Portrait of Grace

Portrait of Grace, © 2015 Lynn Abbott Studios. Used with Permission.

© 2015 Lynn Abbott

Every now and again, I confront a canvas and composition that simply will not work well together.

Of course, I begin every painting with high hopes.  My vision is a “masterpiece.”  I know exactly where I wish for my creation to go, what I wish to communicate and how I want the painting to appear to art viewers.

But some canvases apparently have minds of their own.

I work patiently with the canvas, gently cajoling my composition with paint and brush.  Nevertheless, the piece will not flow.  My vision will not translate.

So, I give it time.   After all, I have learned that some pieces require more patience than others.  It isn’t necessarily the difficulty of the composition that complicates the process. Often, the simplest compositions refuse to budge.

Nevertheless, I persevere for some time because experience has taught me that the “messy middle” will often lead to a beautiful finale.  The key is to continue working through that point of seeming chaos in the creative process.

And most of the time, my patience finds its reward.

But some pieces refuse to yield to my creative vision.

It doesn’t happen frequently.  Yet, when it does, I ultimately add another unfinished canvas to the back corner of my basement’s storage room.

It breaks my heart to put my vision for a particular piece to rest.

However, if a painting does not reflect my vision, it will not adequately communicate my heart.  It will certainly send the wrong message and at the very least, it will fail to touch hearts the way I intend.

And so it must be put aside… at least for the time being.

Recently, I have been studying the Gospels and the book of Acts.  And as I have re-read the Gospel accounts and considered the fledgling church,  I have considered how God’s people are His creative composition.

And I have come to see that, over time,  the Master must also work patiently with His people, who very often are as stubborn as my unyielding canvas.

He began creating His portrait of Grace with Abraham.

Indeed, if anyone understood Abba’s Grace, Abraham did.  He failed again and again, and yet, God remained faithful to His promises despite Abraham’s frequent stumbles.

Love even identifies Abraham as a hero of faith.   Through the writer of Hebrews, Abba paints this image, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac…He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead…” (Hebrews 11:17,19).

Through his willingness to let go of what he humanly cherished most if asked to do so by God, Abraham returned great love.  Grace said, “That childlike love and faith in God, our Savior, are enough.”

And Grace provided a lamb that day; Abraham’s relationship with God did not depend on Abraham’s works, but upon God’s gift.

Grace provides.

And yes, it covers our failures, shortcomings, imperfections and even our God-directed rebellion.

God painted a beautiful portrait.

In fact, through Isaac, Abba had given Abraham, and those who would follow, a vivid object lesson.  Abraham received the promised grace through Abba’s Son, Jesus–the lamb of God.

For this reason, I know that Abraham would heartily applaud Paul’s words,  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves.  It is the gift of God; not as a result of works that no one should boast,”  (Ephesians 2:8,9).

From the very beginning, God’s people were to walk in grace by faith.

However, humanity has a way of gradually running off course. People like to muddy the composition, to complicate things.

And in our math classes we learned that even a slight shift in degree with time and distance becomes an enormous angle.  Thus, a seemingly minor angular stroke can impact the entire perspective of a painting.

Or as Jesus put it, a little leavening spreads throughout the entire dough.

When Moses had led the people out of Egypt, Yahweh had given His people their own code of law.  In this way, He began to establish a nation.  Indeed, Moses spent those desert years uniting God’s people with the pattern of life and government that God intended.

The human additions crept in, virtually unnoticed at first. My guess is that somewhere along the way, the religious teachers felt it necessary to break the law down into detailed steps.

Perhaps, they felt this made the teaching more accessible.  Unfortunately, over time, their explanations  morphed into a complicated set of dictates that governed the minutia of Hebrew life.

You betcha. Sometimes, the most clear and simple vision becomes overly complicated.  Canvas doesn’t always cooperate with the Master.

Maybe, it’s because following an external checklist initially seems to requires less effort than complete transformation.  It’s easier to whitewash than to rebuild the entire fence.

We may consider it easier to check items from a list than to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all our might,” (Deut. 6:5).

After all, living by grace and demonstrating love is all encompassing.  For many, a list appears more manageable.

In this way, legalism’s clearly defined undertow pulls us off course.

And so, the list of detailed additions grew exponentially.  And in time, I suspect God’s people didn’t  really remember the rationale for many of the rules.  The rules actually became the end goal in and of themselves.

It happens to the best of us…Even if  we begin with the best intentions.

I recall arguing with my husband on our first Christmas morning.  Indeed, our first major disagreement involved the proper way to heat a pre-cooked ham.  I insisted on placing it on a rack inside a Corningware baking dish.

My husband suggested that the rack was unnecessary.   I was adamant that the rack must stay; yet, I could offer nothing more than family tradition by way of argument.

