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The question was raised here recently whether the artist’s pursuit is selfish.
There is no template that covers everyone on the “making a living at art” issue. We are all individuals in different places in life and with varying temperaments, childhoods and experiences, and God of course deals with us as such and not as a subset of humanity known as “artist” (even though contract riders do).
When I was a teen I had a burning desire to play music; it was all I wanted to do for a living. I had to fight through the disapproval of some of the adults in my family, well meaning as it was, and had to fight through the fears that maybe they were right and I should get “a real job” and “When’s the vacation going to end?” and simply work hard for two houses, one at the lake, a boat, a fat retirement, and “the good life.” The only way I made it through was via reliance on Matthew 6 and Malachi 3.
This burning desire in me was placed there by God; as a teen and in my twenties I sat in my room for hours upon end and played guitar and banjo because I loved the thing itself, and still do. Escape? Probably to some degree. Did I have self-worth issues back then? Definitely. But the desire to play music was there; it is there still.
As I watch my son, I note he has the same inner bonfire, in his case to draw and write stories. Is this a God-given talent and desire?
I believe it is. That desire can be twisted; he can be turned from the sheer love of the thing itself to the approval he gets from it. My son can bury it and become a doctor or lawyer. But God doesn’t do recalls. That talent will be there, buried, unused, undeveloped, and as a result he will be chased by a sense of dissatisfaction.
I think it comes down to this. Whatever the gift is, we’ve got to ask ourselves, “Would I do this thing even if no one ever heard it, saw it but God? Do I have sufficient passion to continue doing this the rest of my life? Do I love the thing itself or the approval I get, or hope to get, from others from it?” If we have that desire, that love for the thing itself, it is really hard or in some cases impossible to quench that blazing fire.
Is the desire selfish? It can be, if anything but the Spirit of God is in control of the man. But desire is neutral in and of itself, which means desire can be redirected – plugged into the Source – and used an engine for the fuel of the Spirit.
If we have a low view of the redeemed human, believing “The heart of man is desperately wicked” rather than “If any man is in Christ he is a new creation,” and the fact that we have new hearts in Christ, we will be constantly suspicious of our own motives.
Some people will have this fiery passion to play music or write or paint and yet have to work at a day job to support their families. If their desire is burning hot they will still manage to carve out time to do the thing, be it painting, music, writing, or whatever form of creativity. Or they can couple it with something else, like giving guitar lessons and such.
In Christian circles we are taught to be so afraid of our humanity that we can’t conceive of firmly seeing ourselves as gifted without thinking we’re arrogant or proud. We are so afraid of sin that we miss out on God’s things – the development and use of those talents God has given us. We call the exercise of those things “selfish.” But to be selfish is to be misdirected, to lose the eternal view. A musician, with a family at home, on the road for 250 dates a year. Selfish? Probably. But a CEO of a corporation can be just as selfish, getting a sense of worth through his work, just like the musician, spending all his time away from his family and yet thinking, “I am a good father because I’m a good provider.”
To love doing a thing is not selfish. It is one of the things God made us for – for our pleasure as well as His. It is when that desire or love for music or writing or painting takes over our life and we neglect other things – family, finances, responsibilities. In the same way we can magnify the pleasure of eating and become gluttons. The desire to eat and the pleasure of it aren’t wrong; when food is made a god and our life is dominated by our taste buds we’re being self-ish.
The last thing is that all desire, all talent, all of our being, must be laid out at the feet of Jesus Christ; everything must go to and through the Cross. “Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it now is. Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.” When we do this with our talents, we will find that God “really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.”
Is the artist’s pursuit a selfish one? It can be. Or it can be a means of God manifesting Himself to the world. It can be incarnational, and I don’t mean “Christian art” or “Christian music” but simply art and music.
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.