“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Writing is hard–for so many reasons. Is it worth the effort?
I get so many manuscripts from new writers asking me if it’s worth the effort to invest in. I used to try to convince them, but I don’t anymore. Instead, I turn the question around, the way I feel God has done in my life whenever I’ve asked him that question (and I’ve asked it a lot):
Can you accept the struggle?
We’ve all committed ourselves to things that haven’t ended up worth the effort. But it may be that just asking the question proves it could be worth the effort to commit and fight for–if only we’ll accept the struggle.
Maybe it’s always true–sometimes the results won’t be what you’d hoped, but the struggle will always produce positive benefits if you commit to embrace the struggle itself wholeheartedly.
And that’s a bit different than embracing the hope of a positive result, or some specific outcome. And it’s going to be difficult to do. Because a good embrace always involves being grateful.
Being grateful is open-handed, receptive, nonresistant. And only from that place can our art respond to what’s truly relevant about a subject, a theme, a story.
Why does it take such effort? Dang, I wish I knew! But my guess is exertion is just what life requires; effort is where life happens.
And I had it confirmed again recently: it’s struggle that creates the best fruit.
Did you know good grapes come from stressed vines? I learned this from a winemaker. Stressed vines give good fruit, and if the vines have too much water and not enough heat, they won’t produce fruit. They don’t have to struggle to hold on to their water, which makes them not work on creating fruit. Why? Because life requires exertion, I guess.
When he said it, I thought of how baby chicks have to struggle to peck out of their egg or they’ll be prone to “failure-to-thrive” syndrome. How many natural examples of this required exertion are there? Thousands? Millions?
It was just more support for the theory I’ve been slowly coming to: if you want to move forward in your writing, you’ve got to challenge yourself to be grateful for the struggle itself. Maybe that means we’ve got to think more intentionally about the purpose of struggle, and the benefits it brings to our life. And maybe that will convince us instead of trying to defeat it, resist it, run from it, or ignore it, we need to seek out deeper appreciation for it as an essential tool–and a gift.
Instead of defaulting to complaining and looking at the pain of struggle, maybe we can look further. We know pain lies to our brains and says fighting isn’t worth suffering. But there’s so much that is worth suffering for. More than avoiding pain, there’s experiencing joy.
You can’t avoid pain anyway. Life will bring it no matter what. You can’t choose not to experience it–might as well make it good for something and choose to be grateful for the struggle.
And the benefit for making that effort will be good fruit.
Maybe anything less is a waste of time.
I think my earlier mistake was thinking this effort had to be so serious and heavy. It felt hard and not widely appreciated, so I’d push and try to force myself to invite pain through willpower. But in fact, not letting the struggle steal your sense of fun seems much of the point.
Maybe joyless effort was inevitable for me, part of my journey. But I’ve found when you do find gratitude for the hard things you’re up against, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to preserve joy. You’ll see that opposition and resistance isn’t hateful—it doesn’t care. And you taking personal offense as though you’re too special to have to experience this pain, that’s you caring way too much. So you can help yourself out and stop wasting your energy.
Let yourself off the hook for misunderstanding and taking offense. It’s the most natural thing in the world to resist and get angry. But you can break that habit with a little effort. Yes, you can.
Ask me how I know.
And you’ll be released from having to fight so hard. You can understand that your natural response is unhelpful and unneeded. Don’t curse your nature—just let it go. It can have its uses, just not here.
Struggle, pain, and suffering are inevitable. Don’t be afraid. And don’t waste them.
For over a year now, people have been asking me what I think of The Shack. Mostly, I’m fascinated by how it’s gotten people talking—believers and regular folks, liberals and conservatives, long-time Christians and the disenfranchised. And it hasn’t even gone to mass market paperback yet (update: it now has). As a result of it all, The Shack is the little, unassuming book that continues to sit atop the bestseller lists and create controversy.
No denying it’s a fairly unusual book. Even with all its visibility, it’s difficult to call it a sensation. At first glance, most everything about it—from the book’s style, to its author, to the way in which it was published—looks fairly commonplace. Yet its unusual success story belies the unusualness beneath the pages.
I admit I was predisposed to give the book my usual surface treatment and be done with it. But as I started reading, I realized I couldn’t dismiss it so easily. In fact, I had to finish it, not just to see what all the fuss was about, but to experience something I rarely get to—a transporting experience. I read with increasing excitement and emotion. Something momentous seemed to be hidden between the pages.
