I was working as a graphic designer at a church. Even though I found purpose and meaning in my work, I was utterly addicted to performance as an artist. I needed everyone to like my art; I couldn’t say “no" to projects and when I took on too much, I couldn’t ask for help. I needed to prove myself! I loved to impress people but when my striving went unnoticed, I grumbled. Then my team shrunk but my responsibilities grew. We were doing a rebrand, launching a women’s ministry, campus, bible study curriculum, on top of all the other programs, events and weekends. It became too much. My “success” felt like it was on the line. No matter how hard I worked, I still felt like I was missing the mark. I breeched healthy rhythms and values I once had in place. I knew I was on the path toward burnout. I laid on my office floor feeling like a victim but really I was not there because of the church I worked for (they were there for me in every way) but because I was holding myself to unrealistic standards, unwilling to appear weak. The trials were hard but in the way God always works, he used it for good. He woke me up.
Let’s talk for a moment about where all of these feelings come from; how normal and human they are. We are wired to flourish. God tells us to rule over the earth or as Eugene Peterson phrases it, “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!” With verses like Proverbs 16:3, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.” and 1 Kings 2:3, “Walk in his ways… so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go.” It’s hard to argue that success is a good thing, a God-ordained thing. The problem arises when success takes the place of your identity in Christ. Rather than Christ defining who you are, what you DO defines who you are.
When I started to be reminded of who I was in Christ, my “being his” outweighed my “doing for him”. I was freed from the tyranny of having to prove myself and my efforts became motivated with clearer intention. When I focused on abiding in Him and kept convincing myself that his love was unwilling to quit on me, I wasn’t trying to earn his love or the approval of others. Without having to have my worth and value on the line, I could focus on doing what an artist does as Ted Loder so eloquently puts it, "To create beauty which casts this world into a more whole and holy dimension.”
Second, if you work in the arts, whether it’s music, graphic design, copywriting, production or videography, one of the tensions you may feel is how success is actually measured. Art is elusive and subjective, which makes constructive feedback difficult for most people. I think we have all received commentary that sounded like, “I like it”, “That song felt off”, “It’s not my favorite.” Maybe you work for nice people who don’t want to hurt your feelings, so everything is “awesome” but you know you just copied it and your imposter syndrome kicks in. Or you work for someone kind of picky but you know you’re working very hard. We’re left to base whether our accomplishments are wins or losses on feelings.
In a society that rates and reviews everything, sadly our own creativity is not exempt. When talking about the question often posed after church, “How did the service go?” Dallas Willard in his book, Renovation of the Heart, said, “God is the primary agent in the gathering. The truth is from the only point of view that matters—God’s—it is very likely no human knows how the service went; and in any case that cannot be judged by reading overt responses of the attendees.” This freed me from measuring the success or reach of my creative endeavors on how I felt about it or a response. What mattered is that I work for His glory, from the place of His grace. I trust that he can take the things that I can’t measure and does more than I can dare think of.
Third, we are all prone to comparison, especially in the arts. You might know this story all too well. You have to make something… from nothing… with your brain. So you scour the internet for inspiration. You see hundreds of amazing [insert your medium of choice]. Wow, these people are good. You start on your project, you are not that good and all you have to compare yourself to is the whole dadgum world. Maybe your project is not that bad. It’s good? No, it’s trash. And just like that comparison really is the thief of joy, that graphic you just saw on Pinterest was right… even though it wasn’t even designed that well.
Growing in your field, improving your skills, being a constant learner, are all important things. But if you are constantly doubting yourself and beating yourself down because everyone else on social media is killing it… being the best [insert your craft] is not your hope. The sufficiency of Christ is. “I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his spirit.” (Ephesians 3:16 NLT) He has everything you need to do what he called you to do.
Jesus is in the business of lifting burdens, your success being one of them. Our main focus shouldn’t be on the “rise and grind” but on the “rise and abide”. When you work from a place of His presence, your work becomes holy. And when your work is holy, you can trust that the real impact is beyond measure. This is a real flourishing.