The flowers I pick
Die in my hand,
But flowers I can’t
Photo’s my own.
The flowers I pick
Die in my hand,
But flowers I can’t
Photo’s my own.
A conversation in response to 12/3/2016, 1/19/2017: On Perfectionism and Creativity
In early 2017, a friend had some questions about a post. My response ended up summarizing my whole soteriology at the time, which of course is built with the humble and talented bricks of so many profs, books, and pastors and mortared together with my own thought and experience. I’m putting it here for posterity and will probably comment on it later.
D: I have been thinking about this a lot lately, specifically how fear relates to perfectionism. Maybe you can expound on that some…
Me: What have you been thinking?
D: Well recently I feel like perfectionism is somehow related to self- protection or fear. But I haven’t figured it all out yet. You said it’s fear of failure which makes sense. Trying to protect a false image I have of myself maybe? But what if the fear of failure is of moral failure or sinful failure? I guess that’s what you were saying, that even that can become an idol. I’ve not thought of that before. But yes, it steals creativity & risk taking, but since perfection is impossible it also steals joy & peace.
Me: Yeah, moralism—that Christ-agnostic standard that has ruled much of my life—is a huge offender. And a sneaky one, since it masquerades so well as being scriptural. Learning the difference between moralism and the Gospel, which is about Christ’s meeting all godly standards on our behalf, was a huge change for me. The Grace Awakening by Chuck Swindol was a big help for me in this, among other things.
A corresponding key nuance is that ALL salvation—even sanctification—is by grace through faith. The emphasis in my tradition was always on our responsibility and need to work in sanctification (which we should) rather than on our dependence upon God for good works, just as much as we depend for initial belief and for future, eternal deliverance. We are called to work, but the goodness that comes within our working, when it comes, is always, always, always by grace through faith and not because of the work, itself (Phil 2:12-13). That grace—that dependence upon God for sanctification-salvation—frees us from the idolatrous tyrant of moral success. And again, it’s only because Christ has already met the standard on our behalf.
The Gospel is always, and in everything that’s eternally good (things whose goodness transcend temporal benefits, I suppose), “Christ saves us.” So any fear regarding anything eternally good, given Christ’s power and love for us, must arise from some lack of faith in Christ//faith in something in place of Christ. It must come from some flaw in our beliefs and values rather than from some valid application of the Gospel.
D: I agree. My trouble is with figuring out in the moment where my motivation is coming from- empowering grace or moralism.
Me: Another helpful nuance for me (we seem to share the same vice, though I’m not surprised)—we are at all times both sinner and saint. Nothing we do is ever wholly one or the other. So waiting for “good motivation” isn’t really a thing. We’ll never have it even if we think we do.
God just wants us to work, and to the degree that we do good, it’s because of him. And to the degree that we don’t, it’s because of us. And when we fail, because Christ has already pardoned us, we learn, and we keep on working, correcting our methods and actions on the way. It’s painful to learn through failure, but I think that’s one part of suffering we’re promised in this life. Putting to death the deeds of the body is putting them to death. It’s not a day spa. That one’s a fairly recent nuance for me—within the past six months, probably. He just wants us to keep working as best we can in each moment, and worrying is not ever a good work.
Given that all good we can do is by grace through faith, worrying about whether or not we have a good motivation with the intention of withholding that action if we don’t is, in my estimation, symptomatic of a return to moralism. The worry—the fear of failure—signs that we have lost faith in the righteousness and grace of Christ, upon which we are dependent for both our pardoning and for the good motivation/works. If we trust in him for what, in short, could be called our sanctification (good works out of good character), we trust his provision AND his withholding. Whatever he chooses to do—and he does not promise all salvation to all men—he is God, on whom, alone, we are dependent. And here it gets hairsplitting—if we trust ONLY in the provision and NOT in the (apparent) withholding (and also on our ability to know what provision we need and when, how, etc. we get it), we trust in the provision. It has become an idol. If we trust in the PERSON(S) who provides (or not), we trust not only his provision but also in what way he provides or not. We trust him and all he does in all the ways he does them, even when we have no idea what he’s doing or if he will ever extend us what we desire or what we think he should. All that to say, a person who trusts God, including his provision of the grace required for either our pardoning or our good works (again, ALL aspects of salvation) trusts HIM, and fear signs a trust in something less than him—something untrustworthy, thus the fear.
And another nuance—I use “lack of faith” more broadly than just in regard to belief. I think we are dependent not just for the belief but also for everything required for the belief, including the correct knowledge.
