The Act of Writing as Spiritual Formation
In the fictional town of Gilead, Rev. John Ames, dying of a heart condition in old age, writes a letter to his son. As he writes to his young son through this letter, Ames narrates his life of writing sermons:
There was more to it, of course. For me, writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for several reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.
While I will not, and cannot, open a verse from Scripture that says, “writing is a spiritual act,” I can talk about how writing postures our soul in such a way that forms our spirits after Christ’s. Jesus Christ both submitted Himself to the will of the Father and dared to share the grace and love of God as well. Writing is one way that we can both submit to God and dare to exercise the power He has given us in this world. Writing is both humble and risky, vulnerable and audacious.
Lauren Winner, a prolific Christian author and lecturer, says of this passage I quoted above:
Those of us who write our sermons do so because writing is how we crack open things to ourselves, and writing is how we ourselves get cracked open, writing is the way we intimately commune with a thing—so whatever kind of preaching the sermon may be to God or to the congregation, writing sermons is how we offer ourselves to the Scriptures and how the Scriptures offer themselves to us; writing sermons is a place where we feel ourselves to be directly addressed by Jesus.
I hope to illustrate how writing is both a way for us to open ourselves up to what we are writing about and to God himself. I want to show that writing is a way to share with others the glory and truth of God.
Writing as a Humble Act
When we write, we submit ourselves to God and His Word. Look at what Lauren Winner says: “writing sermons is how we offer ourselves to the Scriptures.” Writing is not merely a way to get across an idea or belief we have. Writing, whether it is a sermon or poetry, is also a way to submit our minds to something other than ourselves, to open ourselves to humbly learn from God’s creation, from an author made in His image, or from His voice in Scripture.
Look to the humility of Christ in the gospel of Luke, when He earnestly and passionately prays to His own Father, who will forsake Him in several hours:
Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.
If we are to be like Christ, then we are to submit to the will of God just as Jesus did. We see one instance of Him doing so above. Initially, you may not think that writing is a way to submit to God. Nevertheless, think with me about how writing is a form of humility and submission.
Even when you write something as begrudging as a history paper, you are submitting yourself to that topic. You are learning, however much you want to or not, to trust some author. Every instance of writing contains an opportunity to practice vulnerability, whether you are writing a short story, sermon, poem, academic essay, or blog post. You are practicing submission to someone or something every time you write. Even more, if you are truly following Christ, whatever you are writing about also constitutes an opportunity for you to submit yourself to the will of God, in putting yourself under His teaching, and the teaching of other persons or parts of His creation.
Writing as a Daring Act
When we write, we dare to communicate to others the truths that have, by grace, been revealed to us. Let’s look at another passage that plenty of you have read:
And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
While this passage upholds the sacrament of baptism and beauty of the teaching of God’s word, a strict approach to the beauty of making disciples does not exist here. While there are other passages in Scripture that guide us to specific ways of sharing the Word of God, the gospel allows for a flexible methodology, one that depends on the individual sharing Scripture and the individual receiving such teaching.
Therefore, it makes sense that one way God may bring individuals to Himself is the practice of writing. While the Word and the Sacraments are the main avenues of God’s grace, I am one to attest to the power of writing. I became a Christian during my time reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment during my senior year of high school. Of course, plenty of other ingredients constituted the cocktail for my conversion. However, I would be denying part of God’s grace toward me if I pretended that this piece of writing did not contribute to my salvation.
I wanted to tell this part of my story to illustrate that the act of writing can and should be a courageous practice of pointing people to Christ and shepherding them into the fold. Nevertheless, let us not come to the false conclusion that if we are writers, then there is no reason for us to speak the love of Christ into others’ lives. This is way too easy and frequent of a temptation for me, and I want to call all of us to the wide variety of ways to obey the Great Commission.
May we all be so humble as to come before the creation of God, the writers of the past and present, and the God of the universe, and submit to something or someone other than ourselves. May we also dare to be so bold as to communicate the truth and love of the gospel, risking to live in awkward, difficult, and beautiful situations.