By Alan Medinger
You have probably heard the old joke about the out-of-towner who approaches a native on the street in New York and asks, "Could you tell me how to get Carnegie Hall?" Without a pause the New Yorker responds, "Practice, man. Practice, practice, practice."
Practice makes perfect. Old clichés like this hang around so long because they have some real truth in them. Whether baseball or the violin, medicine or auto mechanics, we learn by doing. We practice doing what it is we want to master, and we do so with reasonable expectations that we will gain the skill we seek. A principle I behind practicing is that what' at first is very difficult to do will eventually come quite naturally to us. My wife studied piano for many years, and now she can pick up a piece of music and play it with considerable ease. As she has programmed herself to play the piano, being a piano player is almost a part of who she is. Our habits become one of the things that define us, if not to other people, at least to ourselves.
Practice is how we hone most of our skills. Unfortunately, practice can also program certain behaviors into us that we may come to regret. At various points in our lives each of us has freely chosen to sin. But then some of us started practicing our particular sin over and over again. Then after a time, lo and behold, this sin seemed to have become a part of us. Whether our sin was despair, disbelief, lust, greed, anger, drunkenness or any other, if it became habitual, quite likely this was the pattern that we followed. At first the sin was freely chosen, but then by practicing it so many times it became second nature to us.
I practiced homosexual behavior and fantasy for so many years that eventually I would find myself responding homosexually in all kinds of circumstances, Homosexuality had become second nature to me, and I was on the verge of it becoming my identity.
But here's the good news: For the Christian, whatever the sin might be, no matter how entrenched it has become, no matter how much we feel it has become second nature, it is truly just that--our second nature. For the believer in Jesus Christ, our first nature is that of a son or daughter of the Father, one whose nature has been redeemed, one who can realistically hope to live in righteousness.
At conversion, some of us experienced immediate freedom from one or more of our prevailing sins. But for most, if not all of us, certain sins kept us in their grip, Conversion gave us a valid hope for change, and it gave us the means whereby we can change eventually, but for the time being, we find ourselves having to battle certain sins every day. But practice does make us perfect, or at least, it can contribute to our becoming perfect--even in the area of our prevailing sins. Let me pause here and say what I mean by perfect. As I have written before, the word translated as perfect in the New Testament (telios in the Greek) actually means "complete" or "able to accomplish the purpose for which it was created." It doesn't mean flawless. This is the perfection that we can hope to attain through practice.
Overcoming by God's Power and Our Practice
For Christians, there are two elements necessary for us to overcome a habitual sin: First is the power of God moving in us, and second is our practicing the new man, practicing living as God has called us to live.
The power of God can come upon us through a direct healing, a sudden profound understanding of a Biblical truth, the sudden ability to forgive someone from our deepest heart, or a glorious realization of the incredible love that God has for us. These are what God does; we can't make them happen. What we can do is to pursue faithfully the One who makes these things happen. We do this through the normal things of the Christian life: daily prayer, the study of Scripture, worship, fellowship with other believers and receipt of the sacraments, Do these things and we will be like the wise maidens who brought an extra measure of oil and were ready for the bridegroom when he arrived (Matthew 25:1-13), we will be ready for Jesus when the time comes for Him to move powerfully in us.
And then there is practice. We must practice living as God would have us live if we are to experience real, lasting change. The new nature will be manifested in the new habits we develop, and these are formed by practicing.
Allow me to make an important distinction here. Practicing living as new creatures is quite different from the old familiar "trying harder." Picture yourself saying, "I am trying harder not to lust," and then picture yourself saying, "I am practicing living as a man free from lust." Do you sense a difference? Practicing has several very significant advantages over trying:
1. Practicing acknowledges the new man. We are new creatures and it is appropriate to practice living our lives that way. As Christians we are all "becoming." Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27) should be the theme of all our lives.
2. Practicing avoids the win-fail mentality that comes from trying harder, a mentality that can be a pitfall for strugglers. When we measure our lives by winning, we set ourselves up for further failures when we don't win. And the all or nothing approach of a win-fail attitude does not reflect the true state of a believer. We are all on a journey, and we will win some and lose some. If I were a new golfer practicing my swing, I would not look at every badly hooked shot as a sign of failure. Rather, I would look at the hook as a sign of an adjustment I needed to make as I continued to practice.
3. Practicing focuses on moving towards something good rather than on leaving behind something bad. It recognizes that the Christian life is meant to be one of continuous growth, not one of stationary battles, Implied in "practicing" is the idea that we are doing something. It's true we can practice not doing something--not engaging in sexual fantasy for instance but I have found it far easier to hold onto pursuing the positive than avoiding the negative.
Our motive to become sons and daughters who please the Father with our sexuality is apt to be a far more effectual goal than simply avoiding sexual sin--and it puts our focus more on Him and less on us.
Substituting Old Habits with New Ones
Using the principle of substitution is one of the most effective strategies we have for practicing new behavior I with such consistency that it actually leads to changes in the inner person. To practice living as the new man, we substitute something specific to replace the negative behavior of the old man,
Here are three applications of practicing the principle of substitution that can help us to live out of the new creature:
1. Identity those situations which have regularly prompted you to engage in the old sinful behavior and then start practicing a new behavior whenever the old situation arises. For years my greatest struggles with fantasy and lust came when I first got into bed at night.
So several years ago, I started substituting a prayer in place of the mental images I'd previously entertained. As soon as I got in bed, I would pray and ask God to help me not lust during the night and to protect my mind when I am sleeping. By practice, this has become such an ingrained habit that I can't remember the last time I got into bed without praying this way. And this habit has replaced the old one.
2. Devise a new response to call on whenever you face actual temptation. Usually this will be a prayer or a Scripture that you memorize. You are flipping through the TV channels and suddenly you come across something (hat is powerfully enticing to you, call out that prayer or Scripture verse. Do this intentionally over and over again, and eventually it can become automatic.
3. Most of us from a background of same-sex attraction or sexual addiction have a wonderful capacity to fantasize. If you have this ability, try putting it to a godly use. Use your holy imagination to picture yourself as the new man or woman. Do this daily in your prayer times and whenever else you can remember to do it. You might imagine yourself as literally a Son of the King. You are arrayed in princely garments and kneeling before Him or sitting at the table with Him. Another way would be to contemplate Jesus literally living in your heart. Feel the warmth of His presence there. And when temptation arises, think that you would be taking Jesus into that sinful situation. Still another way is to imagine being a totally pure person, spotless, dressed in white. Spiritually, this is a reality for all of us who have been washed in the Blood, but I am suggesting that you picture it being literally and manifestly true. How wonderful it feels to be totally pure and how horrible it would be to soil such purity by engaging in sexual sin.
Years of wrongful practicing have formed certain stimulus-response patterns in our brains. Jeffery Satinover, the psychiatrist author of Homosexuality and the Politics of' Truth points out that repetitive behavior can actually alter brain tissue. This has worked against us, but it can work for us. We may never be able to totally undo what our repeated activities have done in Our brains, but by practicing new thoughts and behaviors, we can form new stimulus-response patterns by repetition, and these can start to govern Our first responses when we face certain situations or temptations. Therefore. if anyone is in Christ. he is a new creation. The old has passed away: behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). By practicing we can live as the new creation.
Regeneration News, January 2004. By permission.
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