Creating for Eternity

When we create for change, our work can have a lasting impact—an eternal impact. Learn how John Piper, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others illustrate that small actions today for the kingdom can blossom into consequential life-changing and eternity-shaping results. The way we steward our creative gifts now not only has consequences into eternity, but connections into eternity. In a very real way that only God fully understands, the work we do here on earth in the name of Christ lays a brick in the Kingdom our Savior is building for us in Heaven.

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When we create for change, though the initial impact might seem insignificant, the work we do has eternal impact. As we follow The Ultimate Creator along The Creator’s Journey, and work together in Creative Communities to Create the Good Life, we begin to piece together, brick by brick, action by action, a life that will have impact that echoes into eternity.

“You can’t take it with you—but you can send it on ahead.” – Randy Alcorn

Passion Conference: The “Seashells” Sermon

The fourth annual Passion Conference took place outdoors, with 40,000 students transforming a grassy field near Memphis into a vibrant, humming tent city overnight. In a moment that would later be described as maybe “the single most significant event in terms of exposing a wider audience to Piper” and a sermon “formative for our generation”, Pastor and Author John Piper did not know he was about to experience his own personal “tip-of-the-culture-change-iceberg moment,” he only knew that this was a crowd so large that old hang-ups and fears swirled incessantly through his mind.

“It was the biggest group I’d ever spoken to in my life,” Piper remembers. “When I was in high school, I couldn’t speak in front of groups. I was paralyzed with fear. It was a strange thing. My mother took me to the psychologist . . . So, every time I stand before a new large audience, I always have a lot of memories I have to overcome.” Even worse, the crowd was restless, the wind was picking up, and he was slated to speak at 1:00 in the afternoon, the lowest energy part of the day. But Piper knew that it was up to God to work powerfully if He so chose; his job was just to be faithful, overcome his doubt and hesitations, take a risk and step up to the microphone. Before he spoke, Piper asked God for “a prophetic word that would have a ripple effect to the ends of the earth and to eternity.”

God answered his prayer.

Now, decades later, his “seashells” sermon has spawned a book, a study guide, gospel tracts, and even a rap song.

Piper contrasted the lives of Laura Edwards and Ruby Eliason, two elderly women, medical professionals who had given their entire lives to helping the poor in the name of Christ, suddenly killed doing so in Cameroon, with “Bob and Penny . . . [who] took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30-foot trawler, play softball, and collect shells.”

Piper paused, the once restless crowd now watching him intently. Laura and Ruby’s sacrifice to the Lord until the very end, Piper said softly, “It is not a tragedy…” What is a tragedy is when “you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account with what you did: “Here it is, Lord—my shell collection. And I’ve got a good swing. And look at my boat… Don’t waste your life,” he said softly, before quoting C. T. Studd’s poem, “Only one life, twill soon be past / Only what’s done for Christ will last.”[1]

Today, the “seashells” sermon has changed an entire generation of Christian’s attitudes toward living a life of eternal significance. “I was in the crowd. That sermon ended all my dreams of retirement,” Matt Carter of The Austin Stone Community Church recalls.[2]

Matt Capps, now a senior pastor in North Carolina keeps a collection of seashells on his desk to remind him of that message. “The first time I listened to it, I didn’t know how to process it,” said Capps, who still shares the audio and video files with people. “I had never heard anyone draw a line in the sand like that. . . It changed how I spent my time, what I invested in, the overall trajectory of my life.” [3]

It changed Piper’s ministry too. The scale and reach of his ministry exploded, and today, as the author of over fifty books, and still an active speaker at the age of 74, John Piper is foregoing a life of ease in order to create for change that echoes into eternity.

Stewarding Our Creative Gifts

We are stewards of our creative gifts, not owners. Therefore, to not exercise our creative gifts to their fullest culture-changing impact is to squander the talents and treasures entrusted to us by our Creator, the giver of every good gift. But when we wisely leverage what we’ve been given, whether much or little, in order to glorify God and serve those around us, we begin to see the eternal significance of everything we do.