My unreasonable adherence failed to note that traditional roasting pans required racks whereas CorningWare did not.

Yup. All tied up in minutia, I argued with my groom over a stupid baking rack.

Legalism is like that.  It gets tied up in unending, man-made religious rules. And it elevates human works above all else.

Very likely, ordinary Hebrew folk despaired of ever measuring up to their religious leaders’ definition of holiness. The yoke of legalism bore down on them.

While they may have admired those who appeared to meet the standard, they likely became discouraged when they looked at their own lives.

Been there; done that, too.

Sometimes, you just wanna give up… the load is just too heavy to bear. Comparisons are unfavorably made; self-condemnation muffles our joyful noise.

That’s just how it works.  Legalism not only sets up unfair and unreasonable points of comparison, but then, blasts us for our inevitable failures.

Ultimately, the list persuades us that our failures will prevent us from ever being able to serve our Savior.

“I’ve tried and failed; I won’t ever measure up, and so therefore, God will never accept me” kinda feeling overwhelms us.

It hounds us just as Inspector Javert stalked Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Miserables.  And without a doubt, life based on humanity’s legalism rather than Abba’s love and grace results in misery.

Yup. The departure from God’s intended portrait begins with just a few small additions. But those additions add up and eventually lead us far afield.

But there’s hope, even for a stubborn canvas.

In fact, that’s the story of Zaccheus, the tax collector.  In the early century, tax collectors pushed the legal envelope, and frequently extorted monies from their fellow citizens.

Zaccheus probably regretted many things. And it all seemed impossible to correct.  Who would believe a tax collector?

Let’s face it. Tax collectors were the brunt of many a first century joke.

But Jesus looked up into that tree and honored Zaccheus by joining him for dinner that day. Legalism criticized Christ for eating with a tax collector.

That’s often the case… legalism frequently condemns grace.

However, Abba’s grace overcomes.  It lifts and transforms.

Zaccheus was never the same again.

He met the One who boiled it all down to two simple yet far-reaching commands, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all you soul and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 22:37, 39).

Through His parables, our Savior painted the Father’s love and grace.  Who can forget the story of the prodigal son?  Who can deny the powerful lesson of the ungrateful servant?

Although the light of Grace had long been extinguished, our Savior reminded us of the Father’s intended composition.

God’s portrait of grace had been temporarily hijacked by legalism; yet, He quietly worked through His son to complete His composition.

And He longs to paint our lives with Grace.

Abba calls.  He replaces the human counterfeit with the authentic, Divine relationship.  He says, “Behold I stand at the door and knock…”  and “I’m coming to eat at your house today.”

Yeah.  Those man-made additions beat us down.  We fall prey to comparisons. But Abba has provided the lamb. 

And He has promised, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,”  (Romans 8:1).

There are no hurdles to jump.  Abba has taken care of everything.   We receive His amazing grace through faith as tiny as a mustard seed.

Faith, the starting point for Abraham.  Faith, granted by Grace.

Without a doubt, legalism has never reflected God’s vision for His people or for His church.

And I’m truly relieved.  After all, I know I could never measure up to such scrutiny. Put my life under the law’s microscope and you’re bound to find flaws.

Quite frankly, the longer I live, the more I recognize my need for God’s grace.

For this reason, I’m more than grateful that Grace is God’s intended Masterpiece.

Have you been hurt by comparisons?  Have you grown weary of trying to measure up to a man-made list?  Jesus says, “Come unto me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest…” (Matthew 11:28).

In fact, Jesus weeps with you.  He hates the pride of self-righteousness.  He does not wish for legalism to extinguish your childlike faith.

Abba will not allow the canvas to dictate His creative vision.  His creation must reveal His heart.

I am fully convinced that this is the context for the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.  When they sold their property, and lied–claiming they had given all to the church– they sought to elevate themselves through works.  In the tradition of the Pharisees, they stood on the “street corner” and proclaimed their “righteousness.”

Their selfish ambition undermined humble authenticity and dependency on Abba.

It was no small matter.   Ananias and Sapphira sent the wrong message.  Thus, God put aside that stubborn canvas.

No doubt about it. For me, grace is Abba’s all important theme.

I am far from perfect. But grace teaches me that God values humble authenticity over self-righteous appearances.

No more keeping up with the Pharisees…

No more self-condemnation. Love covers all my failures.

Grace calls prodigals to run into Abba’s arms. And then, it throws an extravagant homecoming party.

I am reminded of God’s words to Samuel: “…God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart,” (1 Samuel 16:7b).

You and I no longer stand at a distance.  We need not hide in the branches of a tree.

No whitewashing necessary. We come as we are.

Zaccheus, hurry and come down for today I must stay at your house.

And with our broken pieces, He paints His portrait of Grace.

“For as far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him,” ~Psalm 103:12