—how can such a person love God, or care for God, or wish to go to church or even pray? You cannot do it!
Thus there sprang up in some men’s minds just such a picture of God as is described by that wonderful genius, Browning. Some of you may have read the poem called “Caliban on Setebos,” in which the half-savage Caliban pictures to himself what sort of a person God is. He had never been instructed, he knew nothing; but he imagined that God would act towards mankind as he acted towards the animals and the living creatures on his island; and this is a quotation from that poem:

“Thinketh, such shows nor right nor wrong in Him.
Nor kind, nor cruel: He is strong and Lord.
Am strong myself compared to yonder crabs
That march now from the mountain to the sea;
Let twenty pass, and stone the twenty-first,
Loving not, hating not, just choosing so.
Say the first straggler that boasts purple spots
Shall join the file, one pincer twisted off?
Say, this bruised fellow shall receive a worm,
And two worms he whose nippers end in red;
As it likes me each time, so I do: so He.”

In other words, his picture of God was that of an arbitrary tyrant who rejoiced in his power, who did what he liked, who enjoyed tormenting, who would have looked down in glee upon the pictures that have so touched us in the paper of a woman, as she taught a Bible-class, killed by a Zeppelin bomb; and most touching of all of the little child who, with the stump of his arm, ran in and said: “They’ve killed daddy and done this to me.” These things stir our deepest feelings; but such a God as Caliban pictured his Setebos to be would have rejoiced at them and laughed to see them.

No wonder that this picture of God which has grown up in some minds produces absolute despair. People say, “If God is like that, what is the good of my doing anything? God will do what He likes, irrespective of what I do.” Or, again, it produces a spirit of fatalism: “I’m made like that! It’s not my fault.” Like Aaron when reproached about the golden calf—”I cast the gold they gave me into the fire, and there came out this calf.” And all this produces in the mind of mankind a kind of rebellion—nay, a hatred of God (“I hate God,” said a man once to me)—which makes it quite impossible for any religion or trust or desire to pray to exist in the human soul. It is well worth while, then, to run this metaphor of the potter and the clay back to its source.
Here in Jeremiah is the original passage about the potter and the clay. Now if you read for yourself this passage in the eighteenth chapter of Jeremiah, you will find an absolutely different picture given. If you go with Jeremiah to the potter’s house you find a humble, patient man at work dealing with refractory clay, patiently trying to make the best he can out of it, and when he is defeated in producing one object he makes another. If he cannot make a porcelain vase he will make a bowl; if he cannot produce a beautiful work of art he makes a flower-pot.
The potter has three things to notice about him. First of all, there is his patience. Then there is the fact that he is checked in his design by the clay at every moment. He has no arbitrary power; he is checked because he has to deal with a certain substance. And the last beautiful thing about the potter is his resourcefulness; he has always got the alternative of a second best. Though something has wrecked his first plan he has got another. This is the picture of God, these are the characteristics of God which we are to carry away from the potter and the clay.
1. Now just see, if this is so, what a tremendous light this throws upon the war. There are many to-day who do not think things out deeply, who look on this war as the breakdown of Christianity altogether. They say: All we have been taught, why, look how vain it is! Here are seven Christian nations at war and dragging in the rest of the world. All you have taught us about God, all you say about Christianity, is shown to be futile. We see the breakdown of Christianity indeed.
But wait a moment. Look at the potter and the clay, and see if you do not get some light from this. Here is the Potter, our great God; the great Potter knows what is in His mind; He has in His mind a world of universal peace. He is planning a porcelain vase in which the world is at peace. He meant men to be all of one mind. He made people of one blood to be of one mind in Christ Jesus. That is clearly His plan, His design, and we do well to pray for—

“… the promised time
When war shall be no more,
And lust, oppression, crime,
Shall flee Thy face before.”

That is His plan, that is His design, and some day He will see it accomplished. “He shall see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied.”
Meanwhile, because He acts like a potter, He is defeated again and again by the character of the clay, for He will not run counter to the free will of the individual or of a nation. If a great and powerful nation deliberately turns back from Christianity to Paganism, if that nation deliberately declares regret that it took up Christianity in the fourth century, if it has adopted the gospel that Might is Right, if the people turn to Odin as their ideal instead of to Christ, they defeat the plan of the great Potter; and so He cannot have the porcelain vase of universal peace. You have no right to blame God; it is the work of the Devil. God is hindered at every moment by the Devil and all his works; you cannot therefore blame our great and glorious God for the defeat of His design. The great Potter is not to be blamed because of the refractoriness of the clay.
But here comes the splendid resourcefulness of the great Potter. Although He cannot get out His first design of the porcelain vase of universal peace, He is not defeated. He has got a second-best; He will have a beautiful bowl of universal service—a people offering themselves out of sheer patriotism for the service of their country. And that is what He has produced to-day. Who would have thought that five millions of men would have volunteered to fight for their country? Who would have thought that every woman would feel herself disgraced if not doing something for her country as nurse, physician, or in a canteen? Why, the spirit of service abroad to-day among men and women is something we have not seen in our country for a hundred years. The great Potter, then, has produced something from the clay; He has produced the beautiful bowl of service. Let us thank Him for that!
2. But it is not only upon the war that the picture of the potter and the clay throws such light; it also shows what we have to do with our country. There are some people who imagine it is inconsistent to say two things at the same time. People blame me for declaring two things in the same breath. One is that we never have had such a righteous cause; that we are fighting for the freedom of our country, for the freedom of the world; that we are fighting for international honour, for the future brotherhood of nations; we are fighting for the “nailed hand against the mailed fist.” But, on the other hand, are we to speak as if we had no faults of our own? Are we to take the tone of Pharisees and say, “We thank God we are not as other men, even as these Germans”? We have to admit that we have grave national sins ourselves, and if we want to shorten the war we have to put these national sins away. That is why we are going to have a national mission this autumn, and we are preparing for it now.
The Church is going to preach this great national mission, and—please God—our Non-conformist brethren will fall in on their own lines and do the same. We have great national sins, and we have to put those away if we would shorten the war. What a disgrace it is still to have a National Drink Bill of 180 millions! What a disgrace it is that we have not yet more thoroughly mastered immorality in London! What shame it is that still there is so much love of comfort, and that there are people making all they can out of the war!

