And I put "The Empty Pot" in quotation marks because it's the title. But I digress. I'm here to blog about the story itself.
In this story, the Emperor decided to hold a contest to decide who would be the next Emperor:
All the children in the land were to come to the palace. There they would be given special seeds by the Emperor. "Whoever can show me their best in a year's time," he said, "will succeed me to the throne."Our main character, Ping, who was famously good at growing flowers, entered the contest, as did basically every other child in China. However, try as he might, Ping could not get the flower to grow. He used good soil and a good flowerpot, and he watered the seed regularly, but it just wouldn't sprout. A year passed and all the other children were eager to show their beautiful flowers to the Emperor, and Ping felt ashamed that he hadn't been able get the flower to grow. Still, Ping's father told him "You did your best, and your best is good enough to present to the Emperor." So, Ping took his pot of dirt to the palace.
The Emperor examined all the flowers. When he got to Ping, he asked "Why did you bring an empty pot?" Ping explained:
"I planted the seed you gave me and watered it every day, but it didn't sprout. I put it in a better pot with better soil, but it still didn't sprout! I tended it all year long, but nothing grew. So today I had to bring an empty pot without a flower. It was the best I could do."Naturally, because this is a folktale, Ping won the contest, partly because the Emperor was impressed at Ping's courage in presenting his best, even when it didn't amount to much, and mostly because all the other children had essentially disqualified themselves. The Emperor explained that all of the seeds he had handed out had been cooked, so it was impossible for them to grow. The test was not who could produce the best flowers, but who would be honest enough and brave enough to admit that they hadn't been able to grow anything and to present "their best" anyway. Of course, I have no idea what the Emperor would have done if multiple children showed up with empty pots, or if none of them did, but again, I digress.
Life is a test. That is a truth that I have known for years. But what this story taught me is that the test might be rigged or rather that it might not be the kind of test I think it is. We are all trying to achieve perfection, at least, that's the long-term goal, but this test might not be a test of how close to perfect we can become but a test of how hard we try to improve ourselves and how well we cope with our own lack of progress. Many of us try so hard for so long and have so little to show for it. So, we will have to decide how we are going to respond when the year ends, and we've grown nothing, and we have to stand before the Emperor holding an empty pot. What will we say to Him? What will we be able to say for ourselves? Will we even have the courage to stand before Him at all, knowing that we are still so far from the goal He asked us to strive for? Ping's dad said "your best is good enough to present to the Emperor," but will we feel that way when we have to present "our best" to God?
Now, I don't think God cooked our seeds. At least, not completely. He knows that life is hard enough that He doesn't have to sabotage us. We will still make painfully little progress whether He helps us or whether He hinders us as part of the test. No honest person will be able to present a beautiful, flawless, full bunch of flowers. The best of us, the "Good People" I blogged about recently, might manage to grow a few tiny flowers. The rest of us will be lucky if we can produce sprouts. But the real test for some of us is not how well we can grow flowers but how long and hard we keep trying to grow flowers and how well we deal with the frustration and shame of our failure to do so.
God knows we won't become perfect in this lifetime. What He wants to prove is how hard we'll try, how good we'll become, and how well we'll respond to the knowledge that "our best" doesn't even come close to measuring up. So, keep your head up and keep watering your seed. You're probably doing better in this test than you think you are, even if all you have to show for it is an empty pot.