After I wrote “The Discipline of Art,” my friend Josh, a musician, asked a phenomenal question that gets at the heart of the struggle for Christians seeking to pursue their artistic passions. Because the question was so great, I’ll repeat a portion of it here and respond:
“Much of what you mention in [“The Discipline of Art”] is what I am too scared to put my family through. How did you (do you) balance pursuing a passion (and making the sacrifices) while faithfully serving/leading your family? If I were single I would have no problem putting myself through hell to achieve my goals, but I struggle with the guilt of putting my family through that.”
A fundamental shift: first things first
As I told Josh, I think this might be the question when it comes to artistic ambition—or really any kind of ambition—and Christianity. The scary thing is, even in Christian circles, we’re constantly raised on a steady diet of “follow your dreams,” as if that was the most important thing. But if you “follow your dreams” at the expense of “following Christ” and his Scriptural guidelines for a healthy life, you’re in for a world of hurt. Trust me, I’ve been there.
It’s really about finding a home for godly ambition in your life, the kind that drives you toward the pursuit and development of your passions but not at the cost of the greater responsibilities we have as husbands, wives, mothers or fathers. In that sense it doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or an electrician; you’ve got to bring your vocational pursuits in submission to a biblical understanding of your essential roles. Letting your dreams drive your life is like letting the pigeon drive the bus—it doesn’t end well.
It’s a lesson I’ve often learned the hard way. Like the I’ve-hit-rock-bottom, my-life-is-a-train-wreck, I’m-on-the-verge-of-self-destruction type of experience.
I was married at 20, and our first son was born just after my wife and I graduated college. So in three months we graduated, gave birth (my wife, obviously, did the real work on this one), and moved across the country to Louisville, Kentucky, where I attended seminary. Like so many creatively endowed people, I’m driven. The only pace I knew, especially then, was pedal to the floor.
My wife worked part time and raised our son while I attended school. It seemed like it was working out, except I was kicking holes in the walls of our apartment (literally) and our relationship was deteriorating rapidly, to the point where every conversation, even ones about breakfast, turned into a verbal sparring match full of tears and anger.
So we got help. Just before the birth of our second son we went through counseling with a sweet couple from our church, and several things came into plain sight.
I was driving home from a meeting with the pastor of our church at the time—one in which he told me to stop pointing the finger at my wife and take responsibility for myself, ouch—and as a song played on the radio I began to weep. To the point I had to stop driving and pull off the road.
The song, “Lead Me,” is simple, but profound. It’s worth a listen:
In one of the lowest moments of my life, God was orchestrating a tectonic shift that’d be probably the most vital, and full of redemption, I’ve experienced in my life. People had been saying it; my wife had been saying it; but I hadn’t been listening.
But on the inside, I can hear her saying…
Lead me with strong hands
Stand up when I can’t
Don’t leave me hungry for love
Chasing dreams, but what about us?
Show me you’re willing to fight
That I’m still the love of your life
I know we call this our home
But I still feel alone.”
I quit my part-time job, dropped out of school, and found a full-time gig working at Valvoline Instant Oil Change. I stood before our church and publicly asked for my wife’s forgiveness, through many tears. What my family needed was a sacrificial provider. My wife’s resentment, I realized, came because I’d sacrificed her and the family for my dreams. I didn’t understand that’s what I was doing, and she couldn’t explain the way she felt, either. But it was there all along.
I was also crushed because I had to give up my dream. Not only did I have to watch it die, I had to be the one to set it on the chopping block and swing the axe.
But there was also a confident, quiet peace in submitting to what was biblically clear—God’s main concern for my life was that I be a good husband, father, and provider. I could rest in obedience, even if it was excruciatingly painful.
For three years I worked at Valvoline. I was richly blessed there, but I also felt like Joseph in the pit. There were 115-degree summer days working in the pit—literally, that’s what it was called—under cars, with engines blowing piping hot oil and a nice 300-degree breeze in your face. There were drug-addicted bosses to demoralize you and withhold your pay, and there were customers that threatened to kill you (and could have done it, many of them drug dealers and thugs).
