Truth in art: Common grace, the beauty of work
ST. LOUIS (BP) – I enjoy working with hand tools. I didn’t say I am skilled with them – skill and enjoyment are not the same thing. Jacob Lawrence, one of the great American painters of the 20th century, loved to paint pictures of skilled craftsmen who took joy in what they did. One such painting is Builders #1.
Growing up in New York City, Lawrence spent afternoons in a community center art program. His talent caught the attention of Harlem Renaissance artists, and within a few years he achieved major artistic recognition. Over a 60-year career of painting and teaching, Lawrence received numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Arts given by George H.W. Bush in 1990.
Inspired by Harlem cabinetmakers and New York laborers, Lawrence showed the dignity of men and women at work. Full of bright primary colors and easily recognizable objects, Builders #1 is a visual delight to the eyes. My young sons love the piece. They try to identify the tools, and they speculate about what the builder is making. While the message of this painting is easily understood, it is nonetheless powerful.
First, the painting speaks of the intrinsic nobility found in honest work. This is not a depiction of Michelangelo or some other famous artist from the past. Instead, Builders #1 shows an everyday man using everyday tools. Consider the obvious parallel between this man and Jesus. The creator of the universe learned from Joseph how to saw in a straight line! Selecting quality wood from a pile of boards, Jesus fashioned tables and chairs from the raw material he himself had brought into existence.
Jesus said he came “not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38). In thinking about the incarnation, do we remember that for decades of Jesus’ life it was God’s will that he work as a carpenter? We must do away with the error of splitting our lives into so-called spiritual and non-spiritual categories. Martin Luther said, “The cobbler praises God when he honestly makes a good pair of shoes.” Christ revealed God’s glory through common labor. Do we approach our everyday tasks with the same sense of divine calling?
Builders #1 visually connects human artistry with that of divine artistry. Look outside the window in the painting. What do you see? It is Mount Rainier, close to the Seattle home of Lawrence. It rises as a monument of praise to the skill of the creator. He who “established the mountains by His strength” (Psalm 65:6) is the same God who built powerful muscles into the arms of this craftsman working with his tools.
The importance of diligence is also a theme of Builders #1. “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Proverbs 10:4). Hard-working hands and a well-used workshop give testimony to the man’s industry. The abundance of tools and a surplus of hardware provide evidence of prosperity achieved through the sweat of the man’s brow. It appears he works in his own shop, using his own resources and skills for his own production and profit.
This painting easily leads us to think about creation, fall and redemption. God created Adam and commanded him to subdue the Earth (Genesis 1:28). The command to work came prior to the fall, and so work is not to be viewed as punishment for sin. What sin brought to Adam’s work was a curse of toil (Genesis 3:17). There would be toilsome tasks and frustrating failures. Prior to sin, Adam would always find pleasantness, satisfaction and life. But after the fall, no matter how hard Adam worked he would find measures of pain, sorrow and eventual death.
That is not the end of the story, though, for the grace of God provided a redeemer for Adam and fallen humanity. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). As a boy Jesus experienced work as he nailed boards together for His father Joseph. But as a grown man, Jesus completed the work of His heavenly Father by having His own body nailed to a cross. Because he died in our place and took the wrath of God, sin and death are defeated foes. Furthermore, our redemption affects us even in the here and now. Our employer might not change, but our work will. Our tasks might be the same, but our treasures will be found in a new place.
I am not saying that Builders #1 depicts a Christian carpenter at work. However, the image of God resides upon all people whether or not they acknowledge God’s sovereign rule. The fall corrupts our status as divine image bearers, but it does not destroy it. Look again at the builder. Pleasure and satisfaction are written on his face and body. These divine blessings are poured out on humanity, regardless of their acknowledgement of Him. The common grace of God allows for pleasantness even in the lives of the unredeemed (Matthew 5:45).
Does the builder love the God who blessed him with creative skill? As satisfying as the labor may be, does the builder realize that there is more to life than this? The more important question is, do we?
In conclusion, through thinking on Builders #1 we are reminded of three truths found in the book of Ecclesiastes. First, work is often burdensome and full of vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:23). Second, when we are able to find satisfaction in our labor, we should recognize God as the source. (Ecclesiastes 2:24). Third, the highest joy in life will be found in relationship with our Creator, because that is the end for which we were created (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 12-13). (Scott Lamb is pastor of Providence Baptist Church in St. Louis.)