GOD IS CLOSER
In the Vatican Michelangelo Buonarroti’s brilliant painting of God and Adam adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
If you look carefully at the painting, you notice that the figure of God is extended toward the man with great vigour. He twists his body to move it as close to the man as possible. His head is turned toward the man, and his gaze is fixed on him. God’s arm is stretched out, his index finger extended straight forward; every muscle is taut. Before Michelangelo, art scholars say, the standard paintings of creation showed God standing on the ground, in effect helping Adam to his feet. Not here. This God is rushing toward Adam on a cloud, one of the ‘chariots of heaven’, propelled by the angels. (In our day they don’t look quite aerobicised enough to move really fast, but in Michelangelo’s day the angels suggested power and swiftness.) It is as if even in the midst of the splendour of all creation, God’s entire being is wrapped up in his impatient desire to close the gap between himself and this man. He can’t wait. His hand comes within a hairbreadth of the man’s hand. The painting is traditionally called The Creation of Adam, but some scholars say it should be called The Endowment of Adam. Adam has already been given physical life—his eyes are open, and he is conscious. What is happening is that he is being offered life with God. ‘All of man’s potential, physical and spiritual, is contained in this one timeless moment,’ writes one art critic. Apparently one of the messages that Michelangelo wanted to convey is God’s implacable determination to reach out to and be with the person he has created. God is as close as he can be. But having come that close, he allows just a little space, so that Adam can choose. He waits for Adam to make his move. Adam is more difficult to interpret. His arm is partially extended toward God, but his body reclines in a lazy pose, leaning backward as if he has no interest at all in making a connection. Maybe he assumes that God, having come this far, will close the gap. Maybe he is indifferent to the possibility of touching his creator. Maybe he lacks the strength. All he would have to do is lift a finger. The fresco took Michelangelo four years of intense labour. The physical demands of standing on a scaffold painting above his head were torture. (‘I have my beard turned to the ceiling, my head bent back on my shoulders, my chest arched like that of a Harpy; my brush drips on to my face and makes me look like a decorated pavement… I am bent taut like a Syrian bow.’) Because he was forced to look upwards for hours while painting, he eventually could only read a letter if he held it at arm’s length above his head. One night, exhausted by his work, alone with his doubts, discouraged by a project that was too great for him, he wrote in his journal a single sentence: ‘I am no painter.’ Yet for nearly half a millennium this picture has spoken of God’s great desire to be with the human beings he has made in his own image. Perhaps Michelangelo was not alone in his work after all. Perhaps the God who was so near to Adam was near to Michelangelo as well - at work in his mind and his eye and his brushes. This picture reminds us: God is closer than we think. He is never farther than a prayer away. All it takes is the barest effort, the lift of a finger. Every moment - this moment right now, as you read these words—is the ‘one timeless moment’ of divine endowment, of life with God…
The central promise in the Bible is not ‘I will forgive you,’ although of course that promise is there. It is not the promise of life after death, although we are offered that as well. The most frequent promise in the Bible is ‘I will be with you.’
Before Adam and Eve ever sinned or needed forgiveness, they were promised God’s presence. He would walk with them in the cool of the day.
Foundational Truths of My Life with God
· God is always present and active in my life, whether or not I see him.
· Coming to recognise and experience God’s presence is learned behaviour; I can cultivate it.
· My task is to meet God in this moment.
· I am always tempted to live ‘outside’ this moment. When I do that, I lose my sense of God’s presence.
· Sometimes God seems far away for reasons I do not understand. Those moments, too, are opportunities to learn.
· Whenever I fail, I can always start again right away.
· No one knows the full extent to which a human being can experience God’s presence.
· My desire for God ebbs and flows, but his desire for me is constant.
· Every thought carries a ‘spiritual charge’ that moves me a little closer to or a little farther from God.
· Every aspect of my life - work, relationships, hobbies, errands - is of immense and genuine interest to God.
· My path to experiencing God’s presence will not look quite like anyone else’s.
· Straining and trying too hard do not help.
Review these truths once a day for two weeks as you cultivate the practice of God’s presence.