I stayed long enough to become store manager, buy a house and make my family’s existence better. I worked nights, weekends, and holidays; I missed so many moments in my kids’ lives that there are three years worth of memories my wife and kids still talk about fondly that I wasn’t a part of. I missed it all.
And I’d pray, sometimes resting my head on the steering wheel in the parking lot before a 12-hour day, in total despair, “God, I can’t be with them today. Please help them understand someday how much I love them. I’m doing this for them. My life for theirs.”
It was hell, plain and simple. Every day for three long years was miserable. But there was a peace, as I said, in obedience. Our marriage blossomed, and resentment was replaced with affection. Even when I was gone, my wife knew why. It was my life for theirs.
Here’s the thing: Your dream is not the essential thing. I didn’t always get that. The weightier matters are your sacrificial leadership, laying down your life for your wife and children. You can’t sacrifice your family for your dream and expect good things. Leadership is about self sacrifice. If you reach your dream but fail your family, you failed. You missed the point.
The whole point.
“But if any provide not for his own, and specifically for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Timothy 5:8).
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:3).
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
a better way
Achieving your dream by sacrificing your family, rather than yourself, is a lot like going into debt to get what you want—it’s the impatient, lazy, immoral way to get something. It’s childish and foolish. It’ll ultimately ruin you. The mature way is to save up, do things the hard (but right) way, even if it’s personally painful and takes longer in the end.
But God did something amazing when I laid down the selfish pursuit of my ambition—he restored it to something godly and, in the end, made it far better than it ever was before.
At the two-and-a-half year mark of my sentence at Valvoline State Penitentiary, I started to remember how much I loved writing, why I went to journalism school in the first place. Stuff I could have told you when I was six. I’d been out of sports writing for several years, so my resume was a stale cracker in the job marketplace.
A friend, out of the blue, called and said, “I read this book. I thought of Eric, and maybe it’d be useful to him.”
The book was “Quitter,” by Jon Acuff. Basically it’s about making the move from work you dislike to a career doing what you love—and doing it the right way. It was exactly what I needed in that moment.
the art of hustle
If you’re not making your family take the brunt of your artistic pursuit, what you are doing is using every spare moment—the ones you create through personal cost to yourself, not your family—to hustle.
For example, I’ve learned that if I want to write, I’ve got to get up early (for me, that’s usually 5:30 a.m.), before the workday starts, before the kids get up, and after I’ve spent time with the Lord pouring over Scripture. I’m skipping my sleep, not their birthday party, to work at my dream.
It also means you’re not quitting your day job, at least not right away, and maybe not for a long time. You’re not asking your wife to “believe in your dream” but then burdening her with the brunt of the financial worry and stress. You act like a man, provide, and hustle every chance you get.
Plus, from experience, creative juices flow a lot better when you’re not worried about whether or not your family can eat (or see a doctor) today. Your dream needs a slush fund, and that cash comes from your day job. Embrace it.
One other thing: You may think your day job is a hindrance to pursuing your art, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, in many cases, I’ve found that a day job frees me to pursue my art the way I want. I have the freedom to turn down projects that either don’t fit with my vision or would unnecessarily burden my family because I have a separate source of income that pays the bills. If a project doesn’t fit my core beliefs, I say “no.” It’s that simple.
When you start to hustle, it’s amazing how opportunities arise. Work begets new opportunities, no matter how small or insignificant that work seems in the beginning. It appears our Lord delights to take small acts, done in faithfulness, and do wondrous things through them. As Thomas Edison once said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
“opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Thomas edison
I started small in those Valvoline days and setup a free, personal blog to house my writing. I’d write about my kids, lessons I was learning from life or all the garbage my neighbor had in his yard. I had to fight the temptation I faced every time I wrote, which said, “This is stupid. Nobody cares about this blog but your parents and relatives. Quit while you’re ahead. You’re wasting your time.”
But strange things started to happen as I committed to write regularly. My friend Davin died, and God used the small things I was writing about my grief to comfort his family. My grandmother, who’d had cancer, was using the posts I wrote to comfort sick people in the hospital and her small group where she lived. I discovered how much joy blessing others through my writing was. I realized that one person impacted by my words was more valuable than an audience of millions.
