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Sculpturing people in God’s image

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was one of the greatest artists of the High Renaissance, and indeed, of all time. He is perhaps best known for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, a feat that took approximately four years to complete. However, he also excelled as a sculptor, completing two of his most famous works, the Pietà (housed in St. Peter’s, Rome) and David (on display in the Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence), before the age of thirty.

Standing 5.17 metres high, David is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture. Painstakingly shaped out of a massive block of marble, hewn from quarries near Carrara in the Apuan Alps in northern Tuscany, the sculpture depicts the hero tense and ready for battle with a sling draped over his left shoulder and a rock in his right hand.

When asked about his methods of sculpting, Michelangelo is said to have replied: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free … I created a vision of David in my mind and simply carved away everything that was not David.”

Pastors are spiritual sculptors

Like Michelangelo, pastors need to envisage the divine potential that resides in the people for whom they care. And like Michelangelo, pastors need to carve away everything that is not of Christ, and “set the angel free”. The apostle Paul expressed it this way in his letter to the Galatians:

“My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” (Galatians 4.19)

Elsewhere, Paul declared that it was God’s purpose to conform us to the image of his Son (Rom 8.29), and that this transformation would be accomplished incrementally by the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 3.18). However, in his letter to the Galatians Paul makes it clear that conformity to the image of Christ involves the removal of some unhelpful characteristics in order to make way for the development of other, more wholistic attributes. Paul refers to the former as “the works of the flesh” and the latter as “the fruit of the Spirit”.

“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Gal 5.19-21). However, it’s clear that Paul is not just addressing the ‘obvious’ things — that is, external actions — but also the less ‘obvious’ things — the attitudes and motivations of the heart; the internal drivers of human behaviour, which he calls “passions and desires” (Gal 5.24).

It’s worth noting that the word Paul uses for ‘passion’, pathema, is passive in its orientation. It denotes the disposition or propensity of the human heart toward something. In contrast, the word Paul uses for desire, epithumos, is active in its orientation. It denotes an intense craving that manifests itself in acts of self-gratification. Thus, Paul is highlighting the fact that behind every “work of the flesh” there is a corresponding attitude of the heart.

Paul may well have been thinking of the example Jesus set in his dealings with the religious leaders of Israel. He upbraided the scribes and Pharisees for focusing on external actions (both theirs and other people’s), and ignoring internal motivations:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisees! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23.25-28)

For his part, Jesus addressed the hidden realm of motive and desire, declaring that God is as concerned with the attitude of anger as he is with the act of aggression; the attitude of lust as he is with act of adultery; the attitude of humility as he is with the act of worship (Mat 5.21-22, 27-28; 6.5-6, 16-18).

Throughout its history, the church has been very good at judging external behaviour, but very poor at identifying and resolving matters of the heart. Like the scribes and Pharisees, we have neglected the most important things in the sight of God (Mat 23.23). We have majored in cosmetic surgery, and failed to execute life-saving organ transplants. We have polished the block of marble, and failed to carve away the debris.

Addressing weakness and potential

The 4th century theologian and Archbishop of Constantinople, Gregory of Naziansus, made the following observation about the responsibility of priests and pastors:

“We must begin by purifying ourselves before purifying others; we must be instructed to be able to instruct, become light to illuminate, draw close to God to bring him close to others, be sanctified to sanctify, lead by the hand and counsel prudently. I know whose ministers we are, where we find ourselves and to where we strive. I know God’s greatness and man’s weakness, but also his potential. [Who then is the priest? He is] the defender of truth, who stands with angels, gives glory with archangels, causes sacrifices to rise to the altar on high, shares Christ’s priesthood, refashions creation, restores it in God’s image, recreates it for the world on high and, even greater, is divinized and divinizes.”

St. Gregory of Naziansus, Oratio 2, 71, 74, 73: PG 35, 480-481

I find Gregory’s concept quite compelling: addressing human weakness and potential, while seeking to refashion, restore, and recreate humankind in the image of God!

As pastors, we love to preach faith-building sermons that galvanise people to overcome adversity. But sometimes, we need to “root out and pull down, destroy and throw down” before attempting to “build and plant” (Jeremiah 1.10). Or, to put it another way, “make the crooked places straight and the rough places smooth” in order to “prepare a way for the Lord” (Luke 3.4-5).

Let me give you an example: Many years ago, I met a young man who, for the purposes of this article, I will call Darren. Darren had a very difficult childhood; his father was an alcoholic, who would often come home drunk and beat his mother. The only way Darren could protect his mother from serious injury was to knock his father out cold. Needless to say, Darren feared and loathed this monster who treated his mother so shamefully — and the alcohol that fueled his violent behaviour.

Darren became a Christian and started attending a Charismatic church with a strong emphasis on faith and the Holy Spirit. There he met and married a young lady named Michelle. However, it wasn’t long before cracks starting appearing in the relationship. Darren became verbally and physically abusive, and Michelle eventually walked out of the home and the marriage. In many ways, Darren’s abuse of Michelle mirrored his father’s abuse of his mother, with one major exception: Darren never touched a drop of alcohol.

Darren’s abusive behaviour was not fueled by alcohol, but by a much deeper and more sinister force. And apparently, no one in the church Darren attended challenged him to let go of the bitterness that was festering in his heart and to extend forgiveness to his long-dead father. Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews was “on the money” when he warned his readers not to allow bitterness to take root in their hearts, because it would inevitably cause trouble and poison the whole community (Heb 12.15).

According to the law of attraction, what one focuses on (consciously or unconsciously), expands in one’s life. This may be either positive (something that one admires and desires) or negative (something that one loathes and fears). The Old Testament prophet, Job, said, “The thing I greatly feared has come upon me, and what I dreaded has happened to me” (Job 3.25).

In my view, Darren was suffering from a condition called ‘emotional fusion’ — he was spiritually, psychologically and emotionally enmeshed with the very thing he despised (his father’s abusive behaviour), and as a result, reproduced it in his own life.

Applying the chisel to the marble

“Preaching the word, persisting in season and out of season, convincing, rebuking, and encouraging with the utmost patience in teaching,” (2 Tim 4.2) is the spiritual equivalent to Michelangelo using a chisel to carve the statue of David. The ultimate goal is to present every person ‘teleios’ in Christ Jesus — finished, complete, sound, and whole (Col 1.28).

Inviting the Spirit of God to search our hearts, to deal with the root and not just the fruit, to address the underlying triggers and not just the obvious symptoms (Psalm 139.23-24), is pivotal to our wholeness and maturity. And confessing our sins (“saying the same thing” God says about our hidden attitudes, motives and desires) is key to attaining the full measure of development that is to be found in Christ.

Like Michelangelo, let us “see the angel in the marble”, and carve, and carve, and carve some more, until we finally set him (or her) free!

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