Most of us began by desire; at some point we desired a guitar or banjo, or wanted to write stories or essays or songs, or we longed to paint. My son loves to draw; his desire is a full-blown passion. I don’t have to tell him to draw – the desire is his compulsion. His early desire is a good indicator of a gift in that area. And as creative artists on this site, our various desires and careers show our God-created gifts.
But in addition to desire there must be faith as well. My son, who is now 9 years old, has faith in his drawing gift, and I’ve fostered that faith by speaking to it, not merely in general words of “You’re a great artist,” and the like (which could in fact stunt his growth as an artist), but by speaking to his ability. “You have a gift, and the ability to get better and better at it. Keep working at it; be diligent. Don’t hurry so much to get to the next picture; work on this one more. I like your shading there; good 3D effect on the robot.” He tends to fly through his drawings, because he’s an idea man (another good and necessary gift), but I like to get him to slow down a little at times. Anyway, as a father I’m here to foster his sense of being sufficient for the job, for “having what it takes.” That’s largely what bringing a son into adulthood is about. A sense of sufficiency in creativity is vital to the continued output of an artist. That’s faith.
A gift from God. Desire. Faith. These fueled me from my early teens until the age of 30. I had a gift. I loved doing the thing. And I believed I could continue in doing it for the rest of my life.
But unbelieving adults in my family implanted doubts, sowed tares among the wheat. “How will you ever own a home, or raise a family? You need something to fall back on!” Their motive was love, but fueled by fear of failure. My reply back then was Matthew 6. I can trust God to take care of my needs; all I need to do is seek him first, and all these (food, shelter, clothing, etc) shall be given – handed – to me. Though they hammered on that, I never questioned it.
But in the heart of me there was doubt about my ability – especially my voice. And so perfectionism was born in me. The gift was there; desire was there. But faith in the gift became infected by doubt.
At 27 I joined a high level band and have been in it for 16 years. At first it was a high. The validation. The thrill.
But then the perfectionism kicked in. It’s not good enough. Do it again. Over and over.
So I crashed; those undermining doubts dug a crater under my faith in the gift, and the whole thing collapsed. My self-worth, subconsciously connected to my ability as a musician rather than to Christ, crashed along with it all.
In that crash I found Christ at the center of my being, and through the Word he began to reprogram my thinking about myself. I found that I am not my gift. I’m a reigning overcomer, because the Overcomer lives in me. The Father and Son have made their home in me by the Spirit. I’m one spirit with the Lord, an indivisible union that is eternal. And that’s the source of my worth. Christ living in me, through me – as if it were me living. That’s the real Me. To the extent that I trust him to do so, he lives through me, because righteousness is by grace through faith.
I found all that in the mid-nineties. I found my total weakness, and through that I found true strength as I began to recognize Christ as the Root and Ground of my being.
But the lack of faith in my gifting continued. I rested for years in my role in the band, and subconsciously stayed within that comfort zone, rarely venturing out into faith-territory. I didn’t want to meet any giants or fierce inhabitants, even though there was milk, honey, and wine to be had, because I had chosen to not have faith in the Giver of my gift, the Promiser of the promises.
Recently God has begun to bring me back to faith in himself as the Giver of my gift. I’m realizing that he has put this musical gift in me for others; it’s not there for me to get self-worth from and turn into an idol. It’s there for others to experience the richness of a life indwelt by Christ. It’s there for a platform for me to speak Christ to others. It’s there to move and inspire and stir those who hear it into a deeper relationship with God, whether I’m playing gospel or secular music. I’ve learned that humility doesn’t mean to downgrade the gift and be perfectionistic. It means to accept our gift, trust in the Giver, and live from desire. That in itself will bring the gift to a greater and more perfect expression.
So I’m getting back to the beginning. Life as a child. A gift. Desire to use it, loving the doing of it. And a faith that doesn’t shrink back in fear at digging deep, at being honest and transparent, at speaking the truth in love through songs. To have this kind of faith in the gift is to have faith in the Giver, to have purpose, meaning, passion, not rooted in the gift, but in the Giver who lives inside the gifted one…inside the artist.
I played my first show last night. That sounds weird, because I’ve been playing in bands since I was 16 and am now 43. But this was the first show that I led. It was up in Kentucky, with three talented musicians, and we all sang songs and played instrumentals; I didn’t want it to be the Welcome-To-Me Show. We played a lot of bluegrass, and about half of the show was gospel songs that I’ve written. Near the end I realized how much I was enjoying it. I didn’t sing the best I’ve ever sung, or play the best I’ve ever played, but it wasn’t the worst, and there were some really good moments. There’s room for improvement, but that will come as I continually let go of all those false concepts that have shaped me into staying in my comfort zone in my regular gig as I learn to trust in the Giver rather than comparing my gift with the gifts of others.
We can let the world define us. We can choose to compare ourselves to others and feel defeated or elated because we’re not-as-good-as or better-than. We can give up in defeat and become complacent, or resentful and bitter. We can strive to climb to the top of the heap and stand there like Hercules, flexing our greater-than-other-men muscles. But what I’ve found is best is to just trust the Giver of the gift, and live from desire. The Devil hates that. But that’s Christ expressing himself through our art.
That is what it means to be an Christ-ian artist, whether we are writing songs about human disappointments, loves, hopes, experiences, or writing explicitly about Christ. God expressed himself through Jesus in Gethsemane and the Crucifixion as well as in the Resurrection and Ascension. Darkness, weakness, fear, and death. Power and new life, resurrection and a stepping up to our true destiny. It’s all part of our art, because true art springs from God’s mind and is pushed through into this temporary realm by his chosen agents – his Christ-indwelt people (I don’t want to get off on a sidetrack of how God expresses himself even through the art of those who hate him – but he does).
C.S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce,
“Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower – become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.”
“I don’t think I’m much troubled in that way,” said the Ghost stiffly.
“That’s excellent,” said the Spirit. “Not many of us had quite got over it when we first arrived. But if there is any of that inflammation left it will be cured when you come to the fountain.”
”What fountain’s that?”
“It is up there in the mountains,” said the Spirit. “Very cold and clear, between two green hills…When you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else’s: without pride and without modesty.”
I’m once again living by faith in my Father’s Idea of me as Musician; that’s an idea that I cast off long ago as “Not my true identity.” But it is a part of my real identity in Christ; not the Center, but part of the means of expression. Faith is not arrogance. Humility is not “I’m no good.” I’m to punch pride and false modesty in the face every time the devilishly-inspired thoughts come into my brain. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s the height of arrogance to refuse to trust the Giver of gifts, desire, and faith; it is the death of Christ-expression to downgrade our gifts and our humanity. And humility is the simple recognition that it all comes from the Father.
Gift + Desire + Faith = Art. That’s what I watch my son doing; he knows his gifting, lives from desire, trusts me, and so trusts himself. In the creative act, that’s what it means to become a child.
Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.