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Through the Flames: The Burden of Calling

September 8, 2022

“For since the human vessel is made of clay, it first needs to be purified by water, then to be strengthened and perfected by spiritual fire (for God is a consuming fire)”

Didymus the Blind, On the Trinity II.12 (translation mine)

The biblical image of the potter and his clay are familiar. [1] It challenges us, reminding us that we are not, in the most important sense, the makers of our lives, shapers of our destinies, or captains of our souls. These ideas have exercised our imaginations and ambitions since Eve first looked on the tree and saw that it was desirable for gaining knowledge, and their seductive power is no less tangible for us than it was for her. Yet they are dreams we can never achieve, and dreams that take us away from rather than toward our truest selves.

The image of the potter grounds us in an existence that is fundamentally given, indeed, a gift, and reminds us that our truest duty is not so much to do as to let be done to us, to surrender to the shaping hands.

This image of the potter and his clay also encourages us, for the potters hands, whether they apply more or less force to the clay, do so lovingly, shaping it into an image picked out for just this lump of clay. If the hands sometimes seem harsh and constraining, it is only because the potter knows the beauty he has destined for the clay, and will not allow the clay to be satisfied with anything less.

But in the passage above, Didymus takes us deeper into this image. He introduces the notion of water, which is necessary to remove impurities and soften then clay for the work ahead; in so doing, he reminds us of our Baptism. He also mentions fire, which is required to finalize the potters work. This is what arrests me: for in this image of fire I see the suffering, persecution, and judgment that the disciple is exposed to in the life of faith. If these trials are the fires of the furnace in which the work of the divine potter is finalized, then we must approach them differently. They are truly inevitable. The potter molds and forms the vessel into a good shape, but to be finished, everything must be locked in place and strengthened by fire.

What this rich image is interpreting is our callings. My calling is what the potter intends to make of me. And this is where the image is so illuminative: it teaches that a calling is not only, or perhaps even primarily, something that makes our yoke feel easy, a tight fit with the inner desires of our hearts that makes the service of the Lord and our bounden duty also a joy. No, a calling is also (and perhaps primarily) a summons to difficulty. The path of our calling leads through fires of every sort, because, in a fallen world, this is the only way the work can be brought to completion. Our callings unite what we most love about ourselves and what we most hate about ourselves; what we most long to do and what we most loathe to do. They do this because a calling summons the entire person, and aims at the transformation of the entire person.

Indeed, calling is not even external to the person: it grounds our identity. It is not true that I first exist, and then am called by God to do or be x or y. Rather, Gods calling me to be x and do y summon me into existence. I enter the world in response to a divine fiat, a creative let there be,” and so my entire existence is embraced in and preconditioned by the divine call. In this call I live and move and have my being. Calling is a way of referencing the unique identity of each thing.

The fires of suffering challenge our vision. They throw up obstacles to our recognition that God is good. Every prayer of praise for blessings given and deliverance accomplished stands opposed by a contradicting suffering. God is good!” we cry, and then we become victims of injustice, exploitation, bereavement, illness, rejection, etc. These things cry out in anguish: Is he? Not from where I am sitting.” Now, God is good: no human suffering nor even the sum total of all creaturely suffering could in any way challenge that, precisely because Gods goodness doesnt depend on human blessedness, it doesnt exist for the sake of human blessedness, and it is not obligated to secure human blessedness. We must never forget that the potter image is also invoked to chasten the creaturely presumption to question God. [2] So the fires of suffering do not challenge Gods goodness, but rather our ability to see that God is good.

But the clay that has come through this fire is in possession of a confidence it lacked before: it now possesses its knowledge of the goodness of God in an unshakable manner, as fundamental furniture of its conceptual universe.

Having chosen to see by faith when vision by sight was denied it, that soul now sees unconquerably by sight: the darkness is dispelled, and shall come forth no more. The one who overcomes shall become a pillar in the temple of God. [3]

The fires of persecution challenge our allegiance. For persecution aims at only one thing: that we renounce our Lord. Only say that Christ is not Lord, or that he is not Lord alone, and you can go free: the pain can stop. We do not require your whole soul; we are not jealous like your so-called God. Only leave a little space for us in it, only accept a reasonable compromise, and we can build a society of mutual respect and forbearance.” This is the friendship with the world that is enmity with God. Persecution asks us to prove that we really do intend to stand by this hanged God, that we intend to carry this name to the grave, that we will confess him and praise him if and until it kills us. Something strange happens when we stand firm: we become what we do. Just as the clay in the kiln is chemically altered, shedding inessential materials and rearranging molecules to become solid and strong, so our souls rearrange themselves under persecution. What used to matter no longer matters: we have put the One Thing first, and everything at last gives place and rearranges itself after. The one who overcomes shall receive a white stone with a new name, a secret between the potter and his clay. [4]

The fires of judgment are the hottest of all, and they test our very heart. For the suffering that causes us to question the goodness of God is not primarily of our own making, but what we receive through a chain of events we believe we are not the initiator of.

