I don't think God ever really forms things out of clay the way we often think of it; He just creates a relationship.
Art Katz noted in a sermon on Creation that before God entered the picture, there was chaos, because this is the natural state of things. Walter Brown in "In the Beginning"
adds that at this point, all of the elements to make everything - protons, neutrons and electrons - were present, but it was only when God created the scientific relationships that govern electron bonding that any potential became manifest. That is because matter is an idea; a relationship. When God created, He conceived the relationship, and then let the raw materials work according to it, without further intervention.
It seems, for example, from Brown's description of Creation, that God just separated the water from the land so that the land was suspended in the water, with water above and below.
He then drew back, and let the minute imperfections in the density of the firmament work out the form of the land and seas. Dense areas sagged and water streamed in on top, causing it to sag further. Lighter, thinner areas rose to become mountains, and by the end of the day, the foundations of the earth were laid as the densest portions deformed under the weight of the rock above, touching down to the bottom of the subterranean sea as a pillar of the earth.
We often view God as a Sculptor - and rightly so, because that metaphor is used in the Bible. However, I don't think that His way of sculpting contains any of the trial and error that is the essence of human sculpting. We are the only human element in this sculpting process, so we are the only source of the trial and error involved in the process. The only "action" God does is to create the relationship between Sculptor and clay, and it is our own action and response that creates the subsequent molding. This is not to say that God has no part in the process that follows; rather, the full extent of the whole process was contained in God's first action - which again, was not an action in the human sense of willful exertion, but the Heavenly sense of the creation of a relationship.
I think it may be true to say that God never acts, but only creates relationships. An action is sudden, immediate and immutable. A relationship enters gently, gradually, and changes in response to both parties.
Getting back to the Creation story, on one hand, God could have created the earth instantaneously. On the other hand, He could have molded the earth out of clay the way we would laboriously form and pinch and incise and scrape a hunk of modeling clay to create a model of the earth. Rather, He seems to have issued one command, and then watched as the process unfolded over the space of a full day - within the week that had the busiest schedule in history. This is the only stage of Creation that God does not call "good" - likely because it was not finished by that evening (Gen 1:8).
I think this is very telling of God's character. I think that when He does an "action" in our lives, it unfolds in the same way. He simply creates a relationship with us, and then steps back to allow our human trials and errors dialogue with the relationship He has started. In this way, we are molded throughout the years of our Christian walk. He is never far away, but neither is He the nagging parent that seeks to correct our every misstep. He is the author and the finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2), but let me propose that in the interceding portion, He is not constantly involved; He is constantly available, but our free will must be untainted, for this is the foundational aspect of the relationship that He started with us. We must also "work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12). We are responsible for working it all out, though God is, of course, with us through it all ([next part of that verse]: "for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" [Phil 2:13]).
He is not only with us, and not only within us, but we are part of Him, and He of us; we are in His very bones:
For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.
For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.
The action that begins (authors) and finally culminates in (finishes) a marriage is a relationship, plain and simple. The result of this perfected relationship is that two spirits become one flesh. God's spirit - his Own Spirit, that was originally locked inside His Eternal Body - He gives to abide in us. So that our spirit and His coexist in His body, in his flesh, and in His bones. Or more precisely, in the body, flesh and bones of his Bride, with whom He will become one flesh.
So even though God only begins - authors - our salvation, and then after all these years, finishes it, He is in no way absent or aloof. He combines us into Himself - that's how much He doesn't want to miss any part of what goes on.
This is how we, the clay, get molded. When God begins a relationship with us, he holds us close. Like Jesus saying of Jerusalem: 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! (Luke 13:34).' So many of the people of Jerusalem would not allow Jesus to begin a relationship with them, but if you open that door, Jesus' immediate response is to 'gather you under his wings.' The meaning of this phrase in Hebrew also referred to the "tzitzit," or "tassels on the corners of your garments" (Num 15:38), which were the "wings" of the prayer shawl. Jewish wedding ceremonies are often conducted underneath the groom's prayer shawl. In the same way, when Ruth came to Boaz to ask him to marry her, she asked him to spread his prayer shawl over her, for he was a near kinsman. Ruth came to Boaz, contrary to custom, and opened up the door to a marriage relationship. Boaz's immediate response was to gather her under his wings; a beautiful picture of the church approaching Christ, and being accepted by Him into marriage (Ruth 3:9).
