In 2019, Harvard Business Review did a comprehensive survey and compilation of 145 empirical studies from academic journals on the conditions that support creativity and innovation. And they discovered something very counterintuitive.
It turns out that we do our best inventive thinking when we think inside the box.
The box itself spurs us on to come up with solutions we never would have considered if we had the complete freedom we think we want. This is the phenomenon of “creative constraints,” and scientists have been finding very consistent results on the positive effects of creative constraints on human innovation.
Why do they work?
Creative constraints take the focus of our thinking from wide to narrow, and the creative challenge increases our motivation to innovate. Having endless options both increases our decision fatigue and makes us want to default to the most obvious, path-of-least-resistance answer.
(Side note: the psychological peril of endless options doesn’t only refer to overwhelm when looking at 5000 Amazon choices for a can opener. It’s also why online dating can increase alienation. We do better with fewer choices in a lot of arenas in life.)
Creative constraints drive people to become remix artists, pulling in multiple unexpected sources, methods, and ideas to create solutions that remain within the confined boundaries.
Now this isn’t an infinite phenomenon–too many or too harsh constraints start to limit creativity. Companies such as Google and Apple deliberately orchestrate and carefully calibrate constraints to stimulate innovation.
Think about the famous scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the NASA ground crew literally has to make a square peg fit into a round hole to create a carbon dioxide scrubber using only non-essential equipment already onboard the imperiled spaceship. They thought they couldn’t do it, but knowing that their colleagues’ lives depended on it, they used those very strict constraints to spur their creativity, using what seemed like a few extra pieces of junk on the rocket to make a life-saving device.
People are more willing to accept and even enjoy working within constraints if they feel supported and feel like they have others to lean on and collaborate with. There’s a lesson for Christian community in that last point that we probably want to keep in our back pocket as we explore this further.
For us post-modern thinkers, it can be difficult sometimes to understand the value of some if not many of the texts of the Bible. Why do we keep anchoring ourselves in this ancient, outdated text?
Because God has used it to spark creativity within restriction.
The Bible itself functions as a creative constraint for our entire lives.
We often think that we’ll be better off with total freedom to do whatever we want. “Think outside the box,” is a better known gospel these days than “love your neighbor.”
But the scientific evidence proves that we’re more innovative when we think inside a quite restrictive box, and I’m making the case that our prayer life and our service to God function the same way.
This is not some reactionary call to live within unjust laws and rules that foster oppression and repression. But it is a call to examine our assumption that structure always means stuffiness.
Our liturgy is highly structured, and that reliable framework is here to lean on when we’re in grief and trouble, and to support us when our spirits want to fly free.
The whole spiritual life could be described as creativity through restriction. Consider the experience of the monastics. They took on some of the most restrictive lifestyles imaginable, and they had vivid experiences of God to show for it.
So let’s test this hypothesis, in good academic investigatory practice. If we document correctly, we might even make Harvard Business Review.
Our first lesson is from Acts, the story of Peter’s vision of animals and his learning about clean versus unclean.
What is the constraint we take away from this story?
At first it’s misleading. We think it’s about a lifting of constraints, the dietary laws that God’s people had functioned under prior to that point.
But Peter, and we, are being asked to function under a new constraint, and that constraint is a restriction from our old paradigms.
We have to give up our authority to decide what God’s laws are, and accept them as they’re revealed to us—which we find right here in this text, might change over time. We’re not allowed to use our comfortable categories we’re used to, for either what to do or who is acceptable to God and the community.
We have to conform to God’s view of who is saved, and it will not match what we think.
By accepting this creative constraint from God, Peter and the others find a new mental and spiritual flexibility. God gave them a new box to think inside of, and they found it very roomy, very interesting, and a place for new experimentation in building Christian community.
In our gospel lesson from John, our creative constraints are even clearer, and they’re quite harsh.
“Little children, I am with you only a little longer,” Jesus says. He’s leaving. Having Jesus gone is a pretty significant creative constraint for the disciples. But there’s more.
“Where I am going, you cannot come,” Jesus continues. The constraints are really adding up now. The disciples are being told they can’t go to where he is. They’re confined to a space without the physical presence of Jesus.
And then here comes the big one.
“Love one another just as I have loved you,” Jesus says.
The disciples are now being told, “Here are the boundaries for your conduct. Here is the box that I’m asking you live in. Your actions and your decisions are now constrained. You can’t do whatever you want. You don’t have perfect freedom. I’m asking you to live within the constraints of loving one another just as I have loved you, with me having ascended to the Father. Whatever solutions you come up with, whatever plans you make, whatever decisions or actions you consider, they have to adhere to that standard of love, without me here physically with you to guide you.”
That feels a bit overwhelming. “Love one another” feels so big, but it also feels so small. It feels like a big job within a tight restraint.
But science tells us what God already knew: those are actually the conditions that lead directly to human flourishing, to innovation and discovery. By giving us the creative constraint of loving one another as he loves us, Jesus is giving us a massive creative push into new growth and freedom.
Consider your experience at your own congregation. Your church has been a full-on laboratory of creativity within restrictions during the pandemic. You found yourselves with quite a lengthy list of things you couldn’t do. You had to find a way to do ministry inside a box of limitations, restrictions, and constraints.
How have you used prayer to make your way through that? What courageous actions did you take to keep ministry going? Because you have kept ministry going, and more than that, you’ve continued to grow ever deeper into the core values that make this congregation the rich and beautiful tapestry of love that it is. You are living proof of how the Holy Spirit comes alive within and among us when we have to or choose to live within creative constraints.
So start reflecting on the experience of your community in this time and continue to explore how creative constraint can function in your own spiritual walk.
What creative constraint is Jesus inviting you to in this season?
What limitations will you deliberately accept in your life, not just for the well-being of others, but for the chance to see how God can help you experiment and grow in completely new and unexpected directions?
As followers of Jesus, we choose to impose certain restrictions on ourselves, like giving up time for prayer and for service, like not returning hatred for hatred, like loving our neighbor.
Spend some time this week looking at your restrictions, both voluntary and involuntary, and explore how the Holy Spirit is inviting you to go wild with joy and creativity by means of those restrictions.
“My boundaries enclose a pleasant land,” the psalmist says. I think we’re only at the beginning of exploring it.
It’s hard to believe that we’re more free with slightly less freedom, but the scientific evidence backs it up.
And don’t tell Harvard Business Review, but God knew it first.
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