By Justin Rossow
The regular habit of following Jesus requires regular habits…
In short, you are saved by grace alone.
And you can actually get better at following Jesus.
Back in their 1985 book Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland told a story that has since become a kind of contemporary parable. You may have even heard it before. It shows up in blogs, business books, motivational YouTube videos, and in general has become a part of our collective wisdom.
Incidentally, the basic premise of Art & Fear is something like: genius artists only show up once every hundred years or so, but great art happens all the time, so we can talk about how ordinary people make great art and not worry about genius for the moment.
I love that premise and think it also applies to following Jesus: once in a great while you get some super-faithful people who do amazing things for God just by falling out of bed in the morning. Then there’s the rest of us. But you don’t have to be a Super Christian to follow Jesus, and in fact, most of the most amazing stuff is done by God through common, ordinary, run-of-the-mill people who take a small next step in faith. We can talk about those small, ordinary next steps and ignore super amazing Christians for the time being…
Where were we? Oh, yes; the Parable of the Pottery Class.
Like most parables, this one varies in the telling, but it goes a little something like this: A certain ceramics professor decided to run an experiment. She divided her class equally into two groups. The first half of the class would be graded for the entire semester simply based on volume. (In some versions, these students are throwing one pot every day in class; other versions include a weight-based grading scale: throw 40lbs of clay for an A; 35lbs for a B; etc.)
The other half of the ceramics class was to be graded solely on quality: they were to create one and only one pot to hand in on the last day of the semester, and the whole semester’s grade would hang on the perfection of that one pot. (The version I heard most recently even included an outside expert, who came to judge and award the best pots from the whole class for the semester.)
The punchline of the parable comes at the end, when the professor (or visiting expert) reveals that all of the best pots were created by students in the quantity group. Wow! #mindblown.
While the quality folks were wringing their hands over what to do and how to do it exactly right, the quantity folks got their hands dirty in the clay. Without the pressure of getting any individual pot exactly right, they experimented with techniques and forms. They practiced and learned.
They got better and more confident and more courageous by doing: not by doing well; just by doing. I’m sure the worst pots thrown that semester were also all created by the quantity group. But who cares?
You get better by doing. And when the pressure is on and you can’t afford to make a mistake and your whole grade is riding on this one clay pot, you never get the chance to make enough mistakes to actually get better.
Focus on quantity over quality and you’ll get both; try really hard to do just one amazing thing and you are likely to fail. Keep an eye on quality, but take the pressure off. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Take small chances that help you grow, even when they fail. Fail faster. Increase the quantity of your output and you will grow into increasing the quality of your output. Or something like that. Again, parables can be told for different purposes depending on the context…
When it comes to following Jesus, the Parable of the Pottery Class helps you focus on small steps that move you forward. If you are frozen by the seemingly insurmountable task of getting faith and faithfulness right, you probably won’t take any chances, won’t make any mistakes, won’t try something that could fail, and in the end, won’t grow or develop much, if at all, in your life of faith.
The burden of throwing one perfect pot can drain the life from the art and take the fun out playing with clay.
On the other hand, if you focus on taking lots of really, really small next steps in the general direction of Jesus, you will develop the skills, attitudes, muscle-memory, and sense of adventure that makes discipleship both joyful and fruitful. If you get any single next step wrong, it’s not the end of the journey. It’s not even a big deal. Step. Trip. Fall. Fail. Learn. Grow. Get up. Repeat.
Living out your trust in ordinary ways exercises your faith in Jesus, tests your faith in Jesus, and increases your faith in Jesus, not just for the big, once-in-a-lifetime moments, but for the small, mediocre needs and challenges of everyday life.
Pick something super small to do differently this week because you want to follow Jesus. Pick something that could fail; but if it does, won’t ruin your life. When your next step doesn’t turn out the way you planned, rejoice; that’s where real learning happens. And trust that, no matter how often you try and fail, Jesus is moving you in the right direction.
Because ultimately, you aren’t the potter in charge of creating a beautiful work of art. You are the clay. The Spirit is shaping and molding and forming you into something beautiful and useful.
As a potter, the Spirit doesn’t need practice and doesn’t make mistakes. So you can engage in this adventure of following Jesus without fear and without the burden of having to get it right. The next step you are struggling to find and to take as faithfully and well as you know how is covered under the graceful promise of the Spirit working in your life.
This regular habit of following Jesus requires regular habits; even as the Spirit shapes your response, you are still engaged in the activity of following Jesus. Of course, you won’t be perfect until we’re all made perfect. But you can become more consciously dependent on Jesus, more steeped in God’s Word, more aware of the Spirit’s shaping power in your life. In short, you are saved by grace alone. And you can actually get better at following Jesus.
So don’t hold back. Don’t avoid risk. Don’t worry about results. Just take a small next step. And then another. And then another. Focus on the quantity of your next steps, no the quality. As you take more and more small next steps, you’ll get the hang of what it means to follow Jesus. You’ll make some progress. You will know real joy.
And then, all of a sudden, you will fall flat on your face or get knocked down by an unexpected natural disaster on the trail. Even then, your process of following Jesus is covered by the Spirit who is shaping Jesus in you. The quality of your life of faith isn’t yours to own or to judge. Just need Jesus again today, and let the Spirit worry about the rest.
Editor’s Note: The real life situation that gave rise to the Parable of the Pottery Class was actually a photography course. You can read more about the story and why it changed at https://austinkleon.com/2020/12/10/quantity-leads-to-quality-the-origin-of-a-parable/.
As you likely can recall, I was given a dire diagnosis shortly after I lost my husband, Doug. I chose to leave it in God’s hands and not undergo surgery (morbidity rate very high). I believe that the Lord is healing me incrementally, day by day. I have learned the value of taking communion, of saying the Lord’s words over myself and of praying–haven’t learned it all yet, but one day at a time. And…I am still here! No one expected this. In fact, going to heaven seemed good to me because I am lonely and miss my husband. My family has been wonderful to me and friends from my church, and now my new church are all supportive and wonderful prayer warriors. God has blessed me, but I believe God is healing me as well. I know that one day I will receive the perfect healing, either here or in glory, but if I can, through my prayers with others and bible studies with others, bring a tiny bit of glory to my Savior, I am willing to stay until I can no longer do that. Thanks for posting this–it means a lot in my situation. God bless you!
Thanks, Marlys. I was recently reminded of a line from Sonnet 19, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent” by John Milton (written after he lost his sight and felt his purpose and usefulness as a writer was gone): ” They also serve who only stand and wait.” In other words, waiting faithfully on Jesus is a kind of service, even if it doesn’t feel like you are being “useful.”
Incidentally, Milton went on to compose one the most important epic poems in literary history, Paradise Lost, (as well as its sequel, Paradise Regained) only AFTER he wrote Sonnet 19. Once he gave up being “useful” God found all kinds of use for him.
I see you doing that, too, Marlys. You have actively entrusted your time to the Lord, and are waiting faithfully and patiently, to His glory. And in the meantime, God is finding all kinds of uses for you.
Thank you for sharing your faith with us. You are a real encouragement.