The Pitfalls of Writing: A Reflection and Reminder

A while back, Tim Chailles put up this quote by a guy named, Samuel Johnson, on the dangers of writing. I found it a thought-provoking reminder, and a challenge as I try to hopefully resume posting on this blog more regularly during the summer.  Johnson writes:

It is not difficult to conceive that for many reasons a man writes much better than he lives. For, without entering into refined speculations, it may be shown much easier to design than to perform. A man proposes his schemes of life in a state of abstraction and disengagement, exempt from the enticements of hope, the solicitations of affection, the importunities of appetite, or the depressions of fear, and is in the same state with him that teaches upon land the art of navigation, to whom the sea is always smooth, and the wind always prosperous…

We are, therefore, not to wonder that most fail, amidst tumult and snares and danger, in the observance of those precepts, which they laid down in solitude, safety, and tranquility, with a mind unbiased, and with liberty unobstructed… Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory.

There is a lot of good things to take away from this quote. Johnson eloquently captures the disconnect that often occurs between our knowing and articulation of that knowledge in writing, and our translating that knowledge into action. It is always easier to “design than to perform”. When we are writing, our minds can grasp the truth abstractly. We are able to understand the advantages of the solutions offered by Christianity. But when we try to apply our knowledge in real life we face formidable enemies. I particularly like Johnson’s description of our obstacles– he calls them “enticements of hope, the solicitations of affection, the importunities of appetite, or the depressions of fear.” How right he is here in capturing the power and relentlessness of these forces, and how convincing they are in swaying us from our convictions and causing us to doubt what we know. Although Johnson is sympathetic towards writers who fail to live out their convictions, his reminder is still a sobering one: our hopes, affections, appetites, and fears often cause us to discard the lofty truths we  write about, because of our lack of our faith.

Johnson’s warning of the pitfalls of writing are especially relevant to me as I write here on this blog. Many of the posts I write are meant to be exhortations to myself to the superiority of Christ, in the midst of personal struggle. But as Johnson reminds me, this kind of writing merely makes me one who is “sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory.” Through my writing, I may come to understand the gravity of my problems and the beauty of their solution in Christ, but that does me no good, unless I am actively striving to obtain the victory.

This takes me back to the heart of why I’m writing. I cannot write for the praise of man, for the satisfaction of a well-written essay on my computer screen, to relieve my boredom, or solely as a means of introspection. One reason I started this blog was so that I’d be able to understand and articulate the things I’m thinking about, learning, and struggling with through a Christ-centered lens. But it cannot end with knowledge; it is useless if I am able to articulate truth well but unable to live it.  Good writing is vanity on its own. The success or failure of this blog, of my writing endeavors, is to be seen through the testimony of my life. May I live out my faith, trusting in Christ to overcome my weaknesses!

“But be does of the words, and not hearers only deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22)

One thought on “The Pitfalls of Writing: A Reflection and Reminder

  1. In “Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ”, every chapter is ended with a prayer. I wonder if that would be something that would be beneficial as a way to move from knowledge to action.

    But then the prayer would also be publicized, although a publicized prayer may be better than no prayer at all. A non-spontaneous prayer need not be contrived and impersonal.

    Just a thought.

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