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Good Lessens

When I do the dishes, I use way more water than my wife uses when she does them. This is because I am not as skilled as she is and I think by an avalanche of water I may drown away my dish washing inadequacies. Of course, my wife doesn’t complain about the water.

It occurs to me that the same is true in writing and communication in general. If we are unsure of ourselves, unskilled, we pile up the words. We believe we must say everything we think and so overcome any chance we might have missed something. But so often less is, as they say, more.

This has something to do with the idea of expression vs. communication. Artists sometimes get the high-minded, self-important notion we’re a special breed of human, superior and sophisticated. We might believe the most important thing is “expressing ourselves.”

But the artist under God understands she is a servant. She works, just like everyone else, to love and serve those who receive her work. She is like the farmer, the plumber, the pastor. She is concerned with communication (and communion), with connection, with service. It’s less important she “expresses herself” in all the ways that can be self-indulgent, and more important her work serves people. Not that it serves whatever they wish (as our market-driven, utilitarian society calls for), but like all true love, serves the person’s best. This is a vocation, not a cult. She is called, not enthroned.

Of course, the beautiful thing is that often our calling is at the cross-roads of what we feel burdened to express and the way the world needs to be loved and served.

In fact, an important question to ask oneself when considering any calling, including that of an artist, is “Does the world need this?” Another couple of ways to say this:

“Are people served by this to be more fully what they are called to be?”

“Does this work I feel called to contribute to human flourishing?”

If it does, then God is probably really calling you to the work.

(Other questions include “Am I good at it?” and,  “Does anyone say I’m good at it besides my mom and people really motivated to please me?” and, “Can I do this while fulfilling the more clear callings in my life?” Such as, if I am a husband, am I fulfilling the clear command to provide for my family?)

The self-indulgent artist, writer, communicator is all about expression and so may not be concerned with brevity, feeling it might limit her expression. The kind of writer I want to be can say less and so say more.

I’m striving for an economy of words. It takes more time and more care to say more while saying less. Have you ever been in a conversation with some one who is just a never-ending, Gatling gun of words? This person will wear you out. They have so much to say that, ironically, in the end you can’t remember any words except, “How might I escape?”

I can be like that, at times. But I want to be otherwise. Others-wise. I want to say less. I want to serve with my words. I want to pass them out like a soccer mom passes out snacks at a game.

And feel not a bit superior.


  1. Have you read Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor? His chapter on this subject is beautiful.

    Your article, however, communicates the kernel in much less space. 🙂

  2. So right. This reminds me of an excerpt someone read at Hutchmoot from a long letter — it ended with something like, “I’m writing you a long letter only because I haven’t time to write a shorter one.” Economy of words is work, but worth it.

  3. Over the last few days I have come back to this entry and reread it several times. The first time I read it, it struck a cord in me. For almost twenty years I have been in an occupation that is hands on. There is very little need for writing. In recent months, I have felt pulled in that direction. In that there arises a conflict. How do I provide for my family and follw this path I think I’m suppose to go down? Is there time to work, care for family and write? I’m still in the searching and exploring stage. Sometimes I ask myself if I should even dare to search and explore. Yesterday I finally really looked at the title and it struck me. I had been misreading it as “lessons”. When I put the correct word in there, a light bulb when on. As a skill is practiced, one becomes good at it. In the case of writing, fewer words are needed because the writer has figured out how to say what needs to be said with less. I have much practice to do in that area.

  4. Snacks at a soccer game might be my new favorite image for the ways in which I can use my words to bless others (the theme of my Bible study this week.) Thanks, Sam.

  5. Thanks Cheryl, I’m glad this was somewhat helpful. I am dealing with the multiple callings dilemma at all times. It requires a lot of wisdom, patience, and dependance on the provision of God for clarity. I’m still asking God if he wants me to keep on pursuing writing. I’ll stick with it for now, though I’m not sure where it’ll lead. But my kids are only going to be here for a few short years. I have to answer that call.

  6. Thanks, Laura. Maybe that came to me because we were on the hook for snacks for the game this week. We won 5-0 to close out the season. I coached and Gina provided the snacks. Yay America!

    (We are so cliche.)

    Seriously, I really want to have a heart to serve and love in any work I do, including writing. I KNOW my heart isn’t always there, but I’m praying God does a miracle and gives me a humble, happy, thankful, faithful heart in increasing measure (Xianese!) as I grow older.

    It sort of feels impossible, but that’s his business and he’s so good at it. He never messes up his callings.

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