So once I finished, I decided I needed to know the truth about all the rumors and accusations I’d heard. So I contacted Wayne Jacobsen, the man William P. Young claims largely inspired him to pursue publishing the book. Wayne is a writer whose own work has taken on what passes for Christianity in mainstream culture, targeting what Jacobsen calls the “missing middle” that exists between the mainstream Christian book houses and the general market.
That’s significant background because I’m convinced this is one of the biggest and most under-served readerships worldwide: the group some call the “post-religious,” spiritually-curious, but tired of the typical packaging of church programs and Christian culture. How to reach this elusive audience has been a subject I’ve studied and debated for years, but I believe the larger story around The Shack provides the best case study to date.
Coming from outside both Christian and general markets, it has succeeded in transcending the categories to define a hunger for God the typical Christian fare so often fails to fill.
—–In June 2008, I caught up with Wayne—–
Me: I understand The Shack went through some fairly extensive revisions and rewriting. Can you talk about that?
Wayne: Yeah. Paul (Young, writer), Brad (Cummings, Windblown Media), and I worked for about 16 months bringing out the more dramatic elements, the essence of the story, and cutting back on some of the more theologically loaded or simply curious elements. Through the restructuring, we wanted to be as faithful to Paul’s original idea as possible. The natural result of putting the story first was that the book catches the interest of a spiritually hungry reading public. By allowing the books’ statements about God to be experienced organically as story rather than as propositional truths or systematic theology, The Shack has resonated with a diverse audience, building bridges between all sorts of people.
Me: What did you see in the original manuscript of The Shack that made you feel you should commit to 16 months of work to it?
Wayne: We actually did a podcast with Paul on this where I talked about that very thing.
Me: I’ll include the link (“A Visit to The Shack“). Was it ever difficult to remain committed to it during that time, especially given your many involvements?
Wayne: It wasn’t a commitment at the outset, but I felt he had a great book here and Paul wasn’t motivated to do the rewrites we thought needed to be done. At one point the three of us and Bobby Downes of Downes Brothers Entertainment sat down to storyboard the movie and suggest changes in the book. Even with that, Paul wanted me to help. Eventually, I felt a nudge from the Spirit to do so and rewrote a chapter to show him what I was talking about. Then I did another, and then Brad got involved and it started to grab him, so we kept going. At one point each of us had written a version of the chapter with Sophie in the cave, and we just put them all together and kept the stuff we agreed on. A lot of it was like that. Paul was so generous with his gift, and I was using Paul’s words and working to keep it his vision. I’d never done that as an editor—I’d always just been a writer—so the commitment was more something that evolved relationally.
Me: How many people in Christian publishing—authors, agents, and editors—have contacted you about working with Windblown?
Wayne: Oh, more than I can count now. Christian publishing people want to do it. The Shack is hitting the middle ground, but transcending it—church people, Jewish people, the spiritually curious, etc.—all having the conversations as it relates to their spiritual interests. It doesn’t necessarily identify that middle ground because it’s more diverse than that. It’s the reality of Paul’s pain and how he deals with it. It’s more an experience not a theology thing. Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice and they won’t follow a stranger.” We don’t have to take on the mentality of gatekeepers. The push-back from the religious Taliban is that they’re making it about “them and us”–like there’s those who are in and those who are out. But that isn’t what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to serve, not to be served
Me: One of the most exciting things about The Shack to me is that it provides hope to so many people who haven’t been served in the Christian mainstream for whatever reason. This “spiritually interested” audience is not only receptive, but seems to be responding to the idea that God is even more loving and boldly relational than we tend to think, that He’s forceful in breaking down the very walls the religious establishment wants to build in their preference for safe, non-confrontational literature. Do you see a parallel here to how Jesus used parables that were offensive to the religious establishment he was denouncing?
Wayne: People are definitely trying to defame and marginalize the message. This argument about feminizing God, for instance. The book explains very clearly that God shows up as a black woman because that’s the image that puts Mack at ease. God could have shown up as whatever he wanted, but the people who say he can’t be a black woman don’t seem to accept that. There are also some people saying it’s promoting universalism, that all paths lead to God. Even though Jesus says very clearly and repeatedly that he’s the only way, the detractors want to insist that Paul really meant something else.
For too long there’s been a fear of offending the establishment. Publishing people don’t love the books they’re publishing. Our publishing The Shack was never about being commercial or pleasing people. It was meant to be honest and truthful, to find passionate readers who were looking for this. We want to do books that resonate with people’s hearts. It was never intended to be the full orthodoxy of the gospel, whatever we may have believed that to mean.