God is not at all absent during the sculpting process. Although our own free will has to guide every compression, scrape, incision, cutting, and smoothing out that occurs in the sculpting process, God's Love is pressed right up on the other side of every manipulation that we make in our clay; and our clay is the body, and flesh, and bones of the Bride with whom He will become one flesh.
It should be noted that there is a further implication of this Potter and clay metaphor: the reason a potter or sculptor has to work a hunk of clay so thoroughly is that if there are any air bubbles in it when it gets fired in the kiln, it will explode. To abide in Christ is to constantly be asking Him (from where He is, pressed up against our clay, but not actively molding it Himself) where our air bubbles are, where we have to pinch and squeeze, and re-mold afterward. If we do not continue in this practice, we run the very real risk of entering into the fires of tribulation, and self-destructing on account of the air bubbles we harbour in ourselves.
God is intimately involved, yet strictly censored in regard to His action within us, because He limits Himself to Relationship as opposed to Action. I think this is what John is getting at throughout his first letter. Everything he says is so broad, so simple, and yet so impossible as far as we can understand. And yet John says this is the only way it is; the only way it can be.
How can he say, for instance: 'Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God' (?!) (1 John 3:9).
The reason he can say that is because of his earlier statement: 'If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness' (1 John 1:8,9).
The implication is that of course we have sin in us, but we also have a ready means of working out that sin as soon as we detect it, or rather, as soon as we allow the Holy Spirit to detect it within us.
Let's be cheeky for a moment, and try substituting "air bubble" for "sin," to keep the metaphor going:
'Whosoever is born of God doth not commit air bubbles; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot have air bubbles, because he is born of God.'
'If we say we have no air bubbles, we decieve ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our air bubbles, he is faithful and just to [pop all of] our air bubbles, and to cleanse us from all air bubble-ness.'
The only way to read 1 John on the level at which it was written is to first contemplate the nature of what it means to abide in Christ. One important aspect is that abiding is not the passive, sedentary action that the word suggests to us; it is rather the very essence of "the working out of our own salvation," - an active relationship in which we work out - with God - all the air bubbles through the "transformation [that comes] by the renewing of [our] minds, that [we] may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God" (Romans 12:2).
This is the "rest" that we paradoxically "labour" to enter (Heb 4:11). I think the genius of this truth is that as long as we hold on to anything of ourselves (that lives only for itself), that part of us will not have rest and peace. The rest will never be complete, because it will necessarily end at some point. But the rest we have in Christ is hope which is "an anchor of the soul, a hope sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek" (Heb. 6:19,20).
Was God's rest on the seventh day of Creation 'for Himself' in the same way that we might take a Saturday morning 'just for me' after a long work-week? I tend to think, rather, that He took that time 'just for us' - His Creation:
For he who has entered into His rest has himself rested from his works, as God did from his.
If the man in the above passage rests fully from all works that define him, God also rested from all the works that defined Him (the works of Creation), and seemed to say: 'today I want to focus on you.'
If we take our rest with a mind to replenish our own reserves, our rest will be fleeting and grudging. If we take rest with a mind to approach closer to that anchor-place of hope that has already passed within the veil (Heb 6:19), we free ourselves from the necessity to give passing rest to that which is only going to get tired again. We are given the grace to rest in the Finished Work of Christ, completely outside of ourselves, even while we continue to labour within ourselves to perfect that work through communion with Christ.
This is a mystery: that we can say with absolute assurance that God is actively "moving" in our lives in a huge number of ways, and yet all movement comes only from our own actions, based in our own will. God has found a way to help us where His help is forbidden; to dwell with us while our sins create an impenetrable wall between us and Him. He cannot deny Himself, so He does not break His own rules; but He finds elaborate ways around them.
Note that in the verse above, our minds have to be 'renewed by being transformed' - not in order to prove the best way to exercise our free wills (which, after all, is the place where all the air bubbles come from) but to 'prove the perfect will of God,' which will in that moment finally be 'good and acceptable' to us (we will be able to see then that God's will is, in fact, Good, and we will be able to accept it). That is the moment wherein our wills finally subsume into His; but we only get to that moment by a constant sculpting relationship with Him, where all the manipulation of the clay has to come from our wills, which are in the process of being perfected, so that they might eventually be replaced by His will, which is, indeed, Perfect.
As in the case of the universe's naturally chaotic state, it is the relationship that God introduces that creates and defines us, and God does not pronounce it "good" until it is finished. But it will be finished one day, since He is the author and finisher of our faith, and "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11:1).