A Theology of Creative Work

“What does it mean to be made in the image of God?”

This was the question my friend Justin posed. He and his wife had come to visit us shortly after we moved to Seattle. Wanting to make the most of our time on their brief visit, we took them for a drive over Deception Pass and down Whidbey Island. Justin and I were chatting in the front of our sporty minivan, and as usual, his keen and inquisitive mind led to a rich discussion.

Initially, we talked about some of the answers to the question we had heard many times before. Maybe they are answers that are familiar to you, too—to be made in the image of God is to be formed after the character of God, to have a need for relationship, to hunger for things that are good and right. But as I took in the beautiful scenery sweeping past the windows, our conversation took a turn. I came to a realization that had never occurred to me before:

To be made in the image of God is to be made a creative being.

That realization grabbed a hold of my heart. No matter how broken we may be, every human shares God’s desire to give and receive love, compassion, pleasure, and relationship—something I already believed about being made in the image of God. But that bright summer afternoon, my understanding grew. A person who makes, who creates, is a human who is straining into the image of God that abides in their soul.

Now you might have realized long ago that to be creative is to exercise the image of God within. But for me, it was a fresh, important, and empowering shift in how I view the nature of creative work. Throughout my life, I’ve been labeled as a creative. Most of the time, it was even meant in a positive way. But in this conversation, this label gave new meaning to how I viewed myself and my role in the Kingdom of God. Creative was not just who I was, but who I am meant to be. And whether or not you’ve been told you’re creative, it’s who you were made to be as well.

Some of you might feel like you are done reading now. “I’m not creative!” you might say. The only thing you’ve ever sculpted is a warped ashtray, and you have to tell people that your stick figures are Impressionist. But you are creative. If you form and express an idea in any form, whether it is a sculpture, a song, a sermon, a new business, or even a delightful meal, you are doing creative work.

Some of you are so creative, even artistic, that you’ve stifled it, having been characterized as free thinkers or troublemakers who disrupt the work of the pragmatists who can really get things done. (Perhaps I caricature this a bit, but perhaps not!) Often, in the Church today, we settle into an understanding that artistic pursuits of one type or another primarily function in our weekend services as a means to communicate our message, wrapped around and propping up the spoken word as the primary communication of the gospel. At best, we see creative work as something we squeeze in as another means of conveying the message. At worst, creative work is something that we tolerate as a means to help illustrate preaching.

Everything I’ve said this far and everything I will say after pivots on this one point: creativity should not merely serve as an expression of the gospel. Inviting another to imagine, to dream, to create, and to make is to invite them to live in the image of the Creator God they are formed after. Creativity is not only an expression about the Kingdom of God; it is an act of the Kingdom itself.

To be creative is to recreate, to reassemble the pieces of God’s broken image of a creator—to be human just as we are intended to be. In the remaining paragraphs, I’d like to show you two ways through which the practice of creativity particularly serves as a demonstration of God’s kingdom.

First, creative work, when properly understood, takes the shape of hope, of a longing for what God has yet to do in our lives and in our world. The faulty understanding of creativity as a means of expression alone is rooted in dualism. Ultimately, creativity seen this way serves only as a physical means to a spiritual end, ideally a tool used in this corrupt physical world for the saving of individual souls or advancement and growth of our churches.

But creativity as hope recognizes that this world is not doomed to complete destruction but to a renewal, a purging of corruption as God once again joins heaven and earth. The Bible begins with God walking among humans in a garden, but it ends with God living among humans in a city. Could it be that some of our most meaningful and beautiful artwork, songs, stories, even architecture, have some kind of place in this renewed earth that we long for?

If that is the case, and I think that it is, then our creative work is co-creating with God in expectation of this final day of renewal. This is an understanding we have struggled to hold to in Western cultures, and one in which we can learn from our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Church. Greek Orthodox theologian Angelos Vallianatos describes it this way:

The human being, endowed with God-given qualities, then becomes God’s co-creator. God who is love thus demits from the right to be the only creator on Earth, and in his love, he calls the human being to take the “very good” world in his hands and lead it to its immortality. If the human being chooses this way of life, the whole of creation will follow it.

As humans interact with God’s very good world, we take an active role not only in demonstrating but also in pulling the renewed and recreated world from the future into the present. The work of creation, the work of making something that was not already there, is an act anticipating when God will restore what has been broken, once again dwelling with humanity in a renewed creation.

Alongside hope for a future not yet realized, creative work also serves as an act of love in the present. The very core of creative work is an act of giving of one’s self. It has a cost. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s fantastic book about life as a writer, the author describes creative work this way:

“You are going to have to give and give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.”

The Creator was the first creative, and that first act of creating was an expression of love. While researching for a paper on creation in grad school, I was stunned by one shared insight that came up again and again. Theologians from all backgrounds kept finding their own ways to state that God’s work of creation was borne out of love. Here’s a sampling of what I found:

“The creation of the world was the free outpouring of God’s powerful love. The one true God made a world that was other than himself, because that is what love delights to do.” —NT Wright

“Because God is love, God is self-giving. Because God is self-giving, God willingly creates the world.” —Stanley Grenz

“But to confess that God is creator is to say more. It is to say that the free, transcendent God is generous and welcoming…The act of creation is a ‘fitting’ act of God. It fittingly expresses the true character of God, who is love.” —Daniel Migliore

“It was so much like God to create, to imagine possible worlds and then to actualize one of them. Creation is an act of imaginative love.” —Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

“God’s loneliness and God’s need for the other is the beginning of creation.” —Dorothy Soelle

God initiated this world with a burst of love. And every creative act since, in its most pure form, is an act of love. It is a gift to others, an invitation to life and goodness. The strokes of a pen, the dabs of paint, the strums of a guitar—any act of creativity is a partnering with God in re-creation.

So whatever role you may find yourself in—pastor, worship leader, songwriter, software developer, barista—I pray you will see it as an act of creative work. The compulsion I feel, and you feel, to make something new is crying out from the core of our humanity. It is calling you to give yourself for the benefit of others. And that is why it is hard and why sometimes you feel blocked. The part of you that is broken, the part of you that only wants to be concerned about the protection of self, is trying to hold back who God created you to be. You bear the image of the Creator.

May you be a recreator, a co-creator
A dreamer, a maker, an imaginer
An artist, an entrepreneur
An agent of hope toward a renewed heaven and earth
And a giver of love in this broken creation

John Chandler is the pastor of a church startup called Austin Mustard Seed and a freelance Web designer/developer. You can find his attempts at creative work at byjohnchandler.com. He recently launched a writing site called 501words.com, and he mutters daily on Twitter as @johnchandler. He is powered by espresso beverages.

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