The Corrosive Temptation of Being A Creative

I always wanted to be a writer.

There was never I time I can remember when I didn’t want to be a writer. There were just a lot of times that I didn’t think I could make any money out of it.

But once you’re an adult, you need to earn money. So your calling and your back account go to war with each other. I learned to hate money, as it seemed to be the main thing that was keeping me from doing what I wanted to be doing. That, and editors too dense to notice the brilliance and originality of my work.

Wanting something so badly, but not getting it, can launch you down a catastrophic spiritual path.

That’s the dark side of feeling called to a “creative” profession, whether it’s writing, art, music, or acting. Even though the work is noble, the process of trying to succeed can be corrosive and corrupting.

I noticed a spiritual virus that, when it climbs into the creative soul, conceives narcissism, a particularly pernicious pollutant. Narcissism spoils even the most beautiful work, staining it with an ugly splatter (not like an intriguing “modern art” splatter, but like a kid vomiting on your new carpet splatter). If you’re not careful, you might succeed in your art at the cost of your soul.

I see the seeds of this narcissism when I read about how some people feel “saved” by engaging in their true calling. They “needed” to write, or paint, or sing, or act, and were miserable when they compromised with a real job. Finally, they returned to “who they really are” and feel whole again.

What’s so bad about that?

Look closely, and you might find that there’s a selfish hue buried deep within this line of thinking, one that can do tremendous damage to our souls.

Karl Barth once rightly described Jesus as “the man for others.” There was no more selfless person who ever lived than our Lord. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” (Mark 10:45)

If we want to be like Him, we have to share His attitude—one who lives not for himself, not even for his dreams, but for others. Jesus didn’t do miracles, teach, disciple or evangelize to feel better about Himself, to be “whole,” or to avoid “selling out.” He did it out of obedience, and He did it for others. Selflessness, compassion, and an others-centered orientation weren’t pious virtues pasted onto an otherwise heroic life.

They were woven into Jesus’ spiritual DNA.

All of this means that, from a Christian perspective, it’s not enough to write because we “need” to be a writer or even because God created us to be a writer. Write instead because someone needs to read what you have to say. Let passion for people drive you to your laptop, the thinking that someone really needs to hear this (if it’s nonfiction) or needs to experience this (if it’s fiction).

Don’t paint because you need to be a painter; paint because there’s a beauty others are missing that you want them to see.

Act because you want to carry someone from their daily struggles to another place, then set them back gently into their daily lives.

Take photographs to open up others’ eyes to a world so often missed in our distractions and introspection.

If we don’t train ourselves to think in an others-oriented fashion, even in our calling and vocation, we’ll corrupt ourselves into becoming selfish people. That’s our “default” attitude.

Anything done selfishly—even good pursuits such as art, sex, or parenting—becomes corrupting.

This might sound like a subtle critique, but our characters are often forged out of such subtle distinctions. If we are true believers, we are Christians before we are artists. We should shun selfishness and narcissism in our calling and vocation every bit as much as we shun lust or materialism or racism in our social lives. It is equally corrupting. It blinds us to God’s agenda to reach others.

It keeps us from adopting humility, that golden character trait that the ancients called “the queen of the virtues.”

So, yes, it’s a distinction that matters. Write because you have something to say, not because you’re tired of working at Costco. Act because someone needs the inspiration, not because you need the applause. Baptize your creative calling with a Christian compassion, and you’ll do more than earn a living. You’ll build a life that honors God and earns your heavenly Father’s approval.

Looking back, I now see that God wasn’t just concerned with my art;

Even more, He was concerned with my heart. He let me suffer until I understood that even more important than being published was learning to resemble Jesus Christ, the man-for-others.

What is your reason for creating? Do you find yourself struggling with pride?

[Photo: PhotoCo, Creative Commons]

  • Smpta

    This is good to me. I’m a visual artist and often feel guilty about having a masters in fine art yet I work in a cooperation and am not making any art. I struggle to do any art work in any free time I have, but spend most of my day at work wishing I could do something more enjoyable or at least somewhat close to my calling. In these past few years I have felt like God has been teaching me to serve in areas I don’t particularly like. So I think it is good you talk about doing art as a service. It almost puts more weight and responsibility on my art work as I know that people will be transformed and loved through this talent God had given me.

  • Danielle | from two to one

    Thank you for sharing a piece of your story, Gary. This line particularly stood out for me, although for reasons beside my art: “Wanting something so badly, but not getting it, can launch you down a catastrophic spiritual path.” Needed to hear that this morning.

    • Gary Thomas

      I think you’re right, Danielle. That line could apply pretty broadly…

  • Carlee Barackman

    This is probably one of the best posts I’ve read in weeks. I just wanted to share how much this meant to me, and how in such a loving way this.. almost helps correct my thinking.

    • Gary Thomas

      thanks, Carlee. It’s a process…

  • Grace Elizabeth

    WOW! Okay so I got told. I don’t want to, is probably not the best reasoning, and how can I say I want to do God’s will when really there is only some certain things I want Him to lead me to? Hard. Thank you.

    • Gary Thomas

      You clearly got it, Grace!

      • Grace Elizabeth

        There’s such a large part of me that wants to not understand, because it IS scary… trusting in His all-conquering love and goodness-to-the-core.

  • Brianna DeWitt

    This is such a refreshing look at calling, and a perspective I definitely needed to hear. Thank for this.

