Several weeks ago, a few girlfriends and I went to one of those paint-and-wine nights at a local bar to celebrate Dana’s birthday. We arrived and chose our seats—as close to the front as we could find—and tied on our bright-green, paint-splattered aprons. With our cocktails in reach, we were ready to blur the lines between our minds and our hands, and between the paint colors.
When we saw the sample painting—a sweeping landscape scene of lake surrounded by mountains at sunset—we just had to laugh. “We’re supposed to replicate this?” “No way. Mine won’t look like that.” “We’re here for the experience, right?” “I’m so not an artist. Let’s just focus on having fun.” Already making excuses for our anticipated failures.
After a short tutorial about the materials in front of us, the instructor told us to start mixing up a deep, vibrant violet. Three chunks of blue paint to one chunk of red. (It was all very exact.) And then our instructor fired the starting gun: “Brush your violet all over the top of your canvas.”
I froze, my hand held hostage by my thoughts. I’m not ready! Just a few more instructions! How far down? How thick do I spread the paint? How do I blend? How do I make it look like the sky? And why violet—isn’t the sky supposed to be blue?
Underneath my racing thoughts, what I really wanted to know was this: How is this going to get me to the end I’m craving? I didn’t want to screw up so early in the process; I didn’t want to make a move or create a line I couldn’t undo. Putting that first dot of paint onto the canvas felt too permanent; it left me too vulnerable.
Timidly, I let my brush make contact with the canvas, and as I did, I became a creator. A pop of color that wasn’t there before brought my blank canvas to life. I craved more paint, more color, more sweeping movements with which I could create more beauty.
And then, like a child looking around as she’s riding a two-wheeler for the first time, I started to panic. What about the mountains? What about the trees? How will I do those? Other people shouted questions that lent a voice to my thoughts. The ever-patient instructor replied “We’ll get there. Don’t worry. You are the artist. You can’t mess it up.”
We learned techniques like blending (a cure-all for mistakes), using lighter colors to create texture, and painting shapes instead of objects, and gradually, the task became less intimidating. The little islands were just long, thin, triangles. The trees were just tall lines, with a bunch of swooshes and strokes creating branches. Impressionistic leaves and grasses and tree lines—born of little flicks of the wrist, but when you back up and take in the whole image, they become the object instead of just the sum of the shapes.
The whole day leading up to this little adventure, I’d been filled with equal parts excitement and dread. Excitement to get out on a Monday night with my friends, to do something out of our ordinary. But it had been a stressful day at work, one in which I tried to solve problem after problem, only to create new problems I couldn’t solve and messes that other people had to clean up for me. Systems and processes and words that just weren’t working. Knowing my perfectionistic tendencies, I worried about what a painting night would do to me.
I knew I would want my painting to be perfect. I also knew that I would need to give myself grace, which I’m not good at. I assumed I would fail on both counts, so I didn’t want to even try.
But with each grand sweep of color and each tiny stroke of the brush, the Lord whispered into my heart. I didn’t know what He was saying at the time, but I could identify the feelings: sweaty-handed nervousness giving way to bursting joy and breathy exhilaration.
Reflecting back on the night, looking at how my painting turned out—better than I expected, though far short of the master copy—I couldn’t believe what had burst forth from my hands, and more so, what God had bloomed in my heart. Those inaudible whispers crackled into startling clarity, like turning a radio dial just a hair to find that the static has vanished.
In this last year of my life, God has consistently told me to take my one best next step. Sometimes He has shown me glimpses of the big picture, and sometimes He’s hidden it from view. Often, He has given me just enough information to make the next move. When I wanted to know how to draw the big tree in the foreground, He was showing me how to sweep my brush wide to create the background, the inky sky blending into the sunset that casts the sweet, warm glow onto everything in its reach. The foundational pieces that would lead to smaller details.
I asked for a 30-year career plan, and God gave me a prompting to quit my job. I pleaded for a new, long-term job, and He gave me an unpaid internship. I demanded to know every step that would lead me to the finish line, and He wouldn’t tell me where the finish line was.
If I had known every step of that night’s painting in advance, I would have been thinking about the colors and the brushstrokes I’d need to make 30 minutes later instead of focusing on the precision and beauty of the one I was working on now. If I knew every event in my future, I’d stop living here and start living there. Or worse—if I knew what was really to come, I may not take any more steps at all.
Even once the class had ended, I felt the urge to keep tinkering. A little more white here to fix that tree branch. One more stroke with a dry brush to soften the contrast between the white snowcap and the steel-gray mountain. Eventually Julie leaned over and whispered, “We need to stop. I think these paintings are done.”
So I dropped my brush into the lavender-tinged, milky water and headed to the bathroom to scrub the paint out from under my fingernails. I walked slowly, carefully back to my spot, already having forgotten what my painting looked like and wondering what I would find. When I returned, I stood several feet away from my creation, and instead of seeing smudged branches or too-dark islands, I saw a grand landscape set in the shadows of a ripe, red sunset. I took in the whole sweeping scene instead of the picking apart the elements. I saw it as a masterpiece instead of just smeared paint.
Many days later, as I continued to reflect on this experience, I began to wonder. What if we ourselves are God’s masterpiece, His favorite creation? Not the sum of all our life events and actions and relationships and accomplishments, but us, as we are, right now.
What if I am God’s masterpiece, but I’m too close to my own life to see it? Right now I can see every tiny stroke, every bit of detail, every smudge in my past, and every blemish on my heart. But what if I could step back and see that the painting before me, the scene I can’t fully take in now, is me? What if I could see that God has cleaned up and blended my mistakes to make them part of the painting’s beauty, that He’s used the accidental globs of paint to create texture and definition, shadows and light?
How can we stop ourselves from staring so intensely at the jagged, little marks and start seeing them as the trees, as the forest? How can we zoom out of our whirlwinds of choices and steps, and instead dream about what those will become given some time and a gentle, guiding hand?
Let’s start with silence. Breathing deeply. Savoring the moment. Considering what this little choice could become if made over and over again, for better or for worse. Dreaming about the day when the lines and splotches come into focus as the masterpiece, as you, as me.