One mistake I fall into is making the removal of perfectionistic fear an idol. Given that God is both infinitely loving and powerful, fear is symptomatic of a lack of faith and thus sinful. If God is such, what have we to fear that’s actually worth fearing? Is he not capable to know good and evil, and in loving us and doing as he pleases, does he not give good perfectly? So the lack of faith requires grace (through faith), like all sin. So applying the above, God is good (i.e., loving and good) whether or not he gives me the grace to believe and so be free from fear (salvation from that sinfulness by grace through faith [faith is by grace as well]). And to follow that, in wanting to do the work that he commands me to do, I do my best to deny fear-led thinking and instead focus on good things and actions. Sometimes it’s a TEDIOUS moment-by-moment battle and far beyond me to be able to detect and redirect my thought life, especially when it’s led by something as strong and as confounding as fear. But I feel like that falls into the “work as best you can in all moments” and all the corresponding things I mentioned above. And I, in and of myself, am not capable of winning it because whether or not I believe it, I am wholly dependent upon God for salvation from any and all evil, whether by way of pardon or by way of outright deliverance, with the removal of temptation, whether I recognize it as such or not. And he loves us and is more powerful than we can comprehend. But I work, and if I will be delivered within that work, it will be God, by grace, through my faith— which is just another product of grace—and not by the work, itself.
All good things come from God. We are wholly dependent upon him for everything worth having. And that’s just the Gospel, which we learn on and on and on and on and on.
Do you mind if I put all this on my blog sometime? I’m not sure I’ve written all this down in one place before.
This sent me spinning.
Kind of reminds me of my reaction when reading The Grace Awakening.
Is self-absorption wrong? Short answer—only when it lacks love.
If the focus on self follows a similar model to C.S. Lewis’s metaphor about ships, then no. If a person becomes absorbed with the self but does so as self relates (in love) to God or others, then it’s as right as actively working with or for others. For instance, recognizing/correcting/suppressing/dealing with one’s own anger in order to more healthily relate to a spouse is loving. And what about the person who, in introspection, further plumbs his own sinfulness, with the result of a greater appreciation for and dependence upon God? Sometimes love requires us to become absorbed in self.
However, a person who is only absorbed in self cannot at the same time love. That self-absorption—or perhaps, better, “ego-absorption”—is symptomatic of a lack of love.
Because of his adjectives, I don’t think, necessarily, that Taylor condemned the former. The type of self-absorption to which he refers seems to be that of the unloving kind.
As is often the case with “over thinking” or “worry,” people tend to define self-absorption by degree. If a person is “too” self-absorbed, it’s bad. But it’s not the degree that’s the problem. It’s the quality or the reason. It’s the motivation behind it. The man who cries “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” is surely thinking about his own sin. But he is also thinking about God’s goodness, and he desires to have the span between God and himself bridged.
It also reminds me of the little I learned about the Ego and Self idea. But as I understand it, Ego is the I, whereas Self understands I only in relation to We. The I doesn’t disappear, but it’s context is different. The Self is part of a unified diversity of communal individuals. The former is the lack of the love, and the latter is the love—the relationship.
I am afraid of being self-absorbed. To the extent that I become self-absorbed about being self-absorbed. And then I write documents to determine whether or not I’m being self-absorbed or justifying why I am. Taylor could easily be writing about my blog. And, at least in part, the fear of that led to the creation of this document.
A couple thoughts:
As saint-sinners, and assuming the I is the only alternative to love, all we think and do is, to some degree, self-absorbed. Until glorification, we cannot escape it. No man-created thought or system is safe. No man-understood thought or system is safe. We are wholly dependent upon God for anything not self-absorbed.
Learning by Keyboard documents are meant to depict the development of my thought life over time. They include sinful and incorrect thoughts. They also include some grace and some love. I imagine every form of thought and conversation from every person in this age, no matter how godly, follows the same pattern. Indeed, Taylor might as well have said, “I come across people sinning all the time.”
I’m not defending or diminishing the sin to which he refers. It’s sinful, and the goal of the believer is to love better.
But duh. Really. Of course artists will sin while arting.
But back to the LBKs—Taylor could mean my blog (I doubt it, but I could fit his model), but that’s fine. That’s part of being authentic and transparent. I don’t mean these articles as didactic. They’re exploratory.
To the degree that God provides grace through faith, as I work to obey, I will love while writing. And while thinking and learning. And thus to that degree, these documents will lean away from the sinful form of self-absorption and toward the more relational, loving form, in which relationship provides the context, rather than the ego.
But again, Taylor says this as well. #LordSaveUs
You are free to act.
God doesn’t tell us to wait on him to give us pure motivations or authentic motivations (pure motivations would be authentic…), he just tells us to do because it’s him in us working to will and to work his will. And he corrects us when we do wrong. And that’s it.