And here’s the crazy thing: As I plugged away, on at least two occasions that small little blog helped me get a job. After Valvoline I went to work at Petersen’s Hunting magazine, and though I didn’t have a lot of recent experience, my then-boss read what I wrote and saw that I had talent. Later, the blog peaked the interest of another editor, who yet again gave me a shot and is the biggest reason I’m now Editor in Chief at a magazine today (she remains one of my best friends on the planet). All because of a little, insignificant blog that nobody cared about.
So start small and get to work. Make yourself a schedule for doing the work and stick to it—at these set times every week I’ll be writing the next song, working on my painting, taking this workshop, etc. If you’re a photographer, take a course in Photoshop or Lightroom. Work on perfecting your craft, every chance you get.
talk to your wife (often)
This one might shock you, but I’ve found it to be true: Talk to your wife (often). I had a huge turning point many years ago that revealed my own selfishness, but I’m still prone to lose sight of my priorities and values. Nobody has helped steer me back on track like my wife. She’s been my best friend, my most essential and beloved resource all along.
I generally like to take Sunday afternoons to evaluate my personal investments (time, money, energy) and go over my schedule for the week ahead, and this is for me a good time to reassess how I’m doing putting my wife and boys first. You’d be surprised the kind of answers you get from your spouse when you simply ask good questions.
“Love, how am I doing prioritizing family?”
“You’ve been distracted lately and have been ignoring the boys. You need to put your iPhone away and spend more time with them.”
I also try to keep an eye on what goes unspoken in the home. I think of it like a bank account—you can only take so much out before you put back in. If I spend an evening with a friend in the wilderness taking photos, that’s a withdrawal. If I spend a night making pizza with my wife and the boys in front of a movie, that’s a deposit. If your withdrawals exceed your deposits, you can watch as tempers flare, bitterness creeps in, and things start to fall apart.
If I’m dedicated to making deposits, my wife is a rockstar at supporting me when I’m doing something craft-related. But I have to keep a close eye on the checkbook, so to speak.
inspire other dreamers
It’s horrendously common, at least with me, to obsess over my own life, goals, gifts, and so on, and to forget about others. I believe it’s a little thing they call “selfishness.” One of the best ways I’ve found to grow as a man is to help others, particularly my wife and kids, realize their dreams.
Your kid wants to be in the Tour de France? Great. Start with a bike and some man-to-man lessons in an abandoned parking lot. Your wife wants to learn Latin or learn how to draw? Sign her up for a class and take care of the kids. Ask her how it went. Over her favorite meal.
Don’t worry, your dream isn’t going anywhere. But what about your wife’s (or husband’s) dreams? Are you helping them reach their goals? So often with creative-types all we think about is how others can help us (really more of a human problem, actually), but we’re here on this earth to help others. That’s the reason God gave us gifts.
Your gifts will never come more fully alive than when you’re using them to inspire and serve others.
Your gifts will never come more fully alive than when you’re using them to inspire and serve others. So figure out what your spouse is good at, and help them take steps toward their dreams. Same with the kids. As you train yourself to think of ways to serve others, your own artistic passions will flourish.
And look for small opportunities to use your gifts. Maybe you’re lending your photo skills or musical talents to a friend for their wedding. Maybe at first you do this kind of thing for free, or next to nothing. Not only are you serving others in tremendously meaningful ways, God has a way of using these small acts of kindness to richly bless you. Be faithful, keep sowing, and entrust the harvest to God.
If you heard nothing, let it be this: Put your family above your dreams. Only when your dreams are put in their place can you find true joy. And then work like mad to turn your artistic passion into real, actual work. Discipline yourself and hustle. Hustle. Use your gifts and talents to glorify God through the service of others. Remember, dreams don’t work unless you do.
- “Quitter,” Jon Acuff
- “Rescuing Ambition,” Dave Harvey
- “The War of Art,” Stephen Pressfield
- “Now, Discover Your Strengths,” Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, PhD