Much of what passes for creative blocks about how to spend your life, what to create, write, build, dream, or do is often a misalignment of this fundamental issue of stewardship vs ownership. “Whenever we think like owners, it’s a red flag. We should be thinking like stewards, investment managers, always looking for the best place to invest the Owner’s money.” [4]

And, the Owner has given us more than just money. All of our talents, opportunities, and creative gifts come directly from the one who owns it all and is allowing us the freedom and choice to use what we’ve been given for His glory and the love of others, or to misuse them on ourselves, or worse, neglect to use them all together. When we clutch tightly to what we’ve been given, scared of releasing what we have to benefit a world in need, our ingenuity seems to dry up, our options parched of the very creative lifeblood needed to make an impact. Selfishness stifles creativity. But when we turn our focus outward, resolving to see problems and fix them, then our creative gifts swell to meet the challenge.

This focusing outward, rather than inward, has not just a theological rationale, but a pragmatic one too. If the perfectionist is never happy with their work, and the narcissist is never able to see the broader potential impact of their work, then the steward understands that it’s not about them, and not even about their work, it’s all about loving God and loving others. Getting wrapped up in questions about which major to choose, or which job to take, or how to begin that book you’ve been longing to write is only a luxury of those who are focused inward.

But when you can catch even a glimpse of how your creative gifts might be of use to the world around you then it’s only a preoccupation with self that keep your gifts from meeting those needs. So, take a risk. Be willing to embarrass yourself. Be willing to create something that is not perfect, not will ever be perfect. But if you scrunch your eyes shut to the needs in the world around you, dwelling on your own shortcomings and hang ups, then instead of creating for change with the creative gifts you have been given, you will find that the pennies you’ve been clutching in your hand will have, in the end, slid through your grasp.

Discover How You Can Create for Change

More than voting. More than arguing on social media. Committing to real cultural change requires so much more. Discover your creative calling today.

The Perfect Tree

Long before J.R.R. Tolkien was known as the creator of the timeless masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, he was simply a creator with an idea, partially completed, and stuck with creative block such that he had run out of “mental energy and invention.” [5] By this point, he had been working on the epic world of The Lord of the Rings for decades, spiraling into his perfectionistic tendencies to endlessly polish and refine the internal languages, histories, and backstories of each character. Inwardly, he despaired of ever finishing, and the thought was “a dreadful and numbing thought.” [6]

To capture this tortured inward struggle of the creative professional, Tolkien wrote a short story titled Leaf by Niggle, whose protagonist, Niggle, has a picture in his mind of the perfect picture, beginning with a leaf, expanding to a perfectly formed tree, and then an entire landscape of forest and mountain vistas in the background. (It is worth mentioning that The Oxford English Dictionary, to which Tolkien was a contributor, defines “niggle” as “to work . . . in a fiddling or ineffective way . . . to spend time unnecessarily on petty details,” [7] which is of course representative of the perfectionistic Tolkien himself). However, no matter how hard Niggle seemed to work, spending time and effort getting just the right colors and shading, his painting never seemed to be complete. One day, as the Driver comes to take Niggle on the Long Journey, symbolizing death, Niggle looks at his painting and bursts into tears. He has only completed a single leaf. A beautiful leaf, but just a single, solitary leaf.

