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Should Christians Write Stories Just to Express Themselves?

March 9, 2020

By Eliza LeBlanc

 

While scrolling through Instagram the other day, I came across a recent quote by S.D. Smith, author of The Green Ember. The words made my head snap up and the gears in my brain start turning.

 

“Storytelling harmonizes so well with the idea of Christian vocation because it always involves two people. My job feels like cooking for kids; the end result is the nourishment, which is about love and service more than my own self-expression.”

 

I had never viewed writing as a task that fulfills a need before. Unknowingly, I’d accepted the mindset that it’s simply a means of displaying who I am (even if I’d like to think I’ve never believed that). Our culture proclaims that we all have a unique perspective to share. That may be true to an extent, but the world today has displaced crucial elements in the definition of an artist.

 

The Religion of Self-Expression

When I Googled “forms of self-expression,” painting and writing were the top two results. Self-expression and art have become synonymous. We’ve degraded the latter to barely more than the ego-driven overflow of a fallen soul.

 

Art should contrast the majestic threads of God’s tapestry with the brokenness of our hearts. Not the other way around. But the world urges us to bare our sinful souls, to be hyper-individualistic and brag on ourselves. We can even, perhaps, change the world. We’re creatives, and that puts us in a separate class from the ordinary person who fixes cars or washes windows. The saddest part? Sometimes Christians preach self-expression too, which makes the truth even harder to distinguish from lies.

 

Barring the (unlikely) possibility that we’re all an army of Lokis who crave being worshiped like gods, pride can easily sneak into the front seat when we attach the word “self-expression” to our writing, whether intentionally or because it’s a popular term. I’m not saying self-expression is inherently wrong. But it is if we remove God from the act of creating art. And I’ve slipped into that mistake without even realizing it.

 

Nowhere in the Bible does God tell us to “express ourselves” to others. He does, however, ask us to “comfort one another and edify one another” (1 Thess. 5:11) and “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). That’s not expressing ourselves, that’s calling others to glorify God. When we saturate our writing with thankfulness and praise and all the other fruits of Christianity, we have no room left for our egos.

 

Expressing ourselves won’t magnify God. But drawing attention to His work, His holiness, His mercy is another matter entirely.

 

A Truer Calling

God wants us to minister to others, “especially those of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Serving and loving fellow human beings is our second highest calling, shadowed only by serving and loving our Lord. Those two missions are interconnected and can’t be divided. When we help our neighbor, we honor God. Yet, somehow, that principle gets lost in the shuffle when we discuss story craft.

 

Multiple sources admonish us to serve and glorify God with our writing. Though we need the reminder, sometimes it projects an unclear, abstract picture. I’ll bet I’m not the only person who’s puzzled over that oft-repeated advice. How do we know whether we’re achieving our goal of pointing others toward God?

 

When we work hard to provide spiritual nourishment to others, we can rest assured that we’ve succeeded. After all, we wouldn’t give a family member a supper we carelessly burnt—or a dessert that we put salt in instead of sugar. When we write with intention, keeping readers’ wellbeing at the forefront of our minds, we’re both obeying the second commandment and showing love to mankind.

 

But what if we’re not published yet (or even ready to be)? Does that mean we can splash ink around with abandon? Yes! And no. In the early stages of our growth, we are just exploring and experimenting. Those half-finished manuscripts and melodramatic dialogue snippets from when we were twelve isn’t the content we’ll be publishing. But all our efforts shouldn’t be purposeless. We must hone the skills we’ll eventually need when we edit and submit that final draft. And while we’re learning about structure, character arcs, and theme, why not cultivate an attitude of service too? Even if no one will ever see it, the age-old phrase rings true: practice makes perfect.

 

Serving through Our Writing

Serving others is the best way we can serve God. That was His design from the beginning. If we’re focusing on others, our words will never fail to be a blessing. We’ll still stumble because we can never be perfect, but we can certainly aspire. God promises to help us, and even more importantly, He promises to forgive our shortcomings.

 

Whether we write for a Christian or secular audience, children or adults, serving up beautiful stories that touch readers’ hearts and shape their worldview is indeed our highest calling as writers.

 


Eliza LeBlanc is a word-wielding introvert who regularly alternates between writing fiction and nonfiction, watching sci-fi and historical drama, and reading hilarious children’s books and epic fantasy.

