The Painting of Life

I’m learning more about painting and such from Rebecca than I ever have, or ever thought I would, in my life. We’ve been to a few art museums now, and the great thing about knowing as little as I do, is the several times we’ve been, it feels like I gain a lot of knowledge on the subject. So, yes. Though they be few, there are benefits of ignorance.

A couple months ago, Rebecca and I were visiting an art museum in the small town of Lindsborg. As we neared the end of the exhibits, on one wall was a giant painting that covered three different canvasses, all side by side. Each canvass was several feet across and at least as tall as we were. Up close, the colors were brilliant and we could see individual shapes and textures in great detail. We admired it up close for a little while, then stepped back closer to the middle of the room, and were a bit surprised by what we saw. It was a massively complex nighttime scene of a forest using both abstract and realism to depict little night creatures, along with bushes and trees.

It took a bit for me to grasp what sort of time and effort it probably took to simply imagine, let alone paint something like this. To get it right the artist would have had to spend a lot of time moving in close to add the detail and texture to each part, but stepping back (I would think) quite often to make sure it looked like it should from the distance at which you’d want to view the whole painting–a tremendous amount of thought and work, to say the least.

It’s been a while since we admiringly stood there in that little art gallery talking for quite some time about that painting and I’ve
thought about it numerous times since then. The more I’ve thought about it, and paintings in general, the more I realized that…

Up close, some of them look kind of random.

Up close, you can see what some of us would call imperfections.

And up close, sometimes, you can also see quite a lot of beauty that you’d miss from farther away.

To me, it actually feels like life a lot of the time.

The parallels really could go on for a longer time than I’d like to talk about all at once, or likely than you’d like to hear, but I had to think of it like this:

First, God in His grand painting of the narrative we see, beginning long ago, and being continued in the present, sees things in the zoomed out view. He sees where it began, and also where it’s ending. The interesting and beautiful thing about this particular painting is that, certain pieces of this painting aren’t static. But here’s something else:

They don’t just move.

They’re actually allowed to paint their own colors.

They’re even allowed to paint strokes that mess up the painting.

Amazingly, these living parts of the painting (by now I’m sure you’ve guessed that they are us, people) aren’t left to wonder about the painting, blindly waving their little paint brushes in frustration, randomly splattering colors around, and hoping they’re not messing things up. Even though the Master Artist has a far away view of the painting, there’s a portion of painting where He actually became a part of the painting just like those in it, and His spirit continues to guide the strokes of those who want Him and his colors to be the colors they paint in their little parts of the painting.

He doesn’t nearly always tell them precisely what to paint, and sometimes it’s really confusing, but if they listen to Him closely and spend more time knowing Him and His style of painting, their colors and strokes become surprisingly similar to His. But maybe it’s not so surprising after all, because He did originally paint these people to be small representations of Him, and in small ways, to create like He does.

Another strangely beautiful thing about the Master Painter, is that He can take the messed up, the trashy parts, the ugly, the bad color combinations, and make beautiful things from them. Redemption. Wow. Go figure. The more I think about this part, the more amazing and baffling and impossible it seems, and less like it could be completely real. But I know it is, because I’ve seen it.

And also, once again, if His people take cues from Him, they too can help make beauty and redemption of the bad colors, and the ignorant strokes. But to do that, they can’t just paint pretty things around themselves and ignore what’s wrong with the rest of the painting. To truly serve this work of art, they have to engage the dissonance around them, and work to help it blend with rest of the painting. And they don’t do this by merely flinging some bad colors of their own onto the canvass to help the stumbling painters feel better, but they, like the Artist who entered the painting, should follow His example by helping the painters around them know what it means to paint well.

Also, I think He’s allowing us, for the most part to only see the painting from close up. We can see a lot of what’s already been painted in the past, and occasionally, a few get small bits of the future. It’s merciful this way, I think. Most of us would have a hard time enjoying the beauty in the strokes right in front of us and engaging the ugly splatters around us if we’d see all that was coming to us in the parts we will paint, and in the parts that will be painted long after our portion is complete.

This is where I’ll stop, but I love to think of life this way. I think it’s really incredible to serve an infinite, all-knowing God, Who is also heartbreakingly loving, and wants to walk with us each step of our lives. He wants us to walk none of it alone, but He still lets us decide and doesn’t force Himself on any of us, even when we’re pretty intent on messing things up by lumbering about and painting our own world. And He still loves us and wants us to join Him through all of it.


But I’m pretty sure it’s true. Usually I’m sure. But sometimes my faith is puny. I sometimes don’t act like I believe it at all. And it takes some unpleasant blundering to remind me where I belong.

I’ve gradually been accepting this: every few years I’ll look back and wonder how I lived like I did, or viewed God like I did, or looked at the world like I did. I’m becoming more at peace with the idea though: that I can never remove myself completely enough from the part of life I’m in, to get a third person view of it.

I guess what I’m trying to say to myself and anyone who will listen is this: don’t be so focused on what’s coming or what you think is coming that you refuse to dip your brush into the colors that are put right in front of you, and you neglect the painters around you (both in what you can teach them and in what you can learn from them). Your portion of the painting is far too short to spend it waiting for better colors or worrying about what you’re going to do when you’re given new colors to use, and new painters to work beside.

Use what’s given to you and use it well. Put as much love, as much joy, as much peace, as much hope as the Master Painter gives you, into each stroke, and enjoy each one for what it is. That’s how He painted, and in little ways, He’ll teach you to paint like Him if you’re willing to learn.


“Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore” – The High Kings

“Gran Partita” – Mozart

“Daniel” – Joshua James

“Paranoia in B Major” – The Avett Brothers

“Concerto In C for 2 Trumpets” – Vivaldi

“The Holly & the Ivy – Wayfarer

“Ave Maria” – Chanticleer

“Politik” – Coldplay

“Sing It Out” – Switchfoot

“Let Your Love Be Strong” – Switchfoot

“Griselda” – Vivaldi

“Lesser Things” – Jars of Clay

“There Is No Rose” – Chanticleer & Robert H. Young

“From Finner” – Of Monsters and Men

“Her Sacred Spirit Soars” – Eric Whitacre

“The House of God Forever” – Jon Foreman

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” -The King’s Singers

“Cottonfield” -The Vespers

12 comments on “The Painting of Life

  1. Kevin says:

    Hey! Maybe you should create a spotify playlist that we can subscribe to and link to that?

    • rjshetler says:

      I may have to do that sometime. I just had songs from my iTunes library on shuffle, occasionally skipping a few. Don’t hold your breath, but it sounds like a neat idea that I may try someday. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Elaine says:

    “And they donโ€™t do this by merely flinging some bad colors of their own onto the canvass to help the stumbling painters feel better, but they, like the Artist who entered the painting, should follow His example by helping the painters around them know what it means to paint well.” Yes. yes. and Yes!!!

    • rjshetler says:

      Thanks, Elaine. Interesting how that particular thought was a kind of, after the fact. I put it in there while editing because it felt incomplete without it.

      I also appreciate how often you comment. I like the feedback.

  3. Jenni says:

    Beautiful, Ryan! I want to take to heart and put into practice your challenge in the last 2 paragraphs. Thanks to Sherilyn for her encouragement to you last night! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • rjshetler says:

      Thanks, Jenni. Yeah, I got home last night and couldn’t help myself. Funny thing was, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to write when I started out and it wasn’t going to be this. But it started turning into this, so I let it. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ve wanted to write more for a while and sometimes I just need a little push to get started again. So yes, thank you, Sherilyn.

  4. Kim says:

    So apparently, I do follow your blog because I had a notification in my reader this morning that you had posted! And I just had to smile to myself. ๐Ÿ™‚ I love the thoughts about seeing and using the colors and people that are in front of you RIGHT now, not pining for colors and painters future or past. So what I need to hear. Thanks again for putting your thoughts out there for us. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Sherilyn says:

    Ok, I don’t know where to start, so maybe I should just start, I can always delete it you know… ๐Ÿ™‚

    The whole thing of your perspective/heart, view of God changing etc. has been something I have been mulling over the last several months… and kind of thinking about it in several different ways. Realizing that even some of the things that feel shameful or even some of the hurt and pain involved, how some of even that isn’t really wasted now that it is and WAS in God’s Hand. I am pretty slow to think that God causes some of the really hideous things that happen here on earth, and yes I will quickly say that I do believe He is sovereign, ๐Ÿ™‚ just maybe not quite in the typically thought of way… ๐Ÿ™‚ BUT the redemption– and your paragraph on that says it way better than I ever could!

    And realizing that there is a certain grace to being able to be aware that there will be change in our perspective, and grace if change is actually still happening as you age… and then I wonder how do you passionately involve your heart in what you think and believe and live now, and yet hold an open heart and hand to others and carry an awareness that there is a certain sense in which you are quite ignorant in some areas, and really don’t have all the answers, and certainly haven’t even experienced all the different ages and walks of life that color and shape everyone’s perspective… I wish I could explain better what my heart is trying to say…

    I just love the last paragraph… makes me sorta wistful. Funny, I was just thinking today how much reading the affirmation of you guys to me of all things:), how much it meant, and I’m not sure if I was consciously thinking of it in that way the other night, just more an total interest and care from my heart I guess… but with that and this post bringing to a head the whole thing of wanting my life to bring meaning and Jesus to others… Like I think I believe with my whole heart that no life or calling is insignificant when walking with Jesus, but when for the most part you live sorta a quiet very ordinary life, and just simply love, love, love working with your hands, doing the simple mundane things, and caring for people, (and it is really who I am) like is that really part of a beautiful canvass?? I love, love beauty, even crave it sometimes… ๐Ÿ™‚ so how do you offer beauty and love in this kind of calling…

    Wow, this got really random… I guess I’ll quickly reply before I lose my courage. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Ps. Oh yes, speaking of encouragement, I had really wanted to say that every time we have you guys over I feel encouraged for days… sometimes it’s great conversations, all the fun and laughs etc., but sometimes I think it is just you all offering your presence to us, still mostly unjaded (that’s not a word I know) by life… and I just feel like a fresh wind blew through the house that we all live and breathe in for a long time afterward.

  6. Melanie says:

    Thank you Ryan for taking the time to write again! Yes, we truly can’t see the whole picture now, but thanks for the encouragement to live fully in our small part of the painting! -Melanie

  7. This is really beautiful stuff. I love the imagery of the big-picture painting. Keep writing, brother! I need to hear what comes out of you.

  8. Janae Miller says:

    Thanks for writing, Ryan. You touched on so much truth. I love the part where you said, “He sees where it began, and also where itโ€™s ending.” It lends to the fact that God really is in control. Thanks and keep writing!

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