There is often an assumption made that creativity is an unbounded force, flowing freely and continually to the artist. The canvas is never blank, the page never empty, the clay never unformed. The artist never experiences boredom or tedium with regards to her craft, but instead experiences the effortless flow of creative energy each and every day. There is little need for discipline, repetition, or structure in a true artist’s world, or so we assume.
In contrast to these assumptions, renowned artists will tell you that creativity is something that must be practiced, exercised, as it were, just like any muscle. In fact, creativity achieves its greatest potential when bounded by discipline, and a tireless commitment to practice, routine, and structure. The painter, Wayne Thiebaud, once said that “an artist has to train his responses more than other people do. He has to be as disciplined as a mathematician. Discipline is not a restriction but an aid to freedom.”(1) Rather than being opposed to creativity, discipline provides the conduit through which creative engagement grows and develops freely.
It is not difficult to understand why many would falsely believe that creativity is by nature undisciplined when many assume that structure and routine are signs of a lack of creativity, or worse are signs of boredom. Boring routine appears to be antithetical to the creative life. But as author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a notebook entry, “boredom is not an ‘end product’ but an important and necessary ‘stage in life and art,’ acting like a filter that allows ‘the clear product to emerge.’”(2)
Assumptions about growth and creativity in the spiritual life often parallel these assumptions about an artist’s process. Perhaps we expect unbounded growth, or instant results. Perhaps we expect robust faith and little doubt. Perhaps we expect the constant flow of “good feelings” surging through us. If we do not experience these things, or if we do not perpetually experience something novel from the rhythm of worship, prayer, or study then we believe that something isn’t right. But perhaps this sentiment belies a hidden disdain for the repetitive nature of discipline and routine. Like the stereotypes about artists and creativity, we can falsely believe that discipline is antithetical to the art of spiritual growth and freedom.
As a result, we often chase after the wind of emotional experience or spiritual “high” constantly seeking the “next thing” that will move us or make us feel good. Ritual, discipline, commitment, and structure seem impediments to growth, rather than the soil in which spiritual growth is nourished and fed. It is easier to assume that spiritual transformation is like osmosis, a process over which we have little control or responsibility.
Yet just as artists expect that practice, routine, and repetition are necessary disciplines of the creative life, so too should those who seek to grow in faith. For spiritual practice sharpens insight and enhances spiritual creativity. Routine and discipline are the nutrients necessary for the spiritual life to flourish and grow.
Not surprisingly, Jesus makes this connection between growth and discipline. In the gospel of John he exhorts his followers to “abide” in him—literally to rest and to take nourishment from the life Jesus offers (John 15:4-5). But as we abide we are told: “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love; just as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 15:9-11). Jesus insists that joy flows from a life of discipline and obedience that includes keeping his commands. They are not separate endeavors, but intimately enjoined to produce abundant life.
How ironic this statement seems when most of us do not associate joy with discipline! Daily living often feels like monotonous routine. But joy is not a feeling, nor is it dependent on the whims of our personalities. Joy is the result of a life lived in the rhythm of rest, routine, and discipline. This life following Jesus is often both tedious and difficult. But disciplined obedience is not a blockade to joy, but rather a doorway that opens into the presence of God. There, we encounter the One who produces in art and discipline something beautiful that remains.
(1) As cited in Clint Brown, Artist to Artist: Inspiration & Advice from Artists Past & Present(Corvalis, OR: Jackson Creek Publishers, 1998), 87.
(2) As cited in Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 41