A few weeks ago, some friends and I took a (private, masked, and socially distant) pottery class. Before we touched any clay, the instructor demonstrated some basic techniques, like how to frame our shoulders and elbows for stability and how to apply the right amount of pressure to manipulate the clay. He said our goal wasn’t to create some stunning piece of beautiful art; our goal was to make a vessel. As he spoke, his hands turned the lump of clay on his wheel into a smooth symmetrical bowl. He shocked us all when he stopped the wheel, brought his fist down quickly, crushed his vessel, and said, “And remember, at the end of the day, it’s just mud.”
As I began to work my lump of clay, I found the process pretty cathartic, pressing and pulling to gradually change the shape of the clay. Watching the clay shift and change as I applied pressure gave me a sense of control, even if it was over something small. In the many circumstances over the past year that have been out of my control, I’ve felt some pressing and pulling in my own life. On top of the daily difficulties created by the pandemic and our political climate, the everyday challenges of life have felt even more challenging than usual. I have at times felt like I’m being pressed from all sides as life spins out of control all around me.
2 Corinthians 4 speaks to these difficulties. In verse 1, Paul says that in the face of struggles, “We do not lose heart.” And here is why: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).” God, who created light by speaking a word, has given us the truest light by giving us Jesus Christ. In Christ, God has given us himself. We know God because we have seen the glory of Jesus Christ. We are not in darkness any longer, but now we see clearly. As Ephesians 1:18 says, we have had “the eyes of our hearts enlightened.”
Paul describes us as carrying this knowledge of God in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). In this analogy, we are the clay jars: simple, common vessels made to carry this heavenly treasure. The vessel may be plain, but it finds its purpose in holding this treasure, the knowledge of the glory of God in Christ Jesus. As clay jars, we may be pressed, we may be knocked down, we may feel the tinges of death in this life. And yet, we are still a resurrection people, “knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence (2 Corinthians 4:14).”
So once again we hear Paul say, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)” Paul doesn’t deny that our struggles are real or difficult. He doesn’t call us to pretend like everything is peachy or ignore our circumstances. Rather, he calls us to lift our gaze, and look “not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen (2 Corinthians 4:18).” And what is it exactly that we’re supposed to fix our gaze on? Paul actually directs us to look upon the sight that woke us up in the first place: the glory of God the Father in the face of Jesus Christ.
As we gaze on Jesus Christ, our problems don’t disappear. We may still feel that we are being crushed. Yet, when we lift our gaze to Christ, we are shifting our focus from ourselves to God. And when our eyes are on him, we are transformed; just as our initial encounter with Jesus Christ changed us, as we continue to gaze upon him, he continues to transform us. Paul says it this way: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).”
So how do we do this? How do we lift our gaze from the challenges and suffering around us to look upon the face of Jesus Christ? We practice turning to him in his word. If you’re not sure where to start, try the gospel of John. We practice spending time with him in prayer. If you’re not sure how to pray, start with the Lord’s prayer (Luke 11:2-4). Memorize or meditate on a verse of scripture. Enjoy his presence by sitting in silence. Participate in the Sunday gathering. Talk and pray with other believers, even if you have to call them on the phone to do so.
These things may take planning and practice, but we do not lose heart. When we feel like we are being crushed, the Father isn’t going to smash these vessels of clay, declaring us to be “just mud.” Rather, he is pressing, forming, shaping, and transforming us into the image of his Son. It would be to our benefit to yield to him, to trust him as he’s transforming us, and to find joy in beholding the glory of God by gazing on Christ Jesus our Lord.