I spent a large portion of my life up until my thirties flying on the creative wing.
Prayed daily, but usually when the mood took me – which meant anywhere from on a morning walk to 2am. Read my Bible, but as whim demanded: sometimes Romans, sometimes Old Testament, sometimes a dip into Revelation. Wrote, but when the muse struck. Worked on projects, but when I felt like I was in the right headspace to do them.
My thirties have upended all of that. I am now a person who has discovered the importance of process. I have started praying around the same times daily. I am going through Scripture in a particular order. I write three pages a night every night. If I want to work on a project, I make a plan immediately and then start breaking it up into manageable steps.
For a time, I felt like this was the death of creativity and spontaneity in my life. But I have learned that the truth is quite the opposite.
I was thinking about this lately as I read Daniel 9, in which Daniel offers up a prayer of penitence for himself and on behalf of Israel. It’s quite a prayer, a profound indictment of Israel’s sin in which Daniel claims a portion, and it is accompanied by sackcloth, ashes, and fasting. It’s also a long prayer, which makes it all the more fascinating that Gabriel pops up mid-recitation.
I’m not exaggerating. He literally shows up mid-prayer. Daniel writes quite pointedly that “while I was still speaking and praying…while I was still praying and extremely exhausted,” Gabriel has arrived with a message from God in response. But the content of Gabriel’s message is even more surprising than the timing of his arrival:
“At the beginning of your supplications, the command [to give you an answer] was issued, and I have come to tell you, for you are highly regarded and greatly beloved” (emphasis mine).
Something about process, about the doing of these mundane tasks of relationship, matters to God. It matters to God enough that even though an answer is ready for Daniel pretty much the minute Daniel opens his mouth to pray, the act of Daniel praying is important. It matters enough that God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” though he doubtless already knows. It matters enough that God walks Peter through the confession of love even though He already knows that Peter loves Him.
Process shapes us. Doing small, ordinary tasks consistently over time makes small and subtle bends in our spirit and our attitudes. It changes who we are. Daniel’s act of praying in penitence on Israel’s behalf shapes Daniel into a person who understands what sin is, how grievously he and his people have wounded God: it shapes Him into a person who is ready to hear the answer God has already given.
For Elijah, the act of telling God what’s got him so discouraged isn’t an act of giving revelation to a deity who does not need it; rather, it is the enacted reminder of his deep and friendly relationship with God. It shapes Him into a person who remembers that God likes, wants to hear these things.
For Peter, that conversation about love with Jesus is shaping Him into a person who understands what love really means, what it will look like. Jesus is enacting with Peter the patience and the affection that Peter must later emulate.
And these shaping-tasks, these daily processes that we do to become closer to God, don’t stifle creativity or spontaneity. Rather, they make room for it. When we are rooted, we are ready for anything. When we have everything well in hand, we are more secure to take off into the unknown. When the daily, ordinary processes of following God have shaped us into the people God wants us to be, we then become equipped to move forward meaningfully into adventures we cannot possibly imagine.
I do believe everyone goes through seasons of life. You might be growing through a free-flow creative season right now, and structure just won’t work. I’m experiencing the opposite. We might both find that these things change over time. But if you feel a yearning for more structure in your life, for daily enrichment and daily prayer and the sort of godly routine that we tend to fear will cause boredom or obligation, don’t fear it. Build it in, and let it shape who you are.
You might be surprised by the result.