I’ve learned so much about the spiritual life … from coaching basketball. No, that’s not a typo. Let me explain. Over the last 11 years I have learned that the players who practice, who put the time in to actually train their body and their muscle memory to move and react in certain ways, will always improve. There is a motivation saying that goes like this: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” The bottom line is that there are certain things that you have to train your body and mind to do without thinking in order to get better at the game of basketball. People with talent have a head start, but the best skill training only comes with a great deal of time and effort. It only comes by “practice”. And often the transformation comes subtly. The time spent on the court with this little orange ball subtly shapes you, embeds within you things that coaches can’t teach you. The constant experience in playing the game develops within you basketball “instincts” that really can’t be gained any other way than practice.
So what does that have to do with the spiritual life? Quite a bit.. In order to grow spiritually you need to practice, and that may not look like you think. I was reading a story about Jesus and the religious leaders of His day. He had some pretty harsh words for them:
“You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:39-41)
Now most people who the read this passage just think that Jesus is just telling the Pharisees to exchange the yucky inside stuff for generosity toward the poor. Stop doing these things and start doing other things. But the more I reflect on it in light of my own experience a relationship with God the more I am beginning to see that it’s the practice of what Jesus calls us to that actually shapes us. It’s not that by doing good things we just act better and less bad. The practice of “generosity to the poor” actually begins to shape us into different people. To be generous to the poor we have to get to know them. These relationships challenge our subconscious assumptions. We see the impact of the generosity. We begin to realize that there is great joy in something that we had not expected. The practice of what Jesus calls us to doesn’t out weigh or cancel out our sin and self-focus, it actually shapes the self in a different way. This isn’t just true of being generous. The life of Jesus is filled with calls to practice what shapes us into new people.
Christianity has often been seen as something that is knowledge based. Believe this truth about God and you are a Christian. While what we believe is truly important, it’s the practices that we adopt that begin to shape and transform us. Jesus told his disciples to “Go and make disciples of every nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) He doesn’t say teaching them to believe everything I have taught you, because belief alone doesn’t change you. How many times have you known (believed) the truth about what you needed to do but found yourself doing something different despite your best intentions. Belief doesn’t shape us, but repeated practice does.
That’s why at our church we call people to make four commitments; four ”practices”. (I wrote about those here, here, here, and here.) These aren’t things that we do to keep God happy, they are things that we surrender to that end up shaping us to be more like Jesus. They sneak around our defences and self-preservation tactics and penetrate to the deepest level of our hearts to make us different people. Jesus tells the Pharisees to be generous, not to earn points with God, but because the very practice of generosity will be used by the Spirit of God to shape them into different people.
Are you struggling to change in some area of your life? Trying everything you know to be different but all you can accomplish is the guilt and shame of seeing yourself repeat the same mistakes over and over again? Reading all the self-help books that promise change? Maybe you need to adopt some of the practices I wrote about in the series about our church. Commit yourself to showing up weekly to worship with others, identify a mission and give yourself to it, build relationships with other believers that are based on more than convenience and what you get out of it, and take some time to surrender to a process of learning. You might find that “practicing” these things will shape you in unexpected ways.