Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions. (Airing daily on Hope 103.2 and Inspire Digital at 9am)
One of the brilliant people of the 1800s was gifted Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. Most people have heard of him. And yet there is a story of great sadness and tragedy about van Gogh. He shot himself to death in 1890 when he was on the verge of a successful career.
Many thought of him as a genius, and a song was dedicated to him called “Vincent” sung by Don McLean in 1972. It was a big hit record and was released in 20 languages. Vincent van Gogh did more than 860 oil paintings, and a million visitors go each year to visit the Amsterdam museum dedicated to this misunderstood and gifted genius.
Not many people know it, but Van Gogh didn’t start out as an artist. Like his father and his grandfather before him, van Gogh was a preacher. He was ordained in the Wesleyan tradition and began his ministry in England. But van Gogh was an intense young man and he had a difficult time as a preacher because he asked so many difficult questions. Van Gogh tried to follow the scriptures to the letter so he sold all that he had and went to be a missionary among the miners of Belgium, but the peasants found his intensity a little too hard to bear and Van Gogh was forced to leave the ministry.
Van Gogh found it increasingly more difficult to follow the strict teachings of the church. He couldn’t abide the church’s intolerance of questions. He wanted to be free to explore God’s creation in ways that the church frowned upon and in time van Gogh left the church. He abandoned the established church, but he still kept up his own faith, believing God could be seen in landscapes, and in the hearts of human beings.
He gave away many of his own possessions, slept on wooden planks, and dressed in rags. But amazingly, the Bible was his friend, and constant companion. He wrote to Theo, his brother: “To believe in God for me is to feel that there is a God, not a dead one, or a stuffed one, but a living one, who with irresistible force urges us toward more loving.” But he felt the need to punish himself.
God Comes to the Rescue of the Broken-hearted
It’s easy to judge people the wrong way. Why did he cut his ear? Why did he commit suicide? I guess we will never know. Maybe he had a severe mental illness, not that it was described like that back in the 1800s. He was institutionalised at least once. He sank into deep depression and self-destruction. He once said, “The best way to know God is to love many things”. He remained humble but couldn’t overcome his depression and disappointments in life, in spite of a deep knowledge of God and his early devotion.
I wonder if Vincent van Gogh ever read Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted. He saves those crushed in spirit”. It’s a wonderful and powerful verse to be taken to heart by any one of us. When you look at the Hebrew meaning of the word ‘broken-hearted’ it means the inner life—affections, mind and will. Those whose inner life is shattered, need divine help.
How sad that Vincent was ostracised by the church back then. He was rejected, when they should have been helping him. But this verse from Psalm 34 means God helps those who can’t help themselves. Sometimes, we reach the end, and need divine resources, and God comes through his Holy Spirit to help.
God is near to you—and looking at the Hebrew meaning again it means close enough to touch. How marvellous that our eternal God wants to touch us with his presence and kindness. Here’s another verse from the Bible I wish Vincent had read. It’s Romans 5:5: “God will never disappoint us. He has given us His Holy Spirit who fills our hearts with His love”.
When someone is crushed, they are down and out. They don’t know where to go. It may be a mental illness or a sickness that won’t go away. That’s when we can trust God to work it out. And God will—in his time and in his own way. He wants to help.
If you’re struggling or need someone to talk to, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.