We have to get rid of all this; we must have the spirit of sacrifice from one end of the nation to the other. We have to ask the great Potter to remake the country, to give the Empire a new spirit. Why was it that, when I had myself pressed a Bill to diminish the licensing hours on Sunday from six to three—a harmless reform, you would have thought—to give the barmen and barmaids a chance of Sunday rest, that was shelved in the long run? Why was it that we could not raise the age for the protection of girls even to eighteen? There is much to be purged out of our country, and there could be no greater calamity than for this war to end and England still to be left with her national sins.
Therefore the great Potter must remake us. He may have to break some nations to pieces like a potter’s vessel. It is possible for a nation to be so stiffened in national sins that there may be nothing for it but to break it in pieces. We pray God that we may not be so far gone as that, that we may still be plastic clay in the hands of the Potter. That is our prayer, that is our ideal, to be a new England, a new British Empire, and that God may use us as His instrument in freeing the world.
3. But—and let this be my last word—we ourselves individually must be re-created. Have you ever thought, brother or sister, that the great Potter had a design for you? That, when He planned you, He planned a devoted man who would be a powerful influence in the world; that He planned you, my sister, to be an example of attractive goodness. How many people have you brought to Christ? How powerful a witness do you give in this city? Suppose that you, who were meant individually to be powerful instruments in God’s hand, vessels He could use, have become middle-aged cynics, or sneer at the religion you profess to believe in, there is only one thing to be done. You must get back to the design the great Potter had for you. We have all some reason to admit that we have been marred in the hands of the Potter, and to ask the Potter to make us into another vessel as it may seem good to the Potter to make us. In this there are only two conditions—to look up and to trust heaven’s wheel and not earth’s wheel.

“Look not thou down, but up!
To uses of a cup,
The festal board, lamp’s flash and trumpet’s peal,
The new wine’s foaming flow,
The master’s lips aglow!
Thou, heaven’s consummate cup, what needst thou with earth’s wheel?”[2]

We have to realise this, that we can be remade, that God’s power can do anything; but that we may go on for ever as we are unless we really put ourselves in the hands of God. What, then, I ask every one of you, is to take the clay of your nature with the prayer, “Just as I am, without one plea,” and place it in the great Potter’s hands, that He may re-create you into the man or woman God meant you to be. Nothing can more effectually shorten the days for our boys in the trenches.



“O God, wonderful art Thou in Thy holy places: Thou wilt give strength and power unto Thy people. Blessed be God.”—Ps. lxviii. 35.

At the great Convention of all the clergy of London in Advent, 1915, we saw reasons for thinking that what the world had been losing sight of was the majesty of God; the lowered sense of sin, the neglect of worship, the uppishness of man, the pessimism of the day, and the querulous impatience under discomfort, are all signs of the loss of the sense of the majesty of God.
But I want now to go farther than this; I want to prove that the only way to revive praise, hope, peace, sacrifice, and courage, is to revive a belief, not only in the majesty, but in the splendour of God. It was said not long ago that even good Christians believed all the Creed except the first clause of it.
But if we leave out the first clause, “I believe in God,” see what happens.
1. Prayer becomes unreal. It is only a delight when it is felt to be communion with a very noble and splendid person.

Lord, what a change within us one short hour
Spent in Thy presence can prevail to make!”[3]

is only true if that short and glorious hour is spent with an inspiring and glorious personality. When, like Moses, our faces should shine as we come down from the mount.
2. Praise becomes practically impossible. Sometimes we say, “We really must praise God more.” But we cannot make ourselves praise, any more than we can move a boat by swinging up and down in it. We must pull against something to make it move. What we want is an adequate idea of the splendour of God. When we come in sight of Mont Blanc or Niagara, or when we hear of some gallant deed on the battlefield, we say “How splendid!” quite naturally. We shall praise quite naturally when we catch sight—if only for a moment—of the true character of God, or believe He has done something great.
3. Religion, which means something which binds us to God, becomes an uninspiring series of detailed scruples about ourselves. Self-examination is most necessary; but it was well said by an

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