How do we respond to life crashing down around us? The prophet Jeremiah understood this question all too well. He was called to be God’s servant in Jerusalem during the final decades of the Hebrew monarchy. Jeremiah had to help his countrymen wrestle with trusting God while the Babylonian army laid siege to their city on multiple occasions. He wrote to the first wave of exiles to Babylon, encouraging them to make sense of the radical changes in their life. He attempted to help those left behind to understand how God could possibly be in control of all the chaos surrounding them. He himself felt the weight of years of seemingly fruitless ministry and cried out to God: How long did he have to keep doing this? What was the value of his existence? Ultimately, Jeremiah wasn’t even able to remain in the land of his birth. He was kidnapped by Jews fleeing to Egypt–Jews who subsequently refused to listen to his encouragement to rebuild their relationship with God.
Within the book of Jeremiah, there are two stories placed back to back to emphasize the two different responses we can have whenever the very foundations of our life is shaken to the core. These stories appear in Jeremiah 18:1-12 and 19:1-15. Whether it was the nation of Judah in the sixth century B.C., America in the twenty-first, our community, our church, or our individual lives–these two stories show us the right and wrong way to respond to crisis.
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In the first story, God tells Jeremiah to go and watch a potter at work on his potter’s wheel. Jeremiah sees a clay pot being made by the potter, but as he watches the pot becomes imperfect. The potter then smashes down the clay pot and begins his work all over again. Soon, a new pot rose up out of the clay that once had been the first pot. The new pot did not retain the imperfections of the first pot. It was new . . . yet it originated from the same old lump of clay. God spoke to Jeremiah in that moment. God asked Jeremiah if he could not do the same thing to the nation if they would turn to him and trust him. God told Jeremiah that even though life as the Judahites had known it was going to be completely upended by the terrible destruction that was coming, he could use this troubling time to rebuild the nation into something better . . . if the people would trust him through the chaos. Isaiah, at a different point in time, used the same imagery to emphasize that we are nothing more than clay; God alone is the potter. We cannot reform ourselves or work away the flaws within us. We must trust him with our lives–flaws and all–and believe that he can rework us into something beautiful and useful to his service. And so we pray not only that God will remake us but will not remember our sins forever (Is 64:7-9).
In the second story, God told Jeremiah to purchase a finished pot from the potter’s home and take it, along with the elders, to the valley of Ben Hinnom, a place containing shrines to various foreign gods. Jeremiah told the people judgment was coming to the nation and it would be as destructive as what was about to happen to the pot in his hands. Jeremiah then threw the pot down to the ground and it shattered into irreparable pieces.
What was the difference between these two pots? Why did one shatter so it could never be put back together while the other could be remolded and reformed? The answer is in the character of the pots themselves. The pot in the first story was still made of soft clay while the pot in the second story had been hardened in a kiln’s fire. Jeremiah was telling the people that the life-shattering events coming to Jerusalem could not be stopped. The city would fall. The temple would be destroyed. Many would be killed and others taken into exile. Only a few would remain in the land, but life as everyone knew it was coming to an end. Life was going to crash down around them. That was inevitable. But how it would impact them wasn’t? If their hearts were still soft, if they trusted God and held on to the steadfast hope that the potter was compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness (Ps 86:15), God could reform them into something new. This did not have to be the end, even though the smashing was coming. God could work even that destruction for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes (Rom 8:28). If they resisted, however, if their hearts were hardened to his work and his call, if they loved the other gods more than him, then the very same smashing would destroy their lives and leave them irreparably damaged.
You can see these two responses play out in life-shattering events all the time. The same situation can hit two families or two individuals. While both have their lives upended, one family comes closer together through the experience while the other is ripped apart; one individual finds new life and new purpose even in the midst of heartache while the other turns to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain, or even to suicide in hopes of escape.
In all of our lives, there are times when the world crashes down upon us. When those times come, some of us cry out to God in the midst of our brokenness while others try to rebuild our lives on our own. Peter and Judas both experienced the sorrow of Jesus not starting the revolution they hoped he came to lead. Both saw Jesus sentenced to crucifixion. Judas let it destroy his life. He only saw the crucifixion but didn’t wait to see what lay beyond. He only focused on his role in bringing it to pass. On the other hand, Peter, even though he ran away instead of defending Jesus and denied knowing him in order to avoid his own death, discovered hope on the other side of the sorrow. He experienced the resurrected Jesus. Both these men’s stories revolve around the story of Jesus, who himself experienced the crashing down of life in his betrayal, suffering, and agonizing death. Yet in the midst of the darkness, Jesus entrusted himself to his Father, who proved himself faithful by raising Jesus from the dead. So when life crashes down, be like Jesus and trust God all the way through to the end. Keep your heart soft and attentive to God in the midst of the chaos. Avoid the temptation to harden your heart and reject the help of God and others. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is living and active today in the midst of your chaos.
newborn – we are tender and weak
in death – we are rigid and stiff
living plants are supple and yielding
dead branches are dry and brittle
so the hard and unyielding belong to death
and the soft and pliant belong to life
an inflexible army does not triumph
an unbending tree breaks in the wind
thus the rigid and inflexible will surely failTao Te Ching 76
while the soft and flowing will prevail