Me: That’s a really important point. When people talk about “biblical orthodoxy” what they’re really talking about is a bunch of different historical traditions of interpretation of a bunch of theological concepts that really have very little to do with the uninterpreted Bible. The concept is deceptive and notoriously divisive in the ways it’s applied. And I guess when you put words in God’s mouth and have him saying things that sound a little too out of the box…
Wayne: You get whacked! Yeah. People say they believe in things all the time, but they really don’t. Some Christians don’t believe in the Incarnation—the in-dwelling spirit of God in everyone who believes. And it isn’t that they don’t want to believe, they’ve just never experienced it. And I think it’s sad that so many can’t allow themselves to have that experience. But those who want to explore that and experience it shouldn’t be judged for it.
Me: Well said. It seems to me a big difference between those who embrace The Shack and those who denounce it are divided between understanding faith as an intellectual construct based in the interpretation of theological concepts, and faith as an experience of these things–one is mental, the other physical. And certainly we need a balance there, but how can faith be experienced if the familiar barriers of judgment and condemnation are always there? Do you think this is why there are so many disillusioned Christians and “spiritually interested” folks not finding much in mainstream Christian publishing?
Wayne: I’m sure that’s part of it. There are many reasons. Publishing is slow, expensive, and risky. But it’s pretty difficult to keep true to the edge–of actually living out these theological concepts–while you’re worried about offending the mainstream.
Me: Thanks, Wayne. And thanks for inviting so much challenging discussion through this book. I know I’m not the only one who’s grateful for the opportunity to explore these ideas more.
Wayne: My pleasure, Mick. Thank you.
Note: Since first published in 2007, The Shack has garnered much acclaim and controversy and has gone on to become one of the bestselling books of all time. And despite being denounced as heresy, the movie releases March 3rd, 2017.
[Please feel free to leave a kind, intelligent comment–all others will be denied, like CNN at a Trump press conference.]
I sort of do. I set some intentions based on who I want to be, goals I’d like to accomplish, and barriers I’d like to overcome. It’s nothing super specific or targeted. But this year, with one girl just entering the ‘tween years and one full-fledged teenager, there’s a certain urgency to get busy making that progress toward better health in every area.
I guess the question is, What will we need most in the coming year?
There’s the usual things–eat better, workout more, use better tracking and measures for both. But if these are just ways to improve myself, that’s going to fail. It’s not motivating enough.
Similarly, I know that if I want to improve my parenting, my relationships, my work and my play, I need a higher purpose.
I looked back to previous years’ posts and I saw how I fell short. Maybe it’s because of all the challenges I faced. I got sick, got busy, got distracted, and I forgot God and caring for others around me. Other factors conspired too: bad weather, discouraging words, circumstances. At times I was handed heavy weights of pain.
It was frustrating. But not all those challenges produced were such bad things. They slowed me down, made me reckon with the reality of life.
Being sick forced me to slow down and just be with God. Being overworked forced me to pray and fight distraction. And being distracted made me better appreciate the value of the gift of time.
If I can simply remember that nothing worthwhile comes easy, that time and again it’s proven–no real struggle, no real progress–maybe I can slash failure out as a possibility for 2017. What I seem to need most are reminders–monthly, weekly, and daily–that every struggle is a chance to depend more fully on God, to embrace my inadequacy.
Why can’t that be my resolution for 2017?
I could seek out the struggling more, stand with the suffering. I could believe that some struggle is necessary if I’m going to appreciate and love God properly. I could trust that without trials and burdens I wouldn’t realize how much I need God.
Is this the good, the true, the beautiful higher purpose to be sought in this new year? To know that struggle and pain brings deeper dependence on God? Isn’t that the freedom from all fear of failure I’ve been seeking? This year, can I resolve not to forget and not to get busy with plans and avoid all the struggle, and miss the real point?
This year, I want to do more than plan to avoid struggle. I want to plan for a new resolution. I want to track my progress toward a higher weekly goal: to remember that God is with mein all things.
This year, I could resolve to set aside selfish goals for a higher purpose.
…To know that when pain and difficulty come, I can remember to stay open to God’s voice and listen to it, ready to see what he has for me and others there.
I’ve said it all my life: no pain, no gain. Can I lay down my life in this way? Even invite struggling with others, the needy, the ones I’m here to love?
I don’t want to go on protecting my life, seeking my own gain, improving my status and reputation, striving for bigger and better in all things.
I want to resolve not to do that this year.
I want to resolve to remember God’s higher purpose and stand with the suffering.