Something tells me he doesn’t want me to not do just because I might do wrong. Something tells me he will take care of me when I do wrong. That I have the freedom to act, knowing that I’m safe, that he loves me, that he works on me when I do wrong. And though those things may hurt, it’s good. So there’s a safety net, of sorts, in doing wrong. I am free to act because I could do right and because doing wrong is not the end.
To be continued.
(8/14/2017: I have since written a more nuanced explanation of what I’m talking about here, to be published later on. This is much too short to be of use to anyone. But this LBK was the first big movement on this topic that I had had in years.)
Perfectionism kills creativity. It drives the brain to the left side of the road in hopes of removing all imperfections—an editing process. Without feeling the freedom to make mistakes, a person cannot create. But the idea doesn’t stop there, else all perfectionists would be doomed from ever creating (and from the liberation of learning to do so).
Perfectionism, if it’s anything like what I consider my own perfectionism, is a flight from or fight against fear. In this case, it battles the fear of failing to meet some standard.
Call it what you will, but I call this legalism. It’s either the case of valuing the wrong standard or the case of failing to recognize Christ as the one who has met the right standard on our behalf. I say this because the only standard really worth meeting, the only standard that should cause us fear for not meeting it, is that which restores a right relationship between God and man. There are other desirable standards, to be sure, but they fall short of this one, and all become idols (1/19/2017: indeed, even this standard can be an idol if elevated above God, himself) as soon as they become our driving force, as soon as Christ’s imputed righteousness, our redeemed relationship with God and man, the hope to which we look forward, is not enough. We can handle falling short of those standards with poise and contentment because they do not come before that which secures us. (I need to develop these ideas more).
That being the case, perfectionism is sinful, or it is symptomatic of sinfulness. It is a lack of godly character. It is an issue in need of grace—whether common grace (as is the case for so many ungodly artists) or special grace for sanctification. That is to say, the recognition of the premier value of the standard that Christ met, of the Gospel, and faith in Christ as the attainer of the standard (and all that such entails) frees a person from the other standards that enslave him (in fear). And in freeing him from fear, he feels free to make mistakes and thus becomes more able to create. Moving from perfectionism to creativity is a liberation. And it is a product of the grace of God.
This is what I felt when I started writing.
1/19/2017: Another way of arriving at this:
As God is love, I think that God is Creativity (and I think A.W. Tozer would agree).
God, in his self-existence, is the standard and source of all the things that he is (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.). He doesn’t receive his characteristics from some higher provider, and he does not match up to some higher standard of goodness, of love, of whatever. He is the standard. These things belong to him as intrinsic to his nature (and to none other apart from his making it so, though sans infinitum, as far as I can figure). These are aspects of his character, descriptions of who he is. And the existence of these things in the creation is a product of God having created it and making it in accordance with who he is (Good is like God, Evil is unlike God, and God does no evil). Aberrations of these things came as a result of sin. So, God alone existing in and of himself, and him being the Creator, who creates from nothing, is creative and thus the standard of Creativity.
For mankind to be like God in his creativity is to be a subcreator (Tolkien). And because sin has made us unlike God, and since to be made like God is a product of grace, becoming creative is a grace.
You are choosing based on what you interpret that you want. Therefore the thing you want to do the most is to do what you want to do the most. And I imagine that’s because you want to do what’s “right” or “perfect” the most, and you’re leaning toward the idea that what you want—what’s “authentic” for you—is the best. Interesting.
I guess the issue is beliefs and values. What drives me? To be perfect. By what means? By being authentic. What should drive me?
I wonder what’s behind my wanting to be perfect. Is it a lack of faith in the imputed righteousness of Christ? Is it pride according to Satanic philosophy? The attitude of the Babel Tower builders? Both? Perhaps a lack of faith and a lack of valuing of the imputed righteousness of Christ?
A person of right character wants to do what’s good and does what’s good. They do so because they believe what’s good and value what’s good. I have a fallen character with the imputed, good character of Christ. At least with the righteousness of Christ. Thus I will not want what’s good—at least not purely. Not until glorification.
But I think this idea led to me valuing what I want as the best criteria for action. I elevated this form of “authenticity” because only an authentic person can exhibit good actions with good motives. But something tells me that a person with right character is authentic as a result. That is to say, if I put on authenticity, I am doing so out of a wrong character. If it’s by grace through faith that I am authentic, it’s good.
Ha ha. Now that I know I have this issue, what I want to do the most is change what I want to do the most.
More to come.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m worried about being a good writer. Or really even just being “a writer,” as if it’s some special breed of human. Indeed, it seems like most articles raise them up, along with other artists, to a pseudo-deity, much the same as celebrities. It draws all my ambition.
