The word practice means several things. In the religious sense, it means to follow or observe habitually or customarily. In the military or athletic sense it means to train or drill. In the talent or skill sense, practice describes the act of performing or doing something repeatedly in order to acquire skill or proficiency. And finally, the word also means to exercise or pursue as a profession, art or occupation. So the same person can practice Christianity, basketball, violin, and law. (But probably not all simultaneously!)
When we talk about practicing our faith, by default we think of practice in a religious way, but what if we brought in the athletic/military definition of the word and applied it to Christianity? It seems that the Bible has beaten us to the punch because the New Testament is full of references that speak of faith using war and athletic imagery. Ephesians 6:12 tells us that “We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. (CEB)” In Philippians 3 , Paul pictures himself in a race where the goal he’s pursuing is “the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. (CEB)”
- Using these models for faith, what exactly is it that you’re supposed to do repeatedly in order to gain skill and proficiency? I believe it’s the spiritual disciplines: prayer, Bible study, fasting, and Communion. The more you do these things, the bigger difference they’ll make in your life. In sports, the teams who win are usually the ones that practice the most often. So the more you make spiritual disciplines a consistent part of your faith routine, the more effective you’ll become as a Christian. Practice your faith often.
- Practice with a team. In basketball, solo drills will improve your game, but doing drills with others will improve it even more. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is efficiency. You simply cover more ground when you have someone there to help you. Have you ever tried to practice shooting alone? You spend half your time and energy getting your own rebounds. (This has its place, too, but if it’s the only way you ever practice shooting, you won’t learn how to react quickly like you do when someone’s passing to you rapid fire.) Also, we usually push ourselves harder and see more fruit when someone else is there to push us. Proverbs 27:17 reminds us that “as iron sharpens iron, one person sharpens another (TNIV).” Prayer, fasting, Bible study and worship alone are a big deal. But if you aren’t doing these things corporately too, you’re missing major opportunities for improving your Christian game.
- Practice both offense and defense. Spiritual disciplines are the practice, but the game is real life. When the phone rings in the middle of the night and a fellow believer needs your advice (or maybe you’re in your own crisis), you’ll find that all that Bible reading pays off, because God somehow brings the necessary verses to mind just when you need them. In basketball, you have to be able to turn on a dime and go from playing offense to playing defense in less than a second. Life is the same way. One minute you’re gaining so much ground for the Kingdom of God that you feel invincible—the next minute you’re licking your wounds wondering what the hell just happened to you. As you pray and study, it’s helpful to prepare for both scenarios. God is much bigger than Satan, but you have to remind yourself that the enemy is real.
- Get a good coach. While it’s important to have peers to help you practice, there’s no substitute for spiritual mentors. Getting guidance from people who have “been there before” helps you make sure that your entire spiritual growth strategy doesn’t turn into a case of “the blind leading the blind.” A mentor will help you see possibilities for improvement that you didn’t even know existed.
Sports provides so many helpful metaphors for the Christian life. But principles that may be obvious for a physical activity aren’t always as easy to recognize in the spiritual realm.
What are some ways you’ve practiced your faith that remind you of something you’ve experienced in the world of sports?