“We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have – for their usefulness.” – Thomas Merton
All art, writing included, is built on ideas. The size of those ideas can’t be measured, but we know some are very, very big.
I believe there’s one idea I’ve long held that outranks them all in crippling my motivation to do the work required.
Everyone has to work through many wrong ideas. For me, somehow I learned to focus a bit too much on the product of my faith, to value not my work, but my work in the world.
On the surface, it seems a small thing. And there’s clear biblical support for the idea: We don’t look at good intentions, we look at the fruit. We don’t care about what’s on the surface, the heart is what matters.
Biblically, that’s true. But you can see how prioritizing the product over the process–the goal over the journey–is a twisting of this teaching. And intentional or not, as is so often the case, the idea has created a big misunderstanding. The result for me, and I’m convinced many others, has been confusion, frustration, and even death of much art. Art became a utilitarian function, a tool in service to the end result (mainly saving souls, but any such “purpose” of art could have done equal damage).
I could have created this idea from my own pride and desire for acclaim, but I’m here to tell you that any result of our art is not the purpose. Hear me and hope again: this is not a Christ-following artist’s proper focus.
I know this is controversial, but that’s not my goal here. Maybe you’ve struggled with a form of this idea too. The Bible says we are all in a process of being transformed (2 Corin 3:18, among others). Life, like art, is a process. And we can only take part in that as we are able to accept it and abide with Christ in it.
Leaving the complicated theology aside, focusing on the product gets us confused and looking for Jesus out there, somewhere far off in the distance, in the future, in another place, in other people not here, not now, not in us.
Any artist deeply senses this is true. But many of us resist giving it its rightful place in our minds. We focus on getting somewhere, and so many other things too. We want progress, we want a product. Our fear and our misunderstanding blinds us. Jesus offers his help, his rest, his spirit of knowledge and understanding. And yet we don’t even hear him. We will not stop long enough to listen. We rush ahead and deny that we’re hearing anything.
And when it’s pointed out to us, we may even deny that we’re artists at all.
Of course we’d be able to listen to God and hear him if we were real artists! We’re only dabblers, and pretty bad ones at that, after all.
But consider: maybe our assumptions about what it means to be Christian artists are off base. Maybe they’re informed by our culture, by its insistence on measuring product and productivity, and by our own refusal to accept that there is no measurement for the movement of the Inspiring Spirit. It blows wherever it pleases (Jn 3:8).
Can our rational, enlightened minds even wrap themselves around this ancient truth and feel its power again?
If we could only realize, if we could only believe what Jesus says is true about the kingdom of heaven living within all men (Lk 17:21), it would be obvious that believing is all we have to do. Making art is a byproduct of praise, and the product is
Making art is a byproduct of praise, and what we produce is a byproduct of that, and all of that can take care of itself.
Jesus said that accepting the mystery that he is the embodiment of God’s Love within us is our comfort and our assurance (John 14). And this profound mystery is not just beyond us or above us or out there far off somewhere, but actually living within us right now, infusing and enlightening us like beacons, calling and waiting for the world to wake up to it.
The evidence of him is all around us, but more importantly, it’s filling us with life and is alive inside us. Right now, right here. When you believe it, that becomes your new reality. You are ignited, “born anew,” and every day becomes a new chance to see that life is this precious, this sacramental, this holy. Every day, the sacredness is in the very dirt and rocks that hold up our feet and spark our senses to recognize it.
Oh, but we miss it. We’re still deaf, and dumb and blind to it. We only know what little we feel, what tiny parts we sense, and what enormous things we lack. We long for more but we’re all too aware of what stands in the way. And we are never enough aware of God.
Yes, this is the deplorable, depressing human condition. And yet right here is the wide open mission field of the called artist. Do you not see it? Look! These are the fields ripe for harvesting, the sacred purple fruit literally bursting for recognition, longing to be made into fine wine for the world, to be made into its inspired intended purpose, into its perfect product: the glory of the God of all things!
We could be transformed if we’d just stop trying to figure it all out. Stop trying to improve on this today. Give up the work and be still. Pay attention. And be loved.
You are not alone! We all waver and doubt. We all wait and grow sick with the rot of the dream within us, the dream planted by His Spirit when he energized us and gave us sight. We all grow weary waiting for the day our product will go out and do its work. And we all are tempted constantly to give up. And right here we could be transformed if we’d just stop focusing on what we think is the point. We don’t have it all figured out. And we never will.
Stop trying to improve. Give up the goal of the work and be still. The work will come from that. And if the world is to be changed, it will only be by that.
Pay attention to what really matters. Step down into the stream of the Spirit. The water flowing around your feet is a metaphor of the water flowing within and out of you every day. It will feed the fruit of your work if you will just stop and feel it and then express what you feel. Give yourself to it today. IT IS FOR YOUR LIFE!
Do you hear the song within it? And will you give yourself to that song? If you will, you will have produced something worthy of framing. And you can let praise be your product.
For the higher purpose, today and always,