When I was 16, I left Hong Kong to California to pursue a “full-time” musical training as a violinist. I dreamed about becoming a professional who can finally boast about her playing; in return, the Lord, through an injury, peeled my old self layer by layer, showing how He is my everything.
Idolatry and Identity
Knowing that I had a lot to catch up with, I practiced crazy without any healthy routine and method in the first month of my study in the U.S as a high school junior. What followed immediately were some chronic injuries that lasted for a few years. They had stopped me from playing the violin even until today. After two years of wandering, I stayed an extra year in my high school as a piano major and eventually entered an university as a pianist.
During those days, I often felt incredible lonely. Besides the severe pain that I had, I was disappointed by the lack of helpful treatments and the lack of understanding from people around me. But it was those days that I gradually realized that I was idolizing my musical study. Looking back, I am so thankful that God “plugged me out” in those days before I continued to sink. It was those days that I finally took a step back and reflected on my relationship with the Lord.
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (Genesis 3:6)
I thought I was being a good student, a good daughter, a good girl. I was hardworking and diligent. But little did I know idolatry can come in the form of “good” as well. After all, didn’t Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because it appears to be “good”?
Being a performer also requires a strong mentality. We can in a second feel better when people praise our work and yet in the next we are crushed when someone criticize our playing. It is no coincidence that many artists suffer from depression and in the extreme case, suicide, because we often identify and define ourselves with our arts. But the Lord has told me I am His and He is mine. My identity is first and foremost always in Christ; it does not matter how good or how bad our artwork is.
Sometimes, though, when looking at the brothers and sisters who are much more talented than I am, it is tempting to doubt if God loves me less. After all, I want to use my musical gift to express Him, too! Yet we are all equal in front of music. We are all equal in front of the Lord. The Lord has assigned each of us a different portion of gift. Whether big or small, our job is to invest them wisely as in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25. How much talent I have does not determine my status in Christ.
We Are Just Vessels
My teacher used to tell me, performers are just messengers. The music is the message. In other words, we are just vessels expressing the music. This analogy reminds me of God’s original purpose for us, that is, to contain and express Him as vessels.
This is where “self-forgetfulness” comes in. Tim Keller’s “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfullness” is a great little book that explains this concept clearly. I have attached some quotes here.
“The problem with self-esteem – whether it is high or low – is that, every single day, we are in the courtroom.”
“The way the normal human ego tries to fill its emptiness and deal with its discomfort is by comparing itself to other people. All the time.”
“The self-forgetful person would never be hurt particularly badly by criticism. It would not devastate them, it would not keep them up late, it would not bother them. Why? Because a person who is devastated by criticism is putting too much value on what other people think, on other people’s opinions.”
“Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less. Gospel-humility is not needing to think about myself. Not needing to connect things with myself. It is an end to thoughts such as, ‘I’m in this room with these people, does that make me look good? Do I want to be here?’ True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.”
Self-forgetfulness turns the focus back to God and not to men, thus freeing us from constantly evaluating our status before God based on our (art)work.
Soli Deo Gloria
Soli Deo Glroia. Glory to God alone. A phrase made famous by J.S. Bach and Handel and later become one of the “five solas”. Bach wanted to let the world know that his work were written to praise God. Hallelujah! Psalm 150 writes,
“Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty expanse.
Praise Him for His mighty deeds;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.
Praise Him with trumpet sound;
Praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dancing;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe.
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150)
But what about those work written by composers who have no intention to praise the Lord? Although some composers cannot care less, I believe that classical music in general points to the Creator of all things. In my playing, I hope to forget “self” and only express His beauty. Only in this way can we truly crucify our craving for self-glorification and pride.