A famous—and probably apocryphal—story recounts the response of the brilliant Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti to a reverent inquiry about how he had achieved his masterful depiction of David from massive blocks of white marble: “It’s easy,” Michelangelo is supposed to have replied. “You just chip away everything that doesn’t look like David.”
As the grandson of a man named Michael Angelo Galeazzi, I used to secretly imagine as a teenager that some piece of my cultural DNA had empowered me with similar skill and élan. If I could simply remove what is extraneous, I could achieve the masterpiece. Clarity of vision and an exclusive focus on a goal would yield in the success that had eluded others.
And then in the words of Paul, “I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11). Or in the even more honest language of the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne: “So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world.”*
Our fantasies of enduring power, clarity, and skill eventually evaporate in the cold reality of discovering how broken both our world and our own lives really are. From inspirational posters and old US Army recruiting ads we long ago imbibed, “Be all that you can be”—as though the future was an unlimited vista of potential waiting to be realized. This makes for fine sales campaigns, but doesn’t match the persistently messy and painful business of actually living a life.
The selves we were in 2021 undoubtedly fell short—perhaps far short—of even our own expectations, never mind those our God has right to expect of us. We should have known this, for Scripture long ago advised, “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill” (Eccl. 9:11). Willing ourselves to chip away everything that is not David does not, in fact, always result in a masterpiece. Sometimes—more often than not—we are left at the end of a year with a block of marble that has just some faint scratchings on it, and shows no substantial sculpting.
And yet, for all its disappointing realism, this is actually the course of wisdom, for we are growing practical about the ways we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Being all that we can be will never meet the standard of our God, or win us heaven, or even let us “preach like Paul,” as the old gospel song puts it. In fact, it was Paul who pointed us to the way of life that finally brings us greatest joy and an eternal reward: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
This is why I long ago advised myself, and now advise the ones I love as we pass the margin of the year: “Make covenants, not resolutions, as you walk into the year, for covenants give us company in keeping what we pledge. . . . Pledge perseverance, not perfection, for walking with another sinner will reveal how much you both need constant grace” (see “GraceNotes,” p. 61, in this edition).
Lay down the solo chisel, and put on the walking shoes as you move into 2022. Go journeying with those who own their need of grace and faith, and you will see more than mere marble shaped: “You will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).
* Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, Century 3, No. 3 (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), p. 79.
Bill Knott is the editor and executive publisher of Adventist Review.