I’ll never forget the evening a potter came to our church. He brought his wheel and some clay he had dug out of the river behind his house. What a mess! This clay was soupy and dirty and mixed with debris. (I always thought clay came in those little plastic packages I was given in kindergarten!)
In fact, the clay was so dirty that the first 15 minutes of the potter’s demonstration was spent cleaning it up. When it comes to clay, the purifying process is a big part of its ultimate usefulness.
Then, the artistry began. Out of the muck gradually emerged a stunningly beautiful vase. But suddenly, the potter knocked his exquisite creation off the wheel into a heap on the floor. Without a word, he calmly stooped to gather the clay, pressed it into a ball, and began the slow work of spinning and shaping all over again.
After a few moments of silence, the potter quietly said, “Most people don’t know that clay, like wood, has a grain. What you couldn’t see was that my shaping was running against that grain. Once in the fiery heat of the kiln, the clay would have expanded and cracked at this tension point, leaving it fit for nothing but the trash. I smashed this clay because I intend to make something useful out of it.”
A hot tear ran down my cheek. How many times have I missed the redeeming hand of God in trials and disappointments? How often have I refused to give up control, too distrustful to submit to His severe mercy?
Isaiah reminds us, “You, Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). God’s grace is always at work, always shaping, always spinning like the potter’s wheel.
I gained a valuable spiritual insight that day watching the potter with his clay. My tendency is to view God’s authority through the lens of human authorities in my life. If I’m not careful, disappointment, hurt, distrust, and cynicism from past experiences with people can cloud the way I interact with God.
But unlike people, God always uses His power in perfect harmony with His goodness. That means we can relinquish control and trust God. He will always do what is best for us. Even when it hurts. Even when we don’t understand.
It also means that, as a leader, I’m still clay. When I forget or hide my ongoing need for grace, I convey the toxic idea that holiness is achieved through performance and self-effort. But the gospel is not that we achieve rightness by being good, but rather that because we can never be good enough, we desperately need grace.
When I as a leader am unwilling to admit my utter need for God, I deny the good news of the gospel and create instead an environment where self-righteousness and self-sufficiency poison joy, freedom, and authenticity. The most important role of a spiritual leader is not to model perfection, but rather to demonstrate how to access God’s grace through humility, transparency, and a repentant lifestyle.
These attitudes have no substitute in the Christian life. As Dan Allender notes, no matter how gifted or experienced we may be, true spiritual leadership must be done with a limp—the limp of brokenness and the acknowledgment of personal need.
For me, the real test of grace-based leadership comes when I am faced with my own sin and failure. Of course, everything in me wants to ignore, justify, or cover my weaknesses and to project an image of infallibility and strength. My natural way of thinking is that people only follow the strong, and that vulnerability undermines my credibility.
But again and again, I’ve seen how the most valuable moments as a leader come out of weakness. When a Christian leader is willing to take the pathway of humility, honesty, and repentance, they teach the central truth of Christianity—that only Jesus saves. After all, what better way to teach that Jesus is who He says He is than to demonstrate our personal confidence in His grace?
And if we’re not leading people to Jesus, where exactly are we taking them?