The Freedom to Respond
[Read an updated version of this article at the Story Warren]
When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!”
Esau's cry has not faded from our modern hearts, it's just harder to hear in the noise. A desire for blessing is a cry for approval. It is a question of identity, and from where we draw it.
Lacking earthly fathers who love with unconditional acceptance, we turn to our peers and our social networks; if they praise us, we feel loved.
For the moment.
We turn to our lovers; if they embrace us, we feel desirable.
For the moment.
We are passionate about interacting with celebrities; if they notice us, we feel validated and worthwhile.
For the moment.
The doubt creeps into all areas. We question not only our own worth, but the worth of our creations, and the two questions often become tangled up, so that our identity is wretchedly bound to approval of our work. But even with our creativity rightly separated from our self-worth, the question burns - "Is it any good?"
No painter approaches the easel hoping to churn out a second-rate piece of drivel. No entrepreneur plans to go bankrupt, disappointing investors and customers alike. No writer, afire with inspiration, exclaims, "Now THIS will be confusing, boring and difficult to read!"
Symptoms of creative insecurity are similar to those of personal insecurity. We badger friends and loved ones for approval, crushed if they dislike our ideas. We care too much about counting YouTube views. We lurk in quiet desperation behind the stages and blogs of celebrities, sure that if they liked our work, we wouldn't want to dump our paints in a dumpster and wipe our hard drives in despair.
Being a Christian can complicate this burden. We know that every good thing is a gift from God. But who hasn't heard the jokes?
A woman arrived at the offices of a publisher, demanding that he print a novel that "God gave to her."
The publisher took the manuscript, skimmed a few pages, and handed it back saying, "I'm disappointed to learn God is such a poor writer!"
And we all chuckle, but the terror grows inside - Is that me?
Every good thing comes from God. But is this good?
Michael Card (who, thanks to Andrew Peterson, I shall always think of as "The Gandalf of Christian Music") opens a door for us in his book, Scribbling in the Sand:
Creativity is worship insofar as it is, at its essence, a response. I hear the Word, and I respond with silence, in adoration, in appreciation by picking up the basin and the towel. It is a romantic response to this Person whom I adore. He is beautiful! I want nothing more than to be in his presence. I love him! And so I sing and I write. If I could paint or dance I would do that as well. I forgive someone who couldn't care less about being forgiven. I try to reach out across the vast distance between me and my brother or sister.
Because it is a response, it does not originate with me. He speaks. He moves. He is beautiful. We respond. We create. We worship.
You see? If creativity is a performance, we need a happy audience and an approving judge to validate it. (Hm. Does that sound like the premise of a TV show to anyone else? Someone should look into that....)
But if creativity is our response to an unconditionally-loving heavenly Father, our work needs no further justification. Don't throw out the paints. Don't wipe the hard drive. What you create is worthwhile because it is offered to Him.
Please don't think I'm advocating for mediocrity. While creative performance is driven toward excellence by fear and neediness, a worshipful response dances toward excellence in a passion of love. It is natural that in responding to His beauty we should reach beyond ourselves to reflect Him.
I am suggesting that instead of judging our own finished works as either Valuable or Worthless, we discern whether they are a Private Response or Meant To Be Shared.
Allow me to compare and contrast.
First, take the picture at the start of this article. It is Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, a 1656 oil painting by Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. It is housed in the Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel in Kassel, Germany. Not much question, this painting is Meant To Be Shared.
Now, look at this watercolor, housed on the cork board in my office. Don't dare tell me this watercolor is less worthwhile than Rebrandt's oil! Don't tell me the artist wasted her time. Don't criticize it at all, because I see her in every nuance. This is is a Private Response of love from daughter to father.
This may be the hard part - accepting that some of what we create is not Meant To Be Shared. Even harder is that it's nearly impossible to discern the difference until a work is finished.
There are many reasons to prefer creating things which are Meant To Be Shared. A few of them are good reasons; most of them are not. Most come from confusing our work with our worth.
No matter what our ratio of MTBS to PR, our personal security and creative affirmation must come from the same liberating place. We must hear now with ears of faith what will one day resound in heaven's firmament: our Father's voice, saying, "You are my child, and I am pleased with you."