Practice Makes Perfect

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Anyone who has ever achieved at a really high level knows that there is no substitute for practice. Sure, we’ve all heard stories of exceptionally gifted people who are able to master a subject or discipline on their first introduction to it. But those kinds of people are the exceptions and not the norm. For most, mastery takes hard work. The best writers and thinkers and players and workers and musicians are often referred to as those who put the most time in. “He was the first one in and the last one to leave,” they say. “Nobody worked harder than she did.” After he examined what makes successful people successful, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that it takes roughly ten thousand hours to become an expert in your field. Ten thousand hours! Basically five years of full-time work according to the American workweek. In other words, practice. Doing the same thing over and over and over again. That’s how you get good. That’s how you grow.

I love the story that golf great Gary Player tells. There he is, down in Texas, in a bunker hitting practice shots. An old cowboy walks up and watches as the first shot Player hits goes into the hole. The cowboy says to him, “You got fifty bucks if you knock the next one in.” And he does. In fact, he goes on to make three more in a row. As the old man is peeling back hundred-dollar bills, he says to Player, “Boy, I’ve never seen anyone so lucky in my life.” Player’s response says it all. “Well,” he said, “the harder I practice, the luckier I get.” Although probably not original to Player, his response gets at something everyone knows: behind people who are really good at what they do is a road paved with hours and hours of practice.

The question here is this: Does this translate to Christian discipleship and to the Christian life? Is it possible to get better at showing mercy? To grow in generosity? To become more loving? To be a better neighbor? And, if yes, is growth in these areas related to practice? Put another way, is the Christian life like everything else in life? Is it a matter of putting in the hours or giving ourselves over and over and over again to the discipline of cultivating a virtuous life? Is it possible for us to say to someone who manifests an astonishing amount of generosity, “That’s the most generous thing I’ve ever seen,” only to hear from them, “You know, the more generous I am the more generous I become”?

I think the answer to these questions is yes. The Apostle Peter certainly was very comfortable speaking about practice as tending toward growth in Christian discipleship. He writes: “For this reason, make every effort to supplement your faith. . . . For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful. . . . Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fail” (2 Peter 1:5–10). Likewise, the Apostle Paul often used metaphors of growth and fruit bearing to describe the Christian life:

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col. 1:9–10)

The more we give ourselves over to those things that are good and right and true and beautiful and lovely, the more they take root in us and shape us. In a strange way, we become them by doing them. Philosophers and theologians alike have recognized this. The psalmist presents this principle when he speaks of those who worship idols: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:8; see 135:18). This is just the way we as humans were made to learn. More than we realize, our lives our molded by the rituals, the liturgies, and the things that we frequently give ourselves over to. It’s in this light that the wisdom of Proverbs makes good sense: “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Prov. 22:24–25). This is certainly what is behind the old axiom that bad company ruins good morals (1 Cor. 15:33).

In a strange way, then, those things we give ourselves over to shape us and make us, usually into their own image. One theologian gets at this when he notes the way worship transforms humans and how we become what we worship:

God has made humans to reflect him, but if they do not commit themselves to him, they will not reflect him but something else in creation. At the core of our beings we are imaging creatures. It is not possible to be neutral on this issue: we either reflect the Creator or something in creation. . . . What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.

The more we give ourselves over to the virtues of the Christian life and the more we practice the ethics of the kingdom of God, the more those virtues and ethics will take root in us, the more they will shape us, and the more they make us into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, the One who was perfect in every way.

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