 

She’s a homeschool grad, the oldest of nine, and an unshakable chocolate lover. Her favorite movie is The Great Escape, and her favorite book is the Bible. Don’t ever ask her what her favorite novel is. It fluctuates between Number the Stars, The Long Winter, 100 Cupboards…and many more.

 

Her strategy is improvement (she’s an INFP, after all), she dreams a little too much (er…INFP), and she has too many creative hobbies (it’s an INFP thing). You get the idea. She’s creative. She’s also a professional procrastinator, with a degree in perfectionism. She’s planning to mend that. Someday.

 

You can say hello to her on her blog or Instagram.

15 Comments

  1. Katelynn Richardson

    What a great article! I was just thinking about something similar the other day. Self-expression is seen as the main point of writing far too much. Thanks for writing!

    Reply
    • Eliza LeBlanc

      Thank you, Katelynn! I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Patrick Lauser

    Everything can be done for the right or wrong reason, or in a right or wrong way. Self-expression doesn’t excuse laziness or indecency or foolishness, but it is not inherently self-serving or self-centred only because it has the word “self” in it: in many ways self-expression is a form of self-sacrifice: honesty, vulnerability, humility, responsibility, taking action instead of letting the world go by.

    You could also say that an artist cannot well serve others except by self-expression, or anyone else for that matter, as it is not true that self-expression is limited to artists.
    It is after all how God created all his creation to serve him. The sun, a rose, a star, a tree, the sea, all serve him by self-expression alone.

    But it all depends on who you yourself are. Zig Ziglar said: “You have to be before you can do, and you have to do before you can have.” Contrary to what many people claim, you can and should always be changing who you are.

    Reply
  3. Jenny Chasteen

    Thank you, Eliza! I’ve found S. D. Smith’s quotes amazingly encouraging and challenging, too. Aiming to spiritually nourish readers is a great way to keep focus in the right place.

    Reply
    • Eliza LeBlanc

      Aw, you’re very welcome, Jenny! It’s a subject near and dear to my heart, so I’m glad you enjoyed it! Great that you can relate, too. 🙌

  4. Taylor Clogston

    I very much agree with Patrick: Self-expression isn’t inherently wrong. It isn’t, by default, ego-stroking, which I feel like the article necessarily attaches it to.

    Suppressing self-expression is Puritanism, not Christianity. It serves the role of beating down the individual in the name of religious subservience, and nothing better.

    1. We are creators created in God’s image. God created for His joy. It is innately good that, attuned to what God loves, we also create for our joy.

    2. When we express our unique worldview—and, remember, “express” can mean “press out,” like with juice from a citrus—we create a specific, human point of connection to the reader. We don’t simply connect with the Psalms because they say “God is good.” Well, some people do, probably. But most people look to the Psalms and see suffering and deliverance and faith within them, and take comfort in the fact that even the man after God’s own heart, thousands of years ago, felt the same things we do today, and poured out his heart in writing.

    3. God set us apart for good works. No, we aren’t saved by them, but we are certainly intended to do them. We are clearly intended to do more than praise God and be missionaries. If we are aligned with God, our self-expression will be so likewise. “Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed. Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9 CSB)

    The core of all this is that service to God should precede self-expression, not preclude it. If we do not believe we are important enough to sub-create, we shouldn’t be creating at all, because we have no respect for the beauty or power of individual humanity. And that’s not the message I see in the New Testament or the Old.

    Reply
  5. Dakota

    Great article, Eliza! 🙂

    Reply
    • Eliza LeBlanc

      Thank you, Dakota!!

  6. Emberynus The Dragonslayer

    This is a wonderful, inspiring article!! Thank you so much for this!! In a world where everything is so man- centered, this is a very refreshing reminder that pleasing God should be our focus!! 🙂 Thank you

    Reply
    • Eliza LeBlanc

      Thank you! I’m so glad it encouraged you!!

  7. Coralie

    It is indeed a privilege and an honor to sever others through my work. One of my goals as a writer is to serve my audience, though than can manifest in many ways. I believe it is my purpose to glorify God, and I choose to do that through my writing.

    That said, I don’t know that I would believe that expressing myself through my writing doesn’t ever glorify God. I’m sure that there are many ways that self-expression could be twisted and misused, but I also think that God uses writing to heal me and to draw me closer to Him.

