Self Expression and the Christian Writer

By Manuscript Doctor

February 18, 2021

art, Christian writing, Scripture, self expression

For most people, self-expression means that someone expresses his or her thoughts or feelings, usually through some artistic form. We often picture writers, musicians, or artists revealing themselves, the inner self thrust into the outer world. It may manifest itself in many public or private forms: fiction, op eds, journal entries, social media posts, or others. In a sense, all writing is self-expression. Even when the writer’s voice is largely sedated by the genre or other rhetorical factors, he or she still makes choices about words, sentences, and content that reflect that individual.

But when we think of self-expression in writing, we typically envision pieces that have implicit messages. For example, fiction writers create characters with virtues and vices. They may not explicitly write that certain actions are virtuous or not, but authors frame good and evil by what characteristics they reward or celebrate in their stories. Stories communicate how the writer sees right and wrong, the depth of the world’s brokenness, or the possibility of redemption. Through poetry, stories, and other forms, writers present their worldview because their worldview is connected to their identity.

So what’s the problem? All self-expression is grounded in something: a belief system or worldview. The problem isn’t the expression itself, not normally anyway; the problem is the underlying worldview that undergirds that expression. A Christian’s self-expression should look different than an unbelievers in two ways: (1) it should be rooted in an identity in Christ and (2) grounded in the reality of Scripture.

A Christian Writer’s Self-Expression Is Rooted in His or Her Identity in Christ

We can channel self-expression rightly because in Christ we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Our former selves are constrained by deceitful desires, but this new creation is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Thus, our desires and thoughts have changed to focus more on how we can exalt our Creator instead of ourselves. We have a new identity in Christ.

As Christians, our “self-expression” reflects this new identity; Our desire is now for righteousness, so in writing beautifully, we seek to show the beauty of Christ. In exploring the depths of our sin, we aim to mortify it. In short, our self-expression can now display what John Piper calls “great reality”, truths about the Creator and His world. Self-expression channeled rightly sanctifies us and communicates truths about the world, often in ways that stir both our emotions and those of our readers.  

Unbelieving writers sometimes unwittingly display important truths because of general revelation. For example, Stephen King depicts certain characters in helpful ways. In The Drawing of the Three, the second book in the Dark Tower series, King explores the hopelessness of dependence, specifically on drugs, through the character Eddie. Eddie is desperate for a fix but hates himself for it. There is a bitterness to his life that he can’t shake.

In Eddie, we see the pain of a life that depends on anything other than God. Most dependencies are not as immediately destructive as drugs, but none of them brings lasting peace or joy. King points toward this reality with Eddie, even if he does not realize it. When unbelievers express themselves in ways that point to the truth, we should celebrate that work and use it as a springboard toward special revelation.

For the Christian, to express oneself well is ultimately to highlight our identity in Christ and His work in this world, even when we write about seemingly unrelated topics.

A Christian’s Self-Expression is Grounded in Scripture

As Christian writers, we must remember that we are both a new creation and also battling against the old self. Sometimes, our feelings do not align with what we know about God and His goodness. It’s certainly okay to work through our doubts in our writing; David did that in the Psalms. In Psalm 13, he begins by asking God whether the Lord will forget him forever. David feels abandoned and confused as sorrow fills his heart (Psalm 13:1-2).

But David refuses to allow those feelings to supplant what he knows about the Almighty. In the Psalm’s other four verses, David asks God to intervene, affirms God’s goodness, and rejoices in his salvation. David expresses his concerns and frustrations, but his identity is not in his circumstances even if his feelings initially are; his identity is in his God.

Through Scripture we know about God’s justice, joy, wrath, goodness, and love. When we don’t feel those truths, we can express those feelings in our writing, but we must not linger there, knowing that our feelings do not conform to reality.

By contrast, unbelieving writers sometimes create or convey alternative moral realities that do align with objective truth. I don’t mean realities in some superficial way: writers should feel free to create new worlds with imaginative creatures and varying social structures. But when their expression glorifies sin or lies about God and His creation, they re-shape reality to fit their whims,  and we must reject it.

How Do We Do It? Writing in Faith

Unless we write in faith, we will not please God (Hebrews 11:6). Writers can create a beautiful piece of art that displays the creativity given us by our Creator, but unless they resolve to do good in their work, rely on God’s power and blessing to do it, and seek to give God glory (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12), they will fail to express themselves in a godly way.

Self-expression does not have to be about God directly. We reflect the beauty of God through beautiful art. For the Christian, this task requires us to recognize the sources of that beauty and creativity. We express beautifully because God is beautiful.

The chairmaker resolves to do good when he crafts it with the beneficiaries in mind. We all need to rest, and chairs aid us in doing so. The chairmaker who primarily desires to provide something people need resolves to do good. The writer who primarily desires to provide a benefit to her readers – whether it be entertainment, enlightenment, or something in between – resolves to do good as long as the content conforms to reality.

Writers must rely on God’s power and seek to give God glory. We as Christians fight against our own vainglory. Pride makes us forget that our creativity is a result of being made in the image the God. We too easily act like King Nebuchadnezzar, believing we created something by our own might for our own glory (Daniel 4:30).

We should seek to write beautiful pieces that affect the way readers think, feel, and act, but as Piper says in his book Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully “good eloquence humbles itself and exalts Christ.” We write with humility by recognizing that it is God who gives every good gift – words, themes, stories, and all sorts of creative expression. Even when we produce pieces that have little to do with the sacred, we must remind ourselves that only through the power of the Sacred do we express ourselves at all.

As new creations in Christ, A Christian’s self-expression should reflect an identity rooted in Christ and grounded in Scripture. In practice, writers should resolve to do good for others, rely on God’s power to write well, and seek God’s glory in all things.

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