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Faith By Numbers

A paint-by-numbers approach to religion may seem like a wise course. There’s no guessing where to “paint” or what “colors” to use. Everything is spelled out. Just follow the directions and put the paint in the designated areas, and pronto—out pops a painting. But here’s the thing—it isn’t really art. Most people can spot it a mile away and they don’t identify it as true art because it isn’t inspired.

At best, paint-by-numbers is formula art. It doesn’t require much skill and is devoid of artistic expression. The alluring part of true art, particularly painting, is that it seeps from the finger tips of the artists onto the canvas as an expression of their innermost souls. Normal, everyday objects are transformed from their present state into rich, synthesized images that are replete with added textures and colors. Such paintings speak to our hearts and move us beyond words.

A faith-by-numbers religion has all of the down sides of formula art. It is the classic way for church goers to play it safe. Just follow the rules and you’ll end up with a facsimile of faith that looks real, but doesn’t require much in the way of sacrifice. This was the approach of the Pharisees in biblical times, and Jesus warned His disciples.

“Unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20, NLT).

You’ll never be a true artist as long as you dabble with paint-by-number kits and refuse to launch out into the topsy-turvey world of experimental expression!

Some people put enormous amounts of energy and creativity into living a lie.

Wolfgang Beltracchi and his wife, Helene, became the subjects of a media frenzy in 2010, as their scheme to deceive the art world unraveled. They were forgery experts who had made insane amounts of money duping buyers with their paintings. Instead of creating original art under their own names, which could have given them a positive legacy, they concentrated on faking it. They didn’t make replicas of existing works, but created new paintings on aged canvases and baked them in the oven to make them look old. They presented them to the art world as recently discovered paintings by highly renowned artists. And they sold them for millions!

In the spiritual realm, legalism is to religion what forgery is to art. The only way our faith can become genuine is to give God (the Master artist) full access to our heart’s canvas. A faith-by-numbers experience cannot sustain us over the long haul.

“A legal religion is insufficient to bring the soul into harmony with God. The hard, rigid orthodoxy of the Pharisees, destitute of contrition [repentance], tenderness, or love, was only a stumbling block to sinners. They were like the salt that had lost its savor [taste]; for their influence had no power to preserve the world from corruption” (Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 53).

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28, NLT).

The damning thing about the Pharisee’s religion was that it was an expression of their own will and not God’s. Instead of allowing God to apply rich color to their lives, they tried doing it themselves, but led others to believe it was God’s doing.

Genuine spirituality does not originate with our thinking or behavior, but with God! His love draws us into a place of compassionate living that transforms who we are. We are not changed by keeping the letter of the law, but by the Lawgiver Himself!

A church is a gallery filled with portraits painted by God on the canvas of human hearts.

As long as there is life, the paint continues to be applied and the portraits continue to emerge as more detail is added. When we apply our own paint and try to tweak the outcome to our liking, we deface God’s image in us and replace it with a caricature of ourselves. Instead of the world seeing God in us, they end up seeing godless expressions of fallen humanity.

The most difficult yet exciting thing we can do is step back and let God create His image in us! It will be unlike any other portrait, because we are each uniquely different. In the end, God’s signature conveys the authenticity of a work that others will never grow weary of viewing because it reflects drama, struggle, victory, resolution, hope and deliverance!

Rich DuBose writes from Northern California.

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About Rich DuBose

Rich DuBose

is director of Church Support Services for the Pacific Union Conference.

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