Like the wind in John 3, inspiration is unpredictable. It comes and goes as it pleases without regard to convenience. It is wild and untamable. We don’t know where it will come or where it will appear next, but when it does, everything changes. Insights appear out of nowhere. The veil of the ordinary is pulled back and we catch a glimpse of a world outside our window we never knew was there. Commonplace materials rise from the dust and take on a life and language of their own. A wooden boy becomes human, or perhaps, in our case, a clay figure learns to breathe.
When Inspiration is present, creative work incites us, leading the way and compelling us to act. It cuts through debilitating fears of failure and inadequacy. The inspired state is often marked by a quiet euphoria. It suspends time and limitation and bestows a selfless confidence that overcomes the rationalizations of what we thought possible. The chatter of our internal critics is subdued by an exuberance of discovery. It’s no wonder the artist’s life is typified as an undulating pulse of highs and lows. The bliss of these spirited moments touches close to heaven while the agony of barren routine burns like a wasteland of hell.
I’m reminded of the Old Covenant hero Samson, who in a moment of divine strength kills a lion with his bare hands and takes on a mob of thirty angry men, only afterward to fall prey to his own sexual weakness. When the Spirit is present, there is no stopping his ability, but when its influence ebbs, his hungry heart shrivels, seeking illicit satisfaction to fill the gap, which ultimately leads to his death.
From the beginning, mankind was designed to live consistently in an inspired state marked by intimate relationship with his Inspirer. Humanity isn’t resigned to steal fire from the gods. Inspiration is a gift from an affectionate Creator. It is the beginning and sustaining breath of life. It isn’t a passing state of mind or an ethereal, cosmic force to be harnessed. For the Christian, Inspiration is a person.
In the Bible’s first moment of divine-human encounter, God breathes into the hollow shell of his human sculpture. Suddenly, the clay man inhales. Exhales. Inhales. Exhales. The rhythmic exchange of breath between God and Adam begins the human experience.
The Latin root from which we derive the word inspiration literally means to be breathed upon by God, rather to breathe in the breath of God. Inspiration and the creative unction, as we know it, are intimately related to receiving the breath of God into ourselves.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner gives us a fascinating perspective on the Jewish name of God, YHWH. He tells us it is not as much a name to be pronounced as it is the sound that happens as we breathe in and breathe out. Yah… Weh… Yah… Weh. The very breath we breathe proclaims the name of the one who inspired us to life.
In the Bible, the Holy Spirit is depicted as breath and wind, drawing an immediate connection to inspiration. As we abide in relationship with him, it positions us to be susceptible to his creative influence at any given moment. It allows us to see wonder all around and in all things pertaining to life. Shrubbery catches fire and vocalizes the voice of God. Telephone poles become metaphors for the cross, or donkeys speak with human words. Suddenly, all of life becomes animate with the potency and poetry of God.
Rather than a fluctuating, coming and going of the Spirit, as in the case with Samson, we are invited to abide daily—breathing in, breathing out. Whether among the usual trappings of dirty dishes and neighborhood gas pumps, or on the highway toward a strange city of lights, a constant indwelling of the Holy Spirit remains through each shifting season.
Of course not every moment of life is a continual euphoric experience. Inspired or not, the bills are due and have no regard for your epiphany, the sick relative still needs a ride to the doctor, and the air conditioning needs to be fixed. However, even the most ordinary days can glow with the residue of heaven. The oscillating highs and lows of creative temperament can be stabilized (not neutralized) through an abiding presence. We don’t have to go the way of Samson.
As we mature as believers and as artists, we will discern the presence and inspiration of God coming to us from both conventional and non-conventional sources. Whether consciously or unconsciously, those things we find most inspiring, be it a sunset, a musical composition or whatever – these things arouse our creative spirit because they bear the fragrance and reflection of the One who is the source of all goodness, truth and beauty. Even the most painful of experiences become sources of inspiration, bearing seeds of redemption and hope.
The wind comes and goes as it pleases, but it may not always be a matter of waiting for the goose bumps to show up and tickle our fancy before we get down to work. Experiencing inspiration may also be a learned, disciplined approach to life rather than a moment of unexpected euphoria. “Prophesy to the breath” the Lord commands Ezekiel. And as he does, a desolate wasteland is populated with a vast, supernatural army. “Stir up the gift that is within you,” the writer exhorts young Timothy. In other words, we have a part to play in receiving the inspiration of God. Breathe in. Breathe out. Perhaps we, too, can prophesy to the breath and see the dry bones of our own valleys become host to a vast, innumerable army, alive with the breath of God.