A few years ago, I walked into Cason Cooley’s studio in East Nashville—a warm room strung with lights and jammed full of guitars and pianos and books—and sat down with my friends to start a new project. I looked around, thinking about all the other times I had done this very thing, marveling at how little I still knew about it. What do we do first? Do we sit around and play the songs for a day? Do we record scratch guitars? Do we pore over lyrics first?
In some ways, making art is like looking at a hoarder’s house and wondering where to begin the cleanup. It’s also like looking out at a fallow field, steeling your resolve to tame it, furrow it, and plant—but you know it’s littered with stones and it’s going to be harder than you think. I was a grownup. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I shouldn’t have felt that old fear, anxiety, or self-doubt, right? Then again, maybe I should have. As soon as you think you know what you’re doing, you’re in big trouble. So before we opened a single guitar case, we talked.
I told my collaborators that I felt awfully unprepared. I doubted the songs. I was nervous about the musical direction the record seemed to want to take. I wondered if I was up to the task. I told them about the themes that had arisen in many of the songs I was writing: loss of innocence, the grief of growing up, the ache for the coming kingdom, the sehnsucht I experience when I see my children on the cusp of the thousand joys and ten thousand heartaches of young-adulthood.
Then we prayed. We asked for help. If you’re familiar with Bach, you may know that at the bottom of his manuscripts, he wrote the initials, “S. D. G.” Soli Deo Gloria, which means “glory to God alone.” What you may not know is that at the top of his manuscripts he wrote, “Jesu Juva,” which is Latin for “Jesus, help!”
In one way or another, this process has repeated itself over the years, and in this process, I’ve discovered that seeking God’s kingdom is essential not only to the practice of faith but also to the practice of art. Here’s what I’ve found:
First, pray for help.
There’s no better prayer for the beginning of an adventure than “Jesus, help!” But you can also pray: Jesus, you’re the source of beauty. Help us make something beautiful. Jesus, you’re the Word that was with God in the beginning, the Word that made all creation. Give us words and be with us in the beginning of this creation. Jesus, you’re the light of the world. Light our way into this mystery. Jesus, you love perfectly and with perfect humility. Let this imperfect music bear your perfect love to every ear that hears it.
Write about your smallness, too.
Write about your sin, your heart, your inability to say anything worth saying. Watch what happens. And so, with a deep breath, you strum the chords again, quieting the inner taunts, the self-mockery. And you sing something that feels somehow like an echo of the music and the murky waters you’re wallowing in and the words you mumbled several days ago. Then, after hours and days of the same miserable slog, something happens that you cannot explain: You realize you have a song. Behold, there is something new under the sun.
Press into God’s kingdom.
So how do you start a career? Do you wait tables? Sure. Do you make the demo CD? Maybe, but don’t bother carrying it around. Do you work hard at your craft? Definitely. Do you move? Quit your day job? Marry the girl? Borrow the start-up funds? Sign the deal?
Here’s what I know in a nutshell: Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness and all these things will be added unto you (Matt. 6:33).
Early on, I didn’t always seek God’s kingdom first, and Lord knows his righteousness was only on my mind for a minute or two a day max (I think I’m up to three, maybe four minutes now). That simple verse in Matthew draws into sharp focus the only thing that will satisfy us in our desperate seeking for what we think we want. We may want something harmless, but if it’s out of place, if it comes before the right thing, then what’s benign becomes malignant.
So set fire to your expectations, your rights, and even your dreams. When all that is gone, it will be clear that the only thing you ever really had was this wild and Holy Spirit that whirls about inside you, urging you to follow where his wind blows. It may not take you to an easy chair in a Nashville mansion with a Grammy on the mantel; it probably won’t lead you to some head-turning fame, and it probably won’t even lead you to a feeling that you’re a righteous, kingdom-seeking saint.
Instead, it will remind you that righteousness means more than pious obedience; it means letting a strong, humble mercy mark your path, even when—especially when—you don’t know where it’s taking you.
Worship as you work.
Since we were made to glorify God, worship happens when someone is doing exactly what he or she was made to do. I ask myself when I feel God’s pleasure, in the Eric Liddell sense, and it happens—seldom, to be sure, but it happens—when I’ve just broken through to a song after hours of effort, days of thinking, months of circling the song like an airplane low on fuel, searching desperately for the runway. Then I feel my own pleasure, too, a runner’s high, a rush of adrenaline. I literally tremble. There is no proper response but gratitude.
The spark of the idea is hope; the work that leads to the song is faith; the completion of the song leads to worship, because in that startling moment of clarity, when the song exists in time and history and takes up narrative space in the story of the world—a space that had been empty, unwritten, unknown by all who are subject to time—then it is obvious (and humbling) that a great mystery is at play.
This realization is good and proper, and leads into the courts of praise, if not the throne room itself.
Finally, submit your insecurities to God.
I’ll probably always be self conscious, so the battle to make something out of nothing at all will rage on, and I’ll have to fight it in the familiar territory of selfishness until the Spirit winnows my work into something loving and lovable. I’m no longer surprised by my capacity for self-doubt, but I’ve learned that the only way to victory is to lose myself, to surrender to sacredness—which is safer than insecurity. I have to accept the fact that I’m beloved by God. That’s it. Compared to that, the songs don’t matter all that much—a realization that has the surprising consequence of making them easier to write.
Stop a moment and look around. This is our Father’s world. We are sacred, you and I.
And that’s the answer to the question artists often ask in a fit of insecurity or arrogance: Who do I think I am, anyway? We need not look anywhere but to the eyes of our Savior for our true identity, an identity which is profoundly complex, unfathomable, deep as the sea, and yet can be boiled down to one little word: beloved.
Andrew Peterson is an award-winning singer-songwriter and author. His most recent book is Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making.
Adapted with permission from Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson. Copyright 2019, B&H Publishing.