Our Creative Impulse Through the Lens of Eternity

Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”


I think I felt this verse in my gut before I ever heard it. Far back into my childhood, I remember this distinct feeling of deep awe, wonder and gladness intermingled with pangs of longing. I felt it on camping trips, looking up at the mountains that seemed strangely temporal, or at summer camp, sitting around bonfires and observing the stars that were infinitely larger and older than I. Sometimes I felt it when reading adventure books with my dad, listening to the classical orchestras in which my violinist mother played, or (perhaps most frequently) while watching movies.


In fact it was in a movie that this odd yet familiar cocktail of emotion was first expressed in a way that made sense to me, to the point that when I heard it — as a junior in high school — I was brought to tears. The year was 1999 and the movie was American Beauty, and it was something Wes Bentley’s character said after describing his peculiar fascination with the beauty of a plastic trash bag: “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”


When I heard that, it clicked for me that beauty and sadness are intimately linked; the sheer ubiquity of beauty in the world is at once an immeasurable gift and a constant reminder of an ever-present lack. We are never more aware of the “eternity” set in our hearts than when we taste, see, hear, touch, and try to understand the vastness of beauty all around us. It’s why, indeed, we feel like our hearts might just cave in: because they are full to the breaking point, and we sense that we were made for something bigger than our hearts can now take.


The tension within Ecclesiastes 3:11 is fuel for many of us who are artists or creatives. It’s the tension between the realities asserted in the verse’s three clauses: 1) God made everything in this life beautiful. Everything. 2) God set eternity in our hearts, making them “restless until they rest in Thee,” as Augustine famously said. 3) There are mysteries and realities about this universe we will never grasp in this life.


It’s this tension between revealed and concealed, known and unknown, this-worldly (the glimpses of beauty we see all around us) and other-worldly (the eternity set in our hearts) that makes us creative beings. If all were revealed and known, we would have no need to be creative; and if all were concealed and unknown, we wouldn’t know where to start.


But because God has put us in a world where beauty infuses everything, alongside mystery, fallenness and temporality, we cannot help but search. We cannot help create. Ingrained within us is a desire to take the raw materials of God’s gracious gifts — colors, textures, language, emotions, to name a few — and try to make something that speaks truth, brings healing or facilitates worship.


Creativity is the eternity-filled heart finding ways to express itself within a world where we see dimly and know only in part. It’s the aching, striving, and longing for the time when we will know fully and see the Source of beauty face-to-face.

photo by martin.mutch