Children are fountains of imagination. For them, breadsticks and cardboard boxes can be transformed into spaceships and unicorns, and the world is an uncynical place of possibility and joy. C.S. Lewis captured the essence of this in The Chronicles of Narnia, where a wardrobe isn’t just a musty piece of furniture and a painting isn’t just a wall decoration; they are portals to another world.
Imagination is what enables us to see “what could be” in the midst of “what is,” and it drives all creative work. Kids do it in a playful, unrestricted way; they simply can’t help themselves. But even when we become adults, that gift remains. We see it in obvious ways in writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, crafters, and interior designers. And we see it in everyday activities like decorating cakes or arranging a beautiful tablescape. It’s not enough for humanity to live in a world that’s functional. We want to make our world lovely and vibrant. And creativity is the spark that enables us to make this happen.
Commissioned to Create
The world isn’t full of artists and talentless rubes, and creativity isn’t the property of a privileged few. Rather, it’s an attribute of every human being. Those who think, “I’m not creative” prove this statement untrue every time they make a peach pie, plant a flower bed, or plan a party. To be human is to be creative, and to understand why, one need look no further than Genesis 1 and 2.
Creativity isn’t the property of a privileged few. Rather, it’s an attribute of every human being.
When God created humans in Genesis 1, He made us in His image (Gen. 1:26). This phrase—provocative as it is—gets little explanation in the Bible, but the context of the passage implies a few things. Men and women are charged to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “fill the earth, and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). These phrases are, in a sense, a commission to continue the creation story. God begins His work with a formless and void world, gradually creating and separating heaven and earth, land and sea, flora and fauna. Humanity is placed in the midst of this work in progress and is called to continue it, creating more life through childbirth and more order by naming and ruling over the world.
As image bearers, we have been given the gift of creativity, and it allows us to impose order upon disorder, to imagine and make, and to steward the world in such a way that it’s better than we found it. If that’s writ large in the whole of the creation story, it’s writ small in the creation of Adam in Genesis 2.
In Genesis 1, God is working ex nihilo (from nothing) speaking creation into existence. But in Genesis 2, He changes modes. Here, the Father begins with something already created—the dust of the earth. He shapes and molds it, breathes life into it, and it becomes something new: a human being. Eve is created in much the same way, but rather than coming from the earth, she comes from the rib of Adam. We might ask why God chose this method of making mankind. Why not simply say, “Let there be man and woman” and poof, there they are? Why work with some other created thing in order to bring us into existence?
The answer to this question reveals something about God. He takes pleasure in taking things and making them exceptional. The dust is good; humanity is better. One can also see how God delights in telling a story through His creation—the way a tree grows in concentric rings, the way a river carves a path through stone, the way vines and moss reclaim an abandoned building. The world reveals a God who enjoys the possibilities that creation presents, and that awareness of possibility is the gift He’s given to us. We are ever walking in His footsteps, doing to creation as He has done to us—working with it, reimagining it, reshaping it, and making it something new. We are sub-creators, bearing His image as we joyfully do what we have been tasked to accomplish since the beginning.
But there’s more involved than the act of making. Consider a painting. It is a wooden frame with cotton canvas stretched over it. And that blank surface is smeared with oils infused with pigments and dyes. When you see it, you don’t say, “What an interesting amalgam of oils, pigments, cotton, and wood!” Instead, you say, “What a beautiful landscape” or “That’s Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’” or as has happened to me a time or two in a museum, you’ll say nothing at all because the image leaves you speechless.
The gift of creativity reveals itself both in the act of creation and in the reception of a created artifact. That’s why we sometimes stand breathless before a work of art or find ourselves overwhelmed by a luxurious feast. The “stuff” that makes up that artifact (respectively, wood and canvas or fish and potatoes) has been transformed and made new. By receiving and enjoying it, we participate in that new-making ourselves. This is only possible because we’re image bearers.
Creativity and the Fall
Of course, the story of the Bible doesn’t end with Genesis 2. In a post-fall world, creativity continues as we search for meaning and redemption. We all have a sense of our brokenness, but apart from God’s self-revelation, we can’t conclusively answer any of our questions. We can’t find God apart from God finding us. This doesn’t keep us from trying, of course, but we must be careful because these efforts toward redemption can also give birth to idols.
Perhaps nowhere in Scripture is this search described as vividly as Isaiah’s story of the foolish carpenter:
He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isa. 44:14-17 ESV).
The carpenter in this story is nothing if not creative. He looks at the tree and imagines both the fuel for his dinner and the possibility of a sculpture. He uses his God-given gift for creativity to make the tree “new,” but the product of that new-making is poisonous. It’s a false hope. Isaiah points out something that should be obvious:
They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Isa. 44:18-20 ESV).
In the light of God’s self-revelation, idolatry looks utterly foolish. How can he not see that the object he worships is a mute block of wood? But for this man, disconnected from God, longing for meaning and longing for redemption, that lumber is the only hope he can see. There are shades of this in Romans 1:25, where Paul describes how fallen humanity has “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” This temptation remains for each and every one of us today. We never outgrow idolatry.
“It often seems to me that the night is even more richly colored than the day, colored with the most intense of violets, blues and greens. If you look carefully you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow. And without labouring the point, it’s clear to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.” -Vincent Van Gogh, written in a letter to his sister, dated Sept. 14, 1888.
It’s tempting to read Isaiah’s words and think, “What a fool!” But the prophet’s description isn’t just for “lost” people. Each of us will be tempted like this carpenter. We might not have a carved idol sitting in our living rooms, but we are drawn—much like him—to created things for our salvation. It might be a business we’ve built. It might be a reputation or self-image we’re trying to maintain. It might be the success of our children or our spouses.
For many, even the creative gift itself can become an idol. Whatever our work may be, we can find ourselves living and dying, emotionally speaking, based on the applause and accolades we receive. But the gospel reveals a God who accepts us based on the work of His Son, not on anything we’ve achieved. The gift of creativity is meant to be an act of worship, not to serve as a measuring stick by which we determine our worth or the extent of God’s approval.
The Future of Creativity
Thankfully, God didn’t leave the world to rot in idolatry. Instead, He returns to it and to the work He began. There’s a cyclical rightness to this: In a mirror of Genesis 2, men and women who were destined to return to the dust are lifted up by God’s redemptive plan and restored to life.
Paul describes the church as “[God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). The word “workmanship” is actually poiema, a word that our English word “poem” can be traced back to. The word implies more than just “work.” It’s closer to “beautiful work” or even “lovely work.” The point being that redemption leaves us not only restored, but also more beautiful, more lovely than before.
This new-making isn’t just for humanity. In Christ, God will ultimately remake all things. Viewed in this light, we can see how our creative work anticipates this great hope. The desire to make the world better, to restore things that are old or broken, to tell stories with happy endings, to make art and music that move people’s hearts with warmth and beauty—these are just a few of the ways we anticipate and express our longing for redemption. We want to see all things made new, and we can work to those ends in anticipatory ways as we create and work in the world.
Creativity is a great gift from a good God. It makes the world a better place, and as we live out our days, making and encountering the inspired work of God’s sons and daughters, we have an immense opportunity to witness and display the ways this gift transforms our world. We see God’s brilliance mirrored in the brilliance of image bearers who are writing stories, making music, cooking up feasts, and decorating our world. We see God’s generosity in the many wonders imagination has birthed. And perhaps most of all, we see His goodness.
God takes the dust of this world and brings it life—from the Garden, to a grave in Jerusalem, to a day yet to come where He says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). And this is the greatest creative work of all, a death-reversing act that leaves the world far more beautiful than we could hope or dream.