Canvas & Clay: A Study of Spiritual Formation

If I had a coloring book in one hand and a blank canvas in the other, and I asked you to choose which one you wanted – which would you choose?

If you asked for a coloring book, and I handed you a blank canvas – how would you feel?

I don’t know about you, but blank canvases make me nervous. They give me anxiety. There are so many options, and so much room for error. Coloring books are easy. It requires no thought. The lines are already drawn, and you just have to fill it in with colors. With a blank canvas, you’re starting from scratch. Every decision is up to you, and every mistake is your own making.

Have you ever felt like you asked God for a coloring book, and instead He handed you a blank canvas? Lysa Terkeurst talks about this in her book It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way. She describes the end of her marriage as feeling like all the perfectly drawn pages of her coloring book had been erased. She writes, “I opened the coloring book and someone had erased all the beautiful drawn lines. There was nothing but white pages. Empty spaces. Endless possibilities of fear and failure. Metaphorically speaking, my life was now a blank canvas.”

Why do blank canvases fill us with so much fear and anxiety?

I think we are anxious and afraid in these moments of our lives because we are under the impression that we are the artist, and therefore we we are in control of the outcome. We take the weight of that fear of failure on ourselves. We’re afraid of making the wrong decision – drawing the wrong line here, or putting the wrong color there. We’re afraid our bad decisions will mess up the whole painting. But that’s not our burden to bear. Will we make bad decisions in life? Yes, absolutely. But we’re not the artist. We are the canvas. We’re the paintbrush. We’re the color on the pallette. We are the method God is using to paint His masterpiece. And He knows exactly what He’s doing. He takes ALL things and works them together for good – as any masterful artist can and will. Broken pieces? He can use them. A wrong color here, a jagged line there – He’ll smooth out the edges. He’ll add light to the shadows. He’ll blend it together. He’ll make it beautiful. We might not be able to see the finished product yet, and it may get messy in the middle, but we can trust the process. We can trust Him because He knows what He’s doing. God is a creator. It’s what He does. It’s who He is. It’s the first characteristic we see of Him in Scripture. “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the earth…” The earth was void and formless. It was a blank canvas, and God spoke creation into being.

When God walked this earth in human flesh, He took the role of a carpenter – yet again, a creator. An artist. A skilled craftsman. Where once He took nothing and made something, now He took something and made something different. Where once He created, now He formed. He took that tree He had spoken into existence, and with His hands and a few tools He transformed it into a table or a chair. He took the splintered pieces of wood and smoothed out the edges. He cut it here, and added a nail or two there, until it started to take shape and become something useful and purposeful.

What is Spiritual Formation?

Spiritual formation is the process of being formed into the image of Jesus. According to Christianity Today, “To be formed spiritually means to engage in specific practices and disciplines with one clear goal: to draw nearer to God in Christ and so focus less and less on self.” In Isaiah 43:1 the Prophet Isaiah writes, “But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says…” The opening words of this verse are ones we would normally skim over and not give much second thought to, but it speaks a lot of truth in a few simple words. It tells us that formation is different than creation. It tells us that Jacob was created, but Israel was formed.

Creation happens instantaneously. At the moment of conception, life is created. But the formation of that life that takes place over nine months of growth and development in the womb. When we come to Jesus, we become new creations, but that process of becoming like Jesus – that’s a hard fought battle of strength and determination. That’s a wrestling match, and that’s what spiritual formation looks like. In the Old Testament, Israel was the new name Jacob received after his wrestling match with God. Jacob was the name he was given at birth. One name was given to him in a moment, the other was given to him after an all night battle.

To create means “to bring into existence.” When Jacob was born, he came into existence holding on to the heel of his twin brother, Esau. At that time, and in that culture, birth order was important, because it ultimately determined who received the blessing and inheritance of the father. Jacob’s name literally means “deciever” or “supplanter” because he came into the world trying to ussurp the role of the firstborn son. From the moment he was born, Jacob was trying to take what was not his to receive. And as he grew older, he continued to live up to the name that was given to him. Later in life, Jacob tricked and deceived Esau in a moment of weakness to rob him of his birthright. When their father was blinded in old age and on his death bed, Jacob deceived his own father in order to receive the blessing that was intended for Esau.

But in Genesis 32, Jacob found himself nearing an imminent encounter with his brother, and he was afraid that his past would catch up with him. He was afraid that the vengence of Esau would overtake him, his family, and all of his possessions. He sent messengers ahead of him to greet his brother with a gift of peace. He sent his family ahead of him across the stream. And there he waited, all alone. And that night a man came and wrestled him. The man wresteld him until daybreak. When the man could not overtake Jacob, He reached out and touched His hip so it wrenched out of socket. Jacob refused to relent. Even as daybreak broke, he declared, “I will not let go unless you bless me.” Then the man asked a question, “What’s your name?” When Jacob answered this question, He wasn’t just telling his name, he was making a confession. “I am Jacob. I am a deceiver.” And the man replied, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28 NASB). Afterward, Jacob named the place Peniel because he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (Genesis 32:30 NASB).

