The Tragic Faith Story of Vincent Van Gogh

For as long as I can remember I’ve loved the work of Vincent Van Gogh. In college I had a couple of his paintings hung in my cramped little freshman dwelling – his Cafe Terrace at Night displayed prominently between Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews posters. There is just something about the rich color and deep emotive quality of his work that has always struck a deep chord in me. It wasn’t until fairly recently, however, that I learned about Vincent Van Gogh, the man. What I learned was shocking.

Vincent_van_Gogh_self-portrait-1024x768

Vincent Van Gogh was a man of deep personal faith in Christ. That’s right, believe it or not, the famous Dutch artist who so greatly influenced 20th century art was a bona fide “Jesus freak.”

As a young man, Van Gogh became convinced of the gospel of Jesus. Moved by his desire “to preach the gospel everywhere,” Van Gogh signed on to serve as an assistant to a Methodist minister. This would be his first ministry venture. His primary job? Translating passages of the bible to English, French and German. Of course when he wasn’t translating, he was doodling. (On a side note, it’s worth pointing out Van Gogh didn’t pick up a paint brush until he was thirty years old! Let that sink in for a moment.)

Van Gogh would eventually move to Amsterdam with the intent of studying theology at a school there. When he was unable to pass the entrance exam, he opted instead to study at a protestant missions school near Brussels.

It was from here that Van Gogh went to the mission field.

Moved by his conviction to share the gospel, Van Gogh took a position as an evangelist in a small mining community in Belgium. Like a true missionary, Van Gogh committed to live a poor, meager lifestyle amongst the miners in order to adopt their way of life and more effectively minister to them. The local priesthood, however, did not like that at all. They found Van Gogh’s actions insulting to their vocation. So together they dismissed Van Gogh for what they called “undermining the dignity of the priesthood.”

This had a profound effect on Vincent Van Gogh. Personally, I’m not sure he ever fully recovered from it.

VanGogh_church

As he grew older, Van Gogh became an increasingly troubled man who never seemed to be able to reconcile what he understood about Jesus with what he perceived in the church. Van Gogh had experienced firsthand the sad truth that one can know many of the right answers about God, even serve him vocationally, and yet be so far from him at the same time.

Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his brother Theo in October of 1884:

“I tell you, if one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm – but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.

Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, You can’t do a thing. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerises some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of `you can’t’ once and for all.

Life itself, too, is forever turning an infinitely vacant, dispiriting blank side towards man on which nothing appears, any more than it does on a blank canvas. But no matter how vacant and vain, how dead life may appear to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily. He wades in and does something and stays with it, in short, he violates, “defiles” – they say. Let them talk, those cold theologians.” 

I love that last paragraph. It is infused with passion. It is such a defiantly hopeful call to belief and action in the face of uncertainly. Sadly, it seems Van Gogh may have been preaching more to himself than anyone else. Just six years later Vincent Van Gogh died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. At the time of his death, very few people knew or appreciated his work. He was just thirty-seven years old.

How tragic to think that this brilliant man who was once so passionate about Jesus would be run off by his church. His story pains me to hear, perhaps because for a very long time it was my story too. Like Van Gogh, I had an early life-changing encounter with Jesus, but his followers just about ran me off for good. Like Van Gogh, I was ready to conclude, “Let them talk, those cold theologians.” Drop microphone. Walkaway.

But unlike Van Gogh, something else happened. I met a handful of people along the way who humbly and passionately followed Jesus. They weren’t perfect, nor did they claim to be, but they were the real deal. They extended God’s love to me despite all of my anger, defiance and hate. They showed me grace. Over and over again they showed me grace. And in the process, they showed me what God was really like. And though I didn’t know it at the time, I was a goner.

I share all of this because, Christian, you must realize that your life is more important than you know. You never know what God might be up to in the small, seemingly unnoticed moments of today. You never know just who it is you are interacting with. It just might be the next great artist, entrepreneur, thinker or world changer who right this very moment is dying to experience the real thing.

Coincidentally, today is the thirty-fourth anniversary of the assassination of the great Oscar Romero. May we who are in Christ heed his timeless words:

“God’s best microphone is Christ, and Christ’s best microphone is the church, and the church is all of you. Let each one of you, in your own job, in your own vocation – nun, married person, bishop, priest, high school or university student, day laborer, wage earner, market woman – each one in your own place live the faith intensely and know that in your surroundings you are a true microphone of God our Lord.”Oscar Romero

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.