The Ancient Art of Soul Shaping


The art of spiritual formation has recently reemerged after years of neglect. Theologian and author Dallas Willard notes that the concept “was understood by Jesus, taught by Paul, obeyed by the early church, followed with excess in the medieval church, narrowed by the reformers, recaptured by the Puritans, and virtually lost in the modern church.” But we can regain the ground we’ve lost. We can explore the ancient faith practices of our spiritual ancestors and follow them into a deeper relationship with God.

As we learn to walk with God as Jesus did, we embrace the delight of a Father-child relationship. We uncover the pain, failings, and addictions in our lives. We acknowledge our need for transformation. We begin to desire change, to desire something more, something better. Thankfully, God meets us at our point of need and lovingly guides us through the lifelong process of spiritual transformation.

The timeless image of a potter’s hands creatively shaping clay serves as a poignant allegory of God’s work in our souls-one of the most powerful scriptural pictures of spiritual transformation. In Genesis, God scoops clay from the ground and forms a human. Job uses the pottery metaphor to express his consternation with God. He says, “You made me like a handcrafted piece of pottery-and now are you going to smash me to pieces?” (Job 10:9-10). Both Jeremiah and Isiah use the metaphor to explain God’s ways with His people: The passionate Creator commits to shaping a nation until its people walk in His ways. Isaiah’s straightforward confession forms a preamble for our transformation journey. He writes, “We’re the clay and you’re the potter; all of us are what you made us” (Isa. 64:8).

In the New Testament, this same image proves valuable to Paul as he admonishes the early Christians. Paul says. “Who in the world do you think you are to second-guess God? Do you for one moment suppose any of us knows enough to call God into question? Clay doesn’t talk back to the fingers that mold it, saying, ‘Why did you shape me like this?’ Isn’t it obvious that a potter has a perfect right to shape one lump of clay into a vase for holding flowers and another into a pot for cooking beans?” (Rom, 9:20-22) When describing our fragile and sometimes broken lives, Paul says we are “jars of clay” that God’s glory might shine through (2 Cor 4:7 NIV). This is the meaning and work of spiritual transformation.

From Soul Shaping by Stephen W. Smith, pgs. 17-18