For the first time, Jacob received a blessing that was freely and conciously given to him. It was the first time he asked for a blessing rather than stealing one. He proved he was willing to fight for it. He proved he was willing to suffer for it and sacrifice for it. His battle was a battle to right the wrongs of his past, and he came out victorious, but not without scars. He left with a limp to keep Him humble and remind Him that the victory came only because of God’s mercy and grace. Lies and deception had been the joint and marrow of Jacob’s story, but now he was given a second chance and a new name.

He received this new name through wrestling. The definition of “wrestled” in this passage is “to grapple” or “get dusty” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Definition). This was not a boxing match where they were standing on two feet and throwing punches. This was a wrestling match where they were on the ground, rolling around in the dirt, stirring up dust. As I reflected on this, I was reminded of the creation of Adam in the very beginning of scripture. Genesis 2:7 says, “Then the Lord God formed man of the dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (NASB).

We are formed from the dust of the ground. We are formed through wrestling with God in the dust of this earth. We are formed when the breath of God touches the dust of this earth. Did you know that the word “Spirit” comes from the word “pneuma” which literally means “breath”? Did you know that in Hebrew, the name of God which we know as Yahweh cannot even be pronounced, but when attempted, simply sounds like the exhaling of a breath? That is how Holy His Spirit is, and our spiritual formation happens when His Holiness meets our humanity.

Think about this…. Adam was the son of God, created by God and breathed into existence by God. His name means “man” or “earth” and that is exactly what his name represents – the fall of man, this sinful world that we are born into. Jesus is also the son of God, His only begotten son. The word begotten means born. Jesus was not simply created and breathed into existence – He was knit together in His mother’s womb. He was formed, and His name means “God with us.” He is our salvation from the sins of this world. He is our deliverance, our redeemer. It is through Him that we receive the hope of eternal life. It is through Him that we are able to be made new and receive new names.

When God created the heavens and the earth, the word “created” used in the Genesis account means, “to cut” (Strong’s Definition). This is an interesting definition, but it makes so much sense when you think about it. Think about a chisel in the hand of a sculptor, cutting away the stone and bringing life to the beauty hidden within. The famous sculptor, Michaelangelo, is quoted as once saying, “I saw the angel in the marble, and I carved until I set him free.” God spoke creation into being. His Word is His chisel, and His desire is to set us free. His words literally cut through the darkness and bring light into the world. That’s how He creates. That’s how we are created – when His Word cuts through our darkness and chisels away at our hardened hearts. Hebrews 4:12 tells us His word is powerful and sharper than a two-edged sword, cutting between the soul and spirit, exposing our innermost thoughts. John 1:1-5 tells us the Word existed in the beginning and gave life to everything that was created. Our creation story is our testimony. What is your story? How did you become a new creation? (For a powerful demonstration of this, watch “God’s Chisel” by the Skit Guys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QCkBL2DfVg).

If our creation story is our testimony of salvation, then our formation story is the process of our sanctification. It is the process of being shaped into the image of Jesus. Formation is discipleship. A poem by Tquan Moore describes being a disicple of Jesus as being “covered in the dust kicked up by His stride.” It is following so close behind Him that you hear His every breath and cling to His every word. It is walking in His footsteps, and going wherever He leads. It is following His example – living as He lived and loving as He loved. So how are you being formed right now in your walk with Jesus? What are you learning? What questions are you asking? In what areas are you growing? What is challenging you? Do you have a mentor in the faith? Are you being a mentor? Who is pouring into you, and how are you pouring yourself out to others? Discipleship is about more than being a disciple, it’s also about making disciples. Formation is a journey, a process of moving from one place to another. It is a journey from who you are to who you want to be. This type of transformation requires sacrifice. Romans 12:1-2 says to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. It says we are transformed by changing the way we think. We are transformed from the inside out. After his transformation, Jacob walked with a limp, but that limp kept him humble and served as a visual representation of God’s victory over his sinfulness. Paul was given a thorn in his flesh to keep him from becoming prideful. Thorns are sharp, they pierce our flesh and expose the blood within, revealing our physical weakness. But Jesus wore our thorns, and His blood brings healing and cleansing. The pain we endure on this earth is temporary, but the purpose it serves is eternal. Keep the faith. Keep pressing forward despite the doubts, discouragement, and difficulties. Spiritual formation is not about perfection, it is about progress. It’s not about what we’re doing but about who we’re becoming.

When you start to doubt, just remember… He is the Artist and the Potter. We are the canvas and the clay. He is not finished with us yet.