The Struggle Against Artistic Pride (or, the brave little artist)

*Deep breath*

When I was first really starting to think about being both creative and a Christian (I think I was 11(?)) these were the kinds of conversations I wanted to have. That’s what this is: a conversation. It is not a conclusion; it’s on the list of things I want to talk about with other creatives who also seek to order their lives after the Bible (albeit uber-flawed) through the grace of the resurrected Christ. Of course, we all realize that it isn’t a conversation until you talk back or carry it on. So there’s that. Prologue finished.

adult art artist artistic

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

He was talented musician, but he had stopped sharing his music in church. I don’t know if he still did gigs, performed as local talent, or just reserved his music for time at home, but he had stopped sharing it in worship scenarios. He explained it something like this: “It was becoming too much of a point of pride for me. It wasn’t about worship or God’s glory in the music; it was about me.” So in order to avoid the temptation to take too much pride or think too highly of himself, he stepped away from music performance, specifically in church.

When I first heard the explanation, his choice seemed respectable and even rather noble. I understood it. The Bible has a lot to say about being prideful; none of it good. If you’re seeking to honor God with your life and your gifts, part of the artistic and performative process is a constant reordering of your mind; assessing who is more important—you, or God. That’s no small thing; it’s an unending question. It’s a minute-by-minute sort of question.. And according to scripture, it’s eternally significant.

“Pride comes before a fall” is a well-known Proverb; all artists have met someone (maybe ourselves) whose opinion of themselves is so high that when the inevitable fall comes, it’s going to hurt. A LOT. No matter what you believe, people tend to respect a down-to-earth quality, and kind professionalism. Divas are no fun to work with, no matter how good they are. But then there are less-quoted Proverbs (I paraphrase): “Let someone else praise you, rather than you praising yourself.” Bragging is unattractive. It also makes you look dumb. (There is a difference between bragging and marketing, so sometimes that’s reeeeeealllly subtle. However, humility is a virtue; marketing is not.) Then there’s that slightly scary thing that Jesus said in Matthew 6. Apparently, there were people who did good deeds professionally, hiring a trumpeter to announce that they were giving money to the poor and praying beautiful, public prayers. Jesus said that they weren’t getting a reward in Heaven for it; their reward was what they wanted: public approval. Their work was fully paid for; there would be nothing later.

But we’re SO PRONE to self-worshiping pride. How in the world–?

(Here’s where I need to take another deep breath.)

*BREATHE*

Unlike my musician friend, I don’t think that the right solution is to stop doing art—at least it’s not a completely Biblical solution.

First, it’s impossible to be pride-less; sin-less. That’s the point of the Gospel; we cannot save ourselves from ourselves. To believe that we can escape the sin of pride by NOT doing what God gave us to do amounts to a kind of artistic monasticism. As if we could move into an artless monastery of sorts, take a vow of silence and poverty and still escape the sin that comes from within us. Jesus pointed that out, too. We are defiled by within; not without.

Second, it seems to often be a fear of the struggle itself; fear that we will lose against pride and fail to honor God with our good. But while the sin itself is certainly not good, the struggle is. Our conscience is alive and wriggling; even healthy. What we should fear is to cease struggling against pride. When your heart stops beating, you’re no longer alive. If you stop struggling against pride, you’re giving into it. Humility is dying.

Can I speak of an art form as a calling? I think I can. If God gifted you, and wrote your name in His book as one who has accepted grace, then He doesn’t expect too much that you now “ work” or create for Him rather than just yourself. Perhaps we could say you were always “called”; you were born with your gift and the desire to work your tail feathers off to perfect it. By all means work for your food and living, but ultimately, you create for Him. These are not separate things. But this calling carries with it the vulnerability for great pride. Don’t believe me? Ask someone to critique/edit a work of yours and give suggestions. Is your heart suddenly and protectively aflame? We long to be congratulated and told our work is excellent. Many artists are people who at least at some point in their work would gladly do it for free. Our pay is easily laughter, delight and praise of others. Like Babette noted in Babette’s Feast, the most fulfilling thing is really just doing it. But if you’re like me, you’re always surprised at how unsatisfying that is. At some point, the focused discussion and critique of others became what my pride coveted. But when you get it…it feels like leaving the restaurant right after the appetizers. There must be something more.

