The Underrated Adventure of Coloring Inside the Lines


“Real work always includes a respect for the material at hand. The material can be a pork loin, or a mahogany plank, or a lump of clay, or the will of God, but when the work is done well there is a kind of submission of will to the conditions at hand, a cultivation of humility… Adolescents are workers bent on self-expression. The results are maudlin. Simpering songs. Sprawling poems. Banal letters. Bombastic reforms. Bursts of energy that run out of gas (the self tank doesn’t hold that much fuel) and litter house and neighborhood with unfinished models, friendships, and projects. The adolescent, excited at finding the wonderful Self, supposes that life now consists in expressing it for the edification of all others. Most of us are bored.” —Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

“Art consists in drawing the line somewhere.” G.K. Chesterton

Question: What makes golf a fun game? Answer: The rules. That and, in my case, the occasional lucky shot. When you know the boundaries of a game, you can spend your energy and enthusiasm within those boundaries. There is a kind of freedom only possible inside a strong gate.

This line of thinking is almost a thought crime these days, but I proceed, thinking like a criminal who has come to appreciate a well-built border.

At some point it became a cliche of creativity to advocate “coloring outside the lines.” I have a small concern about that and it involves the fact that those pictures are usually horrible.

I say “usually,” and not “always,” on purpose.

Obviously there is something to the desire to be unbounded, at liberty, and it’s certainly not all bad. Some conventions are simply prisons, and crummy ones. But the old saying, “Don’t remove a fence until you know why it was put there,” is apt. I’m not saying that we should never buck convention, or that we should always follow every norm. (In fact, rebellion is so conventional now that returning to the ordinate virtues of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness is the real rebellion.) But I am saying we should perhaps be slower to insist on our own way, our own, individual interpretation of a thing. We should, perhaps, be slower to assert our own wills in every area of life: including areas of creativity.

A ruthless commitment to artistic self-expression can be, along with other dangers, incredibly tedious.

I hear talk about how terrible “organized religion” is, but all I can think about is how much worse self-absorbed, disorganized religion is. The man who avoids church, but instead goes into the woods to worship, is probably worshiping the one and only member of Woods Church. That might sting, and sounds judgmental, I know. I think that might possibly reflect how committed we are in our civic religion to Self.

So often the thing I most need liberation from is my own way. The elevation of My Own Way to creedal status in modern life is an elaborate invitation to a Cyanide Banquet.

It is, I will argue, a tremendous virtue to teach our children to color inside the lines. This is because we want our children to be free. They cannot be free and self-worshiping at once.


  1. Heather Rose

    I needed this post. My selfishness needed to hear this. Self-worship and self-gratification and self-absorbed self-expression are all glamorously and gaudily decorated hamster wheels that do nothing but exhaust us.

    Thank you for this post, sir. God bless you!

  2. Dan R.

    This is very true and needed. Our Bible study group was talking about this recently – how nobody seems to want rules (to be ruled), they just want everybody else to be ruled, and that according pretty closely to their ideas about how things should be.

    Also, this (esp. the Peterson quote) reminded me of Jon Foreman’s song “Save Me From Myself.”

    And of Bob Dylan. (’cause you’re gonna have to serve somebody)

  3. Dawn

    We must learn the rules well before we can “break” them. What I mean here is as a painter. I learn the skill and methods of painting but if I want to push something then I do it. But if I didn’t have that level of knowing the rules I would not truly be able to express anything. It would simply be a grasping at something, anything, air.

    I loved this post. I loved the point about the guy going to the woods tired of church. That is so right on. We can whine and complain all we want to about the body of Christ but it was also meant to bring us humility. I have so many friends who don’t do “organized” religion. And it’s really just a hang up with their pride. Anytime I feel ready to throw in the towel for anything I remind myself of a Charles Fox quote, “Weak with Him.”

  4. David

    That’s terrific, Sam. What you say describes the practice of law (on a good day) very well: there are all kinds of constructive, fun, creative things lawyers can do within the rules. At least when their clients are playing nice.

  5. Sarah

    Reminds me of something Clark Gregg said in an interview: “I don’t really read the script as written, I just view it as a blueprint. No, I’m kidding, that’s what all the worst actors say!”

  6. Kimberlee Conway Ireton

    Amen, Sam. Your post here reminds me of something Charlotte Mason said about the difference between liberty and licentiousness: “liberty is freedom within constraints; licentiousness is freedom without constraints.” And the latter ends up being its own kind of enslavement, as you put so well here. We want to live in liberty, which is true freedom, the freedom for which Christ has set us free, and that means we have to live within limits. Here’s to coloring inside the lines!

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