The Tragedy of Paint-by-Number

(…more apologies by Seth Godin and “Graceful”)

Paint-by-number is a curse from our early childhood.  It’s that horrible tool that taught us that if we stayed within the lines and follow the numbers, the correct picture will emerge.  At the end of the day, our kindergarten teacher hung all 20 pictures up on the wall and we marveled at our talents.

But we were duped.  Those never showed our talents.

Paint-by number involves no risk.  Your talent and success are measured in terms of how well you stay within the lines.  That’s all that’s expected of you.  The teacher overseeing your work would be shocked (and probably a little concerned) if you neglected the numbered pattern (let’s say a pattern that produced a turtle) and chose to create a picture of a majestic lion instead.  Because paint-by-number painters don’t think. They follow orders.  Didn’t it annoy you how you could always tell what the picture would be even before you began?

In church-world, we’re at no shortage of paint-by-number options.  Church planting.  Discipleship.  Evangelism.  “If you do _____, you will enjoy ______ as a result.  Just do what we tell you, and your ministry will grow – your marriage will heal – your church will learn to love again.”   Predictable.  Boring.  And false-advertising.  It just doesn’t work.

How about a different option: What about just setting someone loose with a blank canvas, a few oils, and a brush?  How is that different than paint-by-number?  That’s a crucial question for me.  Real art presupposes that the artist has something to offer: himself.  He sees something no ones sees.  At least not in the way he does.  His creation then is a genuine result of honest craftsmanship.  It is him.  The reason Van Gogh, Picasso, and Degas succeeded is because they threw out the numbers.

But Van Gogh was weird.  And Thomas Kinkade sells a painting that ends up in someone’s office as a $3000 collectible testament to paint-by-number’s final triumph.  Why?  The fact is – we long for something inexplicable.  But before that longing can be born in us, we abort it in favor of quantitative self-justification.  Why?  Because we’ve learned to value comfortable, predictable, and consistent faux-creations more than honest, naked, and gutsy risk.  Like weak-willed parents who give into their kids at the toy store, we’ve been trained to give people what they want – at the expense of their spiritual development.

Van Gogh starved most of his creative life.

What are the areas where you’re most easily tempted to paint-by-number?  Why do you do it?  I’d love to hear some thoughts on this – it’s been on my mind a while.


2 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Paint-by-Number

    • From my experience, the places that we’re most prone to “paint-by-number” are usually the areas where God has the greatest opportunity to use and grow me. Essentially the question becomes: “Do I trust Him?” vs. “Do I trust my abilities?” In my own strength, I can easily create something that looks good, but doesn’t serve any eternal purpose.
      So, for me. I’m most prone to paint-by-number in preaching, teaching, leading worship, or anything of pastoral nature. In the past years, I’ve felt God leading me to understand that anyone can smile, craft a good “sounding” sermon, or be a nice guy. What He’s looking for is ultimately someone He can shepherd – not something I can create.

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