  • Courtney Osborn

    Needed this today. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jonah Wu

    This is a great post, and I agree about the corrosiveness of narcissism, and your warning about it creeping into our art. But isn’t there’s also a danger in the other extreme — that if your creative output is always intended to be some sort of “service”, that if you create from a fearful, guilt-driven place, and that if you create in order to serve some pre-conceived audience, the output suffers?
    The boundaries between introspection, self-consciousness, and narcissism are so blurry that we are unable to tell the difference sometimes. We need both Grace and Truth, in the love of a community, to navigate these waters…

    • Gary Thomas

      Jonah, I think the balance is found in recognizing God as the ultimate Creative (and Creator). Pursuing excellence out of worship keeps us from narcissism. I can’t imagine–and never intended to suggest–someone creating out of guilt or fear. That’s beyond me. But creating out of love is the most fulfilling thing you can do–loving God first, and out of that, loving others. I guess I don’t see where your caution about fear and guilt squeeze into narcissism.

  • Laurel Griffith

    Gary, This is exactly what I struggle with on a daily basis. Often I am in mid-sentence and I ask myself if this is for me or to help another and bring glory to God. Some days I just stop and ask God to take my efforts as an offering.

  • Jen Gunning

    I struggle with this, too, though a very selfless husband allows me to pursue my writing without the pressure of having to work elsewhere. I have to often remind myself that the audience that matters is One….God Himself…and anyone else who is blessed is a bonus. When I start worrying that I’m not writing for such-and-such an audience, I know I’ve drifted and need to come back to singular target. My blog is named “Epistellein” from the Greek “to send a message.” I’m surely an Epistle, written for His glory and sent at His discretion.

    • Gary Thomas

      That’s great, Jen. Your husband is giving you a tremendous gift, making it possible for you to pursue your heart’s calling with the need to generate revenue.

  • Renee Pierce

    THAT is exactly why I write!! For others, hoping and praying that God will use my small words in big ways in just one heart, and I am thrilled when He does. I started writing as a way to exercise my spiritual gift of encouragement. I totally hear what you are saying. I have DEFINITELY felt the pull and tug of my flesh wanting to exalt itself. Thanks for what you said today, it blessed me.

  • Alice Summers

    wow. yes and amen. What a good word! As you said to Carlee, DEFINITELY a process – continually I must die to MYSELF and MY need to create. There’s more to this calling than that. Even if I never make a living as a songwriter, may hurt and hopeless people find Christ.

  • Andrea Cumbo

    Thank you for this reminder, Gary. Doing anything – artistic or otherwise – just for ourselves is wrong, of course. I did disagree with you a little, however. . . so I wrote about it here – Thank you so much for helping me think through these things.

  • Kate Schell

    “Write instead because someone needs to read what you have to say.” This is an articulate, important point. I get caught up in just writing something well, instead of telling a good story. Good form is worthless if the content is void.
    And though you didn’t list it among the arts, I think this concept applies to comedy, too. Comedy — whether in writing, improv, film, whatever — is often the unwanted stepchild in an over-serious Church, but there’s nothing unchristian about humor. “Joke because someone needs to laugh,” you could say. We live in a fallen world, don’t we all need a good laugh sometimes?

    • Gary Thomas

      Yes, we do. Laughter is one of God’s greatest creations.

  • Ruth

    Whoa, what a coincidence, I just read through The Sacred Search at a bookstore yesterday. I’m hoping to get a hold of Sacred Marriage as well. Thanks for writing, this really encouraged me today :)

  • Grace&Glory

    As a professional creative, I appreciate your thoughts and have shared many of those. However, after almost a decade of this profession, a couple decades of experience, and my faith arching over all of them, I can attest that while it is possible for art to be selfish, true art is not. It is a reflection of the Creator, and I find that all of the artists who are truly excelling in their work, who I admire recognize the humility in such. I have had both “struggle and success” in art, and even when I didn’t have a work to share with others, I had the identity, value, and hope that only Christ can provide that I could share. I guess that would be my challenge and hope for other artists. Be willing to die to that need for success and outer accolades. God will always provide. Maybe not the way you hope, but he will always provide what you need. And I do believe He gives all of us a calling. Was being a carpenter a very glamorous career calling for His Son? Maybe some could make it into a reality TV show or a new home line brand at some hardware store. But Christ knew that while it was part of His calling, it was not His whole calling. We are given talents and compassion for certain things and people- as you said, not to serve ourselves, but to serve others. However, I believe that by pursuing what God has put in your heart to do, you are loving others by loving yourself. You are simply appreciating the gifts with which you have been bestowed. God hopes that all will come to faith and has commissioned us to make disciples of all the nations- not just the ones that already have a solid Christian community or Third World countries. There are many artists who suffer deeply- and Christian artists, of all others, can understand that. As I read in a book once, we understand the “dark side of the light chasers.” But I know that I have personally been transformed by Christ’s presence in my artist’s soul, as I assume many other believing artists have. It is my hope that brave artists of every age will continue to set up shop in cafes with their laptops, hit gallery row with their paintings, brave studio streets with their scripts, ideas, and emotions. Real believers are necessary in the real world of art. And yes, it is challenging. I speak from personal experience that I have lost all I once held dear for the sake of staying true- not just to my calling, but more importantly, to Christ. But I can also truly say that for all I have lost, what I have gained in Christ is not to be compared. To all of you artist’s hearts out there, be brave.

  • Brenda W.

    I agree that this really is a trap for creative people that often goes underaddressed. Thanks for the reminder!