Gift + Desire + Faith = Art

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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.

mantel.jpgBut 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.


11 Comments

  1. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    I think, Ron, that you will have much to teach us. Thanks for this post. My wheels are turning. It seems in your equation, “Desire” is the trickiest one for me.

    Not to tread too close to your terrain, but if I may quote Alison Krauss and Union Station’s “The Lucky One,” my pursuit of artful living has led me to be something of “a jack of all trades and master of none.” At various times I’ve given my time to drawing or painting or songwriting and now, in recent years to sermon writing.

    It is very much an art… a craft to be honed. You have to learn how to work within your medium (the word of God exposited through the spoken words of the preacher in an alloted time slot to a particular and often very regular audience). Its a lot like songwriting, I think. There’s verse, refrain, bridge, crescendo, sustain. It fascinates me and I thank God that like with all art, I’ll never reach an end to learning and cultivating this skill. And I pray the Lord lets me do it for a long, long time.

    I resonate with your post especially in that there is a fine line between working hard becasue you desire excellence and being an arrogant perfectionist. Wanting to glorify God through our art means wanting to be excellent at it, which means practice, practice, practice… And you can’t have that without desire, desire, desire.

    Anyone who’s ever written a good song has written a hundred lousy ones. Same with painting and drawing and preaching and writing. I think about this a lot as I prepare messages for my congregation (God’s congregation, but you know what I mean). I want to be a great preacher. I really do. But to think of trying to be the “best” is a continuum I think the Lord never means for us to pursue. Its a false end.

    I should want to improve, to get better. But what makes art so wonderful is that it is unique to the artist- and no one will take another artist’s place. No one will ever fill Rich Mullins’s shoes. He’s left a glorious vacuum that makes his enthusiasts long for heaven. No one will ever tell stories like Garrison Kiellor or use light to tell stories like Rembrandt. This is not to say they are the best. They’re just who they are, and they’re excellent.

    1 Cor 12:4-6 “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.”

    It is this variety that ignites the importance of desire. As an Artist, I should want to be exellent because the art I produce and leave behind will be unique to the world, never replicated. So I should want it to be excellent, which means I should want to rehearse, practice, refine, fail, jump at false starts, and let go or put aside completed junk, no matter how long or hard I worked on it.

    Comparing our gifts to others is such a treacherous walk. Thanks for that reminder. The Giver of Gifts isn’t calling us to be the best. He’s calling us to want to be excellent, which means for me, better than I am, which means patiently plodding along as a student of my craft, practicing, trusting Him when I get it wrong and thanking Him when I get it right, and praising Him for working either way.

  2. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Russ,

    Most definitely the pursuit of excellence is one of the callings of the Christian artist (and all artists). Lewis said through Screwtape, “One can go on improving one’s talents to the best of one’s ability without deciding upon one’s precise niche in the Temple of Fame.” The calling is to excel, not to be “the best.” Really it’s as you said; it’s the individuality of each person’s body of work which speaks. Excellence of technique is a clearer looking glass than mediocre or bad. This gets into the whole “absolutes vs relativity” thing of art; some people say, “Music is all subjective – I like this, you like that.” There are in fact musical absolutes undergirding our subjective experience of music. A440, if we are tuned to that standard, is an absolute. The extent to which we conform to the absolute when going for the note will help determine whether we are singing or yelping like Old Yeller. Yet there is subjectivity in our approach of the absolute; a singer with technique and control can slide up to the note, be slightly flat for a second and then slightly sharp, and then repeat that process within microseconds. Vibrato. Also, certain notes can be bent around in many genres, blues being one. Jeff Beck plays his flat thirds slightly sharp, and he sounds great and unique in doing so.

    So – we reach for the absolute: great technique. Great pitch. Great timing, tone. We study. And in our subjective reaching for the absolutes our inability to reach perfection is what causes our individuality to be expressed through music, or painting, or whatever art form to which we aspire. But – the absolutes are there. A four year old nailing boards together is not expressing himself as an individual to the same degree as Frank Lloyd Wright.

  3. David Van Buskirk

    This is really brilliiant. I am an artist in my late-twenties who is always second guessing my ability and therefore my ‘right’ to create and perform. “I am not good enough” is a constant obstacle to overcome. But I love this post and I love the reality of being an artist for the delight and benefit of others. I always assumed that I had to be ‘the best’ to be able to create worthwhile art. Since I am nowhere near it, I tend to be easily discouraged. To think otherwise is freeing and I find myself wanting to go write, just for the joy of it.

  4. Tom

    Thank you Ron and Russ! This is all supremely excellent food for thought and hopefully action. As a still young songwriter my tendency is to shy away from practice and foolishy try to hit the ball out of the park everytime I write lyrics. Your posts (and the Spirit’s leading lately) are encouraging me to strengthen my creative muscles through constant exercise. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, faith and humanity!

    In Christ,
    Tom

  5. Emmett

    The idea that our indivduality in music, being expressed through our inability to achieve perfection. . . an amazing and interesting thought. It makes it easier to swallow mistakes and the like, a little easier anyways. As any musician still strives to get the perfect tone, and time, and the myriad of other things that qualify them as ‘good’. Thank you Ron for your thoughts. They are well put, and well heard.