Persecution also comes from without, based in the malice of those who hate what they see of themselves in us (persecution is always a form of self-hatred). But in judgment, our deeds come back to us and our sin comes home to roost. This is the ruin we have worked for ourselves, and so there is nowhere to shift the blame to, there is no escape. Oh, we may escape when we are judging ourselves, because we are above all lenient and unjust judges of ourselves, and we will accept the slightest extenuating circumstances and pretenses (and where these are lacking, we will just ignore until we forget, overcoming our chagrin by refusing to think on it). But this is but the dimmest shadow of judgment. Real judgment is prosecuted by One whom there is no deceiving, and who will not shrink from the least jot or tittle of the law. From this judgment there is no escape except by submission. This challenges our hearts: are we strong enough—that is, do we love enough, both God and ourselves—to allow this judgment to do its work, or will we flee, and in so fleeing, remain under the condemnation rather than coming through the condemnation. Every wicked deed will be judged most harshly; but, in Christ, not every wicked person must go the way of their deeds. For those who submit to their judgment as their just portion in the sufferings of Christ, a separation is made, the wickedness is excised, and they emerge as shiny and brilliant as glazed pottery. Such a one will at last have a whole heart, and will for the first time love enough to be able to bear the burden of judging others. For only the one who has borne the full weight of judgment can bear to judge another truly. The one who overcomes shall be given authority over the nations, and will shatter them like pottery. [5]

So often when we think of calling, we speak of it as a drive that comes from deep within, as a fire shut up in our bones. [6] We must also see that the fire shut up in our bones is answered by a fire from without. Deep calls to deep: what is in us summons the external fires, as surely as a lightning rod summons lightning. We suffer so because we are an artist, musician, entrepreneur, lawyer, etc.; if we were not these things on the inside, regardless of what we are doing on the outside, we would not suffer in this way, but in other ways suited to who we really were on the inside. There is no appeal away from who we were called to be, for this is the very thing for which we were summoned into existence, it is in fact a part of the true name that will be written on that stone.

The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

For my part, I am a writer and a teacher. In the last few years, I have been brought face to face with sin in my life so profoundly wretched that I fought for months against a despair that God could save me. Indeed, I often fought even to want God to save me. And so it seemed to me that perhaps I was disqualified from my callings. But the fire of judgment doesnt let us off the hook so easily. It took an ocean of tears and more hurt than I thought my heart could stand to finally accept what the Spirit of God was pressing upon me: that I was not excused. I had fallen badly and stupidly, and I will bear the scars of that fall all my life; but my duty was unchanged. I write and teach differently now than I did before; but I cannot avoid the consuming flame of my calling.

But we must not neglect to talk about what lies on the other side of the flames. The feeling of being clean, pure, makes one glad to have suffered. It is much the same for me as running: I hate doing it, but I love the feeling I get when I have done it. So much do I love that feeling that I occasionally run. So it is also with these fires. Our callings are fundamentally unbearable because we are not the sort of people who can bear them. But they bring us to the place where they can be borne, they make us into a people who can bear them, and in this they become also a comfort. One who has passed through the flames can also abide the icy dark of midnight, for he carries the fires of his trials and judgment in his heart.



[1] See Isaiah 45:9, 64:8, and especially Jeremiah 18:1-11

[2] Romans 9:20-21

[3] Revelation 3:12 (ESV)

[4] Revelation 2: 17 (ESV)

[5] Revelation 2:26-27 (ESV)

[6] Jeremiah 20:9



Featured image is courtesy of Earl Wilcox via Unsplash. We are grateful for his generosity.



 

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  1. Dear Junius,
    This is even much richer than the first draft which I had the privilege of reading. Much to ponder. “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the Temple of the Lord.”
    Sincerely,
    Denise

  2. Robin Luckenbaugh says:

    Just beautifully written and expressed, Junius! Thank you for giving me a better, holier vision of suffering and calling.
    Robin

  3. June says:

    Painfully beautiful. Thank you.

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