But the story doesn’t end there. In the afterlife Niggle travels to the celestial mountain range, and hears a voice, soft but strong, describing all the sacrifices Niggle has made for others. As a reward, when Niggle arrives at the outskirts of the celestial city, the forest surrounding the mountain scape comes into view, and there it is:

“Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished; its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and yet had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It is a gift!’ he said.” [8]

“The world before death—his old country—had forgotten Niggle almost completely, and there his work had ended unfinished and helpful to only a very few. But in his new country, the permanently real world, he finds that his tree, in full detail and finished, was not just a fancy of his that had died with him. No, it was indeed part of the True Reality that would live and be enjoyed forever.” [9]

Tim Keller has recounted this story many times, particularly to artists but to those across many professions who want their work and their art to matter, and “regardless of their beliefs about God and the afterlife, they are often deeply moved. Tolkien had a very Christian understanding of art and, indeed, of all work. He believed that God gives us talents and gifts so we can do for one another what he wants to do for us and through us. As a writer, for example, he could fill people’s lives with meaning through the telling of stories that convey the nature of reality. Niggle was assured that the tree he had “felt and guessed” was “a true part of creation” and that even the small bit of it he had unveiled to people on earth had been a vision of the True.” [10]

The story of Leaf by Niggle is encouraging—even J.R.R. Tolkien struggled with creative block and perfectionistic tendencies! —sobering—the work we do really does matter as a legacy not just beyond our own short life spans in this world but into the next life too—and many other emotions that each of us will be unpacking in our own personal ways throughout our various creative projects and all throughout our lives.

Echoes Into Eternity

The way we steward our creative gifts now not only has consequences into eternity, but connections into eternity. In a very real way that only God fully understands, as the story of Leaf by Niggle describes, the work we do here on earth not only echoes into eternity, but the work we do today in the name of Christ lays a brick in the Kingdom our Savior is building for us in Heaven. So, whether we are brick layers building buildings or artists painting leaves, may we see the work we do today as being connected to God’s vast and all-encompassing sovereign plan for the entire history and future of the world. In some ways, I can imagine the story of Leaf by Niggle concluding with Niggle embracing not only his Creator but other creators who the Creator has allowed to participate in painting other leaves. Tolkien embracing Lewis embracing… us?

Today, we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face, and face to place. We will see more fully that which we have been longing for all along. We were made for a Person: Christ. And we were made for a Place: Heaven.

All throughout Scripture there are references to storing up treasure in Heaven. The eternal rewards that will be given to those who give their lives in service to Christ, and all that is truly important, are mentioned frequently. We can’t earn our salvation; placing our trust in Jesus Christ alone, by grace, through faith, is the only way of salvation. And yet, God is pleased when we work in Him to store up rewards in Heaven.

But these rewards should not obscure the inherent value of the work itself. When we live out our Creative Type and use our creative gifts in God-honoring and others-serving ways, we do more than accumulate rewards in Heaven, we also create something of eternal significance too. In other words, the rewards are a consequence of our actions on earth, but our actions on earth are a connection to something very real being created in Heaven, simultaneously prepared by our Risen King who has gone to prepare a place for us and by each of us, the Body of Christ, his hands and feet serving and creating in the world around us to bring in shalom.

It’s all connected.

Eternity starts now.

We are all called to create for change in the world around us, using our God-given creative giftings for His glory and the good of others. May we not engage culture as just a critic or a consumer, but as a creator, using our Creative Type to change the world around us.

Our Creator invites us to join Him in His mission, restoring everything to its original goodness, and somehow even better, from the Garden to the City.

It’s what we all want.


Will you answer the call to create for change?

Discover How You Can Create for Change

More than voting. More than arguing on social media. Committing to real cultural change requires so much more. Discover your creative calling today.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Randy Alcorn The Treasure Principle p. 26

[5] This quote and the immediately following account of Tolkien’s mind-set are taken from Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien, p. 221

[6] Ibid. p. 221

[7] Quoted in Shippey, JRR Tolkien, 267

[8] J.R.R. Tolkien Leaf by Niggle p. 109–10

[9] Timothy Keller Every Good Endeavour: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World Hodder & Stoughton November, 2012 p. 27

[10] Ibid. p. 28

Joel Ohman

Joel Ohman is a serial tech entrepreneur, author, and the chief creator at Created for Change. You can connect with Joel at or via LinkedIn.