As I continue working my way slowly through this book of Ruskin’s writings, I feel like my eyes are being opened to really SEE things in a new and deeper way. Last night I was struck by his comparison of an unimaginative artist and an imaginative artist. Now, I don’t consider myself an artist of any description, but I do live with one…one of the imaginative variety! She is twelve years old, and her creations sometimes bring me to tears. This Lion that she sketched recently roars “Aslan” to me. His eyes seem to say that he’s carrying the weight of the world so I don’t have to.
Well, back to Ruskin. I may not be an artist, but I am finding fascinating applications for his ideas in other areas of life. In a chapter from Modern Painters Volume 2 that I read last night, he describes how an unimaginative artist and an imaginative artist would paint a tree, contrasting both their processes and their results. The unimaginative one would constantly be thinking of what a tree should look like. They would make sure their trunk was growing true to life. They would include the correct number of limbs with branches branching in a natural-looking way. They would follow all the rules, but their trial and error approach and second-guessing style would resemble a drunken man wandering from side to side down the road. With their constant attention to the rules, they would succeed in avoiding the ditches on either side and would probably end up with a somewhat natural looking tree, but it would lack wholeness. Its parts would be so disjointed that you could easily remove one without much affecting the appearance of the rest.
The imaginative artist, on the other hand, can see in their mind’s eye exactly the tree they are painting. They throw off the constraints of rules and paint with freedom because they know, straight as an arrow, what they are aiming at. Their path is much less meandering. They lay their strokes confidently because they are not concerned with what it “should” look like. Their imagination knows what it DOES look like. And the result? Their tree is a cohesive work of art. Its parts are seamlessly joined, working together to create the picture of wholeness. You wouldn’t be able to remove a single leaf or the tiniest twig without the whole thing collapsing.
This idea of one artist distractedly making his way toward the finish line and another artist working with precision thanks to their vivid imagination got me thinking about how I live my life. I’m sure most people would like the idea of throwing off constraints and living in complete freedom. That sounds tempting, doesn’t it? But true freedom doesn’t come from trampling the hedgerows and blazing a new trail on the other side. It comes instead from having a laser focus. It comes from knowing our destiny and purpose as created beings.
When we live our lives a certain way or make decisions based on what we think life “should” be or what a good person “should” do, we are fighting a losing battle. We are keeping up appearances and getting distracted by the ditches on either side, probably wondering all the while, deep down, what it would be like to abandon the road altogether and roam “freely” through the fields of rebellion. But the rules for the good life were never meant to be a noose around our neck. God’s law is not a hampering hedgerow on the path of life. When God first gave His law to the people of Israel, where had they just come from? They had come out of slavery in Egypt! They had been living as slaves and prisoners for generations. Now they were a free people, a rescued people! God’s law was a gift to them, a gift to show them how FREE people live!
Once when Jesus was being tested by the Pharisees, one of their experts in the law asked Him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” The Pharisees loved to debate such things and order and reorder the commandments according to importance. Talk about being distracted by ditches! Jesus, with the laser focus of an infinitely imaginative artist, said that ALL the law hangs on the commandments to love God and love others.
What a perfect example of fixing our aim straight as an arrow. When we dedicate ourselves to loving God with every fibre of our being and loving others as ourselves, that pretty much covers the Ten Commandments, doesn’t it? It also eliminates any number of distracting debates. For example, nitpicking about what actually constitutes a swear word or defining how far can you take an inappropriate relationship without actually committing adultery or categorizing lies as white or otherwise. Those things don’t matter because our imagination is captivated with loving God. And in that, we discover what it means to live truly free, to live life the way we were designed and created to.
But perhaps all this talk of likening ourselves to artists attempting to paint our own life story is a bit misleading. If there’s anything the past few weeks have taught us, it’s that we are not as in control as we thought we were. It reminds me of a quote from Dr. Zhivago where he says, “Reshaping life! People who can say that have never understood a thing about life — they have never felt its breath, its heartbeat — however much they have seen or done. They look on it as a lump of raw material that needs to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch. But life is never a material, a substance to be molded. If you want to know, life is the principle of self-renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself, it is infinitely beyond your or my obtuse theories about it.”
We hold the paintbrush of our lives with trembling fingers these days, and we realize we don’t have the confidence or control we thought we did in laying the strokes on the canvas of our lives. Perhaps the idea of us as the artist is all an illusion. Perhaps true freedom comes when we relinquish the brush to the Master Artist, the one whose infinite imagination can see exactly what He intends us to become. He works with the singular aim of making us into His image, into the person He knows we were created to be all along.
We all have areas on the canvas of our lives we would love to paint over…spots that are spoiled, that we think would look much better if we could just smudge them out. But God knows that every detail of our lives makes us who we are. In Him, and only in Him, do we find wholeness and completeness in our life story. In His hands, even those spoiled areas are worked into the overall beauty; and He knows our story wouldn’t hold together or be complete without them. Trust His loving imagination today! Love Him with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and you will begin to discover what it means to live FREE!