I want to do this expecting something totally different come next Christmas. I want to finally let go and live what I believe. Because this I know:
Embracing struggle and pain and continuing to hope that God has a higher purpose for it all is our only hope of true progress this year.
This old world will break our hearts and make us despair if we don’t commit to this harder way. If there’s a spark inside you to do something different this year, don’t wait to fan it into a flame. Follow that voice of inspiration, and seek this higher purpose. The new year of blank days stretches out before you….
The new year of blank days stretches out before you….
We can resolve this, and know the thrill of freedom from any chance of failure. With this hope, there is no fail, only gain.
For it’s all for a higher purpose, in all He has in store for us this year,
p.s. I’ve been heading this way for a few months now, inspired by Ann’s most recent memoir, The Broken Way. If you’d like inspiration in following this idea in 2017, I can’t recommend the book any stronger.
“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Saul Below, The Living Novel: A Symposium, 1957
I think no matter who you are, no matter how you grew up, every Christian writer struggles to say no to others.
Some may learn to say “no” readily. But many writers start out avoiding saying no to people at any cost. We’re avoiders and pleasers. We may say “yes” initially only to avoid the inevitable confrontation, then say “no” later by avoiding the situation.
I’ve done it regularly. Habitually. And I’ve seen it done for years.
But everyone who writes has a unique call and so must rise above this.
And in my experience with Christians, we rarely, if ever, acknowledge the essential importance of saying no.
Oh, we say no to sin. And to anything deemed “questionable” or unsafe. But to other Christians? To the church or (God forbid) the leadership? That might not reflect well on our presumed holiness.
Churches don’t give out gold stars for saying no.
People who don’t go to church can get away with it. Some may have first found permission by leaving. Yet how many are saying no to the wrong things or in unloving ways?
The point is, we need to learn how to say “no” well, and our model human opposed both the typical Christian and the disengaged and hardened folks alike.
He said a lot of loving no’s to people. And often.
He said no—in love—to strangers, friends, crowds, the disciples and Pharisees—in other words, to everyone.
Why is this so important? Because unless you can say no in love, even well-meaning Christians can create barriers between you and God’s will.
Saying yes means nothing unless you can also say no. Only “no” can correct and refocus people when they’ve gotten off track. Only “no” can move the attention away from its wrong focus. And only a loving heart can use no to affirm the goodness and love inside the opposition.
Unfortunately, “no” seems so ignored among Christians today that most can’t handle the slightest hint or whisper of it. Now we have to treat adults as children and instead of “no,” offer a firm “thank you for understanding why I can’t serve at that event,” or “God bless your commitment. I’m already giving elsewhere. I appreciate your graciousness.”
If only that was acceptable.
Years ago, I set out to help Christian writers say “no” to the forces that opposed their higher purpose. I thought I’d be fighting the godless consumer culture. Instead, I’ve found the greatest opposition can come not from culture but from the church.
If you’ve had trouble saying no, you’re not alone. And you need to get alone to yourself for at least 30 minutes. Take a notebook and pen and go imagine your future 10 years from now if you can commit to the vision God put in your heart for you to write. Write down what you see.
Imagine it and then believe that one day soon, that will be you, successful.
That is who you are going to be.
Circumstances do not dictate this. People do not dictate you.
God is vision-caster, the Great Imaginer, and when He gives his called artists a vision, He’s saying that one day, it will be your day. But if you never commit to it, and especially to saying “no” to the ungodly demands, expectations, unspoken rules and implicit requirements placed on you by a restrictive church or family or culture, it will never be your day.
We can’t sacrifice our God-given vision for a person or an image or a church. We must use our gifts for the Person and His image and the Church at large.
If you’ve failed to say no in the past, repent and move forward. Claim your gifted strength and know that every failure along the way is one less you have to make now.
Mistakes are necessary; they’re how we learn to value what we eventually gain.
But we’ll never get to where He’s called us to go without imagination and belief.
If you will go and write the vision, you will see where you will be. And you will know you can not quit.
You have to go get it.
So decide to believe. And He goes with you. And there is no fear because fear is not real. Fear is choosing to respect doubts as greater than the future reality. It’s believing things that are not or may never be true are true. That’s insanity. Fear is a choice; we can chose not to fear.
You can simply choose instead to believe the real vision. Choose it and own it.
As Tozer said, there is blessedness in possessing nothing. Yet a vision is a pure gift, and possibly for artists, our primary possession. You can have this vision if you have focus. And you will have it if you don’t quit.
But the first step before anyone else will believe this vision is you believing it.
So all that matters is, can you say “no” to say “yes” to your vision?
