Practicing? Really? Must I practice?
The word “practice” evokes memories in all of our minds – sitting at a piano or another musical instrument going over scales or pieces of music we have been assigned that are not at all what we had in mind when we started with an instrument. Other memories include practicing spelling words, mathematical facts, vocabulary, locations of continents, countries, oceans, and more on a map.
But it doesn’t stop there. Our favorite sports that we seek to achieve great triumphs in start with the grunt work of practice, sometimes doing things that make no sense to us for the sport we are seeking to play. Some of the professions we train for are called “a practice.”
The word practice results in such a visceral response in us because of what it requires of us. We may want to play an instrument beautifully like we listen to on our favorite Spotify or Pandora channel or earn that scholarship for academic excellence, but practice demands we work at something repeatedly so we can improve toward the goal we have or the goal we have set for us. And frankly, that sounds like WORK…and it is.
Practice requires we focus, hone in on something repeatedly, when much of the time our bent is to relax in whatever way suits us doing something we do easily or that is fun. Try not to label that in a negative way, but to see it as just what it is for most of us.
Why must we practice?
You and I can come up with a list of reasons, but it all boils down to what practice does to us beyond what we are actually doing. Practice trains and teaches us to develop some skill or attribute that we want or need to acquire. In the process, it develops a habit and habits shape who we are, who we become.
But wait – Paul talks about practice in his epistles as well. Here is one example:
“Isn’t it obvious that all runners on the racetrack keep on running to win, but only one receives the victor’s prize? Yet each one of you must run the race to be victorious.”
I Corinthians 9:24 (TPT)
No, he doesn’t use the word practice, but if you have ever run a race of any kind you know you need a great deal of practice to be able to finish the race let alone win it. I got to see that when our daughter was training (practicing) running to increase her endurance for a 5K and then moved up to a half marathon and a 10 miler. A few verses later in that same chapter, Paul makes it clearer still:
“…but I train like a champion athlete. I subdue my body and get it under my control, so that after preaching the good news to others I myself won’t be disqualified.”
I Corinthians 9:27 (TPT)
Paul uses the word train in this verse and training always involves practice. I know that from a number of areas in my life from piano to sax to academics. I also know it from never being an athlete and realizing as I was getting older that I very much needed to strengthen my body to be able to improve flexibility, posture and more. I couldn’t accomplish that by walking every day, I needed a trainer to guide the path to the goal and hold me accountable. It was a decision I did not make lightly to hire one. It was going to cost me some dollars and also cost me commitment and a regimen of practice if I didn’t want to have my body crumble just through the natural aging process.
Practice results in developing a habit so that over time we not only reach the goal, but we find it less hard to do.
Paul uses the metaphors about running a race often in his writing because he knows that training and practice in the spiritual realm does something that we need if we are to look like Christ. It develops virtue, a necessary character trait of disciples of Christ.
“…acquiring virtue takes practice. Such moral, kingdom-reflecting dispositions are inscribed into your character through rhythms and routines and rituals, enacted over and over again, that implant in you a disposition to an end (telos) that becomes a character trait – a sort of learned, second-nature default orientation that you tend toward “without thinking about it.” We’re not talking about biological hardwiring or natural instincts.
Virtues are learned and acquired, through imitation and practice. It’s like we have the moral muscles that are trained the same way our biological muscles are trained when we practice a golf swing or piano scales.”
James K.A. Smith
And the key is to remember this practice is not about trying to just acquire more knowledge, Jesus is always after one thing above all – our hearts. He wants our desires, longings, and yearnings to be ever toward Him because they will be what directs our behavior. It’s not about the law we memorize, but about our hearts that are transformed.
One of my favorite passages in scripture is Hebrews 12:1-3 that points me to my focus and The Message version makes it exceedingly plain:
“Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!”
Hebrews 12:1-3 (MSG)
What do you need to start practicing participating in the recalibration of your heart and development of virtue?