And this is what I’ve been trying to get to…more deep breaths…

Yet ultimately, it is also pride, I think, to NOT create because we are afraid. We are afraid it will not be good enough. Our pride helps us make all kinds of excuses: family, work, daily responsibilities, not being good enough. But really, you know it’s a choice. It’s pride. We can’t win against pride. In a fight, we’ll always lose. We like to be right, a genius, the master. Yet like every other form of pride, there is one antitdote: our good God. If He called us, He will also give us strength to do it and not fail or faint in the fight against pride.

To summarize and conclude (I’m breathing more normally, now): 

If we fear pride itself and so do not create, then we’re still trusting ourselves, as if you and I could simply sidestep sin. We cannot be artistic celibates; are we then not guilty of both pride and—much like the servant who didn’t invest his one talent, but buried it–failing to use what we’ve been given? We are called to war and work, so we take our Commander’s hand, pick up our pens, our paints, our tools of the trade, and war and work for Christ with our art. That will look like all kinds of things: stories, pictures, music, mosaics, poems, fashion, gardening… Maybe it’s not overtly salvific or evangelistic, but it takes you to places Jesus intends for you to find souls and make Him famous.

Be an artist.

Freak Out Thou Not: Take 2

This is a reblog from November 13, 2016. I find it needful to say these things again.

img_20191112_124059964

I once sat in a room with an assorted group of pastors, their wives, missionaries and church members. It was informal, for the moment, and the conversation, as it so often does, turned to current events. And one after another, everyone in the room took turns expressing their frustration and as far as I could tell, their fear. They shook their heads hopelessly and used words like, “scary,” and “I’m afraid that…” And I won’t kid you—looking around at the pedigree in the room, I felt like they must have been right. I wanted to say something like, “But what about verses like, “Be not afraid”?” I went to Awana and VBS; I learned my verses pretty well. But no one else was saying it, but I was the youngest person in the room and so I felt like I shouldn’t. The absence of those words felt palpably hopeless and empty. And I’m quite sure that a gathering of Believers in Jesus shouldn’t feel that way. After fifteen minutes of this, one of the pastors gently spoke. He offered God’s promises of security in Him and of His control over the world and its events. And my heart breathed in the promises and settled its feathers.

In the last year, I have several times found myself in conversations with friends who don’t share my faith. And the conversations, as they so often do, would turn to current events. And one after another, everyone would take turns expressing their frustrations and as far as I could tell, their fear. They would shake their heads hopelessly and use words like “scary,” and “I’m afraid.” And I would want so much to say that my God had promised peace to those who believe, but they didn’t want my Jesus and found no comfort in Him.

In both cases, it seemed like speaking fears aloud somehow brought comfort. If we were all politicians and law-makers, maybe our conversations would be practical. If decisions of any kind need to be made, I suppose the expression of concerns would be wise and useful. But otherwise, we’re just sort of spreading the fear around like mud on the clean floor. It is time to stop making messes. It doesn’t matter what the topic is–it public restrooms, equality of any kind, or closer to home, your job and your family–if you call the God of the Bible your Father, then you can claim not only peace, but joy. So why don’t we?

If social media was a room where all my friends of all beliefs gathered, it would an awfully sorry party. All the videos and memes and some of the the articles may be good, but they’re not great. They don’t substitute for those who know joy and peace truly expressing it, and expressing it in person and in voice and in belief. As a former professor of mine put it once while commenting on world events: “Freak out thou not.”

So as fellow Believers, when we get together to pray, our conversations about the state of the nation should be as faith-filled as the prayers that follow. When we talk about what we hear on the news, perhaps we should talk about our Father’s power instead of encouraging each other to worry. Speaking the truth of our Father gives us the ability to be compassionate with those who are different from us; and believe me, you’ll need it. When we worry aloud about our families and friends, our children growing up in this world, and the complications of daily life, we only prove that our God is not particularly powerful. We are frankly declaring that He is impotent. When we listen to our own voices and our own words instead of speaking His, we prove that we prefer our own. And I don’t know about you, but there is nothing particularly potent about mine.

Someday, we will not have to work so hard to infuse Heaven into our lives. We will have the Word Himself visibly present; we won’t just be quoting He who is present but whom we cannot see. Here, we have to learn and relearn and relearn again; There, we will wonder why we didn’t “get it”. I trust Him that He completes me now and I will better understand that There.

Regardless of the broken place we call our temporary home, we are taken care of. Our Father hasn’t forgotten us.

Freak out thou not.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and forget not all his benefits,

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

~Psalm 103