If Practice Makes Perfect, How Much Practice Do You Need?

I’m an incomplete archer. Every time I practice shooting my bow, I unearth a long list of information and skills I don’t yet possess. There’s so much to learn. The first time I practiced, I uncovered the concept of bowstring velocity. In order for the arrow to penetrate the target, the bow-string must be released unimpeded. I learned this basic lesson by turning my left forearm into hamburger by holding it too near the string while I released the arrow. Arrow velocity is a painful and ugly lesson. Therefore, I learned it twice.

Then I discovered the intricacies of aiming. Mainly you must have at least one eye open to hit the target, at least to hit it on purpose.

Later I decided to read up on archery. To my delight I discovered there were only a few (1,000, or so) essential movements needed to fire an arrow accurately. On my next outing, before I mastered even one of them, my arm wore out and started dancing like a drunken Chihuahua. Fortunately, no innocent bystanders were hit by my stray arrows. I did hit the bullseye once, however, by accident.

In the process of struggling to master archery, something else dawned on me. This is why the Bible uses an archery metaphor –missing the mark– to describe our human inability to reach perfection. Not only am I an incomplete archer, I’m an incomplete human, constantly missing the mark.

Eugene C. Scott joins Mike in writing A Daily Bible Conversation twice a week.

TODAY’S READING (click here to view today’s reading online)

Hosea 10:1-14:9

Jude 1:1-25

Psalm 127:1-5

Proverbs 29:15-17

INSIGHTS AND EXPLANATIONS

Jude 1:1-25: When was the last time you heard a lesson or sermon on Jude? I don’t remember ever hearing one. And I’ve never preached one. This book cannot compete with the theology and complexity of Romans, 1 Peter or even 1 John. But this book is worth digging into deeper than many of us have. Eugene H. Peterson, in his introduction to Jude in “The Message,” writes, “As much as we need physicians for our bodies, we have even greater need for diagnosticians and healers of the spirit.” Jude diagnoses an unhealthy acceptance of half-truths and false teachers and offers as a prescription focusing on God’s true and great love and the mercy of Jesus. 

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THE WORD MADE FRESH

Hosea also learned about human imperfection fist-hand. His wife never even came near the target of loving him. So too we miss the target in loving God. “They [we] make many promises,” God tells Hosea. Jude describes the same problem saying, “They [we] have taken the way of Cain.”

What are they alluding to? Sin. Not only the bad actions we each partake in but rather the reality that even our best efforts only hit the outer rim of the target and our outright bad choices maim and wound those anywhere near us.

This means not that we don’t hit the bullseye, we can’t.

For me, it looks like this. I sit down to pray and suddenly my mind has–well–danced off like a drunken Chihuahua. I find my is spirit somewhat willing to obey God but my flesh is in flat-out rebellion. I let fly my arrow of faith and inevitably miss the mark. No matter how hard I try, that bullseye of Christian perfection eludes me.

In this case practice does not make perfect. And, at least for me, practicing, especially my faith, only shows me how much I have yet to learn. You too? The time it would take for our life practices to reach perfection does not exist.

But the good news is that as followers of Christ, we aren’t aiming at once and for all perfection–a life of bull’s-eyes–this side of heaven anyway. Though, don’t read me wrong. I am not saying life is merely simmering in sin we can do nothing about. God wants us to be victorious over our hate and lust and fear.

The way to victory, however, is not what Dallas Willard, in his book “The Divine Conspiracy,” calls “sin management.” Trying to master what we cannot master, or even manage, is futile and draws our focus away from God. Instead Jude reminds us to keep ourselves “in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.”

In archery you can mentally check off the myriad of things you should or should not do in order to hit the target. Doing so, however, hinders rather than helps. Instead all other actions follow two: anchor your shooting hand and focus on the target. So too in life: anchor ourselves in God’s love and focus on the mercy of Jesus Christ. Only then will the arrows of righteousness, powered by the Holy Spirit, fly and hit the mark.

The spiritual practices of prayer, Bible study, giving, Sabbath, etc. do not make us perfect. That’s not grace. (Besides how much of the Bible do you have to memorize and master before you are perfect?) Rather, the spiritual practices draw us nearer to the heart of God. And that is the goal. Studying God’s word facilitates our knowing God. Prayer permits us to speak and listen to God. Giving allows us to act like God. Sabbath lets us to rest near God. They are not ends in themselves. They are means to anchoring ourselves in God and focusing on the mercy of Jesus Christ. The bullseye is the heart of God.

Archery is one vehicle I use to drive myself into the woods I love. It is my excuse to sit deep in the fall forest, with aspen leaves falling like otherworldly golden coins and silence singing God’s name. The end result, nearness to God, is what makes the practice perfect. Therefore, my incomplete friends, pull back your bow-string and shoot. To paraphrase Nike. Read. Pray. Worship. Give. But do so knowing these practices are not one-time tasks to master but incomplete movements in a life-time quest for God.

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Eugene co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, CO and writes a blog eugenesgodsightings.blogspot.com

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “If Practice Makes Perfect, How Much Practice Do You Need?

  1. Linda

    Reminds me of what someone told me early in my Christian walk. He was kind and humble, always sweet and helpful. He seemed like a “perfect Christian” in my young and immature eyes. I asked him once how long it would take me to get there, to arrive if you will. I’ll never forget: he laughed out loud. And then he told me: the longer I walk with the Lord, the less I realize I know. I’ve never forgotten that. I think he had learned the secret of hitting the target.

    • Linda:

      What a gift from God that man was. Wow. I know I fell into legalism and frustration early in my Christian life. Except I just expected to become perfect when I prayed or was filled with the Holy Spirit.

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