Slaves to the Stone and Mason

Rachel Chimits

What do our struggles with sin and the troubles of life have to say about our relationship with God?

Michelangelo grew to great fame thanks to his ability to capture the human body’s dynamics and power through paintings and stonework. Centuries later, he is still legendary for his art. Most people have at least seen pictures of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and the David or Pietà statues.

Fewer people are familiar with Michelangelo’s ‘slaves.’ Between still roughly chiseled rock are expressive faces and gestures, hands and muscled torsos extravagantly detailed right beside unfinished lumps, the start of a shoulder, half-formed feet. “I saw the angel in the marble,” the sculpture once remarked, “and carved until I set him free.” In this way, his unfinished works and their titles allude to artwork still captive to its original medium.

The website for the Accademia Gallery in Florence notes, “Michelangelo believed the sculptor was a tool of God, not creating but simply revealing the powerful figures already contained in the marble. Michelangelo’s task was only to chip away the excess, to reveal. He worked often for days on end without sleep, keeping for days his boots and clothes, as reported in Vasari’s chronicles about Michelangelo’s passion and talent.”

Our creative drive and abilities are naturally an echo of our creator’s. Like much of the natural world and our own minds and bodies, God has included clues about himself and aspects that invite us to worship him.

So what does an artistic process like Michelangelo’s say about the God who imbued him with such skills and a mentality toward art?

The entire creative process almost always includes a stage of designing order. Raw materials are gathered, whether its paper and paint or stone and chisels, and a vision for the future art piece is mapped out. Like foggy mirrors, we are dimly replicating God’s creative process which he generously gives us a glimpse of in Genesis. Small additions and layers are added, often without immediately apparent benefit to the painting. How does a coat of alarming yellow, red or blue beneath what should be skin-tone not ruin the image? Nevertheless, the artist is drawn by their vision of the final product to see how this base layer will produce the perfect tone or accent of light many coats later. So we mimic God’s process with each one of us, moving us one seemingly minute step toward the grand finale that he not only foresees but dwells in beyond time with his finished creation.

I wonder if Paul, with his extensive Roman education that included some degree of the arts as demonstrated by his knowledge of Greek poetry (see Acts 17:22-28), was imagining this process when he wrote, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The apostle goes into even greater detail in his other letters, emphasizing the importance of this process. Salvation happens in a moment, but sanctification by allowing ourselves to be molded by Christ’s hand is a much longer and more complicated procedure, as he noted. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2, ESV).

Director of World Challenge’s pastor network, Joshua West noted the importance of truly understanding salvation and sanctification. He urgently said, “Please, please don’t think that you’re a Christian just because you repeated a prayer one time. You may have gotten saved then, but…Paul says the way you’ll know you’re saved is that your life will bear fruit and you’ll desire to live in obedience. Look at the life of Paul! Paul who thought he knew God like many of us do. Paul who was persecuting the church because he thought it was the right thing to do. He was building himself up and living this false religious life. Then what happened? He really met Jesus on the Damascus road, and we see this cataclysmic shift in his life.”

It is no insignificant question to ask ourselves if we are simply an raw chunk of marble or indeed a ‘slave’ emerging from the stone beneath God’s masterful artistic hand.

Jesus Christ himself emphasized the importance of answering this critical question, ominously warning his followers, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, “’I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21–23)

How do we know then that we’re God’s child rather than a deluded rogue? Jesus gives the answer in his warning; those who do the will of the Father are his. As Joshua West noted, we will see evidence of the Spirit’s will and movement in our souls and minds. Far from meaning that we will be perfectly moral, model Christians, this crafting work in our soul will almost certainly involve struggle and uncertainty about why some part of our lives is seemingly collapsing or why some sin or agonizing emotion is running rampant.

God is far from interested in patching over our rough spots. More often, scripture uses words like ‘purify’ that invokes the image of a fiery crucible purging unwanted alloys out of metal. This is not tidy or painless work. Both God’s immediate ownership and troubling purging process are described in the Bible. “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).

Michelangelo’s slaves were obviously emerging from the stone, even if they were still incomplete. Similarly, believers will have Christ emerging from their lives, even if they still struggle and fall down sometimes.

Unlike statues in a stonemason’s shop, though, we have our part to play in sanctification, even if it’s less illustrious than we might prefer.

Perhaps one of the best way to gain a metric of where we are in this process is by taking stock of what we fear. Dr. Dan Allender and Dr. Tremper Longman, in one of their many collaborative works on Christian psychology, wrote, “Where do we cross the line from a legitimate fear of a dangerous world to a fear that not only imprisons us but also offends God? It has to do with what or whom we fear. And where does that fear drive us? Does it drive us to protect ourselves, or does it drive us to God, our Protector? …Oddly, it is the fear of the world that drives us away from God. Fear of God strips away all other fears and compels us to deal with God, transcendent and infinitely higher than any mere mortal fear. Fear of God roots us not in our problems but in the essence of existence.”

Fear of God will often move us to take what appears to the world to be irrational routes. God commands forgiveness, and scripture offers detailed reconciliation practices. As a result, we will take enormous time and careful consideration when addressing a family dysfunction or broken relationship, forgiving but also moving wisely toward whatever resolution is possible without diverting onto the shortcuts of simply cutting that other person out or wholesale accepting them back into our lives without the difficult work of regain trust and proving trustworthiness.

God states that he hates sin and holds great fury for those who prey on the vulnerable and weak. Fear of the Lord moves us to address the injustice we see being enacted by others in our lives but also inside our own hearts when we’re tempted to dismiss or belittle a slow cashier or waiter who messed up our dinner order. We will act will integrity even if it puts us at a disadvantage in an important business meeting; we will invite other believers to hold us accountable for sin-struggles even if this makes us potentially vulnerable to them betraying or hurting us with this information.

Fear of God will change the questions “Would God be okay with this? How can I make this negative experience go away?” to “How could my choices move me closer to God? How could this troubling situation reveal more of Christ to me?”

As we wrestle in prayer with the process of being God’s craftmanship, still very much workpieces in-progress, we can hold fast to this promise we are also given: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).