“We have met the enemy and he is us.” –Pogo, Walt Kelly
Reading through my journal I see that back on December 4, I wrote about my process of writing my first new chapter since before I went freelance, over 4 years previous.
I wrote it from pieces that started with the basic action and locations, then researched the locations and built the needed discussion based on where they were in the story and what I knew needed to happen. It took a lot to pull myself away from the myriad other things and books I’ve got to work on, but it was worth it. And it felt good.
I initially thought it wasn’t a big deal or somehow cheating since it was built on something existing. I often feel like that, like somehow using something that’s already there is not as valid, not original. But even brand-new rough drafts are built on preexisting thoughts. We all write to get free of something. But nothing we write is truly new; there’s only one ex nihilo creator.
It felt good. Even fiction is a great way to unload my baggage. When I’m willing. My best stuff is where I face the truth and get real, feel what’s buried under so much noise and busy, mind-numbing daily dross. And what’s there? Shame, fear, anger, resentment. The work of writing brings knowledge we’d never realize otherwise—thus reminding us of our undeniable imperfection. And suddenly, magically on the page, what was so easily dismissed everywhere else in our hurry-up world is laid bare, exposed and unmistakable. We are glorious messes and in dire need of a little more honesty and affection.
So often we want somebody to love us but we never stop and love ourselves—just as we are. Who has time?
“Attention is a resource; a person only has so much of it. And yet we’re auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging… In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence—the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.”
Just before I read this, on my Facebook feed, some Christian speaker I’ve never heard of, writes: “When I feel alone, what helps is _____.” I imagine writing something snarky but I resist and unfollow and continue to scroll. Fortuitously, Susan Cain, author of Quiet posted this article just below it. What are the chances?
I’d call it the zeitgeist but it’s probably just this ubiquitous overwhelming feeling these days. Simple flowers are starting to take on much more importance.
Andy Crouch’s cover story for Christianity Today this month says, “Social media is leaving us more ashamed than ever.” The point is well taken but the writer looking for an excuse to procrastinate could hardly ask for a more diverting solution than the technology-addicted Internet world we currently live in.
Side note: Early reports that an “iWatch” from Apple will aim to give back some of our time currently being sacrificed to our smartphone’s incessant interruptions and notifications seem a hopeful step toward ending the tyranny of the urgent. But can it also sort the endless feeds and apps and platforms and devices from continuing to proliferate? Can it convince us our attention is becoming more valuable by the day? You might recall smartphones were supposed to make life more manageable and efficient and all of this stuff too. But maybe this time it’s different. (Wendell Berry’s moratorium on technology for humanity’s renewal seems more prescient than ever.)
We need silence and space alone to work out preexistent ideas, emotions and mental states our attention is being continually pulled from. We need our time back to fully love ourselves and our lives, to feel, deal, heal and become real. And then maybe we’ll find ourselves able to love not only ourselves anew, but others, and God as well.
We need to fight for silence.
Without this novel I’m writing, I’m not sure I’d have gotten free of the resentment I felt for the church and Christianity all my young adult life. And had I been trying to write the original chapters while managing a blog, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, LinkedIn, GooglePlus, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, and whatever else I’m supposed to add to maintaining my website, I doubt it would have ever happened.
“We are compelled by forces that, like the ocean current, are so subtle and pervasive we take them utterly for granted.” – Art and Fear, 116
And without the practice of writing, I’m fairly certain I’d never take the time to remember my life and that books reconnect me to myself and expand me rather than disconnect me from myself and diminish me. Reading because I want to write has made me read attentively when the whole world has seemed to pay its attention to the Internet. It will end up being the most costly mistake many will ever make.
Yet, maybe once it’s clear how precious our lives truly are, we’ll realize our Faustian bargain with being “virtually connected” and the time we’re losing in the process.
Several would-have-been writers may discover something worth writing for in the effort to get clean and clear of our modern enslavement. After all, the worse off we are, the better the story. And in place of the great wars earlier technologies required—from guns to canons to machine guns, tanks and planes and nuclear bombs—the common man’s new objects of liberation and destruction have gone truly viral.
Maybe like me, you’ve doubted you lived something bad enough to warrant your full commitment to this. But maybe you’re living your great fight right now. Believe it: in the days to come, the ability to retain your awareness of what was preexistent will be of great value.
We all write to get free of something. And though nothing we write is truly new, this may be the new battlefield where your true heroism will be forged.
If you’re called, write to connect and to share and to help. We’ll need wounded healers to help the generations to come.