Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.
The above passage is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the words relating to putting “it into practice” caught my attention. I have often wondered why being a lawyer was called the “practice” of law. Really. I spent 45 years as a lawyer and never fully understood why that phrase is commonplace. It was my standard response to someone who asks “what do I do?”, and my reply, almost without thinking, would be “I practice law.” I made that response without really considering why I said it, or even unpacking it.
I now have a better understanding of what “practice” means. When I took piano lessons as a child, I had to practice. That makes sense to me. The word practice, in that context, means “learning by repetition.” But it doesn’t mean perfection, only that repetition will make you better. I often thought of my law career that way – no one ever gets it perfect. Oh, yes, you may be competent in your area of specialty, but I assure you that if you interview even the most highly regarded lawyer and asked him or her if they had made mistakes along the way, they would openly admit that practicing law is not about perfect.
In almost every other context, when you practice something you don’t get paid for it. But a lawyer gets paid for their practice. I can’t think of any other profession, activity or business where this is true. In the world of sports, practice is what you do in order to compete. As a musician, you practice to develop a mastery of your instrument, whether that instrument is a piano, a set of drums, a guitar or your voice. I grew up playing golf, and quickly learned that practice was necessary to get better.
Dr. Bob Rotella, a renown sports performance specialist who has worked with many professional golfers, is the author of a book entitled Golf is Not a Game of Perfect. His book is aimed more at the mental aspects of playing golf, not the mechanics of what a good golf swing should look like. If permitted, I could rewrite that book with the title “Life is not a Game of Perfect.” In fact, Paula Rinehart authored a book in 1996 entitled Perfect Every Time: When Doing It All Leaves You with Nothing. The title of those books pretty much summarizes that perfection is not something to be attained.
As a leader, I always stayed away from setting perfection as a goal or institutional value. Setting up perfection as a goal means you are destined to fail. Instead, I always used the value of excellence, which is something everyone can achieve. After I became a Christian at age 38, I learned in Genesis that we are all mis-wired as imperfect beings, thanks to Adam and Eve and the fall. We are genetically predisposed to being imperfect.
So, what is the proper goal of practice at life? I’ve eliminated perfection as the goal, but perhaps Paul had a better understanding in terms of a kingdom values. In his letter to Timothy, Paul exhorts Timothy to “….be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress (1 Timothy 4:15).” In the kingdom, the goal is to make progress as you practice life with others.
My challenge for you today is to assess your own situation and what you might need to practice. Are you making progress in the things that God wants you to practice? Pick one area of your life today that needs work and practice it. My prayer this morning was that I could love my neighbor whose conduct and speech doesn’t deserve it. I need the practice.