  6. John Michalak

    I heard the “I am not my gift” concept from Sara Groves, who said she heard it from Michael Card. After each song finishes in her concerts, she’d say, “Amen” instead of “Thank you.” Instead of taking the credit for the song, she’d share the enjoyment of God’s gift, behave as a co-celebrant of God’s gift through her. “Amen”.

    I’ve kicked it around a bit, and sure like the idea, but haven’t completely come to terms with it, biblically. Clearly, God’s Spirit in me is a gift, it’s not who I am. But, is my “talent” a gift? Hasn’t my talent, in essence, been a part of me from the beginning? (And, does this mean that an unbeliever with amazing talent has been given a gift from God too?) God may have given the talent to me before I was born, but it’s hard to separate it from my identity.

    I guess the best progress I’ve made on this has been, no matter how great my talent, it only makes a difference in God’s Kingdom if it’s energized by God’s gift, His Holy Spirit. So, whether I succeed or fail in making a spiritual difference (not necessarily an aesthetic difference), is dependent on God, and perhaps dependent on my relationship with him at the time of the performance/ministry.

    Still muddling through it, but thanks for the insight, Ron.

  7. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    John,

    Most believers recognize that if we get our sense of identity from the money we have in the bank, what kind of car we drive, our job, those things are idolatry. But even closer to home, our identity springs from a much deeper source than our gifts or talents, our bodies, our emotions, our thoughts, our personalities, our souls. Real identity, the identity God means us to live in, comes from the deepest part of us – the part of us that is analogous to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Court area (body), holy place (soul), holy of holies (spirit). That center in us, where sits the Ark of the Covenant in us containing the unbroken tablets of the Law (His perfection in us), Aaron’s budded rod (His power in us, power to bring life to dead things), and the jar of manna (Christ as the Bread we feed on daily), is where our real identity is.

    The sinner, when he comes to Christ and goes through the Cross, dying with Christ, being raised with Him to walk in newness of life, has an entirely new identity – no longer the old identity of Ephesians 2:2, but “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation.” In that center of our being, Christ is now joined to our spirit in an indivisible union, a unity, something of which earthly marriage and sex is only a shadow. That union, that unity with Christ, is now our real identity, and it has nothing to do with our talents, abilities, emotions, soul, or body: it is Spirit. That is the essential “I” in Christ. Christ Himself dwelling inside the man, one with the man.

    So, after conversion, God’s objective is to bring the man to where he knows his total weakness in his human self to live the Christian life, his eternal inability to be and do good as God is and does. God’s method, through providing struggle, is to get the man to a place of knowing utter weakness and no-identity; all our false identities have to be dealt with one way or another. And once we come through that Neo-in-the-Matrix death and resurrection, we have come through into a new place of Christian living – a place of knowing “I’m the zero; God is the All. I’m here as a channel or vessel by which God manifests Himself to the people in my circle of influence.” Once God has us there, knowing our true essential identity as “cup” and now “indwelt cup” and then “Christ living through the vessel”, finally what begins to happen is a fixed consciousness that Christ is our life.

    All that to say our talents, abilities, aren’t really “I”, the essential I. God had to separate me from thinking that, getting me to a complete consciousness that “I can do nothing of myself” so that I could come to the other statement of Jesus: “It is the Father in me doing the works” or as Paul puts it, “For it is God in you willing and acting according to His good pleasure.”

    All the outer forms of us – our personality, soul, body, talents, etc – are made for the Spirit to use as His means of manifesting His love-for-others life to our people. That’s the whole point of the creation of human beings (that primarily, I should say, and secondarily our enjoyment of being so used by God). He wants to live in and through us, to be more than “co-pilot”; He wants to, and must, pilot the human machine – and the human, being sentient, must give cooperation (else we are robots and not free).

    And of course, as we learn and accept all this, music is a lot more fun, because we’re not looking for validation but simply trusting Christ to express His life through the music (whether secular or overtly Christian). I don’t worry about applause, or that I’m going to have a big ego because I’m getting external validation; if someone applauds for a song I wrote, I just say “Thank you.” Christ as the indwelling Power of my life is more than capable of making me aware of any subtle satanic assault on my identity in my thought life.

    Best,
    Ron

  8. Steve

    Thanks for your thoughts. I am not an artist but just a guy that’s been climbing the “corporate ladder” for years now, wrapped up in getting somewhere that will provide me more resources and respect. I just started a new gig with a great little company iand as exciting as it is, it is also empty. I really need to get back to “life as a child” as you say.

  9. Bonnie MacDonald

    Wow, I’m really thankful for this post, I stumbled across this from a guy at youtube who put the link at the end of his video.

    I’ve really been struggling with music and pride lately. I know I have a problem with pride in my music because it sometimes makes me upset and depressed to know someone else can do it better. I’ve tried various things to start believing that it doesn’t matter how talented the people are that close to me, or how much quicker they seem to grasp concepts than I. It shouldn’t change the way I use what God’s given me. However, last night I came to a turning point and I discovered that indeed I can’t stop feeling jealous. I’ve given it to God finally, after stumbling around in the dark and trying to find my own way. Thanks a lot for taking the time to write this and share it with us.

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