    Writing is an excellent way to sort through things in my own life. It’s a tool. And, in some cases, perhaps that journey of self-expression can be used to serve my audience, to show them that healing isn’t beyond their reach or that we all need grace or that they aren’t alone or…or…or any number of things.

    I don’t think that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive, I suppose is what I mean. Writing is as much a gift to me from God as it is to my brethren. Other writers have served me and I in turn hope to serve them. But I also don’t pretend to be the one who can supply spiritual nourishment. That can only come from God. I can merely point people to His nourishment and show them what it has done in my own life.

    Thank you for sharing your article. It certainly does make me think and consider my motives and heart for writing.

    Reply
    • Eliza LeBlanc

      Thank you for reading, Coralie! Like I said in the article, I don’t believe that self-expression isn’t inherently wrong, yet I’ve found in my own life that it can sometimes manifest itself in sinful ways if I don’t guard against it. But it’s such a complex subject, I know there will always be disagreement. I’m so glad it encouraged you!

  8. Me

    I think this is ridiculous….self-expression is valid. It’s always valid, always been valid, always will be valid. There are people out there going through severely traumatizing experiences who cant really do much but express it through art. Self-expression isn’t wrong and saying that doing so is wrong because it cuts God out of the picture in some way is dangerous. This is the reason Christians hesitate to write books. This is the reason Christian fiction is low quality. This is the reason people worry unnecessarily about their writing and don’t get it done. Self-expression is not the problem.
    I doubt this comment will get displayed because you guys cherry pick who does and doesn’t get a voice on your site, but please consider taking a hard look at the views you expressed here and how harmful they can be.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Hey Me (or whomever you are),

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on this post. We actually don’t cherry-pick who does and doesn’t get a voice on our site; as long as comments are respectful, we welcome the exchange of ideas here on the blog!

      Now, Eliza and I may not agree completely on everything she argued here (again: as a site, we value the exchange of ideas), but I think she holds a legitimate position and I don’t think this comment paints her position fairly, so I’d like to defend her against a couple of the arguments you made here that I think misrepresent the piece.

      By my reading, Eliza isn’t arguing that self-expression is innately invalid. She states this rather explicitly in her article: “I’m not saying self-expression is inherently wrong. But it is if we remove God from the act of creating art.” This of course begs the question on what the removal of God looks like. But she makes it clear what that looks like: it’s written to serve those who read or view the work of art (whether it’s in written or image form). So I don’t believe that Eliza is saying here that self-expression is wrong–she’s saying that it’s something that can be wrong (as anything can, and perhaps it’s something that’s often used wrongly) but that can also be good if it’s combined with a desire to serve others.

      Now, I would draw a line between stories we write that are just for ourselves and stories that are presented for public consumption. If you’re just writing it for yourself, the public service element is irrelevant in my opinion so I don’t think it’s wrong to just write it to express yourself (just like you may do in a journal). If a story is being presented for public consumption, though, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to consider the reader.

      I’d actually argue that a lot of poor fiction comes about as a result of not considering the reader. If you want people to enjoy your story, you often need to consciously structure it with the audience in mind in order to craft relatable characters, a gripping plot, and readable prose. There have been a couple of times in my life when I wrote short stories in large part to help myself work through some of the emotions and struggles I was processing. Since I wanted to share these stories with others, one of the things I found myself doing each time was to revise the story to better engage and reach readers. My first draft may have been appropriate self-expression–but it was self-expression that wasn’t necessarily interesting to others without me sitting down and polishing it so that it both expressed some of my own feelings /and/ did so in a way that effectively reached readers.

      Now, Eliza and I may both draw some of our lines in different places as most people do with tricky issues like this. But if (to quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism), our goal in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to suggest that writing stories to express ourselves /and/ to glorify God at the same time is better than writing stories that just express ourselves. People can certainly use the importance of glorifying God in fiction as a justification for putting forth bland storytelling, but I’d argue the problem is with the execution, not the motive.

      If you disagree, feel free to comment and push back against some of the things I’m saying. 🙂 I would just ask that you keep the discussion respectful and focused on ideas rather than people!

    • Eliza LeBlanc

      Thanks for elaborating, Josiah! I would definitely agree with what he said, Me, but I understand if you hold a different opinion. It’s a complex topic!

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