Scripture: 1John 3:1-7
Practice Makes Perfect
“Practice makes perfect.”
It’s a phrase I heard a lot growing up–and one I now hear come out of my own mouth more and more as I parent children of my own.
“Practice makes perfect” speaks to that universal reality that you’ve got to work at something if you want to be good at it. You can’t just swing a leg over a bicycle and expect to ride it without training wheels. You can’t just one day pick up a guitar and immediately play like Eric Clapton or Slash. Nearly everything in life takes dedicated, consistent practice if you expect to become proficient.
Jesus, Paul, and……well……many writers in both the Old and New Testaments stress something like this for those of us committed to following God. Faith is something that requires practice. It is a muscle that needs trained in order to get stronger. Growing faith is (it turns out) a lot like all other kinds of growing. It takes consistent, disciplined action over time.
And so we all have a responsibility as individuals–and as a community–to practice together our faith as we grow in likeness to our savior Jesus the Christ: as we “become like him,” as our scripture reading anticipates in v.2.
Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
“Practice makes perfect” became a kind of foundation stone for much of my life–for my academics, for my faith, for my hobbies–for everything, really.
That’s why it was so surprising back in college when I heard my music teacher claim that the idea that “practice makes perfect” is wrong.
“What?” I asked.
He answered: “Improvement is based on the quality of the practice, not the quantity. You can practice all day, but if you aren’t practicing well, you will never improve–and you may even get worse. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
In truth, this is probably most graphically illustrated in the music world. If you’re learning a piece of music, but you keep playing or singing that one line wrong, then what you’re practicing is doing it wrong; you’re practicing being incorrect. You’ve got to slow down–maybe even ridiculously slow–slow enough that you can play it without error. Then do that again and again and again. And only when you can play it perfectly, repeatedly, do you then gradually increase the tempo.
If you practice doing it wrong, you’ll play it wrong.
If you practice doing it right, you’ll play it correctly.
Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.
So how does that apply to our lives of faith and today’s scripture lesson?
Well, first of all, we may be practicing our faith incorrectly.
Now, I’m wary of being misunderstood here. There are many practices of faith that do not have a strict “right” way. Prayer is a great illustration: there is no wrong way to pray. If you are doing something that opens you up to God, you’re doing it right.
But sometimes we’re trying to do the right thing, but our focus is off, so we end up practicing the wrong thing. Like how in the last months it seems some are more ready to forgive abusers than believe victims. Forgiveness is a vital and important practice of our faith (Matthew 6:14; John 20:23; Colossians 3:13; etc.). As the embodiment of Christ in the world, we are to extend forgiveness as readily as we have received it.
But in these cases we seem to overlook the fact that God always sides with victims–and the greatest judgments pronounced on our ancestors came about because they were not doing enough to protect those vulnerable from becoming victims.
Sometimes it seems we’ve misplaced our priorities, or we don’t really know how to put first things first. Whatever the reason, there are times that we’ve been practicing incorrectly.
Practicing the Wrong Thing
There are other times, however, when we may be practicing the wrong things altogether.
Our scripture reading mentions those who make a practice of sinning (vv.4, 6). And for centuries this has certainly been a struggle entangling Christians. We get deceived into believing that someone else’s sin is worse than our own, so we overlook the log in our own eye to pluck the speck out of another’s (Luke 6:41-42). Or it may be that certain sins simply become normal in our lives, most often on account of the culture in which we find ourselves.
As an example, there are a lot of harsh words from public “Christians” these days against immigrants. That’s hard to reconcile with God’s instruction to “welcome the stranger” and alien, because that is who we once were.
There’s a lot of “Christian” support for policies that make healthcare more expensive and difficult to obtain. When so many are sick and hurting and dying from treatable conditions, it’s hard to maintain that the followers of Jesus in fact value life.
There are a lot of negative comments from “Christians” about those utilizing government services, but those same voices argue against a fair and equitable wage because they don’t want their Big Mac’s to cost more money. In doing so, they forget that “Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves [their] wages”” (1Timothy 5:18 ESV).
Too often, the public voices I hear claiming to speak for Christianity articulate the ideology of a political party rather than anything approximating “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” “recovery of sight to the blind,” freedom for “the oppressed,” or “the year of the Lord’s favor”–which is precisely what Jesus says is his business in Luke chapter 4 (vv.18–21 NRSV).
As indicated in our scripture lesson in v.7, those of us who are followers of Jesus need to make sure we are in fact practicing the right things–what the writer calls “righteousness.”
But you know, this word “righteousness” can get us twisted up sometimes. I think most of the time I have heard it defined as “right actions or beliefs,” which isn’t really a terrible translation, but it does have some flaws.
First up among the flaws is that “or”–“actions or beliefs.” You see, in the bible, belief and action are not either/or propositions. They are intrinsically bound together, and they flow into each other. Right belief produces right action; right actions grow right belief. It is always both:
“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 NRSV).
And: “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (James 2:26 NRSV)
Either one–without the other–reveals a lack of faith. It reveals that we never really knew God at all.
A second flaw in defining “righteousness” as “right actions or beliefs” has to do with what we mean by “right.” If “right” means correct, then our faith statements–our beliefs–become a kind of litmus test of faith. Faith means believing the right things. And in the last decades, this kind of right-ness has often been defined among Christians by what one believes about things like:
the inerrancy of the bible
creation and science
the end times, and so on.
But none of that is what the biblical authors meant by “right.” The concept of righteousness in the bible is intrinsically linked to the concept of justice; you cannot talk about one without the other.
Justice and judgment in the bible have to do with all things becoming aligned with God’s way. And for the bulk of the bible, that has a lot to do with Matthew 25 kinds of things: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the exposed, visiting the sick, and liberating the captive (cf. vv.31-46). The righteous person–the person who is practicing “right-ness” is the one who does these kinds of things.
In fact, throughout scripture, practicing this kind of righteousness is the single clearest indicator of whether or not you are aligned with God.
In Isaiah 58:1-8, God rejects the religious practices of his people, reminding them that it is all worthless unless they care for the outsiders and the vulnerable.
In Ezekiel 16:49, God reveals that the destruction of Sodom came about not because of sexual sin, but because they failed to extend hospitality and share what they had with those in need.
In Zechariah 7:9-10, God pleads with his people to “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (NRSV). If they can do this, they will avert disaster. But like so many of God’s followers before and sense, this seems too much to ask.
In Micah 6:8, we are told what is “good” and what God “requires of us”: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (NRSV).
And in James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 NRSV).
To use language elsewhere in 1John, “by this we know that we are in God,” if we practice this kind of righteousness in the world.
This season, as we move from the ashes of Lent towards the fire of Pentecost, we are looking at what needs kindled in our lives in order to live out our calling as the Body of Christ.
Today we see that the practice of righteousness is something that needs kindled in each of us if we are going to embody Jesus in the world.
But let us be sure we are practicing correctly, practicing the things of God, and practicing a righteousness rooted in God’s liberating love.