Inspiration and Perspiration – God and the Creative Process

January 26th, 2010 / 6 Comments

Thomas Alva Edison once said that invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I’ve been thinking about what this quote might mean for theology.

I think Edison was trying to emphasize that creativity takes hard work. Artists – and we’re all artists to some degree – don’t create without effort. Some of the most beautiful art is the result of blood, sweat, and tears.

But I wonder what it means to think about inspiration and perspiration from a theological perspective.

If we think in terms of God’s inspiration and the perspiration of our creative endeavors, the percentages likely differ from those Edison suggests. I don’t think creatures do 99% of the work to create the beauty, art, and order we see in our world.

In the Wesleyan tradition, the idea of prevenient grace helps me think through these issues.  In part, prevenient grace says God plays the primary role in new creation. To “pre-vene” is to come before. God’s loving and creative action comes prior to and makes possible creaturely response.

I don’t think the good in this world is entirely the result of our perspiration. If I did, I would never have reason to say “thank you” to God. Gratitude to God would be superfluous. Creatures shouldn’t get all credit for the good and beautiful. To give creatures all the credit would make God’s creative artistry unnecessary.

But the good and beauty of we encounter is not entirely the result of God’s actions. If that were true, we should stop saying “thank you” to people who do something good for us. If we really thought God was 100% responsible for what is good and beautiful, we should stop handing out “appreciation” awards to those who act in beneficial ways or saying “good work” to those who make positive contributions.

Besides, if God shouldn’t be blamed for the ugliness and evil of the world, we shouldn’t also give God 100% credit for the good and beautiful.  If wrong responses of creatures – not God – are the source of evil, the right responses of creatures must be at least partial contributors to beauty and goodness. This is especially true if God created creatures, called them “good,” and said at least some of them were made in God’s image.

The Wesleyan tradition has sometimes used the word “synergy” to talk about the creative cooperation between God and creatures.  In my mind, this is a good word – so long as we don’t think of “synergy” to mean, “co-equal.” I don’t think God and creation are co-equal. But I do think creatures can work (“energy”) along with (“syn”) our Creator God.

I haven’t got this “inspiration-perspiration ratio” figured out. I wouldn’t be surprised if figuring out the percentages of God’s inspiration and our perspiration for any situation is inherently impossible. 

I am comfortable saying that the beauty, goodness, and creativity of this life are LARGELY the result of God’s inspiration and LESS the result of our perspiration.  But I’m still working out my thoughts on the subject.

I’m going to be thinking more about this “divine inspiration – creaturely perspiration ratio” the first weekend of February.  Philip Yancey, Jeff Crosno, and a host of others are speaking at the NNU Wesley Center conference February 4-6. The title for the event draws from Edison’s quote: “99 Parts Perspiration: God and the Creative Process.”

My friend and colleague, Jay Akkerman, is directing this year’s Wesley conference.  If you’re interested in attending, here’s a helpful link with information. If you see me at the conference and it’s no sweat, say hello! : )

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Eric Vail

Tom, this is a thought provoking post leading into the Wesley Center Conference; I am looking forward to being there.  I do, however, want to challenge the way the question has been framed. 

From as early as the late-second-century, theologians have been wrestling with the issue of divine and creaturely activity/power/agency within a zero-sum framework.  For example, Irenaeus said that no creature could participate with God in creating because such assistance would imply a want in God.  By asking what the ratio is between divine inspiration and creaturely perspiration, it invites us to fall into the same (dead-end?) framing of the issue in which the tradition has been stuck. 

This was one of the issues I sought to address in the creation theology I developed in my dissertation.  I wanted to help us get past the either-or impasse in the debate.  I sought to talk about God’s and creation’s relationship in such a way that we can speak about the full agency of both God and creation within creation.  This synergism does not imagine God and creation working beside one another—one party contributing some to the final product and the other party contributing the remainder.  Rather, by the Spirit and Word, God makes possible the speaking of a word by an other.  There is complete synergism, but it is an overlapping of agencies.  Instead of zero-sum accounting, in my math 100% + 100% = 100%.


To me, inspiration is the act where someone is motivated to do something because of someone or something else. Perspiration would be the act of working. God has a huge role in both. When it comes to invention, I understand where Edison’s quote comes from, yet this motivation is just as important as the perspiration. Even when it comes to the beauty in the world, God has a motive to want to create what has been created. God is God, able to create the world with a simple command. The “perspiration” is not really perspiration for God if God does not need that much effort. It is the inspiration that drives God to do what is done. That inspiration is us. The love God has for us is the inspiration that created the world and all the beauty in it.

Matt H

I think the important thing to keep in mind, especially with creative work, is that if there’s no inspiration then any amount of perspiration will be fruitless. For centuries artists have attempted to channel the divine in their works—to take the same inspiration that God gives to everybody and apply their own skills and talents to express it in an artistic way. In my mind, the artist deserves all the credit for the perspiration, but you can’t forget that without the initial inspiration, the art would have no impact. Of course God deserves credit for things like natural abilities, but it’s the perspiration—answering the call in a profound way—that causes the beautiful to be brought about in the world.

Blake Wenner

I find it hard to ever attribute any of our human abilities to ourselves, due to the fact that we wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for God. However, I do think we are modules of interpretation and differentiate in our perception of the beautiful, each with our own definitions of beauty. Art is just one outlet of this expression. But we can also interpret Gods creation and the beauty of that artwork.


I don’t think that percentages can be placed on how much God inspires and how much work we as humans do. Numbers for this are not important to me. I do agree that it is not just us nor is it just God who creates the beauty that we see. I believe that God (who is creative) gave us the ability to be creative. We are created in God’s image, are we not? So this would include being creative. Therefore,it is both God and us that create the beauty that we see.

Allison Dietz

Being an artist myself, I can relate completely with this quote. Getting an idea for a piece of artwork can take some time but once you have the idea, it usually takes so much more time and energy to execute it. I do however think that inspiration is extremely important. Without it, no artwork is produced. If Edison’s quote is based on time, then it is very true. However, if it was applied to importance, then it would not be true.

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