In the sixth grade, my basketball coach pulled me aside after the first week of practice for a substantial correction: “you need to learn to shoot the ball with a dominant arm.” This may seem obvious to anyone who has played or even watched the game of basketball but it was devastating for someone who had only ever known how to shoot the basketball with both hands. I had played this sport since before I could walk and over the years I had learned an incorrect form of shooting to compensate for my lack of strength. My coach’s instruction, though crushing to a sixth grader, came from a place of experience as he recognized my two-armed form guaranteed a future spot on the bench or, when the stakes increased in the years ahead, a ticket off the team.
It was here, when I first learned that practice doesn’t make perfect. Instead, it simply makes more of whatever it is you’re practicing. If you’re practicing something incorrectly, you will become better at doing said thing, incorrectly.
Bad practice leads to bad results.
A Realist & a Rabbi Walk into a Bar
The principle is nearly universal but it’s especially true when it comes to reading the Bible – plainly seen in the third chapter of the gospel of John. The chapter begins by getting acquainted with a guy named Nicodemus and his resume: he’s a top dog from an authority standpoint, is well practiced in religious traditions, and knows his way around the Old Testament.
He comes to Jesus at night perhaps hoping to get a professional edge over his peers or maybe to simply engage in some intellectual sparring. In a sentence, Jesus responds with what may appear to be a riddle to be solved:
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again”
Puzzled, Nicodemus wonders how someone can possibly be born again when he or she is old? Nicodemus’ response seems straightforward enough, perhaps a bit naïve, but it, in fact, exposes a lifetime of bad practice.
There is a Wrong Way to Read the Bible
After a brief back and forth on the necessity of being born again, Jesus humbles Nicodemus with a simple question. Don’t miss this.
He says, “you are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?”
Any who teach Israel do so from one textbook: the Old Testament. Jesus reads and teaches from THE SAME textbook. It’s based on this Old Testament that Jesus challenges his conversation partner’s teaching credentials because he’s failed to understand its core message. Imagine a pilot receiving a license to fly without ever having been inside a plane – he has the title, but it means nothing! He’s never been in the sky, never taken anyone anywhere. Just a person with a piece of paper.
Like many of us, Nicodemus approaches the Scriptures as a manual for what God expects of him. It’s too easy to miss this — look again: God says the way to see His kingdom is to be born again, Nicodemus responds as if it’s part of his job description: “how do I make this happen? How could anyone possibly do that?”
A lifetime of forcing the Scriptures onto a to-do list, has caused Nicodemus to make even this message about himself and what he is supposed to do to maintain favor with God. No one plays a role in their own birth. Of course not!! When we seek to make the Bible about us, we work against the grain of the story God has been telling for thousands of years. Functionally, we form ourselves into little Nicodemi (plural? seems right…) — deaf and dull to God and his word of life.
But Jesus isn’t here to belittle Nicodemus, or anyone for that matter. Instead, he’s teaching that the Bible is not about us. It’s not a life improvement plan, a to-do list, or a religious manual with a set of DIY instructions.
The main character of the Bible and your life is not you — it’s God! This is good news meant to be received. It’s an invitation out of our incessant “I need to do more” feeling. It clears away the fog of our murky understanding of God and helps us see that he is in the business of giving, not expecting; revealing, not hiding. After speaking from behind a veil for thousands of years, God brings unexpected clarity through the person of Jesus, who is the ultimate Word of God. His substitutionary death is the climax of human history, inviting all to see and say back to God, “Now you are speaking clearly.”
If bad practice leads to bad results then the opposite is true. When we take up the Bible, the best outcome is to behold the main character — the one who was lifted up in our place — literally brought to an end that we might be born again. The story is all about him.