The Art Of Penance

I received a really interesting question recently via the survey that I have available for anyone who’d like to help me out with some upcoming projects. The question was: “How have you learned to use your emotions to make art that doesn't destroy your current state of being?"

Writing, for me, has always been a therapeutic form of medicine, if nothing else. Though I’m incredibly thankful for an audience that cares, I’d still write even if no one read it. My initial response to this question, then, is: 

I use art to rid myself of emotions that are destroying my current state of being. 

Meaning: It is difficult for me to get down and out of my head without getting down and out on paper, so art becomes the medium by which some semblance of freedom from the craziness inside is possible. For that, I will ever and always be grateful for the blank page which takes so much of my abuse.

However, I think this question raises another that is worth considering… 

Does performing all that pain night after night act as a prison to keep you locked up in it? 

At what point does testifying to the release on the page become a chain by which one continuously relives the pain that put it there? 

I remember – very early on in my life on the road – performing at a random church in a random town in a state that I don’t remember. One of the men who used the space for the venue hosted me for the evening, and he asked me a similar question: 

“Do you always reopen your sutures when you perform like that?

And do you know that you don’t have to?

Do you know that it’s okay to scream your stories of pain and freedom and death and gospel without the penance I see in your self-flagellation?” 

I am so grateful for that man’s words. I come back to them on every tour I’ve been on since that day seven years ago.

There was a time when I’d scourge myself with the proverbial whips I’d written out to perform, as if to prove to an audience that I meant what I said. Indeed, doing what I could to stay in that pain became an addiction of its own. 

I think that there’s a degree to which emotion and art as its overflow can always alter your state of being. It doesn’t have to destroy it, I suppose, but I also suppose it can. I went to see one of my favorite artists perform last night in Albuquerque, and some of his songs are devastating, and from what he’s revealed about himself, I know that they’ve been devastating to him, as well.

Perhaps we sometimes make art specifically to destroy… maybe not with violence, but maybe with something of the sort. 

So I don’t know, truthfully, if I’ve learned – or ever tried to learn – to use my emotions to create art that doesn’t destroy my state of being. But I do know that I feel free not to. And I know that if I perform a poem chronicling the regrets of my past, I am able to do so without any obligation to relive them, and believing that whatever truth is available as salve for an audience who cares to listen will be communicated regardless of whether or not I reopen my wounds. 

They are still a part of me, but they are not my definition. 

I’m reminded of a helpful word from Justin Holcomb, who years ago taught a class that I was a part of in Seattle: "Don't be stuck in who you were, but by all means, don't forget it. That's your testimony. It's who you are and what you did. Have an abiding sense of being a forgiven sinner. Be honest with yourself about your current impulses. Reflect on the law which is the perfect reflection of the character of God, and allow Christ to work those characteristics in you.

Double reality, identity in Christ."

I love that. I think that is every bit as applicable to the art you create as it is to the life you live. 


This post originally appeared as a letter to the LTP Family. If you'd like to receive weekly stories, thoughts and inspiration, including new articles I haven't shared anywhere else, personal updates on projects I'm working on & email-only perks on products, sign up here. 

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