A godly man would view fame and wealth as all but worthless—at least for the normal reasons I pursue them. Tolstoy did, but only after discerning their worthlessness from experience. They are utility. Reach more people. Help more people. They carry the responsibility of the Talents, much like my education. Without these, they are merely the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
It is as much an idol—identifying myself as a writer—as identifying myself as, or making myself, a good person was in the past. I take the question “Who am I?” as impetus for becoming praiseworthy. But such is the flavor of my sin nature. And it seems that, like in my character perfectionism, God has forbidden me from attaining my desired identification. I fall into intense insecurity long before I succeed. It is my Babel Tower toppling. Baal failing to light the fire. God disallowing me from feeling independent of him.
And just as in the case of wanting to be and know that I am a good person, being and knowing that I am a good writer are bound by God’s will and thus dependent upon his grace, just like the toppling of the tower. That is, God could let me continue to build my tower. He could let me succeed. He could let me take credit for it for the rest of my life, just like he does for so many successful persons (according to worldly standards). But in grace, he reminds me that I am indeed dependent upon him. And not only does he remind me, but in grace he gives me belief. That is, if he does. I cannot force his hand in this, else it would not be grace. I cannot manipulate his timing. I am helpless to change my independent assumptions, and therefore all of my motivations for things that accord with independence, by myself. These things usually involve some measure of personal greatness: christian character, artistic skills, creativity, intelligence, good looks.
A few thoughts:
First, I don’t have to know that I am a good writer to be a good writer, even though I imagine it would help in determining my vocation. I say this because I feel particularly down at the thought that I might not be good—a product of my insecurity at the moment. But I guess this is just me trying to reassure myself according to that same system (of being a good writer). At the same time, perhaps I just want to know what the best use of my time is right now, and I assume that the best use involves doing what I do well (or the best). But I wonder if that’s the best criteria for choosing what to do. In and of itself, choosing to do what we are best at has little value. Choosing to do what we do best in order to help people has merit, but of course such purity requires character, which requires grace. But perhaps choosing to do what God has put before you is best. Or perhaps my worry about what to do involves another fear—what if I choose the wrong thing to do? Just another branch of the insecurity vine. In any case, I cannot outignorance or outevil the sovereignty and goodness of God. Choose what is in my head and heart to choose.
Second, there is a measure of clear-mindedness in spite of the fear of not being a good writer to determine that I am at least good enough and interested enough to pursue writing. Such has been the conclusion so far, though the fear persists. Again, it seems like I just want to assure myself that writing is the best path. It may be. Why I want to assure myself of this—perhaps because of my insecurity. See above.
Third, all sanctification is by grace through faith. Being a good, loving writer—the goal worth having—is by grace through faith. Trusting God and being humble (contra insecurity) are also goals worth having. And in God’s grace, he may topple my tower of writing well (agnostic of love) in order to teach me writing in the slums. Or he may forbid writing altogether. It’s up to him, and it’s good.
I want to write well primarily because of ambition (right now anyways). I have not wanted to write well to enhance my ability to reach people, to build the world—at least I have not noticed that motive. I believe that desire is in me, but it takes second seat to my pride. Tolstoy moves from the first to the second as well: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/05/16/leo-tolstoy-purpose-diaries-youth/ and https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/11/20/tolstoy-on-motives/
If this will change, it will be by grace through faith.
And in the meantime, I guess I’ll just keep writing. Until the next time God topples one of my towers.
If I end up being a professional writer, I wonder if I will always bounce back and forth between purer motives and ambition.
I was reminded that Lewis wrote about what tempts me. I think it was in The Great Divorce. He wrote about the artist who became more enamored with the craft of painting than about that which he painted, though he was initially interested in painting because he wanted to capture a bit of the beauty he saw and share it with others. While reading those articles on Tolstoy, I realized that I have become fixated on the craft of writing—I imagine because I believed it to be the quickest route to praiseworthiness. But the sincere writer records himself, not just his skills, not just his interesting thoughts. He records his emotions, and so his values, his beliefs, his struggles, his flaws. And he shares himself with the world. He connects with it. Perhaps in hopes that he can help it along its way. Perhaps also in hopes that it can help him. Or perhaps just because he’s part of it, and our grand design is to proliferate, to create, to cultivate, and he wants to contribute to humanity’s effort toward this end. I think it was realizing that I have failed to do this that my insecurity began in this episode. I failed in this regard, God made it obvious to me, and I fell apart, having come to depend upon being a good writer rather than upon God. I sell my loyalty for trifles.