The Art of Discipline

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 or structure in the artist's world, or so we assume.

In contrast, most 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) Thiebaud insists that 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)

We often make the same assumptions about growth and creativity in our daily lives. We often expect unbounded growth and instant results. We often expect the constant flow of "good feelings" surging through us. If we do not experience these things, or if the novel continually eludes us, we believe that something isn't right. But perhaps this sentiment belies a hidden disdain for the repetitive nature of discipline and routine. We falsely believe that discipline is antithetical to the flourishing of freedom.

As a result, many of us find ourselves chasing 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 growth is nourished and fed. We falsely believe that transformation is like osmosis, a process over which we have little control or responsibility.

Not surprisingly, Jesus makes this connection between spiritual growth, transformation 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 about the discipline inherent in abiding: "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 human flourishing is intimately enjoined to keeping his commands. Joy flows from a life that abides in the love of Jesus. Abiding in the love of Jesus, and experiencing the fullness of joy are not separated from discipline and obedience. The routine and discipline of abiding are the nutrients necessary for the spiritual life to flourish and grow.

Many might find this statement quiet paradoxical since we do not often associate joy with discipline! Daily living often feels like monotonous routine. But joy can flow when the routine of living is artfully engaged. Finding joy in faithful nurture, care and disciplined engagement with routine is not dependent on the whims of our personalities, or feelings that come and go. Joy is the result of a life lived in the rhythm of rest, routine, and discipline. As one abides the monotony of disciplined routine can be transformed into joy-filled ritual.

Life is often both tedious and difficult. Creative engagement in art and life requires both. But disciplined obedience is not a blockade to joy, but rather a doorway that opens into the presence of God. An invitation to encounter one who produces from artful discipline something beautiful that remains, awaits all who will enter.

Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.

(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.

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