I first noticed it in a college calculus class.
Why should I go to a boring 8 a.m. class, do problem after problem, when all I needed to do was read the text before the exam, especially when I didn’t see anyone taking attendance? After all, there were only a few basic formulas. I would memorize them the night before. What difference would it make if I did the endless and repetitive assignments?
Well, my plan didn’t work too well. I guess the assignments would have made a difference.
When in doubt, over-practice.
Musicians face this all the time. They set out to learn a piece of music. At some point they nail it. They play through the entire piece without mistakes. But then, just when we think that they should move on to master the next piece, they practice some more. Why? Because every musician knows that there is a big difference between practicing and performing. What our fingers do effortlessly in the privacy of the practice room is not the same as what they will do in a performance. Fingers have been known to betray us when people are watching. So, concert musicians practice until their fingers play the piece no matter what the circumstances.
When in doubt, over-practice. It is one of life’s basic rules.
We go to church and hear the same thing. Jesus died for sins and is now risen. Okay, got it. Now I don’t need to pay attention too much. Occasionally I will perk up when the preacher inserts a new insight from biblical history. I like the illustrations but they are more for entertainment. Intellectual mastery is all I need. (I teach at a seminary, and I have found that seminary students are experts at this line of thought). Read the Bible? I’ve read it before. I know the basic gist of it. Nothing new.
Then it comes time to “perform”.
The performance takes place in thousands of different venues. Disappointment at work or school, frustration with a roommate or spouse, broken relationships, health fears, a computer with pornography just a few characters and clicks away, discord at church, rebellious kids. The list goes on. And, all of a sudden, we are all thumbs.
We need to over-practice. Here are a few ways.
Never give thanks for blessings you can see without remembering the blessings you can’t see. When you give thanks for a clean bill of health, enough money to take a vacation, rain for crops, or the food on the table, be sure to keep going until you get to the spiritual, a.k.a. lasting, benefits we have received in Christ. We are thankful for forgiveness of sins, love that never ceases, the presence of God, and a mission. These are things we can be thankful for even when everything we see with our eyes looks wretched.
Over-practice. Use any excuse to get back to the cross itself and then—do it again.
I can see a style of thought in myself that goes something like this. If my “thankful” list is longer than my “complaint” list, then I am on the right path. The problem is that I can have dozens of items on the thankful list and only one on the complaint list, and the severity of the complaint outweighs everything I am thankful for. Only the blessings we have received in Christ are weighty enough to counterbalance those especially hard events of life. But these blessings in Christ won’t outweigh our difficulties unless we over-practice reciting them.
Confess sin, often. Again…over-practice. A Navy chaplain once said to me that he was scared to wake up and “find a woman sleeping in my bunk.” Promiscuity and adultery were, apparently, so common on extended deployments that he was afraid it would happen to him. The good news, of course, is that a strange person doesn’t just appear in our bed.
It is supposed to work this way: we practice saying no to sexual sin everyday. We care for and enjoy those things and people that God gives us and don’t covet what he doesn’t give us. So, when drawn to an alluring advertisement, a sexual fantasy or flirtatious though seemingly harmless banter, we say no. We practice on the smaller steps, and practice some more. Then we are prepared if we ever have to face bigger ones.
The Lord’s Prayer is such a great way to over-practice this. Instead of holding off on “forgive us our sins” until the day the “big” sins overtake us, we confess everyday. We confess the sins of thought and deed, commission and omission. That way we are not taken by surprise by sin. And, no doubt, we are better prepared for those times when we would otherwise defend ourselves and accuse others during relational schisms. If our practice is confessing our sins everyday before the Lord, we don’t get the performance jitters when we should confess to our brothers and sisters.
Take advantage of fellowship. Allow your times with other Christians to be times when you speak specifically about Jesus.
This is a natural way to over-practice. Just talk about Jesus with friends and talk to him with friends. Do this and we will become more skilled in talking about Jesus and with Jesus during those difficult times when we are tempted to think that God is far away. My quasi-scientific polls, however, suggest that this is not as natural as it seems. In many homes the name of Jesus comes up only when someone prays before a meal. In our relationships with other committed followers of Christ we might be surprised at how infrequently we actually talk about Jesus. And to pray with a friend? (“I’ll pray for you” doesn’t count). That is rare.
One recent story. A twenty-five-year-old older brother was saying goodbye to his sister who was leaving for six-months abroad. I had been needling him about praying with other people, so, in part, to get me off his back, he asked his sister if he could pray with her. Before he was done they were both in tears and he described it as the richest time he had ever had with her. Since then he has been practicing. He has been praying more with some of his friends. The result? His practice times have helped him to turn quickly to the Lord in the midst of anxious situations. In the past he might have eventually prayed but only after trying to solve the problem and investing plenty of time in worrying.
So…when in doubt…over-practice. Musicians, athletes (and better calculus students) know it helps them when the pressure comes. Over-practice your faith and the same will be true there as well. The means of spiritual growth aren’t always flashy, but they are effective.