One of the best decisions I made in high school was to take a class in personal typing. Back then we had to learn to type on real typewriters. Not even the electric kind. To press the keys, we had to use actual finger power.
I remember the repetitive exercises we had to do: ASDF space, ASDF space. Learning the “home row” and later, the remaining keys on the keyboard. At times those exercises seemed monotonous and meaningless, but little did I know I was exercising a technique we now call “muscle memory.”
Over time, as my fingers learned to find their way around the keyboard, I discovered how to quickly write penetrating thoughts such as “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” – a phrase designed to use every letter of the alphabet.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was preparing for my career as a writer – first a newspaper reporter and editor, then magazine editor, and ultimately writing in many different forms, including this blog. I remember my first journalism newswriting class, learning to write an article on a tight deadline. While my fingers breezed across the keys, some of my fellow students utilized the law firm approach: Hunt & Peck.
Today, more than 50 years later, muscle memory enables me to record my thoughts very quickly. If you were to ask me to recite a specific key is, in all likelihood I couldn’t tell you without looking. But my fingers know. It’s all about muscle memory.
This is true for many other skills, whether it’s playing a musical instrument, knitting, competing in a sport, driving a car, even everyday tasks. Use repetitive motor skills enough times and our muscles become trained to somehow remember what they should do without our conscious instruction. Almost seems like they have little, individualized brains to control their actions.
Recently I was talking with a young man I’ve started mentoring, discussing what we might call “spiritual muscle memory.” In other words, training ourselves through practice to think, speak and act in desired ways, without having to always stop and wonder, “Now, should I do this…or not? What would God want me to do in this circumstance?”
The question is, how can we build spiritual muscle memory, so that living the way we know we should doesn’t always require an intentional decision?
A passage from Proverbs, one of my favorite books in the Bible, offers some insight:
“My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:1-5).
This isn’t referring to something we do once in a while, an occasional impulse while we’re navigating through life. This is what is known as an “if-then” conditional statement – if something, then something else logically follows. In this case, if we do the things specified in these verses – store up God’s commands, and seek wisdom, insight and understanding – then we can expect to discover the fear of God (reverent awe) and gain knowledge from Him.
Psalm 119:9-11 makes a similar declaration:
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”
The way I understand this, as we consistently pursue a lifestyle of right living – empowered by God’s Spirit and guided by what we have learned from the Scriptures – we develop good habits (spiritual muscle memory) that enable us in times of uncertainty, crisis and stress to “default” to right thinking and living.
But this isn’t something that happens overnight. The adage tells us, “Practice makes perfect.” However, years ago I heard someone offer this clarification: “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Poor practice never leads to perfection. Learning how to live right requires thinking and doing the right things, over and over and over, until they become second nature.
Spiritually speaking, they become part of our new nature: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Is this easy? No. But is it essential? No doubt about it!