Practice Before Perfection

When difficult times tempt us to improvise, years of practicing Christian discipline will save the day.

As a guitarist warms up, she plucks each string, turning the keys until the notes are perfectly tuned. Then she practices until she can play a piece flawlessly.

Our lives are inundated with performances—the movie’s final cut, the published book, the championship football game. If you could rewind one of them, not just to the beginning, but to the days, weeks, and months before, what would you find? Other performances, yes, but many more scenes like it, filled with hours and hours of practice.

At times, living the Christian life seems like a performance. We even use language that suggests this, calling God “an audience of One.” But the idea of practice, not performance, better depicts the life of faith. After all, Christianity is founded on one perfect performance: the life and death of Jesus. As believers, we live as Jesus taught us—not so we can perform Jesus’ life note for note, but so our lives will be transformed to proclaim God’s glory in the fractured and fallen world He promises to mend. Like that guitarist, we practice our faith by tuning ourselves to God’s “music,” working to learn the basic acts of Christian life and to continue rehearsing them for the rest of our lives.

Guitarists tune their instruments to find the correct pitch; Christians do, too. After hearing Jesus pray, the disciples asked for a lesson. In response, He gave them a model for prayer (Luke 11:1-4). While we might tend toward self-centered prayers on our own, the Lord’s Prayer challenges us to attune our hearts to what philosopher Stratford Caldecott calls “heavenly harmonies” by praying, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

The Lord’s Prayer lays an important foundation for communing with the Father. It is a “form” prayer, one we can use when words fail us. It also trains us in what to include: We begin with worship, request God’s provision, confess and receive forgiveness, and finally ask for His strength to live a worthy life. And because we are slow to learn, we need to practice this kind of prayer regularly.

Musicians learn a piece by hearing it and then playing it phrase by phrase. The Christian life has well-known “tunes” that some writers call disciplines or habits. The disciples heard about them from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), especially in the Beatitudes (5:3-12). They also saw their master enact them and had opportunities to follow His example.

Jesus mentions several key Christian disciplines: prayer and fasting, yes, but also repentance, generosity, mercy, and peacemaking. As this partial list shows, some disciplines we practice on our own, like prayer and study, while others, like worship and celebration, are done as a body. Our “performances” are based on countless hours of work—rehearsals that transform a skill from intentional to automatic. Likewise, until our Christian activities become habit, we continue our disciplined practice. After all, God does His work in us over a lifetime, not in one moment.

Jesus finishes the Sermon on the Mount with a poignant story about two builders who chose to build houses on rock and sand respectively. A storm proved one wise and the other foolish. The difference? Putting Jesus’ words into practice, making them the foundation for life.

When Peter stood to speak on Pentecost (Acts 2:14), when he and John met the lame man at the Beautiful Gate (3:2-10), and when he was arrested and brought before the council (4:8), he faced “storms” that were opportunities to put what he had practiced on display. His words and actions were a gift of the Spirit, but also the fruit of years spent following Jesus’ example.

Peter and the other disciples gave performances that drew rave reviews—even from their enemies: “When [the council] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (4:13 NIV). And their deliberate practice continued as the church met to rehearse core truths and to encourage the disciplines of faith.

Some 2,000 years later, we have the same opportunity to practice Jesus’ way of life. Certain disciplines come easily, while others require years of work. Some are regular, daily actions, such as prayer and study and love. Others are occasional, done with fellow believers as often as we are able. But one thing’s certain—deliberate practice in easy times helps us remember what to do when our own storms arise and difficult times tempt us to improvise.

Related Topics:  Growth of a Believer

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